Lhasa Anecdote (3) - The friendly Tibetan people

This was a half finished post from my Tuboh trip almost a month ago. I did not think there is much insight I could generate from these anecdotes. I finally decided to share it after I read this essay by "Chairman Rabbit" ESWN translated (scroll down as he copied the NYT article first), I thought I could share a few data points to (illustrate) "what the Tibetan really want". Esp Re: this question

  • The article also said:
    Students argue that China has spent billions on Tibet, building schools, roads and other infrastructure. Asked if the Tibetans wanted such development, they looked blankly incredulous. “They don’t ask that question,” said Lionel Jensen, a China scholar at Notre Dame. “They’ve accepted the basic premise of aggressive modernization.”

  • It is not hard to see that the reporter was skeptical about the views of the students. I have participated in many forums on Tibet, and I never heard any westerners questioned the Tibet independence supporters or sympathizers: ""Do the majority of Tibetan people need and care most about independence, religion and culture?" I have never heard anyone asked this kind of question. Here, most westerners' assumptions are: These lofty political rights, culture and pursuit of values are obviously more important than the quest for basic economics, existence and materials!" Of course, they have never done any public opinion polling in Tibet. Instead of being supported by facts, their ideas are propped up by their belief values. With these beliefs, they will obviously give even more sympathy to the Tibetan independence movement.
In my rather short trip I tried to talk to as many Tibetans as I could. I went into (rather shabby looking) Tibetan tea houses. I tried my best talk to every Tibetan I met. When I finially got into a lone Tibetan driver cab, I asked him to take me to the airport the next day but 'dumped' the Han driver who I had asked the previous day because I want to talk to Tibetan.

People who have read this blog know that I do not trust the state propaganda (and am critical on any media in general), I also assume the Han Chinese I met are biased to a certain extent (what they said are pretty much in line with the official lines, which is not surprising. Though I was able to extract some inference myself -- more later). I wanted to hear with my own ears what the Tibetan think of me (a Han Chinese), Han Chinese in general, and if possible, what they think about the issues of D-L, T-I, and more specifically, the event from March 10-15.

Of course, what I observed in this short trip is only illustrative. In Chinese we call it "viewing a leopard view a pipe" (管中窥豹). i.e. If it is indeed a leopard what I saw could extrapolate reasonable, but if what on the other side of the pipe is an elephant then I might have only shown you its trunk. (瞎子摸象). I think my observation is more of the former (as I did try to triangulate and I viewed a few different part of the animal's body) but I really do not have enough data. Since I am a Han myself and spoke Mandarin to them (even though I managed to "speak" to a few people who could barely speak Mandarin) they should be naturally careful when speaking to me (I made it clear that I am not from mainland so better my chance to gain their trust, and I know I suceeded in a couple times -- see below). Nevertheless, I could still be the photon which might have unknowingly killed Schroedinger's cat in a few of my 'interviews' (i.e. my data point was changed because of who I was).

From the extremely small (and insignificant statistically) sample of interviews. Here is what I gathered:

1) People are friendly in general, to me and to Han people

  • I tried to look into all Tibetans in their eyes. Occasionally I met a few looks which seem to be suspicious or hostile (a couple young / middle age men). Many people are, of course, indifferent to a curious (and perhaps stupid looking) tourist like myself. So I would also assume a similar proportion of these people are "hostile". My estimate is perhaps 10-15% of the Tibetans detest the presence of Han Chinese there. The rest do not really care (or accept the fact that there is little they could do, or just wanted to mind their own business) -- overall, they are in general friendly to me

  • Of those who gave me a suspicious look. I tried to smile at them, about half of them actually smiled back

2) Most people are willing to talk about 3-14 briefly, but stopped when I inquired further (eg the taxi driver who told me about how his car was spared in the riot because he has hada on the side mirrors). Nevertheless, from what they said nothing contradicts with what I have understood or what has been reported by Kadfly and James Miles. I heard nothing that supports the pro-Tibetan claim of a crack down or death of protestors/demonstrators, i.e. include those who told me they love DL and they had sent their kids to India (Dha-lam-saaaala). (But my sample is small and they may be afraid to talk)

3) (Now Re: Chairman Rabbit's question)

  • I cannot answer for those in Lhasa city. I have seen both people who care about only improving his live and also a few who are DL followers. It seems (from both Tibetan and Han) that people from Kham/Chamdo area tend to be more loyal to DL. However, the caveat is that DL follower are not necessarily TYC-ideology supporters, though among the youth I suppose there is a high correlation.

  • In the rural area (and the more recent migrants from rural into Lhasa), I can pretty comfortably say that most people care only about their livelihood

  • This is hardly surprising. You get the same answer when you ask about how urban and rural people think of democracy in 1990 (as we know, % who care about propserity is much higher today)

Below are pictures related to some of my interviews.

Taxi driver who said, "[3-14] is not to be talked about". Before we talked a bit about everything, and how his car was spared of the fire/etc. Picture show we drive into 2_bridge_1_tunnel (the newly built bypass which cut through Lhasa River, Yaluzangbu River and a mountain and shortened the trip to airport by 30km.

Couple have a home under glacier. They don't speak Mandarin. They only care about selling me a small box of crytals they gathered to me for 50RMB. Very friendly people, and honest traders.

Girl under the glacier - who was eager to sell me a couple crystals, invited me into their little hut. Very friendly, and quite industrious. (in selling stuff. The way she behaved and talked was still pure and innocent, even when she was asking for money/candy you never feel the greediness you see in the businessmen in Lhasa or other Chinese cities)

Lady turning dharmawheel north of Jokhang Monastery Wall in N. Barkhorn Street. Amused at a lone tourist who ventured into thsi forbidden area.

Lady turning dharmawheel north of Jokhang Monastery

Tibetan old man (one of those in this picture) - who did not hesitate to reveal his support for DL. A lady (also in this picture) showed me a photo of her two sons, said "India". When I asked "Dhalam-s-aa"? They nodded with happy approval.

Then the old man muttered to me, "You from HK, HK also minority people"

I could only smile back.

Inside this Tuboh Tea-house in the same block of Barkhorn, the owner told me he spared his own shop and a few shops next door owned by Han people by hanging Hada (white scarf) outside. When I asked how he knew about hanging Hada he was going to join his friend, not sure he didn't hear or he pretended not to. He is one of those from rural area (Gangtze) and made a living in Lhasa. He manage the teahouse in low season, and hire waitress and let his wife manage during peak seasons, when he become a driver to make extra bucks. He is probably sympathetic to the Tuboh cause (not necessarily independent) but care more about a stable and prosperous life. He told me the latter explicitly but I suspect the former is also true.

Near the lake I also met 2 Tuboh businessmen in a brand new Volkswagen SUV. They talked to me more along the government lin and condemned the "minority rioter". It is possible that they faked because they are suspicious of me (perhaps more about my driver who stood next to me). But more likely they supported the government because they benefited from the status quo.


88 said...

It isn't hard to find out what most Tibetans want and whether they value "rights" over "development." Just have a referendum. Let people vote. Problem solved.

Seems foolproof. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for you account, i found it very interesting and thoughtful. I am a Tibetan and must say your post is one of the best and honest post i have read so far written by a Han. We may disagree on points but I congratulate you for trying to find out for yourself. The Truth is what one discover not what the Party, Lamas or the government tells us.

Jack said...

What struck me about the ESWN translation is that it seems to me to frame the issue into a false dilemma of rights OR development.

I understand that for countries like Korea and Singapore, and the province of Taiwan were built in a politically authoritarian environment before more political and civil rights were given, but the fact is those were relatively brief periods and there are also many European Eastern "big bang" economies that may serve as a counter example to an extent (meaning that FSU countries did start at a higher level of development than Tibet).

The question shouldn't be rights OR development, but about rights AND development. These two elements go hand in hand in creating a strong society and one shouldn't be allowed to atrophy for the other to grow.

Anonymous said...

I read just about every book written by Western writers that have traveled in Tibet - Colin Thubron, Rob Gifford, Patrick French, etc and the conversations they have with Tibetans are basically all the same. The Tibetans are not happy with Chinese rule. It seems logical to think that Tibetans feel free to talk to Westerners because the likelihood of a Westerner being with the Chinese Public Security Bureau is pretty slim. There are so many undercover police in China and Tibet that it would be rather foolish for a Tibetan to really lay it all on the line when talking to a Han Chinese.

Unfortunately, surveys are not allowed in China and I certainly don't see the Chinese giving either Han Chinese or Tibetans the right to vote anytime soon.

Sun Bin said...


of course it would be nice to have both. i think the point the other blogger (ESWN translation) is that there are cases when one have to make a choice (and also there are cases where some people really do not care about something -- e.g. some people might really believe they should suffer this life and hope/work for the best for the next incarnation; meanwhile some who just want to make money and giving up right allows them to make more money because money is to be made by trading with "china proper")

@anon 2,
i agree with u. that is why i see the fact that the tibetan old men telling me what he thought as a very strong indication that many probably think the same as well but tried to hide it.

Anonymous said...

We have to be careful with facts versus fears though. Prior to 3-14 most people assumed that the PSB had so many spies everywhere that no-one could do anything without being found out (hence the conspiracy theory that the CCP 'allowed' the riot).

I've lost count of the number of times westerners have shot video and photos in China and just assumed that a person in shot who just happened to look at the camera HAS to be a spy. Without evidence, such thinking leads to paranoia.

I'm not saying there is no snooping in China, and I'm definitely not saying Tibetans don't fear this, but when trying to make objective analysis let's separate fact and fear.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first post. China has zero credibility because they do not allow the dissenting Tibetan speak. Actually, for that matter, they do not allow the dissenting voice speak anywhere in China. I am a Han Chinese. I love my people. Chinese has been oppressed by the communist government for far too long and suffered greatly. Look at the standard of living of Chinese outside China and you can see how much this government has held people back. It is a shame.

Anonymous said...

'Look at the standard of living of Chinese outside China and you can see how much this government has held people back'

Funny that, but the communists too think that development is as simple as asserting a certain system of government.

In truth, it's much more complex than that. Democracy doesn't magically make your country develop on its own. There's economics, global support, not being targeted as a pariah, motivation, exploitation, etc. Just look at Africa - blaming successive governments is easy but self-serving - there are underlying structural problems which are a result of the factors mentioned above.

Issues of credibility and dissenting voices are a different matter entirely.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the structural problem for China is the China government. Chinese economies outside of mainland, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore all enjoy a much higher standard of living than mainland China. Do Taiwan, HK or Singapore has more natural resources or leverage?

Anonymous said...

'Yes, the structural problem for China is the China government.'

You've then gone and listed a number of Chinese economies outside the Mainland all of which had friendly foreign investment for much longer than China, and simply haven't had to struggle with the threat of destabilisation to the same degree as China. They are also much, much smaller.

Why limit this to a comparison with other 'Chinese' countries? if you want to be scientific why not compare with India (a country which started out after WWII at a similar economic level but with a fairly tidy system of civic government left behind by the British)?

I'm not defending the CCP for the sake of it, but I think it's important to back up theories and test them rather than simply accept a statement at face value.

Anonymous said...


Long time, no chat. We miss your comments at the Marmot's Hole.

I respect your sincerity in approaching people in Tibet and opening your heart to their words. I think the real Tibet is somewhere between the extremes of Western human rights activists and the official Party line.

I do not accept Chinese historical claims but do recognize what the Israelis call "creating facts on the ground." China isn't going to let Tibet go, there's no power strong enough or willing enough to bring independence to Tibet, so let it go already. Western support for Tibet independence movements makes Beijing even more suspicious and makes it harder for Tibetans to make common cause with other Chinese who face the same problems of corruption and development that has left them behind.


Sun Bin said...

hey sonagi,

thanks for stopping by. :)
i think everyone (including PRC historians) knows what exactly the 'historical claim' is. what they are doing are just something that will help in the context of international law.

-- china is following the footstep of europe, but lagged by half a century. this applies for patiotism/nationalism as well.

p.s. marmot is a great blog.

Chan said...

Sorry, what is the significance of a hada? What does a white scarf mean in this context? Thanks.

Sun Bin said...

white scarf is tiebtan traditional sign for friendship. showing it on your door on those days shows you are tibetan and hence saves you from the rioters.