Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jeffrey N Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is China's Brave New World - And Other Tales for Global Times (Indiana University Press, 2007), and his next will be Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, forthcoming). He writes for a wide range of academic and general interest periodicals and is a founding member of a new group blog on Chinese issues, The China Beat: Blogging How the East Is Read.]

The Chinese government’s plans for the Olympic games did not include a revolt in Tibet. The immediate aftermath of the widespread demonstrations and riots in Tibetan-inhabited areas in mid-March 2008 - from Lhasa in the Tibetan Autonomous Region to Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces to the east - has seen intense efforts by the authorities to restore control and manage access to information. The disruption by monks at the Jokhang temple in Lhasa of a choreographed visit of foreign journalists on 27 March indicates that the strategy is not working.

Beijing’s worried officials will do their best to defuse the potential of these unfolding events to subvert their larger understanding of what the event in their city on 8-24 August means for China. It is notable in this respect that China has avoided stressing the precedent of the Olympic games in Tokyo in 1964, and has at best only suggested in passing that there might be a parallel in the impact of the respective events on the countries’ global profile.

In principle, one attractive way for the Beijing authorities to think about the 2008 Olympics is that they will come to be seen as comparable to 1964. The Tokyo games - and the Osaka world Expo that followed in 1970 - globally promoted a vision of a Japan that had bounced back from a period of extremism and defeat to become a stable country with modern cities and forward-looking aspirations. These two high-profile international gatherings also symbolised the concurrent processes of economic development that would see Japan’s own rise to its current status as the world’s second biggest economy.

China’s leaders might consider the Tokyo 1964/Beijing 2008 analogy at least privately compelling on several levels - even if their suspicion of a historic adversary (and present competitor) might make them reluctant to voice this senti-ment too openly. China too has been climbing rapidly in the global economic hierarchy and wants to move still higher. It is preparing to follow its hosting of the Olympics with its own Expo - set to start in Shanghai on 1 May 2010, the country’s first-ever world fair. Its own modern history has seen moments of destructive extremism (the “great leap for-ward” and resulting famine, for example) and moments of defeat (including the foreign occupation of Beijing in 1900 and Japanese invasions of the 1930s) that it has good reason to want to put far behind it.

The Manchukuo lens

At the same time, a very different analogy can be drawn between China in 2008 and Japan at another moment in its past (as Howard W French points out, in one of the most thoughtful and historically minded commentaries on the current crisis in Tibet; see “Beijing's claims of an ‘unwavering stand’ in support of Tibet are groundless”, International Herald Tribune, 20 March 2008). This alternative line of argument, however, would be much less palatable to the Chinese regime than the 1964/2008 one. Why? Because the other era in Japanese history that has lessons for China today is the 1930s - a decade that is remembered in China as one when Tokyo acted in despicably aggressive ways towards it.

Howard W French’s background as an experienced reporter of Africa, a continent that has been ravaged by many forms of imperialism, may inform his emphasis on a time when Japan was an imperial rather than a post-imperial power to highlight the colonialist aspects of Chinese policy in Tibet; in so doing, he evades the common trap in commentary on Tibet that Pankaj Mishra identifies in another insightful article - namely that of viewing any confrontation between the Chinese leadership and those challenging its policies through a distorting cold-war lens (see “At war with the utopia of modernity”, Guardian, 22 March 2008).

For both these authors, the place to start in unravelling the Tibetan crisis is not with communist ideology or Leninist state structures, but rather by appreciating what often happens when any power justifies its control by saying that it is bestowing modernity on a backward people - a view of the Tibetans held by many everyday Chinese as well as their rulers.

Beijing insistently claims to be delivering the benefits of progress and modernity to Tibetans. The recurrent problem it faces is that (in French’s words) “few indigenous people want progress ‘given’ to them”. This is not only because “they don't see themselves as inferior, as such patronage would require”, but also because “they know of the many strings attached and of the slippery road to losing one's soul.”

More specifically, French points out that the “Chinese, of all people, should understand” the outrage that colonial pro-jects of this sort can engender. After all, they were “offered the ‘gift’ of modernization by Imperial Japan under its erstwhile Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”. There are even, he points out, “eerie echoes of Japan's Manchukuo with its bogus Emperor Puyi in China's attempts to pick religious leaders on Tibetan's behalf.”

The Chinese regime’s official Xinhua news agency seemed to confirm the thrust of this argument by issuing a statement on 22 March that, inadvertently, buttressed the Manchukuo parallel. The piece - entitled “China Garners Broad Interna-tional Support Over Tibet Riots” - provides a list of countries that had issued official declarations expressing solidarity with Beijing over its handling of Tibet; they ranged from nearby lands such as North Korea and Kyrgyzstan to distant ones such as Syria and Serbia.

The list is reminiscent of the ones that the Japanese authorities and the rulers of Manchukuo circulated in the 1930s when trying to convince local and international populations that the newly formed state was widely viewed as legitimate. To distract attention from all of the statements by world leaders dismissing Puyi as a puppet of Japan, those 1930s pronouncements trotted out a list of eleven countries - Poland, El Salvador, Romania, Spain, among them - that recognised him as a legitimate ruler (on the larger Manchukuo background, see Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern [Rowman & Littlefield, 2003]).

But lest anyone jump to the conclusion that there is something distinctively “east Asian” about this particular ploy, it is worth remembering what George W Bush and Tony Blair did in 2003: namely, use smoke-and-mirrors talk of a broad “coalition of the willing” to encourage people to overlook the lack of United Nations support for the invasion of Iraq. It is interesting too to see how far the set of countries that lined up behind Washington in 2003 had in common with that which once viewed Puyi as a true ruler rather than just a puppet. The above-mentioned four states - Poland, El Salvador, Romania and Spain - were all there again, for example, notwithstanding the great discontinuities in their own political development across the decades.

Brothers in arms

George W Bush has belatedly expressed concern over events in Tibet in a lengthy phone conversation on 26 March with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. If the discussion between the two presidents is extended, one relevant topic would be the troublesome nature of historical analogies involving 1930s Japan in relation to another contemporary issue, Iraq.
Here, it was post-war Japan that was again supposed to be the key reference-point (in this case for the United States). The influential neo-conservatives who provided the Iraq adventure with ideological varnish built upon the strained but prevalent comparison of 9/11 to Pearl Harbour by arguing that the American occupation of Japan, by leading to the emergence of a grateful democratic ally to the US, provided a preview of what would happen after Saddam Hussein fell.

It is not just retrospect that undermines this perspective - for anyone who really knew their history would not have ex-pected events on the ground to develop in this way. John Dower, the leading American historian of mid-century US-Japanese interaction, expressed such a view in various periodicals just before and during the early stages of the invasion, highlighting a host of specific ways in which the situation in Iraq differed from that in post-war Japan (see, for example, "A warning from history", Boston Review [February/March 2003]).

But Dower went a step further, arguing that the best Japanese parallels for contemporary US policy and rhetoric lay in how much Bush and company seemed to have in common with the militarists who led Japan in the 1930s. As he wrote in mid-2003 in an online publication linked to the Nation: “Regime change, nation-building, creation of client states, control of strategic resources, defiance of international criticism, mobilization for ‘total war,’ clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, winning hearts and minds, combating terror at home as well as abroad - all these were part and parcel of Japan's vainglorious attempt to create a new order of ‘co-existence and co-prosperity’ in Asia” (see “The other Japanese occupation”,, 20 June 2003).

When Bush and Hu meet in Beijing in August, the subject-matter of their conversation is more likely to be a new record in the high-jump or pole-vault than about Pu Yi’s similarities to the Panchen Lama; which country heads the medals-table than parallels between American actions in Iraq and Japan’s in Manchukuo.
That is a pity, since a modicum of historical self-awareness - perhaps especially among the powerful - is one of the best defences against political misjudgment.

But even if the exchange between the leaders of an actual and an aspiring global power remains focused only on current affairs, they may find some common ground. Each man, thinking of a different quagmire, could commiserate with the other about how vexing it can be when people you “liberate” aren’t properly grateful for what you’ve done for them.

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R.R. Hamilton - 4/5/2008

So, I don't have an "actual" interest in the history and issues? If I did, would you dazzle me with the brilliance of your "nuanced" analogies?

In pursuit of enlightenment, I did read your "Manchukuo-Iraq discussion". I thought that its compilation of facts was largely complete, though no better than could be done by a high-schooler with Wikipedia. I think that a high-schooler, though, would have drawn analogies not found by you: For instance, one of the colonial histories and fractious borders that existed between the USSR and Manchuria then and Turkey and Iraqi-Kurdistan today. For another, the sending of secret arms aid and armed-forces (in the guise of "volunteers") by Iran to Iraq today and by the U.S. to China then.

Nevertheless, I found at least one of your conclusions compelling -- more compelling I think than you do. You said, "We must [emphasis original] show every possible respect to Iraqi self-determination and sovereignty." We now have a government in Iraq that defeated our "puppet" (Allawi and his band of secularists). In fact, the ruling Iraqi coalition includes our most implacable -- and armed -- opponents, the Sadrists. So, will you join me in "showing every possible respect to Iraqi self-determination and sovereignty" by agreeing that our troops should stay to support the democratic aspirations of the Iraqi people so long as their elected government wants them there? Or is that a too "unnuanced" reading of your claimed respect for Iraqi self-determination and sovereignty?

Jonathan Dresner - 4/1/2008

I'm not going to attempt a discussion of the value and nuance of historical analogy with Mr. Hamilton, but suggest that any reader with an actual interest in the history and issues might also find my Manchukuo-Iraq discussion of three years ago (and the Dower and Bix discussions which are linked from there) enlightening.

R.R. Hamilton - 4/1/2008

I suppose it was never enough for some who flatter themselves to be intellectuals to make the 50,000,000th comparison of Bush to Hitler. Now it's "Bush equals Tojo". Now that you've done it, remind us of the times that Japan allowed free elections in its conquests -- and specifically when it allowed its favored candidates be crushed by the indigenous voters.

Andrew D. Todd - 4/1/2008

Years ago, I took an anthropology course with an exiled Tibetan Buddhist monk, an man named Kuno Narkyid, who had once been deputy mayor of Lhasa before the Chinese onslaught. I got an earful about the Tibetan side of the issue. Notable points: Tibetan is not a "Sino-" language, but a member of the Burmese family. Tibet has all kinds of cultural connections to India and Southeast Asia. Interestingly, even in 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Tibetan notables were going on pilgrimage in India. The caravan merchant Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, soon to be a guerrilla leader against the Chinese, combined a pilgrimage with a business trip. Andrugtsang, a native of Eastern Tibet, trading approximately from Lhasa and points west to the frontiers of Szechuan, would come into conflict with the Chinese when the Chinese soldiers started looting, or "requisitioning," his caravans in Eastern Tibet. By 1942, he was apparently resident in Lhasa, presumably a case of the small town kid moving to the big city as his business expanded.

Half the tribes in Mongolia and Siberia are Buddhist, or were before the Russians and/or Communists came. The situation at the time of, say, Temujin was probably more or less comparable to the situation in Northern Europe at the time of the Vikings, with mixed civilized and pagan elements. Such temporal authority as the Yuan (Mongol) and Manchu (Tungus, or Evenki) emperors might have over Tibet was part and parcel of a reciprocal arrangement in which one of the major Lamas was their guru, and they, his chelas, an extension of the normal relationship between Lama and temporal steppe chieftain. This obviously did not transfer to Mao Tse Tung. An analogous reasoning to the Chinese claim might have been if Kaiser Wilhelm II had declared himself King of Italy and Pope of Rome, besides.


Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, _Four Rivers, Six Ranges_, Information and Publicity Office of the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala, India, 1973

Noel Barber, _From the Land of Lost Content: The Dalai Lama's Fight for Tibet_, Houghton- Mifflin, Boston, 1970

Robert B. Ekvall, _Fields on the Hoof: Nexus of Tibetan Nomadic Pastoralism_, Waveland Press, Prospect Heights Illinois, 1983 (orig. pub. 1968).

_My Land and My People: Memoirs of the Dalai Lama_, Potala Corporation, New York, 1962

Nicholas Clifford - 3/31/2008

Very interesting piece, written with Wasserstrom's usual admirably perceptive lucidity. Of course the ingratitude of so-called backwards people in the face of modernization brought by their colonial masters can be seen throughout history in many parts of the world (look at India in 1857, or Ireland since Cromwell, or, for that matter, the Spanish reaction to Napoleon a half-century earlier).

However, to change the subject, I am struck by the fact that in all the reporting on Tibet (at least that I've seen), there is no serious attempt to engage the Chinese claim that Tibet has "always" (a long time!) been part of China -- or at least that it's been so since the Yuan dynasty (1261-1368). Here is a claim made on historical (or pseudo-historical) grounds, and perhaps a little bit of history on the part of op-ed writers would help dispel both the influential Chinese myth and the equally influential western myth of Shangri-la.