that I came back to the US and decided to specialize in Tibet studies. Queens
College didn’t have Tibet studies, but they did have East Asian studies. At the
time East Asian studies really meant China studies. They didn’t even offer
anything on Japan. My first Chinese teacher is still alive and well. He’s at
least 90 now, living in New York. I just visited him about a month ago. I
started in China studies. I took two years of Mandarin and one year of
classical Chinese. I also took the electives Eastern thought, Chinese
philosophy, East Asian economics, history, and so on.
then you couldn’t go to the mainland. China was in the midst of the Cultural
Revolution. Nixon had visited, but US-China relations hadn’t been normalized
yet. Maybe the US had an office in China, but not an embassy. After I
graduated, I decided to go to Taiwan to improve my Chinese. Before I got to
Taiwan, I visited India and Dharamsala. I stayed in Taiwan for about a
year-and-a-half, then went to India and studied Tibetan there. It was at McLeod
Ganj that I got to know Jamyang Norbu.[ii]
also wanted to earn my Masters and my Ph.D. I already knew that religion
interested me, but not in an academic way. I wouldn’t be a Buddhist, and I
wouldn’t be a scholar of Buddhism. The first time I went to India, I realized I
wouldn’t become a Buddhist. I know that some people think they believe in
Buddha or something, but I wouldn’t dare say that myself. Belief involves a
religious experience, an experience in your heart, but I understand religion
with my mind. The two aren’t the same. Instead, I’m really interested in
Tibetan history, society and culture. Where could you pursue advanced study of
Tibet in the US at that time? There were only two places to study Tibet
history: the University of Washington, in Seattle; and Indiana University. In
the end I chose Indiana.
Dalai Lama’s oldest brother, Taktser Rinpoche, is a professor at Indiana. Were
you his student? Could you talk a little about him?
SPERLING WITH HIS ADVISOR, TAKTSER
RINPOCHE AT INDIANA UNIVERSITY. PHOTO: WOESER.
Sperling: We had
several teachers at Indiana, including Taktser Rinpoche, whose full name is
Thubten Jigme Norbu[iii].
Professor Norbu was an extraordinary person, a very good person. A lot of
students wanted to take his classes just so they could brag, “Oh, I’m Thubten
Jigme Norbu’s student.” Some of them didn’t work hard and had nothing to show
for it. Thubten Jigme Norbu didn’t bother with them. He simply said that if you
took a class with him and want to work hard, he will do everything he can to
help you. If a student wanted to read more Tibetan sources, no matter how many,
or wanted to learn Mandarin, he would put his heart and soul into you. This is
why I had Taktser Rinpoche as one of my two advisors.[iv]
years later I had passed my exams, but hadn’t started writing my dissertation.
When I embarked on my research, I thought I ought to go back to India. I spent
over a year at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala. I had a
good friend, Kun’bzang Phun’tshogs, who didn’t have very good English but who
did have excellent Chinese, since he had been at the Central Ethnic University
(中央民族学院) in Beijing
in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time it was extremely rare to find a Tibetan
who could speak Chinese in Dharamsala. There must have only been three or four
of them at most. And I’d all but forgotten my Tibetan. So he and I spoke to
each other in Chinese. At McLeod Ganj I saw Jamyang Norbu again, and we became
good friends. We’re friends to this day.
was your research project then? What was the main focus of your work?
dissertation was about China-Tibet relations during the Ming dynasty (1368 -1644).
I wanted to learn when China -Tibet relations had started, as well as the
nature and substance of this relationship.
knew that Tibet was on Manchu Qing maps, and on Mongol Yuan maps, too. But the
more I read the more I realized that this relationship wasn’t at all like what
the Chinese government claimed. It’s apparently very difficult to explain this
to Chinese people. Chinese people today think that everything belongs to them,
in large part because of the new historical viewpoint in China. But we believe
that the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) was part of the Mongol empire, and the Qing
dynasty (1644 -1912) the Manchu Qing empire. We consider these two to be
“conquest states.” If Tibet is really a part of “China,” then we should have a
look at the Ming. The Ming was not a conquest state. The Ming attitude toward
the Mongols is also really interesting. They didn’t consider the Mongols to be
a “brother nationality” at all.
I continued my research, I found that Ming dynasty China-Tibet relations were
basically that they didn’t have relations. The Chinese think the Ming was the
heir to the Yuan, a changing of the guard; but Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan,
they did not consider themselves the emperors of China. They considered
themselves emperors of the world. How can you simply say that the Ming were the
inheritors of the Yuan?
I was at Indiana I did some research of Chinese and Tibetan sources from the
Ming era. My masters thesis was about the Fifth Karmapa [Lama] (1384 -1415),
who received an invitation from the Yongle Emperor to visit Nanjing. I read the
biography of the fifth Gyalwa Karmapa in Tibetan, as well as Chinese texts, and
nowhere did I find evidence that China controlled Tibet. I didn’t find any
primary texts about Ming control of Tibet. There were none. I didn’t find any
in a year at the archives in Dharamsala, either. The interesting thing is that
I looked at how Republican China dealt with this, and found that no one at that
time was saying that Tibet was a part of China since the Ming. At best they
would say “Tibet was brought within China’s border during the Qing.” Now China
says Tibet was a part of China during the Ming. It’s nonsense.
I came back to the US and took about two years to finish my dissertation. It
was about China-Tibet relations during the Ming, titled Early Ming Policy
toward Tibet: An Examination of the Proposition that the Early Ming Emperors
Adopted a “Divide and Rule” Policy toward Tibet.[v] My conclusion was: they
didn’t have any. During the Ming, Tibet was divided by competing regimes among
the Tibetans, and continued that way until the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682).
But this had nothing to do with Ming policy; this was internal to Tibet. The
Ming emperor’s interactions with Tibet were religious at most, about
benefactors and lamas.[vi]
the Chinese government describes it, China has had sovereignty over Tibet since
the Yuan dynasty. Chinese people today also see the Manchu Qing dynasty as a
Chinese regime, and insist on China’s rule over
SPERLING IN LHASA IN 1985. PHOTO: WOESER.
by dint of Qing political control there. From a scholarly perspective, how do
you view this question? How do Western scholars see it generally?
the common view of Western historians, there was a Great Mongol Empire and a
Great Manchu Qing Empire. The Mongols considered both Tibet and China as part
of the Great Mongol Empire. China says that Tibet became part of China during
the Yuan dynasty, but if you ask Chinese scholars “when during the Yuan
dynasty?” each will give you a different answer, because there is no one
document, including any imperial edict, that proves that “Tibet belongs to China.”
There is none. Tibetan sources are full of evidence that Tibet belonged to the
Mongols, but not one document shows they belonged to China. What they showed
allegiance to was the Mongol empire. Since the Mongols already controlled
Tibet, why would they put Tibet inside the border of “China”? There’s no good
explanation for it. So I wrote an article about when Tibet
started “belonging” to China.[ix] According to my research,
my view is this: the historical record proves that it is incorrect to say that
“Tibet came within China’s borders during the Yuan dynasty. It is illogical to
say so, and the reasons for my argument are clear.
Manchu Qing was also a conquest dynasty. The Great Manchu Qing Empire was not
at all the same thing as China. China was merely a part of the Great Manchu
Qing Empire. The Manchu Qing, through to its final days, used the terminology
of imperialism and colonialism in its Tibet policy. For example, at the turn of
the 20th century the Manchu Qing official Zhao Erfeng (趙爾豐)
proposed that they ought to deal with Tibet the way that Britain dealt with
Australia, France with Vietnam, and the US with the Philippines. This language in
and of itself proves that it was 100 percent colonialism. These materials from
Zhao Erfeng are all in Chinese. You can see from books published in the
mainland. Chinese scholars can see immediately that this is an imperialist,
colonialist way of thought. Today people think of “empire” as a bad thing, but
in Zhao Erfeng’s time “empire” wasn’t a pejorative. All it meant was “we
conquered you, you lost to us, and now you must submit to us.” Back then
“empire” signified greatness. So there was no need for acrobatics, like “we are
a great Chinese nation” or “we’re one big family.”
the turn of the 20th century, the British and French sailed on the Pacific to
China. The Manchu Qing officials they met along the coast had already become
Sinicized, and everywhere they saw “Great Qing” written in Chinese, so
foreigners didn’t understand the difference between the “Manchu Qing” and
“China.” But in Inner Asia, the Great Manchu Qing Empire was what it was.
The Russians for example knew the difference between the Great Manchu Qing
Empire and China. Since the Manchu Qing managed relations with Russia as well
as with Mongolia and Tibet under the same ministry, the Ministry of Minority
Affairs (理藩院), you can
tell that it was an imperial mechanism. But the British and the French didn’t
THE RUINS OF
THE GANDEN MONASTERY. PHOTO BY SPERLING. PHOTO: WOESER.
it. They refer to the “Chinese Empire” in their official correspondence and
treaties and so on, and the Manchu Qing emperor approved of this formulation.
the Manchu Qing Empire was not China. This is indisputable among Western
academics. Many scholars outside of China, including some Sinologists, call
their studies the “New Qing Studies” (新清史).
Fundamental to “New Qing Studies” is the recognition that the “Qing dynasty”
was an “empire,” the Manchu Qing Empire. But the scholarly community in China
is unwilling to accept this point. This is a denial of history; it is a false
you discussed the issue of Tibet and the Manchu Qing with Tibet scholars in
China? What do you think are the differences between the Chinese and Western
approaches to historiography?
of current ideology, Chinese scholars not only cannot say that “the Manchu Qing
is not the same as China,” but also must say that “China has been a
multi-ethnic, unified country since ancient times,” that “they are all the
Chinese nation,” etc. About four years ago, China went back to a theory from
the 1980s, that is Tan Qixiang’s (譚其驤)
theory. Tan compiled the Historical Atlas of China, and is perhaps
viewed by officials as the greatest authority on Chinese historical geography.
He wrote a paper on China’s historical territory arguing that China’s
historical map ought to be based on that of the Qing dynasty at the height of
What this means is taking the map of the eighteenth-century Manchu Qing’s
greatest territory to be “China since ancient times.”
if that’s so, shouldn’t Britain also be able to claim India, Australia and so
on as its own? Western scholars generally acknowledge that historical territory
changed, that it was once this way and is now that way. But not China. They
count the Qing dynasty’s largest territory as theirs since time immemorial. As
for when Tibet became part of Chinese territory, Tan Qixiang said, “Tibet has
been China’s ever since there was human activity on the Tibetan Plateau.” He
also had an explanation for the facts that Tibet didn’t belong to Yuan China
and that instead they pledged allegiance to the Mongol Empire. The gist of his
argument was: we shouldn’t speak of dynasties, for example that the Tang
dynasty didn’t control Tibet. Instead, we should say that Tibet and the Tang
are both China’s! We should say that the Northern and Southern dynasties, the
Tang and Tibet, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, the Jin, the Liao… all
belong to China! So he already warped the conventional conception of history.
What a joke! Not one scholar outside of China would agree with this. I have
never encountered this stance in the English-speaking world. But China pushes
this stance, this bravado, this narcissism. I refuted this theory.
Western scholars don’t think ethnic identity is fixed. It can also change. For
instance, what is the nationality of the French? The same goes for Americans.
Since national identity is a product of history, it is also a product of human
beings. We’re in Central Park right now. I see the people around us—people with
different skin colors, of different races—as American. This is the American
identity created by history and by people. But if you were to say that Asian
people who arrived in America 200 years ago were also American, no one would agree.
But China created the new identity of the one “Chinese nation” out of current
political exigency, then stuck the historical background onto the Chinese
nation. That’s a distortion of history. In Chinese academic circles, if you
doubt the official position on the national identity of the Tibetans, you have
separated yourself from the concept of the “Chinese nation,” and that’s a
serious problem. When I was in China in 2001 a rather prominent Chinese scholar
NGAPOI NGAWANG JIGME SHAKING HANDS IN BEIJING, 1991. PHOTO: WOESER.
can say that, but not us. We don’t accept it.” Chinese academics are relatively
progressive and open in other fields, like comparative literature and
philosophy. They can have all kinds of theoretical debates. But not so in Tibet
studies. You cannot argue about Tibet’s historical status. Because it is
extremely sensitive, you aren’t allowed to have a theoretical debate. I have
yet to meet a Chinese scholar who publicly denies the identity of the “Chinese
have been great achievements in Tibet studies in China, and some really good
scholars. But if you’re talking about the Tibet issue, they’ll go on about
“restoring the great Chinese family” and such. If you’re talking about national
identity, or historical identity, the Chinese have all kinds of untruths. It’s
the same as it was in the 1950s. Yet this 50s scholarship still hasn’t decided
on a pretext for [its version of] Tibetan history. There were also people in
the 50s who said that Tibet became Chinese territory during the Tang dynasty,
that Tibet has been a part of China ever since Princess Wencheng (文成公主)
was married off to Songtsen Gampo. Of course Chinese scholars in the 1950s
didn’t have much knowledge, and they didn’t really understand the Tibetan
language. The argument that “Tibet became Chinese territory under the Yuan
dynasty” came later. When I was in China last year there were still scholars
saying that Tibet became a part of China under the Qing.
2011 I went to China to participate in a closed door meeting about “the Tibet
issue and the image of the Dalai Lama.” You may have seen my lecture “Talking
about the Tibet issue with Beijing.” When I was done there was a lot of
excitement. They said, “We agree with some of Sperling’s points, but not this,
not that… I thought about what they said. Yeah, maybe they agreed when I said,
“Hi! I’m Elliot Sperling,” and “Thank you for inviting me to participate in
this conference.” They may have agreed with me on those points. Otherwise, I don’t
think we agreed on anything else. They asked me questions for two hours, but
they weren’t real, challenging questions. In fact, you could say it was a
struggle session. For instance, someone said, “I don’t accept your comparison
of the Dalai Lama with Gandhi.” It was all questions like that.
does, of course, have some really brilliant scholars. The Tibetan and Chinese
sources I’ve mastered, they’ve read them, too. Obviously the books I’ve written
about Zhao Erfeng and Tibetan historical geography can’t be openly published in
China, but I know they’ve been translated for internal use by officials.
They’ve definitely read them. But I’ve never seen anyone address or refute my
position in academic journals.
also talked about Said’s Orientalism. In principle, Said’s theory of
Orientalism is useful for China, since mainland scholars like to use
to counter Western criticism, to cast Western criticism of China as
Orientalist. Said’s book Orientalism is published in China. Mainland
Chinese academics also
INDIANA FACULTY AND STUDENTS GREET THE DALAI LAMA.
Donald Lopez’s Prisoners
of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West to chastise
Western scholars for their “Shangri-La-ist” view of the Tibet problem. But
Prisoners of Shangri-La can’t be published publicly in China. It’s also
only circulated internally. Why? Because in his book, Lopez also criticizes
China for what he sees as ruthless domination of Tibet.
don’t tolerate dissenting opinions. They use the police and the courts to
control dissent. Scholars within China’s [party-state] system can’t just speak
on the Tibet issue whenever they like. It’s too sensitive. Different
voices—Ilham Tohti, Tsering Woeser, Wang Lixiong (王力雄)
and other dissident scholars and writers—could topple the great tower of
rewritten history and historical theory that China has built.
studied Chinese in Taiwan. Have you had any connections with Taiwanese scholars
of Tibet? How do they see the issue of Tibet’s status?
Sperling: I haven’t
been to Taiwan in over 20 years. My impression is that there are some Tibet
scholars there whose Tibetan is fairly good, but they’re mostly focused on
religious studies. The people studying Tibetan history and the Tibet issue
mainly use Chinese sources. I was in Taiwan in the 1980s, when the country was
still under the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang. The KMT’s view of the
Tibet problem is the same as the CCP’s. The KMT has different policies and
handles Tibet differently, but in terms of Tibet’s historical status, they are
in agreement with the CCP. Taiwanese history books generally say, “Tibet became
Chinese territory during the Qing dynasty.” This is the official KMT line. They
still want Tibet to be “a part of China.” The KMT still has a Mongolian and
Tibetan Affairs Commission.[xi] They still haven’t gotten
rid of it, because they need it as evidence of “one China.” If they dissolved
the commission and then Tibet wanted independence, it would no longer be
Taiwan’s concern. I think the mainland doesn’t want the commission to be dissolved
either, lest Taiwan take one step closer toward independence. The mainland used
to call Chiang Kai-shek “Chiang the Bandit,” but now they praise him. The
mainland government would rather the KMT keep its policy of “unification.”
you talk about any work you’ve done with the Tibetan government in exile in
Dharamsala? Did the government restrict your research, or offer you support?
JAMYANG NORBU (RIGHT), LI KEXIAN, AND A COLLEAGUE IN DHARAMSALA. PHOTO:
Sperling: I also
disagree on some points with the government-in-exile. They say that the Manchu
Qing didn’t control Tibet, the Mongolians didn’t control Tibet, that these were
simply “priest-patron” relationships. This priest-patron relationship I’ll
admit, but what exactly is it? These days a lot of Tibetans says that the
emperor found Buddhism was a wonderful way to cultivate the mind and the
spirit, as if the emperor were just a normal person studying Buddhism.
Actually, it wasn’t like that at all. The emperor understood how to use
Buddhism for control, for warfare, how to use the “gods” to defeat the enemy.
It’s from this angle that I studied how the emperor observed Buddhism. During
the Mongol Yuan, Kublai Khan had the same interest in Buddhism, a conqueror’s
interest. Of course he thought he could use Buddhism as a means of subjugation.
Besides, Buddhism had already spread to the nations under his occupation. I
began to research the Western Xia (1038 - 1227) because the Mongols had learned
from experience. Before the Tanguts were destroyed, lamas from Tibet came to
the Western Xia capital. Tibetan documents record their activities, and I’ve
read these sources. The emperor asked the lamas to perform a Mahākāla
(Daheitian) kalpa (ritual), to use Mahākāla to resist the Mongol
invaders. And it worked: after the kalpa the Tanguts defeated the
Mongols in their first battle. This is recorded in both Tibetan and Chinese
documents, and the Tibetan ones are more detailed. I’ve written about this in
articles on the origins of Sino-Tibetan relations.
also contributed to the website Rangzen
Alliance, like my article “Incivility.” These aren’t academic
papers; they’re “good citizen” articles. A good citizen should have a critical
eye towards society. I’ve criticized both the government-in-exile and the CCP,
but the consequences haven’t been the same. If I go to Dharamsala and criticize
the government-in-exile, no one will be hurt or killed. There’s no comparing
the Tibetan government and the Chinese government. They’re completely
different. But there are aspects of the Tibetan government-in-exile that need
to be criticized. There are also Tibetans who say, “Why is he always
criticizing the government-in-exile? Why doesn’t he call out the Chinese
government?” Actually, I criticize them both, but the way I criticize each one
is different. Also, the government-in-exile can’t restrict me in any way. It’s
a government-in-exile. It has no sovereignty in India, so it can’t limit me. As
soon as I get to Dharamsala I can use the Library of Tibetan Works and
Archives, as well as the Amnye Machen Institute,
an advanced research institute. It’s private, non-governmental. The government
has never given me any trouble in Dharamsala; I’ve also lectured there and in
the Delhi Tibetan exile community. The government-in-exile never restricted me.
As long as someone had invited me to speak, I could do it. Two or three years
ago, I went to lecture at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, it was
fun: when the library director introduced me, he said, “Last time he slammed
us, he really slammed us! Hahaha.”
also criticized the Dalai Lama. There are some Tibetans who aren’t happy about
this. I think if I were a Tibetan exile, this would pose a bit of a problem,
but in the eyes of Tibetan exiles I’m a foreign scholar. There really are some
Tibetans who don’t like me. But they don’t hinder me — it’s not like the
Chinese government not letting me into the country. They’ve never kept me from
visiting Dharamsala. They know I won’t live there permanently. After a few
weeks or a month or two I’ll come back to America. I can’t say I’m a “veteran”
foreigner in Dharamsala, but there are very few foreigners who have maintained
ties with the government-in-exile from the 1970s to today. I guess I’m one of
them. Anyway, they are happy when I criticize the Chinese government, but they
aren’t when I criticize the government-in-exile. That’s about how it goes, heh
heh. I call things as I see them, but a lot of people don’t like that. They
think: well, you could be a little more diplomatic, a little more polite; you
could change your wording here, correct that there. But keep doing this, you
won’t even know what you believe anymore.
TIBETAN WRITER TSERING WOESER IN BEIJING IN JULY, 2012. PHOTO: WOESER.
your take on the “middle way” policy?
Dalai Lama is a great man, but in the end he is only human, who can make
mistakes in his judgement like anyone else. In terms of the “middle way,” I
really think he’s wrong. It’s just that a lot of people aren’t willing to come
out and say so. I think because of the “middle way” policy, a lot of Tibetans
in exile have given up hope. They won’t admit this hopelessness to anyone, so
they have given up resisting and sought personal happiness. They think of ways
to get an American green card, they think of ways to immigrate to Western
countries. A lot of exiles are like this now. They say, “China is now the
fantasy-China of the leaders in exile, the Tibet of the future is the
fantasy-Tibet of the leaders in exile.” That is, a free Tibet cannot exist
under communist rule that respects no human rights. They all know this, and I
think that the exile leaders, in their heart of hearts, know this, too. The
fight for a free Tibet is a just one, but now the exile leaders are making it
2008, a lot of overseas Chinese people have supported the “middle way.” What do
you think about this?
think the factor that makes many Chinese support the “middle way” is the same
one that makes the Bodpa support the “middle way.” It’s because the “middle
way” is the Dalai Lama’s idea. In China a lot of people know who the Dalai Lama
is. Although politically China condemns him, many people still view him as a
“living Buddha.” I don’t like this title of “living Buddha”— there are a lot of
Chinese people of blind faith. They say the Dalai Lama stands for the “middle
way,” so they stand for the “middle way.” But they haven’t considered how
illogical the “middle way” is. If they really thought about it, they ought
to realize that the “middle way” can’t happen in China. It just can’t. The
Chinese authorities really want the Dalai Lama to keep faith in the fanciful,
hopeless, impossible “middle way.” They’re happy to see the Dalai Lama go on
and on about the “middle way” with the international community, with people on
all sides, because to them this is the ideal way for the Dalai Lama to waste
time. They’re just waiting for him to die. Even though there are a few naive
Chinese people who support the “middle way,” they aren’t the vast majority of
Chinese. The vast majority of Chinese don’t think about the Tibet issue at all.
There are some overseas Chinese who support the “middle way” not with regard to
the Tibetans inside China, but to the Dalai Lama. They’re just like some of the
Tibetans outside of China and some foreigners. What they support is not Tibet,
but the Dalai Lama, they echo the Dalai Lama. They’re willing to see him as a
god. And there are some people who support the Dalai Lama for their own kind of
vanity. They use the Dalai Lama’s name to make themselves look good. These
people aren’t just among overseas Chinese. There are Westerners like this, and
leaders of the government-in-exile, too. They want to use the Dalai Lama’s
name, so of course they “support” him. So it’s a sad situation.
Dalai Lama and some Tibetans in exile say, “We have a lot of friends in China.
The Chinese understand our position more and more.” I think this is completely
wrong. Some people ask me, “What do the Chinese think about the Tibet issue?” I
tell them that the average Chinese person doesn’t even think about the Tibet
issue. It doesn’t cross their minds. But if something happens in Tibet, they
just listen to what the government tells them. They say, “Didn’t we liberate
Tibet? Then why are they betraying us? Why aren’t they grateful?” There are
also plenty of people who will add, “The Tibetans are backward and savage. They
haven’t developed.” The average Chinese person will only get angry at the
government if the government’s interests conflict with their own. They have no
civic awareness. If it doesn’t concern them, they don’t think about it, or else
they’re afraid to get involved. They won’t think, “Why are there all these
clashes between ethnic minorities and the government? Maybe these minorities have
a point? In 2008, a lot of Bodpa had this experience in China: some Tibetans in
Beijing faced all kinds of insults. Beijing cabbies would refuse to pick them
up as soon as they saw they were Tibetan, and would even curse at them. There
were hotels that wouldn’t let them in and told them “you aren’t worthy of the
kindness the Party and the country has shown you.” Ordinary Chinese know in
their hearts that it’s an authoritarian regime, but they refuse to listen, they
refuse to think. It’s the same situation in Xinjiang. It’s the same for the
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares up, there’s a big reaction from the
international community, and sharp criticism of Israel. But it seems like there
isn’t strong condemnation of China’s Tibet and Xinjiang policies. Do you think
Sperling: Yes, it’s
not that strong. I think at least it’s for this reason, that when the Dalai
Lama says “we seek autonomy, not independence,” Westerners get confused and
lose the direction or focus of their support.
is a popular view among Chinese dissidents: they believe the Tibet issue
has to do with the Communist Party, with human rights. Without democracy in
China, Tibet can’t be free; but if China democratizes, the human rights issue would
disappear, and Tibet would have no need of independence. What do you think of
Sperling: I think
it’s still a “Great China” way of thinking. If the Tibet issue is “between the
CCP and Tibet,” then how come the 13th Dalai Lama didn’t recognize Tibet as a
part of the Republic of China? He fundamentally rejected the notion of Tibet
being a part of China. The Tibet issue was influenced by the CCP later on, but
at its root it’s not about the Party, it’s a “Great China” problem, a problem
between China and Tibet. After the destruction of the Manchu Qing, the
revolutionary party and the republic wanted to maintain the empire. They just
changed the words they used: “We’re not an empire, we’re a multi-ethnic
country.” This is Chinese chauvinism, the idea that the “Middle Kingdom”
controls “all under heaven.”
by emphasizing that the Tibet issue is a “CCP vs. Tibet issue,” doesn’t that
upset the Dalai Lama? The Dalai Lama often says that he’s a Marxist and that he
likes communism. So it’s contradictory for the Tibet issue to be an issue “with
the CCP.” On the other hand, the Dalai Lama doesn’t really understand Marxism.
When you hear him talk about it, it sounds like some kind of Christian movement
that helps the people and so on. He doesn’t understand the Marxist view of
history, he doesn’t understand dictatorship, class struggle — this is all
Marxist theory. Of course, Marxism differs from Maoism. Marx’s theories are
really interesting, but there are huge problems putting them into practice. All
of the administrative systems in the world that call themselves Marxist are
authoritarian, and none have any regard for human rights. Now the Dalai Lama
says he’s not against Marxism. Even Lopsang Sangay has said that he doesn’t
oppose communism or communist rule. If you’re not opposed to communist rule,
does that mean you accept limits on human rights?
is not communism if it doesn’t strip human rights.
BEFRIENDED ILHAM TOHTI IN BEIJING IN 2012. PHOTO: WOESER.
you think China’s denial of Tibet’s sovereignty is related to natural resources
in Tibet and East Turkestan?
Sperling: I think at
first it’s because of their view of history. The Chinese didn’t think about the
issue of natural resources during the Xinhai Revolution [in 1911]. They just
thought that they belonged to China. Even though they often said that “China
was a semi-colony” etc. etc., they themselves fought for the largest colonial
boundaries. India wasn’t a semi-colony, it was an actual colony. But they
recognize their own history and acknowledge the changes to India’s historical
borders. China’s colonial “wounds” were inflicted by other countries
controlling Chinese territory, like the British in Hong Kong and Japan’s
occupation of Manchuria. So China wants to recover all of its imperial
Tang: I knew of
you before as a Tibetologist and Sinologist. Recently, I learned that you’ve
put a lot of effort into trying to rescue Uighur professor Ilham Tohti. Then,
have you also done research on the “Xinjiang problem”? Could you introduce the
work you’ve done on Xinjiang?
interested in China’s policies towards nationalities and the situation of
ethnic minorities, but I’m not an expert on the Xinjiang issue. Ilham Tohti is
a very important person. Look at Ilham’s website, “Uighur Online.”[xii] A lot of information
about the Uighurs and Xinjiang was there. I first noticed him in 2009. Public
Security had him and no one knew where he was being held, so I signed an open
letter calling for Ilham’s release. But I didn’t meet him face-to-face until
2012. It was a truly happy occasion, and we became friends. I invited him to
the US, to come to Indiana University as a visiting scholar in 2013-2014, for
one year. But, as everyone knows, he was stopped at the airport and wasn’t
allowed to leave the country. He’d already been under house arrest several
times. He was detained this January . From that point until now, only his
lawyer has seen him, and only once.[xiii] He’s in a terrible
situation. They’re rough on him. Of course I’m worried about how they’re
treating him. Ilham and I have talked a lot. I know he doesn’t support East
Turkestan independence. Besides, he writes in Chinese. His Uighur is excellent,
but he writes in Chinese. He wants his website and his writing to help Han
people in China understand what’s happening in Xinjiang and what the Chinese
government is doing there. He wants dialogue. It’s just like Wang Lixiong said:
among Uighur intellectuals, Ilham is probably one of the few who doesn’t
support East Turkestan independence. He wants dialogue, but have you seen how
the Chinese government treats him? They say he’s a separatist, that he praises
terrorist activities, and on and on. If this is how they treat someone who’s
willing to have dialogue and compromise, then there’s no hope for the Uighurs.
Tang: Even though
you’re not a Xinjiang expert, I still want to ask: what’s your general sense of
China’s claim that “Xinjiang has been a part of China since ancient times”?
Sperling: First, this
is how I see it: since 1949, so much blood has been shed in Tibet and Xinjiang.
They’ve been under such brutal rule. Having gone through this, they should
decide their future for themselves.
people ask me if I think Tibet should be independent, I say, “It’s not for me
to decide. It’s for the Tibetans to decide.” Of course I still imagine that if
Tibet did gain independence, my greatest wish would be for Tibet and China to
be equal, to have friendly relations. I hope they would both be democratic
countries. And I hope that Chinese people would continue to go to Tibet, not of
course to control their economy, but to travel, to study Buddhism, to help
Tibet develop. I hope that Bodpa would go to China, too. I hope the
Nationalities University would continue to exist. That the two countries would
have a relationship of mutual benefit, and that they would both have seats at
the United Nations. I don’t want hatred to linger between them. This is my
sincere hope. I believe the future of Tibet should be decided by the right of
national self-determination. Tibetan history is a great tragedy. Just based on
this alone, the Tibetan people have the right to decide what kind of future
is the same. They’ve been under the same kind of brutal rule. These people must
freely express their own will. Without the pressure of an authoritarian system
on them, they ought to speak freely. It’s their right. As for saying that
Xinjiang is historically a part of China, obviously that’s twisting history.
China says that artifacts from the Han dynasty have been found in Xinjiang,
which proves that Xinjiang belongs to China. But you can find anything on any
kilometer along the Silk Road. They’ve also found ancient Chinese coins in
Rome. Does that mean that Europe belongs to China? That doesn’t make any sense.
It’s the same as China declaring its right to the South China Sea, but in
Xinjiang they’re even crazier. Over the past few centuries, Xinjiang has been
most closely tied to Central Asia historically, culturally and politically.
They didn’t have any connection with China. The Central Asian peoples were made
a part of Czarist Russia, then the Soviet Union, and now, they’re no longer
within Russia’s borders. Xinjiang’s history is complicated. You can’t say it’s
belonged to China since ancient times. That’s Tan Qixiang’s “historical
method.” History is always changing. The map we see today isn’t necessarily
what it will be 100 years from now.
labels the peoples of the territories as Chinese “ethnic minorities” just
because China ruled over them for a few years or a few decades in the past. But
this identity of “ethnic minority” is really problematic. “Ethnic minorities”
were created by China alone. It’s not a natural classification. What is an
“ethnic minority”? What are their characteristics? In fact, each group is
different from the other. But if you look at sources from the 1980s about
“ethnic minorities,” all they say is that they’re “good at song and dance” and
are “colorful.” Besides this, for example the Tibetans, the Zhuang, the Yi,
what connects them? What common features do they share? Language, culture,
history? They have nothing in common.
to the historical and cultural background of the Uighurs, they should be
considered Central Asian. China has labeled them East Asian according to their
modern history, but from a historical perspective, the Uighurs belong to the
Central Asian cultural sphere. When Chinese officials describe the age of a
Tibetan mural, or when a temple was built, or any other historical artifact,
they don’t use the Gregorian calendar. They use the Chinese calendar system
instead: this dates to the Tang dynasty, that to the Song, etc. They do the
same in Xinjiang. We know that the native peoples of Xinjiang, their ancestors
were Indo-European, Central Asian, and Turkic. They don’t consider themselves
to be Chinese. Their languages are Indo-European and Turkic. But China’s logic
is this: from the moment a Han Chinese person set foot in a place, it became a
part of China. China argues the same point for its claims in the South China
Sea. As long as Zheng He crossed that point, it belongs to China. This is bound
to create conflict with other countries, and these conflicts have no logical basis.
SPERLING ACCOMPANIED JEWHER ILHAM TO RECEIVE THE MARTIN ENNALS AWARD ON BEHALF OF ILHAM TOHTI FROM UN HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN IN GENEVA IN OCTOBER, 2016. PHOTO: MEA
Tang: Some people
compare the Tibet issue and the Xinjiang issue to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. What do you make of that?
are those who say these conflicts are the same, but they really aren’t. Perhaps
you could say a similarity exists: there are Westerners who support Tibet, but
they don’t really understand the many aspects of the Tibet issue. It’s the same
for the Middle East. A lot of people say they support Palestine, or that they
support Israel, but they don’t arrive at these opinions based on nuanced
understanding of the issue.
problems in the Middle East are quite complicated. The Muslim world also has a
tradition of anti-Semitism, though certainly not everyone is like that. In the
past, many Muslims societies didn’t recognize the individual, only the
ethnicity or the group. Certainly, Jews were persecuted. It was the same in the
West. In history, Jews frequently faced pogroms and exile. In medieval Germany,
there was an attitude that “the Jews want to get rich, so we must kill them. We
can’t let them flourish.” I’m not saying that we should excuse Israel’s current
policies. I’m not fond of Netanyahu, and I don’t agree with Likud’s policies.
What I mean is, there are anti-Semitic forces in the Arab world, and the
Palestine-Israel conflict isn’t one-sided. I must say that I oppose Israeli
settlement on the West Bank of the Jordan. I also believe that Israel can engage
[Mahmoud] Abbas in dialogue. He’s made a lot of compromises. In this respect
he’s better than Arafat. But he hasn’t gotten the chance. This is a big mistake
on Israel’s part.
there are people who don’t consider the complexity of the issue, fantasizing
Hamas. For instance, in Gaza, eight months after Israel withdrew—the borders
hadn’t been closed—Hamas launched an attack on Israel from Gaza. No one seems
to have noticed. But when Israel attacked Hamas, then everyone took notice.
This explains the psychological element of why many people in the outside world
support Tibet or Palestine. It’s about people and culture, but they’ve
forgotten about the nature of the conflict. And I must emphasize, when I say
this, it is not to excuse Israel. It’s similar to the Tibet problem. There are
those who really don’t understand the complexity of the issue. Like when I
criticize the Dalai Lama or the government-in-exile, they tell me, “You’re
against Tibet, you’re against the Dalai Lama.” The truth is, our world is full
|MS. TANG AND SPERLING AT THE CAFE WHERE THIS INTERVIEW TOOK PLACE IN JULY, 2014.|
The Palestine-Israel conflict is a real tragedy. The Jews and the Palestinians both have the right to build a state. Some aspects of the Tibet and Xinjiang problems are completely different from the Palestine-Israel conflict. The Han people aren’t fighting to exist. The Palestine-Israel conflict, by contrast, touches on the existence of two peoples. Of course they should both work to come to terms with each other, and both should admit the mistakes made on their side.
people generally find and accept simple viewpoints that they see on Facebook or
Twitter, and they treat the Palestine-Israel conflict or the Tibet and Xinjiang
issues simplistically, too. There are people who say, “All Uighurs are
terrorists.” First of all, while we must acknowledge that there have been
terrorist activities, that’s doesn’t mean that their struggle for freedom is a
terrorist movement; second of all, the fact that some people used terrorist
tactics doesn’t justify China’s suppression, just as terrorist activity among
some Palestinians doesn’t mean that Netanyahu and Likud are right. And another
thing. In Israeli society, there are people who oppose Netanyahu and Likud’s Palestine
policies. They can protest and hold demonstrations. There are soldiers who
oppose occupation and refuse to serve in the West Bank or in Gaza. Could any of
that happen in China? But if you ask most Westerners, “Whose predicament is the
worst, the Palestinians’, the Tibetans’ or the Uighurs’?” They’ll say the
2012. PHOTO: WOESER.
Jews still face problems in the Western and Muslim worlds. For a lot of people
who are anti-Israel—I’m not saying they themselves are anti-Semitic—their view
on Israel is anti-Semitic. Recently I’ve seen a lot of anti-Israeli writing
that actually says “kill all the Jews.” But look at what the Russians are doing
in Ukraine right now. Is anyone saying to “kill all the Russians”? They reserve
this language for Israel. They say it’s a Jewish problem. This clearly proves
that anti-Semitism still exists in Europe. These people don’t admit that
they’re anti-Semitic, but they don’t realize what their words represent.
They’ve been influenced by a certain type of thinking in which Jews are
especially bad. Of course, if you ask them directly if that’s what they
believe, they’ll deny it. Before, they could express these ideas publicly
because there was a social basis for anti-Semitism, and they didn’t have to
hide their sentiment. Today, while they won’t admit it, they really have been
influenced by anti-Semitism.
I said, I dislike Said’s Orientalism. I think it’s simplistic. It makes
sweeping generalizations about Westerners: Westerners are like this, so
inevitably they are prejudiced, and elitist, too; they had to press
imperialism on the “Orientals,” and it couldn’t have been otherwise; Western
literature and art have all been influenced by this elitism, etc. etc. This is
ideological, just like the CCP talking about “proletariat thought and
proletariat morals,” the idea that every member of the proletariat is exactly
the same. What’s interesting is that Said isn’t willing to say who among those
who are anti-Israel have been influenced by the Muslim world, and in which
respects. Discrimination against Jews wasn’t all that bad in the Muslim world,
even though there were some wealthy Jews, just like there were wealthy Jews in
Europe. There are good people in the Muslim world, but there is also discrimination
against Jews. I’m not at all saying that if a society is prejudiced, then every
non-Jew oppresses every Jew; just as in the American South not every white
person is prejudiced and violent against non-whites. There are also black
people who have done well there, just like in the North. But they still live in
a cruel, prejudiced society. So the situation isn’t simple. Said isn’t willing
to apply this method of analysis to the Muslim attitude toward the Jews. There
are those who say the Jews forced the Palestinians from their villages — that’s
true. On some occasions it was because there was war, on others there was no
good reason. It’s complicated; but the first expulsion happened in 1929 in
Hebron. It was the Arabs expelling the Jews. They killed a lot of Jews, then
forced them all out. Nobody talks about that. I’m not saying that we should
excuse Israel’s policies, but Jews do have rights. This is also something they
I mean is that the situation is incredibly complex, but people only want to see
one simple side of it. Before 1967 Americans thought of Israel as good and
Arabs as bad. Now it’s been reversed. People like to simplify problems. When I
try to explain the complexity of these issues, people tell me, “Oh, you support
Netanyahu.” In India there are Tibetans who tell me, “Oh, you support the CCP.
You criticize us instead of them.” There are also people who say, “Sperling
always gets a visa to China. He’s definitely a secret agent for the CCP!” It’s
like one crazy person saying “Woeser hasn’t been detained? Then she’s got to be
a secret agent.” Before he was caught, people said that about Ilham Tohti, too.
Now that I’ve been refused entry into China, I wonder what they think about me
being a spy, heh heh.
Tang: I heard
that an interested party from China has approached you about “collaborative
scholarship.” It seems they want to give you research funds. Did this actually
this is a funny story. They wanted me to be a spy in the U.S. They said,
“You’ve been involved with the U.S. government.” That’s true. During the
Clinton administration I was on an advisory committee at the State Department.
They said, “Shi Boling (史伯嶺), you know
U.S. government officials, don’t you?” I told them, “Yep, I know a few.” They
asked who, but I pretended that I couldn’t understand them and didn’t respond.
Then they asked, “Shi Boling, you know the American government’s view on the
Tibet issue and its Tibet policies, right? We’d like to ask you to write some
reports for us.” I feigned misunderstanding again. I said, “I’m very
open-minded on the matter. You can look online and see what I think. Everyone
knows.” They said, “no, no, we need you to give us an exclusive report.” I said
I couldn’t, I refused. This happened in 2010, when I was in Beijing for a
conference. I reported it to the US embassy. I told them I’m American, that
people in China asked me to be a spy for them back in the U.S. The business
cards they gave me were from the Institute of American Studies at the Beijing
Academy of Social Sciences. Someone told me it was fake. A few of them,
including their boss, invited me to dinner. We had a private room. You know how
it goes in China: baijiu, drink, drink, bottoms up, bottoms up… after
that I went back to my hotel room.
next day the conference attendees were taken to visit a few Ming dynasty
temples just outside of Beijing. They also treated us to dinner along with two
or three other foreign scholars. It was a big banquet. Among the people
soliciting me was a man who had all these Tibetan images of the Buddha, very
valuable. After the banquet he asked us to go look at his collection. I got
back to the hotel around 11 p.m. I was going home the next day. But the phone
rang. It was one of those people from the banquet. He said, “Shi Boling, we’d
still like to chat with you.” I said, “I’m sorry, it’s very late, I’d like to
sleep.” They replied, “Then how about we meet up tomorrow?” I said, “I’m
leaving tomorrow” and hung up the phone. They called again at seven or eight
the next morning and asked if we could meet. I said, “But I have to leave
today,” and hung up. Ten minutes later, they called again: “Hey Shi Boling, we
can take you to the airport.” But Woeser had already agreed to take me to the
airport. I refused and told them a friend was taking me. I didn’t want to
linger in the room any longer. I left the hotel right away and waited for
Woeser at a Starbucks nearby.
guess is this: the first time they asked me to dinner, when they wanted me to
write “exclusive reports” for them and I rebuffed them; they hadn’t brought up
money. Maybe they thought that was why I had refused. So the next day when they
kept pursuing me, it could have been to talk about money. In 2011, when I was a
visiting scholar at Peking University, they found me again. The same people
asked me to dinner and continued to press me to work with them. Slowly,
cautiously, they felt me out. They said, “We’d like to invite you to our office.
Think about it. If you’d like to come over, let us know a few days beforehand.”
I thought: does their office even exist? Do they need me to tell them in
advance so that they can buy office furniture and find some actors to be
secretaries? Ha ha. In 2012 I went to Beijing for an international conference
at the China Tibetology Research Center. I got there a few days early to show
my daughter around the city. I didn’t tell any of the other scholars about our
trip. But again I got an email from them saying they knew I would be at this
conference and that they wanted me to contact them. The night before the
conference they sent another email asking for my cell number. I told them my
SIM card was having issues in China, and that if they wanted to meet with me they
could find me at the conference. They didn’t show up. Here’s what I think.
Maybe there’s a “capitalist” competition in Chinese intelligence. If they want
funding from the relevant bureau, they might say, “We want to work with Shi
Boling” or some such. It doesn’t matter whether or not I agree to cooperate,
but they want to get funding this way. This is my guess. I don’t know what’s
really going on.
[i] Throughout the interview, Professor Sperling used the Tibetan words
Thubhothi (Tibet) and Bodpa (Tibetan person), rather than the
equivalent Mandarin terms, Xizang (西藏)
and Zangren (藏人).
Norbu is a Tibetan writer in exile. He was a member of the Tibetan guerrilla
group known as Chushi Gangdruk
(1958-1974) at their base in Mustang, Nepal. He created the “Green Book,” the
Tibetan government-in-exile’s tax system, which has financially supported the
government since 1972. He also founded and directed the Amnye Machen Institute
in Dharamsala. Norbu moved to the US after living in India for four decades. A
supporter of Tibetan independence, Norbu has written a number of books and
articles in both English and Tibetan, including the 1989 political commentary Illusion
and Reality. His 2000 novel The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (published
as Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years in 2001 in the US) won
India’s Crossword Award for English Fiction and has been translated into more
than ten languages.
[iii] Thubten Jigme Norbu (1922-2008), also known as Taktser
Rinpoche, was an author and activist devoted to Tibetan independence. He was a
professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University’s Department of Central
Eurasian Studies. He was also the oldest brother of the 14th Dalai Lama.
[iv] Because the recording is unclear at this point, I am unable
to hear the name of Sperling’s other advisor.
[v] Early Ming Policy toward Tibet: An Examination of the
Proposition that the Early Ming Emperors Adopted a “Divide and Rule” Policy
toward Tibet. Indiana University
Sperling was a recipient of the MacArthur
“genius grant” in 1984.
[vii] “The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics.”
Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, 2004.
[viii] “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History Since
1950.” China Perspectives 2009/3. For
a more complete list of Sperling’s publications, see Roberto Vitali ed., Trails
of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling, Dharamsala: Amnye
Machen Institute, 2014.
[ix] “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History Since
1950.” China Perspectives 2009/3.
[x] Tan Qixiang, "China in History and China's Historical
Borders" (speech delivered at the May 1981 Symposium on the History of
Chinese Ethnic Relations, available online)
[xii] Uighur Online, or Uighurbiz, was launched in 2006 and
permanently shut down in January, 2014, after the arrest of Ilham Tohti. Over
the years of its running, it was repeatedly suspended or attacked, and because
of it, Ilham Tohti became a target of intense pressure from police.
[xiii] I interviewed Sperling on July 27, 2014. At that point,
Ilham Tohti hadn't been sentenced yet. Six months later the Urumqi Intermediate
Court convicted him of "separatism" and sentenced to life in prison.
He is being held at the Urumqi Number One Prison. On March 31, 2014, PEN
International gave Ilham the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. A number
of international figures and organizations have nominated him for the Sakharov
Prize for Freedom of Thought, including the Dalai Lama and Elliot Sperling. On
October 11, 2016, Ilham was given the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights
Defenders. Sperling, who has doggedly supported Ilham, went to Geneva with
Ilham's daughter Jewher Ilham to receive the prize.