In Memory of Elliot Sperling:
A 2014 Interview with the American Tibet Scholar
Tang Danhong, translated by Anne Henochowicz
January 26, 2018
Elliot Sperling died in his sleep at the end of January, 2017 (the Wikipedia entry puts the date of his death on January 29, 2017). In our unabating sorrow of losing a dear friend, China Change presents a full translation of Ms. Tang Danhong’s interview with Elliot. Ms. Tang (唐丹鸿) is herself a prolific writer about Tibet, and now lives with her family in Israel. The interview was conducted in Chinese on July 27, 2014, in New York City. Ms. Tang published it for the first time in February, 2017. — The Editors
ELLIOT SPERLING AT TRACE FOUNDATION IN NEW YORK IN MARCH, 2016.
“When I got to Greece, someone said to me, ‘You know, the road doesn’t end in Greece. You could go on, to Turkey, Asia, India…’ I said to myself, ‘Huh, why didn’t I think of that?’”
Tang Danhong: Dgenlags [teacher], let’s start where you began. How did you choose to study Tibet and China?
Sperling: My interest in Tibet wasn’t academic in the beginning. America had the Beat Generation in the 1950s and the hippies in the 1960s. I was 17 in late 60s, growing up in New York, and I lived in the midst of these movements. New York is an international city, and these changes were going on all around me. It was counter-culture: we made a new kind of music, and our thinking, even what we wore, were all part of our rebellion. And a lot of people smoked marijuana and took LSD. We thought we could reach an altered state of consciousness, just like a religion. Young me was so innocent. I yearned for a huge transformation in our consciousness. I read a lot of the Beats: Ginsberg, Kerouac. Psychology, for instance Carl Jung, also had a huge influence on me, and because of Jung I started to learn about the East. I took interest in Eastern culture, Eastern philosophy and so on. The East became more and more interesting to me. For me, it was a new world.
When I got to college I didn’t know what to study. Despite my interest in the East, I hadn’t yet thought of it as a specialization. At the end of my freshman year, a friend and I hitchhiked from New York to California just like Kerouac. We were on the road for many weeks. I thought it was so “beat,” ha ha. I did the same thing after sophomore year, this time in Europe. I flew to London, then hitchhiked from there to Greece. I’d think about what to major in from time to time. The good
SPERLING’S FIRST VISIT TO DHARAMSALA IN EARLY 1970S. PHOTO: WOESER.
thing about travel for me was that my thinking was more open in new environments, so I could really mull over just what I wanted to do.
When I got to Greece, someone said to me, “You know, the road doesn’t end in Greece. You could go on, to Turkey, Asia, India…” I said to myself, “Huh, why didn’t I think of that?”
I went back to the US that time, but I decided I would take that trip. Of course my parents weren’t thrilled. I went to class during the day and drove a taxi in the evenings. After one semester I’d made enough money, so I flew to Europe and quickly got to Greece. In Greece I found out there was no need to hitchhike in Asia. Transportation was cheap there, and besides, hitchhiking was a little dangerous. So I hitchhiked from Greece to Istanbul, then took trains and buses to Tehran. I took another bus from Tehran to Mashhad, and from there entered into Afghanistan. I took all kinds of transportation in Afghanistan, even horse-drawn carriage. I went to Herat, to Kandahar, and then to Kabul. From Kabul I took a bus to Peshawar, Pakistan.
People are scared of Afghanistan and Peshawar now, but at that time the people in Iran and Afghanistan were really polite. I don’t know if they were polite to women, but if you were a man they were extremely hospitable to you. I only stayed in Pakistan for a day. I went from Peshawar to the border at Lahore, then crossed into India.
In north India I first got to New Delhi. To answer my travel questions, like where to find a cheap hotel, I had to find my fellow hippie drifters. Back then there were a lot of hotels that were more like dorms, with lots of beds in one room. In Delhi I found a bargain room for less than 50 cents a night. One of the guys in the room was getting ready to head back to the US and passed on to me some of his travel strategies. He said there’s a place in Delhi I would definitely like, called the Tibet House.[i] I went there, where I met Tibetans for the first time. I had no idea of the connection my fate and my future would have with their country.
After that I left Delhi and went to Varanasi, then on to Kathmandu [Nepal]. There were a lot of Bodpa [Tibetans] there, and my fascination with them started. I already had some interest in Eastern thought. I had read some books about that, and also about Buddhism, and I had been to a Japanese Zen center. I was most attracted to Tibetan Buddhism and went to a Buddhist temple in Kathmandu. In the course of my time there, I leaned farther and farther away from religious faith. My interest in Tibetan religion weakened, while my interest in their country, history and society was kindled. I paid more and more attention to the fate of the Tibetans, instead of their religious images.
After I left Kathmandu I went to Darjeeling, to Gangtok and onward. After two or three months of travel, I arrived at Dharamsala. In the 1970s, Dharamsala was an ideal place for a traveler in India. There weren’t many tourists, and few foreigners. There were hardly any Indians in McLeod Ganj. There were basically only Bodpa. Dharamsala was quiet and lush. There were only a few hotels. Foreigners stayed at Hotel Kailash. It’s still there today, but now McLeod Ganj is full of hotels with all the amenities. It’s not like in the old days. Before there were only five buses into Dharamsala every day, and you never saw a private car. Maybe at most the office of the
Lama had a car. If I hadn’t been there in the 1970s and only visited Dharamsala
today, I could never have imagined how idyllic and peaceful it used to be. So
as soon as I got to Dharamsala, wow! This place is great! The Bodpa are
wonderful! It was then, I realized, that my curiosity about the history and
people of Tibet really blossomed.
PHOTOS TAKEN BY ELLIOT SPERLING ON HIS FIRST VISITS TO DHARAMSALA. VIEW MORE AT HTTPS://MOONPEAK.ORG/2011/04/01/PHOTO-EXHIBITION-MCLEODGANJ-IN-THE-70S-BY-ELLIOT-SPERLING/
Back then, I knew a little about India’s long history, and about China’s long history. But Tibet was a big question without an answer: Where did they come from? What was their history? I knew nothing. I started reading and talking to people.
After 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.
Back 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]
I 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.
SPERLING WITH HIS ADVISOR, TAKTSER RINPOCHE AT INDIANA UNIVERSITY. PHOTO: WOESER.
Four-and-a-half 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.
Tang: What was your research project then? What was the main focus of your work?
Sperling: My 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.
I 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.
As 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?
When 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.
Then 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]
I focused on history. I published “The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics,”[vii] and several articles in academic journals, such as “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History Since 1950.”[viii] I’ve also written articles [for a general readership]. Some have been translated into Chinese, including “Incivilities,” “The Body Count,” and others.
Tang: As 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
Tibet by dint of Qing political control there. From a scholarly perspective, how do you view this question? How do Western scholars see it generally?
Sperling: In 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.
The 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.”
At 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
get 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.
But 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 history.
Tang: Have 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?
Sperling: Because 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 its reign.[x] What this means is taking the map of the eighteenth-century Manchu Qing’s greatest territory to be “China since ancient times.”
Now 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.
Furthermore, 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 said,
There 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.
In 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.
China 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.
I’ve 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
use 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.
Autocracies 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.
Tang: You 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.”
I’ve 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.”
I’ve 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.
SPERLING WITH TIBETAN WRITER TSERING WOESER IN BEIJING IN JULY, 2012. PHOTO: WOESER.
Tang: What’s your take on the “middle way” policy?
Sperling: The 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 pathetic.
Tang: Since 2008, a lot of overseas Chinese people have supported the “middle way.” What do you think about this?
Sperling: I 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.
The 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 Uighurs.
Tang: Whenever 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 that’s so?
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.
Tang: There 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 this?
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.”
Also, 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.
Tang: Do 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 territory!
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?
Sperling: I’m 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.
When 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 they want.
Xinjiang 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.
China 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.
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?
Sperling: There 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.
The 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.
But 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 of complexity.
|MS. TANG AND SPERLING AT THE CAFE WHERE THIS INTERVIEW TOOK PLACE IN JULY, 2014.|
Now 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 Palestinians’.
JERUSALEM, 2012. PHOTO: WOESER.
The 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.
As 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 should consider.
What 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 happen?
Sperling: Now, 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.
The 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.
My 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).
[ii]Jamyang 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 dissertation, 1983.
[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)
[xi] Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission was disbanded in September, 2017.
[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.
The History of Tibetan Civilization: A Talk Series with Elliot Sperling, Trace Foundation, March, 2016. Session One, Session Two, Session Three, and Session Four.
Tibetan History Inside and Outside China by Prof. Elliot Sperling at Charles University, Prague, November 11, 2016.
Between China and the World: Issues in Tibet's History by Prof. Elliot Sperling at the University of Zurich, November 17, 2016.