Commentary: Shift from feudalism no easy leap

Updated: 2008-05-28 20:11

The Austrilian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald published an article by its columnist Paul Xian on May 19 entitled "Shift from feudalism no easy leap". The article is as follows:

The rule of the monks and the land-owners was neither enlightened nor just. In 1959, when Beijing resumed full control, life expectancy in Tibet was only 35. Illiteracy was 90 per cent. Infant mortality was a disgraceful 43 per cent. Per capita income was less than $40. Poverty was the real ruler of Tibet.

Today, life expectancy has almost doubled to 68. Literacy is more than 90 per cent. Infant mortality is 2.4 per cent. Per capita income has exploded to $1500. The population of Tibet has increased from 1 million to 2.8 million, which remains 92 per cent ethnic Tibetan. All the while Tibet has remained a palpably Buddhist society.

None of this happened because of Tibetan self-rule, but because Beijing opened a multibillion-dollar funnel into the Tibetan economy which continues to provide more than 90 per cent of Tibet's income. Romanticism and self-reliance had nothing to do with this transformation.

Nor is Tibetan culture easily decoupled from China. The majority of ethnic Tibetans living in China live outside Tibet.

Context is everything. During the past 30 years, China has been evolving at cultural light-speed. It has packed more than a century of social and economic evolution into a single generation. China is attempting to transform an abiding tradition of absolutism within two generations.

Boycotting the Olympics over Tibet, which represents just 0.2 per cent of China's population, would do more harm than help to this transformation. Besides, Olympic boycotts have a proven record of futility.

None was effective. None achieved more than transient symbolism. To throw the 2008 Olympics into chaos over Tibet would thus be overkill, disproportionate and counterproductive, in support of a dubious moral argument.

The recent demonstrations in support of Tibetan independence have been a carefully co-ordinated boutique public relations operation rather than an outbreak of mass demonstrations.

Video records of demonstrations in Tibet show an ugly, racist side to the unrest as ethnic Tibetans (but not monks) kicked, beat and stabbed Han Chinese, along with the ransacking and looting of Han-owned businesses. The Government had no choice but to intervene with force.

China has a long history of civil war. For more than a millennium, it has lived under a sequence of dictatorships, absolute monarchies and uncompromising feudalism. To move so vast a culture so quickly has required the Government to retain a firm grip on the centrifugal forces that could tear the country asunder.

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