Home > Analysis, language, media > “China’s Tibet”: A Perfectly Normal Turn of Phrase

“China’s Tibet”: A Perfectly Normal Turn of Phrase

china's tibetIn the field of media criticism, it pays to be picky about language. Around touchy issues of sovereignty and legitimacy, journalists frequently navigate intractable disputes where no term is truly “objective”. A wise man once said, if you want to create social change, then it is of paramount importance to identify “who are [your] enemies [and] who are [your] friends?” But there’s the risk of being so hypercritical and without humility as to impart devious significance to routine, apolitical phrases. In the English-language Tibetan studies circuit, which leans almost entirely pro-separatist, one phrase regularly trotted out for criticism is “China’s Tibet”. This blogpost at High Peaks Pure Earth is representative in its mocking tone, if not for the most academic exposition of the idea. “There must be a psychological condition that describes an anxiety so acute that there is an overwhelming need to constantly state and re-state that something belongs to you… China’s rather childish and possessive nature!”

Warren W. Smith, a professional propagandist at the US government’s Radio Free Asia, wrote a whole book called China’s Tibet?: Autonomy or Assimilation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). He explains in the introduction that the title intended to emphasize how “China’s Tibet” and “Tibet, China” were “awkward locutions”. Of course Smith would find this phrase awkward. He is perhaps the most well-known popularizer of the idea of a primordial “ethnic Tibetan” identity, projecting a category created by the Communist Chinese state thousands of years into the past. Smith contends that placing ‘China’ and ‘Tibet’ so closely together “highlights what it intends to obscure”, which is a conception of Tibet that is independent from the cultural and political space of China.

Here we must stop and consider what century Smith is living in, because for over 60 years, the People’s Republic has erased any residual ambiguity about Tibet’s national allegiance. The unmistakable trend in the world has been towards more recognition of China’s sovereignty over its southwest, and not less. In 1998, Bill Clinton acknowledged not only the fact but also the importance of acknowledging the fact that Tibet “is part of China”. In 2003, Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee signed an agreement affirming that the “Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China”. And in 2008, the United Kingdom finally erased a legacy of its imperial policy that cast doubt over China’s sovereignty in Tibet. Diplomatic niceties can sometimes obscure reality, but here it is not so. How can Tibet be anything other than China’s when the five-star red flag flies over the Potala Palace; when schoolchildren sing March of the Volunteers every morning in Lhasa; or when traders in Xigazê count their wares in yuan and not pounds?

But maybe critics who begrudgingly accept that Tibet belongs to China just don’t want that truth shoved in their face all the time. In that case—if they think that Tibet is given any special treatment compared to other Chinese provinces—they just aren’t paying attention. In covering the H7N9 bird flu, the Xinhua News Agency referred to “China’s Hunan”. Clearly, China has a lot to be concerned about in Hunan’s independent history and culture from the rest of China. In another recent story, the Global Times refers to “northwest China’s Gansu Province”. What insecurity is on display here; that Gansu might become an autonomous region of Korea’s southeast? Even the BBC referred to “China’s Guangdong region”. Is the land of Sun Yat-sen at risk of seceding from China? Perhaps a simpler explanation is that we’re seeing journalistic shorthand. But that still doesn’t explain why Chinese media uses this type of posessive more often than Western outlets. As is the case with a lot of other cringeworthy Xinhua-isms, the answer comes down to language interference from Chinese.

In Chinese, the order of units in an address is larger to smaller, rather than smaller to larger, as in English. For example, take the bilingual Falun Gong forgery from June 2013. The English address read: “Mashanjia Labour Camp (place), Shenyang (city), Liaoning (province), China (country)”. The Chinese address read like its complete inverse: “Zhongguo (country) Liaoning (province) Shenyang (city) Masanjia Jiaoyang Yuan (place)”. For a closer example to Tibet, let’s take the autonomous community of Valencia within the unitary state of Spain. For the uninitiated reader, the clearest way to communicate the placename in English is “Valencia, Spain”. In Chinese, it would be “Xibanya Balunxiya“. Is the addition of “Spain”, either before or after the community, offensive to Valencian autonomy? Perhaps a few extremists might think so. But mostly it’s for ease of identification in laypeople’s mental geography.

Separatists feed on doubt, confusion, and dispute. After all, there needs to be a “Tibet problem” for exiles to propose a “solution” that gives themselves an nondemocratic shortcut to power through negotiation rather than through normal party politics. China’s position in Tibet is physically and diplomatically secure, which is why its linguistic treatment of Tibet matches that of its other provinces. For an example of an unusual treatment that might betray insecurity, there’s a separate ISO 3166 code for a “country” called “Taiwan, Province of China”. “Hong Kong”, on the other hand, is firmly tied to the motherland yet has no such qualifier. Consistently poor media coverage of Tibet that conflates diasporic exiles with residents of the region might be cause for a renewed public relations push by China. But China’s government remains aloof, heeding to the Daoist precept that non-action can sometimes be more powerful than action. Let “activists” burn themselves to a crisp. Let the Dalai Lama die. Facts remain facts. In China’s vernacular, China’s Tibet is no special region.

  1. July 17th, 2013 at 14:30 | #1

    If we think about people like Warren W. Smith, and the salary he draws, the American public is shouldering a sizable burden for his and other programs. To do what? To primarily sow discord between peoples around the world. All the more mind-boggling is that this comes at a price of financial havoc within the U.S. itself.

    During the height of British Empire, the Brits took no measure to hide their foreign policy: their official position towards any European mainland country was to always undermine the next strongest.

    Now, fast-forward to having successfully defeated the former Soviet Union, America’s professed “full spectrum domination” is simply a continuation of that British tradition.

    More broadly, I think it’s the nature of hegemons. Other peoples, other civilizations are theirs to divide and trip over.

    The U.S. and the British governments officially recognize Tibet as part of China, yet they let loose their media class and their propaganda organs to do the opposite.

    It’s like an insurance policy. Prepare the opposition. When the opportunity comes, then pull the trigger with full force.

    Just imagine a China infinitely weaker today. In the name of “human rights” and “freedom” propaganda as in the case of Iraq, could easily be applied to a much weaker China. Voila, you re-arm the TGIE and invade. As long as there is no harm to American or British soldiers, their public will allow it.

    Of course, China is much stronger and the U.S. government doesn’t arm the TGIE.

    But what James writes in this post is precisely that preparation, that one day when China is much weaker, the American public is primed.

  2. July 22nd, 2013 at 18:03 | #2

    Distribution of Tibetan Chinese.

    Tibetan Chinese

  3. July 23rd, 2013 at 03:22 | #3


    I think it is worth it for someone to expand the graphics you gave to a post some time. The idea of a ethnically pure state – or an ethnically defined state in Tibet is unthinkable because of what will happen to non-ethnic Tibans in “Tibet” and what will happen to Tibetans outside of Tibet. There are many other “ethnicity” besides Tibetans and “Hans” (which include many ethnic groups). Throughout recent history (the last few hundred years), there has been steady migration of Tibetans into non-Tibetan areas. And if you go back further in history, things go both ways. Linguistically, the pro-sinitic and proto-Tibetan-Burman languages probably had a common origin some 6000 years ago. But politically Tibet didn’t come into being until much later … around the time of the Tang Dynasty. Tibet as ruled by Buddhists was established by Emperor Kangxi in the Qing dynasty.

  4. July 23rd, 2013 at 16:11 | #4

    Yes, I would certainly do a post soon. But I have to say that Tibet being ruled by monks occurred much earlier during the Yuan dynasty. Of course, it was consolidated during the Qing dynasty who are mostly lama Buddhist too but with a different emphasis.

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