Beijing’s successful bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games signals the increasing geopolitical influence wielded by China, as it tries to transform itself into an economic and political superpower. Though the eyes, or at least the television sets, of the world will be fixated on the world’s most populous country during the summer of 2008, neither China nor the mainstream media is likely to offer viewers and competitors a behind-the-scenes look at the experiences of the Tibetan and Tai people, two ethnic minorities residing on China’s geographic, cultural, and political border.

In preparation for their March 2 reading in New York, I recently sat down with Sara Davis and Robert Barnett. Dr. Davis is the author of Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China’s Southwest Borders. She is a former China researcher for Human Rights Watch and has written for several publications, including the Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and Modern China. Dr. Barnett is the author of Lhasa: Streets with Memories. He is a lecturer in Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University and a former journalist for the BBC.  He is also the former director and founder of the now-defunct Tibet Information Network.

The interviewer: Randy Klein, chair of the Human Rights Watch Young Advocates of New York
The interviewees: Robert Barnett and Sara Davis

How did each of you become interested in studying the Tibetans and Tai Lües?

Robert Barnett: I was working in Hong Kong about 15 or 20 years ago. A friend persuaded me to travel around China and India. In order to get to India overland, one had to go through Tibet.  Unfortunately, the day I was to go see the main tourist site in the capital, Lhasa, I walked into the middle of a big demonstration in which a number of people were killed. No Westerner had ever [witnessed] one before in Tibet. So I became one of a group of foreigners who were [the first] eyewitnesses to these events.

Sara Davis: I was studying Chinese oral literature and folklore in graduate school.  I knew I wanted to study Chinese storytelling but did not know where.  I had seen storytellers in Sichuan, [a province in southwest China], when I [was] traveling around in that post-college, pre-anything-else period.  I saw these amazing storytellers and decided I was going to study that, but the question was where, since there was almost no storytelling going on in China anymore.

Why was that?

SD:  Television, radio, movies, the usual stuff.  My graduate school advisor suggested I work in Yunnan.  I [spoke with] people I knew who had spent time in Yunnan, and found someone who said [he was] once in this temple in Sipsongpanna, in southern Yunnan, and saw this woman telling a story.  I managed to dig up someone’s master’s thesis that had a passing reference to storytellers in Sipsongpanna.  So based on these two slim pieces of information, I submitted an entire dissertation proposal and convinced them that I was going to go off and find storytellers — without actually knowing if there were any.  That’s how I wound up in Yunnan and did my doctoral research on the Tai Lües, which became the basis for the book.

How many other nationalities other than the Han are there in China?

RB: This is a huge question. China has a population of roughly 1.3 billion people and 91 percent are considered ethnic Chinese or Han. The Chinese run a very tight ship in which classification is done by the government in a highly organized and pre-determined way.  They had a system where [different communities] had to register to have their nationalities recognized.  About 400 managed to register … [The Chinese government] sent specialists around the country … to determine which of the 400 actually met the criteria. [The scholars] used Marxist criteria, which were actually Stalin’s criteria for [determining what constituted] nationality. Eventually, 55 [groups were] accepted as “minorities.”  

The Chinese [government] are very definite in saying there are only 56 nationalities, including the Han.  Although the 91 percent are all the same nationality, they see themselves as treating all nationalities equally and as being very tolerant.

SD: When they were doing this process of boiling down the 400 ethnicities and coming up with 55, they initially sent out teams of anthropologists and ethnologists to create books on the different [ethnic] regions.  

What time period was this?

SD: It went on for a while. Most of it was done [in the 1950s and 60s], but some of it continued into the 70s.  I don’t know about Tibet, but the books on Yunnan are quite serious scholarly research. They categorized the ethnic groups, placing each one on a different level of evolutionary advancement.  The Tibetans and the Tais were in the middle because they had written scripts and their own systems of government.  Some groups that had never had any contact with each other were lumped together as one group while others that have had lots of contact were split in two — so it wasn’t always a rational system

Based on this evolutionary scale the government decided they were going to move everyone up the scale. Of course, at the top are the Han.  The idea was to accentuate the positive qualities and eliminate the negative.  The government, often including ethnic scholars themselves, then went through and picked out which qualities were good qualities (such as singing and dancing, wearing nice pretty clothes), and which qualities were bad, like polygamous marriage.  They then set up programs to “improve” all of the nationalities.    

RB: This all came from an American model.

SD: Henry Morgan, based on his study of the Iroquois.  

RB: His idea that society can be organized in an evolutionary pyramid inspired [19th century German political philosopher Friedrich] Engels, who gave it to [19th century German philosopher, political economist, and revolutionary organizer Karl] Marx.  

SD: [The Chinese government] went around creating practices that would be “better.” For instance, with the Tais, they felt their dances were okay, but they needed to be improved.  They [had] a nice written alphabet, but not good enough, so they needed to improve the alphabet.  The government got very involved in almost every aspect of the public and private lives of these border people.

This sounds similar to the Chinese government’s stated goal in Tibet of modernizing them.

RB: It’s very interesting because the –ize word [changes] over time.  When the Chinese invaded Tibet, they never mentioned anything about equality or [advancement].  They just said, “We are here to liberate you, not from oppression by nasty aristocrats or religion, but from imperialists from the West who are trying to take you over.”  Then, nine years later, it changed from feudalism to liberation.  They gave that up in the 1980s and changed it to “We’re here to modernize you.”  

SD: In Yunnan, too.  It started out as, “We are liberating you from the nationalist warlords”. Actually, there was a certain amount of delight about that because people in Yunnan had really been oppressed and were suffering economically under the thugs … running the southwestern part of the country.  Then it became, “We are going to liberate you from your past,” which [was] much more abstract and cleared the space for all kinds of different projects.  

RB: There were huge changes that took place with enormous consequences that led to thousands of deaths, and some of these changes have never been acknowledged.  The state always gives the impression that the changes happened seamlessly.  

SD: You’re still not allowed to talk about what happened.  

This touches on the notion of research.  How did each of you manage to get people to talk to you about these and other issues?

RB: I don’t do any research in Tibet now and I don’t ask people there any questions. If I did, the people I speak to could [get] in serious trouble. Lots of people won’t speak to me in Tibet because I said on a U.S. radio interview about a year and a half ago that “lots of people say to me that they don’t want a railway in Tibet.” [In 2001, the Chinese began construction on a 685-mile, $2.3 billion railway from Golmud to Lhasa]. I was threatened with [banishment] from China for a while because the Chinese do not allow criticism of their new railway project.  The Tibetans are terrified because I said “lots of people say,” which means I talked to specific people. They might investigate whoever talked to me, even though I used the phrase in a general way.  

SD: Yunnan has much more freedom and it’s interesting to compare the different border areas, and … ask why some areas have more leeway than others. In Yunnan, people are very adept at self-censorship.  You can go there as a backpacker and get invited into people’s homes. You can talk about all kinds of topics, but when you get to politics, the conversation shifts to, “Oh never mind, let’s go back to hearing about America, tell us more about your wonderful country.” They are also very good at preserving certain areas where they have some space, and keeping [them] marked off from public view. There are areas in Yunnan where people are able to do things that would [have] stiff repercussions in Tibet.  

What kinds of things?  

SD: Religious activities, border crossings. There is a lot of trade across the border, which is legal. It means that Buddhist monks can also cross the border to Thailand and come back with computers and new ideas. They are allowed to do that, but they are very good at keeping it quiet. The Tais are monitored by the government but they manage their government interactions. There are no conflicts or mass protests in the streets, but they do have Buddhist ceremonies with thousands of people who come across the border to participate.  It’s all done in some little town far away from the center of the prefecture. So if you’re a government official, you can know about it and not know about it. It is not challenging the state’s control, even though it is actually subverting it.

RB: In Tibet, you can talk to people, just not about politics. They won’t get arrested as long as they are not talking about “dangerous” things. The question is, how [does the government determine] what you are talking about? So you have to talk in public, and have a third person present so it does not look suspicious. And you must avoid certain topics.

SD: I once asked one of my Tai friends why they are treated differently from the Tibetans.  She said, “[The government] feel they eliminated our culture during the Cultural Revolution, so now there is nothing to worry about.”  But the Tais have been able to revive and reinvent their culture.  They are rebuilding temples but they are also bringing in new ideas.

RB: We should say that there were some gains to be had from being part of the Chinese system.  It’s just that they really didn’t have much choice.  Most Chinese citizens make shrewd calculations on where the gains are, such as “My children might get an education” or “We can travel outside of the country if we do x and y.”  It’s highly pressurized and there are only a limited set of choices that can be “successful.”

SD: I think the Tais and Tibetans are like the carrot and the stick. It’s an equation that is also very clear to the rest of the country.  If you misbehave, you’ll get slammed, but if you behave, then everyone will come to watch you sing and dance.

What role do each of you see the Internet playing in cultural survival, especially in light of heavy Chinese censorship?

SD: That is very easy for me to answer since the Tais I know have computers but do not have the Internet.  I keep nagging them to get it, but they don’t really care about it.  They use computers to produce materials in Tai on disks, and then they carry these across the borders and exchange them by hand, just as they have been doing with other goods for centuries.  It is an effective system, and they can avoid Internet censorship, but they are also not as connected to the outside world. They don’t have as large a profile as they could if they were more Web savvy — but it works for them.

RB: There is a lot of Internet use in Tibet, but people have to be very careful how they use it. They have to [show] an ID card before they log on, so it is heavily monitored. Public computers throughout China have software embedded in them that records every keystroke and transmits it back to the police.

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