The same issue of Southern Weekend also carries an interview with Xu Mingxu, the author of a new book called Xueshan xia de chouxing—Xizang baoluan de lailong quyong (Ugly spectacle under the snowcapped peaks: The whither and wherefore of the Tibetan riots). Xu takes issue with the Wang Lixiong’s book Sky Burial, in which Wang, the husband of Tibetan activist Woeser, writes that the Tibetan issue must be solved by transcending the Peking-Dharamsala (CCP – Dalai Lama) conflict and interrogating the desires of Tibetans. In Xu’s view, such a “depoliticized” approach is impossible because the Tibetan issue is ultimately an issue of sovereignty. If you believe that Tibet has always been part of China, then your departure point is to view 1959 as liberation; if you believe that Tibet has always been a sovereign polity, then it is to view 1959 as occupation. Pretending that you can avoid making this choice is delusionary or fraudulent, Xu implies.
Xu himself makes clear that his own standpoint, which is the former, defines his view of the Tibetan question. He quotes a “Chinese American scholar,” Chen Ruoyi, as recalling that when he asked Tibetans what Tibet needed most, they all responded “Modernization,” followed by “protection of Tibetan culture” and “a high degree of autonomy,” and writes that Tibet’s problems come from the tension between these three. But acknowledging this complexity does not mean that Xu is willing to reconcile different viewpoints. While he uses Western accounts of Tibet in his book — “many Westerners have been to Tibet; everything they have written can’t all be lies” — he uses only those that challenge the cultural-genocide orthodoxy, and does so only because they carry more credibility in Westerners’ eyes (though why use them in a Chinese-language book?); he is certainly not willing to take the dominant Western views seriously enough to argue with them.
One of the interesting things about Xu is his career. Originally a literary scholar from Shanghai, he began writing about Tibet in the dissident journal Beijing Spring and the pro-Taiwan World Journal in 1991, when the Chinese-language press overseas, and particularly these publications, were extremely hostile to the PRC’s policies. (The circumstances of his departure to the US, where he clearly remained until the 2000s, are not mentioned in the interview, and his reply to why he chose to publish in those particular jounals — that others were not visible in the US — is unconvincing; likely, he started out within the broadly understood post-Tiananmen “democratic opposition”). His opposition to Tibetan independence was then roundly attacked by other contributors to these periodicals. But by the mid-’90s that their tone began to change, and when Wei Jingsheng was released from prison in 1996 (or 1995?) his support of Tibetan independence met with hostility and threats from readers of these publications. Later, Xu was interviewed in a number of other exile, Hong Kong, and English-language periodicals as the representative of a “different opinion,” and this in turn earned him invitations to various academic conferences. After the 2008 riots, his name suddenly appeared in mainland Chinese media such as People’s Daily and the nationalistic Global Times. Xu’s trajectory is probably reflexive of a large number of post-1989 activists.
The other interesting thing is Xu’s rejection of the idea of an independent, or impartial, perspective. Xu understands the complexity of nationalism but believes that knowledge of Tibet or the desires of Tibetans are both secondary to one’s position on sovereignty, and that position is ultimately determined by whether one’s national loyalty.
But then why write books?