China absorbed the former nation of Tibet in 1950, dubbing it the Tibetan Autonomous Region. However, many Tibetans also inhabit the traditionally Tibetan areas of Amdo and Khan, now part of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu.
The streets of Rebgong crackled with tension. “It was a hair-trigger atmosphere, this feeling that anything could happen at any time. I remember feeling very tense if I would see more than five people together out on the street. It meant that something was about to happen.”
As the Olympics approached, Rebgong was put under de facto martial law, complete with military patrols and curfews. Writing of this experience in a recent summary of her research, Makley says “The silence that descended on places like Rebgong was stretched thin and tight as the goatskin drums that Tibetan men use to fête the warlike mountain deities.”
The crackdown, Makley says, became an all-encompassing feature of daily life in the valley. “It inhabited their lives, making them unable to go anywhere or do anything. It is hard to explain to Americans who have been insulated from this level of state intrusion,” she notes. “Your whole life, everyday routine, is subject to fear. In these valleys there is no protected space.”
As an example, she recalls a friend who beckoned to her one day, holding a finger to her lips. “Even in the inner sanctum of her house I was used to her speaking only in a whisper, but that day she told me that there were rumors that the police had planted listening devices in chimneys to spy on occupants, and gestured to her own chimney as she told me this.”
Though security forces did not focus on American scholars, Makley felt that she was a potential liability for her associates. “As one of the only white people in town I was so visible, and was immediately a liability if people were seen with me. All cell phone traffic was subject to scrutiny, and so I was afraid to text or call anyone because then all my contacts would get in trouble. That’s what I was most terrified of—most people I knew had nothing to do with any protests, but just being rounded up and being put under surveillance would affect people’s careers and jobs.”
Unable to speak by cell phone, worried that her emails would be intercepted, Makley’s sole source of information was to speak with her husband via Skype. As they would speak about innocuous subjects, he would hold up large cards bearing news that could not be spoken. “He would write things like another demonstration in lhasa,” she says. “You get really paranoid because you don’t know what technology the state has, and you don’t know what they know.”
In December, Makley appeared on Public Radio International’s “The World” to discuss the wave of self-immolation by Tibetan Buddhists. “What we’re seeing is not I think this sort of irrational shift from previous kinds of protests from Tibetans,” she said, “but it’s growing out of an escalation and a sense of sheer despair.”
Makley believes that anthropology is the ideal discipline to make sense of the complex stew of issues facing Tibetan regions of China. “Anthropology is a metadiscipline,” she says. “It is a set of critical frameworks, or even abstractly a fundamental skeptical sense that you take towards all social theories and all socially proposed categories.” Rather than limit her research to politics or religion, she works to bring contesting theories into dialogue with her own empirical research. “The difference between anthropology and some other disciplines is that there is a constant striving to break out of the ivory tower, always trying to contextualize what is happening in the real world.”
Anthropologists working in China find the question of state power inexorably tied to their own research. Because they must obtain visas in order to enter the country, there is a strong temptation to avoid controversy. “There is a huge interest in studying China,” Makley says, “but at the same time there is an increasing feeling of limitation of academic freedom in terms of talking about China. The reach of the state is so great that you risk being blacklisted if you write about controversial subjects, particularly those dealing with Tibet.”
The consequence, Makley says, is a tendency for scholars to avoid topics that they know will trouble the authorities. “What happens,” she says, “is that people simply stop asking questions, and stop seeing certain connections. You blinker yourself. It is a very intimate process, having the state’s way of thinking inhabit yourself.”
China’s intrusion into the field of anthropology may concern scholars like Makley, but it has done nothing to curb student interest. “Some days,” she laughs, “I feel like the area outside my office is a waiting room, crowded with students.”
Students are drawn to her courses by their interest in China, but soon discover that anthropology requires scholars to examine themselves as they examine the world. Students are taught to question the assumptions that color their view of subjects like race, class, gender, and identity.
For some, this can be frustrating; for others, it is liberating. “I see anthropology as allowing you to do the dual process of thinking about yourself as you think about the world,” Makley says. “Ideally, you come to a new ground where you can think about both simultaneously.”
Reed, it turns out, is an ideal home base for Makley’s research. Just as Reed faculty introduce new ideas to their students, students, in turn, bring new work to her attention. “Student thesis work is often cutting edge—they push me to look at new material, and this is very productive for my own research,” she says.
One boon to her teaching, she says, is Reed’s willingness to provide professors with the resources they need to pursue research. “My teaching would get very stale if I couldn’t get off campus, away from Portland, and into the field. My teaching grows out of my research—I can assign things that I want to read for my own work because you can aim that high with students here. You can design new courses that are pushing you in a new direction. I can’t imagine teaching in any other way.”
In her book The Violence of Liberation, based on her research in Labrang, Makley forecast the strife that culminated in the crackdown of the late 2000s. Asked to predict what lies ahead, she finds few reasons for optimism. “Within China, there is very little public recognition that there are actual things that Tibetans are pained about, or that they fear. All of that collective grief and trauma is still there, and there has been no ability to process that collectively. The only thing that is remotely optimistic is that China is not monolithic, but is a collection of people, many of whom are organizing for a different kind of future.”
Anyone viewing the footage of Lobsang Konchok, his twisted, smoking body lying prone in the street, seeks reassuring words about the future. What Makley’s research suggests, however, is that until Tibetans feel that their grievances are addressed, these acts of protest are likely to become more frequent and more desperate.