A Tibetan Buddhist nun looks out over Ganzizhou, in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, 2006. Tension between ethnic Tibetans and the Chinese government has risen in recent months. 

A Tibetan Buddhist nun looks out over Ganzizhou, in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, 2006. Tension between ethnic Tibetans and the Chinese government has risen in recent months. 

Social Sciences

The Turmoil in Tibet

Reed anthropologist Charlene Makley examines the cultural collision between Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese capitalism.

By David Frazee Johnson | March 1, 2012

The film is short and shocking. Lobsang Konchok, an 18-year-old Tibetan monk from the Kirti Monastary in China’s Sichuan province, lies on the ground, smoke rising from his scorched skin. Horrified screams from passersby mingle with the sirens from emergency vehicles. His body twitches, showing faint signs of life. A Chinese security officer rushes into the frame, shouts “No filming!” and the screen goes blank.

Lobsang is one of a dozen Buddhist monks and nuns who have set fire to themselves in the past year to protest China’s policies towards Tibet. To most Americans, these desperate tactics mark a stunning departure from the philosophy of peaceful compassion that has made the Dalai Lama a worldwide spiritual leader. 

To Reed anthropology professor Charlene Makley, they were sadly all too predictable.

Today’s Tibet, gripped by strife, is a far cry from the land that Makley first encountered in the mid-1980s as a freshly minted Middlebury graduate with a degree in French. Visiting Tibet, with its snow-capped mountains, dusty roads, and intense poverty, “was an eye-opening experience,” she recalls. China’s economic boom was focused in those days on the eastern part of the country, far from the Tibetan regions.

Despite the tense and sometimes violent relationship between Tibet and China, by the 1980s gradual reforms had created a spirit of optimism, she says. At one point she received an offer from Tibetan friends to open a school teaching English. “There was an ‘anything goes’ atmosphere,” she says. Soon after returning stateside, as she was preparing to go back to Tibet and open the school, she learned that a fresh round of protests had triggered a military crackdown. “The whole place shut down,” she says. “That spirit of openness was gone, and not coming back.”

By then hooked on Tibet, Makley pursued a degree in Asian studies at the University of Michigan, where she soon realized, almost by accident, that anthropology was a more natural discipline for her. “I had proposed an interdisciplinary PhD in anthropology–Buddhist studies,” she says, “but as soon as I started the anthropology classes, I knew that was where I belonged. These were my people.”

Having found her tribe in anthropology, Makley set about investigating the question that lies at the heart of modern Tibet: the conflict between China’s economic expansion and traditional Tibetan values of fierce autonomy.

She continued to explore this issue when she joined the Reed faculty in 2000. “When I arrived at Reed,” she recalls, “I felt as though I was entering this tiny new world.” The anthropology department at the University of Michigan was home to dozens of professors; Reed boasted five. At Michigan, intro courses were held in cavernous lecture halls; at Reed, a class of 20 students is considered crowded.

Nonetheless, she was floored by the intellectual capacity of Reed students. “What I discovered very quickly is that I loved the intellectualism, and the rigor with which students engage teachers here,” she says. “You can place the bar above the heads of students here, and they reach for it.”

Makley’s signature course is Anthro 362, “Gender and Ethnicity in China and Tibet,” which incorporates much of her field research in the valleys of Labrang and Rebgong in the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Qinghai, which lie outside the former nation of Tibet but inside the larger (and older) Tibetan areas of western China. 

Makley’s primary interest lies in the rapid pace of economic development in China and the conflicts it has created in Tibetan society. “All the rhetoric from China looks fabulous,” she says. “They talk about freedom of religious belief, and progress, but then there has been this massive state-led development push, west, since 2000.” 

The government is determined to exploit the natural resources of the vast Tibetan plateau, which Makley calls one of the last unexplored frontiers on earth. China’s hunger for timber, copper, lead, and zinc has put intense pressure on villages to sell land that has been in communal hands for centuries. Tibetan tradition holds that every mountain is inhabited by particular deities and demons, and inhabitants of the nearby villages are born into a lifelong spiritual relationship with these beings—relationships that are disrupted when the forests are felled and the land gouged by mineshafts. “Tibetans talk about being ‘swept east’ by the river of development,” Makley says. “They say, ‘There’s a wave, and we can’t stop it.”’

“With market-based development, you have increasing pressure,” Makley says. “People want to use land in new ways and villages are selling off land to outside bidders.” As Tibetans watch their lands auctioned off for the benefit of outsiders, often ethnic Chinese from the eastern regions, their resentment simmers.

In Rebgong, tension over the uneven distribution of wealth boiled over into widespread protests in 2008, triggering a severe crackdown by the authorities. “As Tibetans have become more polarized by market-based policies, sovereignty is being increasingly thought of as an ideal,” Makley says “People want, via the Dalai Lama, a modernized, Buddhist-informed nation-state. This is a type of Buddhism that the state wants to curtail. They want a sanitized Buddhism, where you have docile, obedient monks and not much else.”

The unrest reached a fever pitch in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, when days of peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks suddenly erupted in violence in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, with protestors overturning and burning cars, smashing storefronts, and clashing with police officers. Several protestors were shot; many more were arrested. The unrest quickly spread to other Tibetan regions, despite the Dalai Lama’s appeal for calm. “The 2008 riot in Lhasa was shocking to people,” Makley says. “That footage was played all over the PRC.”

In the aftermath, the state media began for the first time to use the word “terrorist” to describe Tibetan dissidents, particularly Buddhist monks. According to Makley, the government is deeply troubled by the emergence of monks participating in street demonstrations. The official term, “superstition,” for beliefs and practices that lie outside of, and that are therefore not subject to, rigid state bureaucratic structures, she adds, literally means “to be lost or deluded into belief.”

As the state tries to confine the monasteries into a manageable role, young Tibetan monks are confronted with a stark reality. Historically, Makley says, “monasteries were not hermitages where monks would do nothing but meditate, but were monastic polities where Buddhism and governance were combined.” Some monasteries were essentially small towns, consisting of as many as 20,000 monks, who formed their own self-sufficient communities. No longer. Now, she says, “the role of monasteries as polities has been eviscerated, but many young monks think of their lamas as leaders who should still have that authority.” Unable to practice their religion to its full extent, watched everywhere by security forces, Tibetans are driven to desperate lengths.

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.

Tags: Professors, Research, International