For almost 600 years, the monks of the Sera Monastery in Lhasa have debated each other in the same courtyard. The debates, which began when the monastery opened in 1419, have always been theatrical and passionate, as the monks shout, spin, point and slam their hands into palms for emphasis as they debate their sacred texts. It is quite a sight - more than a hundred animated young men, heads shaved, all in maroon robes - a spectacle I saw in Lhasa last year and will never forget.
Six hundred years. Tibet is a society redolent with tradition, remoteness and mystique. It is palpably different from the vast Han Chinese majority. It is thus easy, even romantic, to feel sympathy for Tibetan nationalism, for a nation independent and distinct from China. The monks, who form the core of the nation's spirit, also form the core of this yearning. The video records of the anti-China demonstrations in Lhasa earlier this year invariably featured monks in the streets, animated in their cause.
It is a romantic cause, too, because China's negatives are well known. The People's Republic is a dictatorship, a one-party state, repressive of dissent. Though Beijing claims that Tibet has traditionally been part of China, no one doubts that it is the army, not the will of the people, which brought about what the Chinese Government calls the "peaceful reunification" of Tibet in 1959. It was the Red Army which ended an interlude of independence never recognised in Beijing.
The Chinese Government also continues to provide support for a series of grotesque regimes, including Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan and North Korea. And Beijing's campaign of vilification against the 14th Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetan people (who will be visiting Australia next month), has revealed an inflexible, monolithic and unsophisticated strain of thinking inside the Communist Party's propaganda machine.
It is thus easy to declare support for Tibetan independence, a cause which will be at the core of a debate to be held in Sydney tomorrow. It is entitled, "China is not fit to host the Olympics". This is the second of a series of debates called intelligence2. The first debate, held last month, was entitled, "Islam is not compatible with democracy". It sold out.
No words, of course, and no external pressure will move the immoveable object that blocks independence for the Tibet Autonomous Region, as it is officially called in China. The romanticism of Tibet's cause also weakens when the history of Tibet's previous theocracy is examined. The rule of the monks and the land-owners was neither enlightened nor just. In 1959, when Beijing resumed full control, life expectancy in Tibet was only 35. Illiteracy was 90 per cent. Infant mortality was a disgraceful 43 per cent. Per capita income was less than $40. Poverty was the real ruler of Tibet.
Today, life expectancy has almost doubled to 68. Literacy is more than 90 per cent. Infant mortality is 2.4 per cent. Per capita income has exploded to $1500. The population of Tibet has increased from 1 million to 2.8 million, which remains 92 per cent ethnic Tibetan. All the while Tibet has remained a palpably Buddhist society.
None of this happened because of Tibetan self-rule, but because Beijing opened a multibillion-dollar funnel into the Tibetan economy which continues to provide more than 90 per cent of Tibet's income. Romanticism and self-reliance had nothing to do with this transformation.
Nor is Tibetan culture easily decoupled from China. The majority of ethnic Tibetans living in China live outside Tibet.
Context is everything. During the past 30 years, China has been evolving at cultural light-speed. It has packed more than a century of social and economic evolution into a single generation. China is attempting to transform an abiding tradition of absolutism within two generations.
Boycotting the Olympics over Tibet, which represents just 0.2 per cent of China's population, would do more harm than help to this transformation. Besides, Olympic boycotts have a proven record of futility.
Few Australians even know that the 1956 Games in Melbourne was boycotted by Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and by Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Cambodia over the occupation of the Suez Canal by Britain and France. In 1976, 21 African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics because New Zealand had not been banned for playing rugby union against South Africa. In 1980 the United States and some allies boycotted the Moscow Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1984 the Soviet bloc boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in retaliation for the 1980 boycott.
None was effective. None achieved more than transient symbolism. To throw the 2008 Olympics into chaos over Tibet would thus be overkill, disproportionate and counterproductive, in support of a dubious moral argument.
The recent demonstrations in support of Tibetan independence have been a carefully co-ordinated boutique public relations operation rather than an outbreak of mass demonstrations.
Video records of demonstrations in Tibet show an ugly, racist side to the unrest as ethnic Tibetans (but not monks) kicked, beat and stabbed Han Chinese, along with the ransacking and looting of Han-owned businesses. The Government had no choice but to intervene with force.
China has a long history of civil war. For more than a millennium, it has lived under a sequence of dictatorships, absolute monarchies and uncompromising feudalism. To move so vast a culture so quickly has required the Government to retain a firm grip on the centrifugal forces that could tear the country asunder.
The idea that China can simply jump from ingrained feudalism to a plural democracy in a single generation cannot coexist with the real world.
The second in the series of intelligence2 debates, "China is not fit to host the Olympics", starts at 6.45pm tomorrow at the City Recital Hall in Angel Place, Sydney. Details at www.iq2oz.com.