Slouching Away from Lhasa: The “Chinalization” of Western Scholarship

Protest in Nepal. Exiled Tibetans clashed with the police Sunday outside the Chinese Embassy in Katmandu. | Adrees Latif/Reuters
“…when it comes to academia, Chinese officials … are able to wield influence behind closed doors, through individuals and institutions embedded on university campuses. Directly or indirectly, these individuals and institutions are dependent on Beijing for financial support and research access (visas can be denied if someone’s work displeases Beijing).” —Lhadon Tethong, Inside Job: Beijing’s New Allies in Its War on Tibet”[1]

Recently, I was directed to an article at the Tibeto-Logic Blog where the author, Dan, posed the question to Tibetologists: “Where do you stand on censorship? And by censorship I mean to include the kind you do to yourself, thinking you or someone you know might get in trouble. Do you speak out against injustice and lies?”[2] Essentially, Dan points out how “morally neutralized” Tibetologists have become because of the Chinese-regime partnerships with American school systems which rely on certain soft power caveats specifically directed at making Han culture appear relatively benign. Sixty-plus years of genocide, repression and human rights violations are nonchalantly brushed aside in favor for programs of “cultertainment” and academic trade-offs.

I can’t help but consider this when analyzing the scholarship coming out of many of our Western Tibetan Studies programs. Here in Virginia, UVA happens to have one of the largest Tibetan studies programs, but it’s leadership, graduate researchers and professors must rely on toeing a particular line with China since their scholarly pursuits are dictated by staying on China’s good side. I think this is most apparent in the prolific use of the phrase “the Tibetan regions of China” which dominates most dialogue coming out of this program. UVA’s Tibet Center founding director David Germano and Robert J. Barnett, Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, share similar interests and objectives. In 2009, Germano’s mission for UVA’s Tibet Center was to “bring together Chinese and Tibetan research – and people.”[3] According to Barnett, collective programs like the ones at UVA and Columbia, seek to study Tibet as “part of the larger Chinese and international contexts” as well as “a time and place and culture unto itself.”[4]

Barnett’s position may be a bit more heavy-handed than the positions taken at other schools because Columbia is involved with the Confucius Institutes which are run in cooperation with Chinese partner universities and overseen by Hanban, a Chinese Ministry of Education.[5] Accordingly, host universities receive yearly appropriations ranging from $100,000 to $150,000 from Hanban; therefore, it isn’t surprising to see how such funds impact the departmental handling so-called “modern Tibet”.[6] Barnett, like other Tibetologists who need to maintain strong Chinese support, justifies his sinicization of Tibet by saying, “Tibet is in China, in the sense that it’s geographically located within China now, irrespective of how one views that, and it is administered by Chinese.”[7] Barnett goes on to indicate that modern Tibetan studies cannot be attempted independently of “the Chinese political and social contexts.”[7]

In China In and Beyond the Headlines (2012), Lionel Jensen argues that Chinese funding and sponsorship activities in American college and universities has caused many educational programs to become indoctrinated in various forms of self-suppression in order to be seen as “uncontroversial in the eyes of their benefactor.”[8] He claims that universities are fully aware of their funding source and such awareness has “affected consideration of what is appropriate programming” through persistent self- censorship and he compares such actions as “a practice common to the political survival experience of Chinese citizens today.”[9]

For me, it is disappointing to see supposed allies of Tibet actively engaging in a system that obscures the ugly reality about China’s record of genocide, torture and oppression in Tibet because they need funding or visas. I know many people think they can change things from the inside out, or they may even naively think that by being able to research, visit and write about Tibet they are helping the country. However, the “general awareness model” doesn’t help the people of Tibet — it becomes, as political commentator, Tenzin Nyinjey has written, “a stumbling block by siding with authority.[10]

China clearly wants Tibet but not the Tibetans themselves while Western scholars clearly want China’s aid despite China’s history of cultural genocide. It is unfortunate that so many American Tibetologists and scholars are actually aiding in the annihilation of the very existence of Tibetan cultures, religions, and national identity they supposedly revere just so they can curry favor with the Chinese. Motivated by their own academic hubris and self-preservation, many Tibetologists quietly support the Chinese version of modern Tibetan history while telling themselves they are the ones doing the manipulation. They must consider their Orwellian role as an agent of insincerity in a field where exhausted idioms are underwriting the gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims.


[1] Tethong, L. (2014). Inside Job: Beijing’s New Allies in Its War on Tibet. The Huffington Post. Retrieved 12 October 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lhadon-tethong/inside-job-beijings-new-a_b_3353844.html

[2] Tibeto-logic.blogspot.com,. (2014). Tibeto-logic: Doublethinking? Think Again. Retrieved 12 October 2014, from http://tibeto-logic.blogspot.com/2014/09/doublethinking-think-again.html

[3]Crews, E. (2014). The Tibetan Connection | The University of Virginia Magazine. Uvamagazine.org. Retrieved 12 October 2014, from http://uvamagazine.org/articles/the_tibetan_connection/

[4] Thechinastory.org,. (2014). Studying Tibet Today: a discussion with Robbie Barnett | The China Story. Retrieved 12 October 2014, from http://www.thechinastory.org/2014/08/studying-tibet-today-a-discussion-with-robbie-barnett/

[5] Redden, E. (2014). Debate over Chinese-funded institutes at American universities @insidehighered. Insidehighered.com. Retrieved 12 October 2014, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/01/04/debate-over-chinese-funded-institutes-american-universities

[6] Thechinastory.org,. (2014). Studying Tibet Today: a discussion with Robbie Barnett | The China Story. Retrieved 12 October 2014, from http://www.thechinastory.org/2014/08/studying-tibet-today-a-discussion-with-robbie-barnett/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Redden, E. (2014). Debate over Chinese-funded institutes at American universities @insidehighered. Insidehighered.com. Retrieved 12 October 2014, from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/01/04/debate-over-chinese-funded-institutes-american-universities

[9]Ibid.

[10] Nyjinjey, T. (2014). The undermining of Tibetan struggle!. Phayul.com. Retrieved 12 October 2014, from http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?id=30106&t=1