Warring Tibetan Bookstores: A Glimpse of Nepal Between Great Powers
Posted by Rosa Harris on August 19, 2011
From Winter Has Its End
By Eric Ribellarsi
Nepal is a classic border region – to the south lie the humid, densly populated plains of India. To the North, over the ice-peaks of the Himalayan ridge, is the Tibetan plateau, today dominated harshly and uneasily by the expansive new Chinese powerhouse.
So bookstores here in Katmandu, the main city of Nepal, are entwined with geo-politics, and are often consciously implanted to influence the direction of events.
For example, Tibetan bookstores are everywhere in Kathmandu. They have many purposes. First, they are there to promote the claims that the Dalai Lama (and the apparatus of Buddhists monks) have on the political future of Tibet. They are there to connect with Kathmandu’s tourist trade, and keep the issues of pre-communist Tibet before them. And they are also there as a kind of projection of power: Because the base area of the Dalai Lama’s forces is to the South, across the Nepal-India border, in India. And Tibet itself lies to the north, across the Nepal-China border. And for over fifty years now, the Lamaists have used Nepal as a forward base area – from the CIA-backed guerrilla attacks into China during the 1960s, to the monk demonstrations against the Chinese control in the 1990s.
When I walked in, the bookstore was full of Buddhist works and new-age white people. Of course, most prominently featured are the works of the Dalai Lama. Two entire walls in the store are dedicated the writings of the Dalai Lama. One book is entirely dedicated to photographs of the Dalai Lama.
I thought to myself that “the Dalai Lama’s cult of personality is large enough to make Stalin blush.” And that brought up the strange and ironic contradictions within Western “pro-Tibetan” sympathies: Liberals, who would never tolerate a conservative religious government in their country for a second, actively support elevating medieval monks to power in Tibet. People who have few illusions of what theocracy would mean in their countries (or Iran!) freely fantasize that renewed theocracy would be heavenly in Tibet.
And this bookstore is design to fan such fantasies. The Dalai Lama’s books in this store alternate from religious subservience, talk of peace, self-promotion (with titles like “Freedom in Exile”), both personal spiritual peace but also regional geo-political peace, a promotion of meditation and a cult of ancient “wisdom” and so on.
And the culture of submission and slavishness carried over to the women who staff this store. I tried to engage one of them in a conversation about politics, asking her what she thinks of the political parties in Nepal. She responds be telling me that “Tibetan woman don’t concern themselves with politics. You should ask a Tibetan man.”
But while all of this is cloaked in mysticism, meditation, spiritual peace and reincarnation – the objective impact of Tibetan activity in Nepal is (and has long been) an extension of Indian and U.S. power. A return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet would be the extension of Indian and U.S. influence into a former Chinese border region. The existence of intense Tibetan activity in Nepal is an extension of plots and strategems within Nepal’s struggle over the future.
The most alarming account of this we have heard of includes U.S. military and CIA setting up outposts on the Nepal-Tibet border where they bring their agents from inside Tibet up to Nepal, and advise and train their activities within China.
By Contrast: China’s own Tibet bookstore
In contrast to the bookstores funded by the pro-U.S, India.-based Tibetan forces, China has created a bookstore promoting the actually-existing power relations of modern Tibet.
“China’s Tibet Bookstore” is a nicer bookstore than the India-based Tibetan one. It stands tall, with a glass storefront and features a large fountain with goldfish in it (perhaps to put new-age people in the mood), and a warm atmosphere, but the cringe-inducing Papa Roach songs about suicide playing next door at a tourist bar are not helping the ambience.
“China’s Tibet Bookstore” sits right in the heart of Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district — apparently to compete with the Free Tibet movement’s dozens of Tibetan bookstores throughout Kathmandu. The location selection makes the target audience clear. This is a public relations facility to the hippie new age movement — to undermine the support that has so far been captured by after the Dalai Lama and his public relations spin.
China’s attempt to reach out to the new age Westerners is not going well. In the three times I have now visited this bookstore, I have never seen a single tourist inside. I chuckled to myself “I guess they don’t pay for the store with the books.” Nor do they pay for it with religious mysticism, because there is really not that much here.
No, this store feels more official, and here we have a different mythology from Tibetan Buddhism:
First, there is little here about Tibet at all. It is an advertisement for modernization. Its Tibetan features are just trim – just as the minority peoples of China have now been reduced to trim for a raging and expansionist Chinese nationalism.
It is startling to have no Dalai Lama in a supposedly Tibetan store – but I guess that is to be expected.
But what stands out is that this is also a Chinese bookstore without any communism: There is not even literature here about the rather heroic Tibetan peasant struggles against the corrupt and oppressive Lamaist monks and monasteries.
There is nothing here about revolution, or the fight against religion that took place in Tibet. There is no exposure of Tibet’s bitter life under Lamaist theocracy before the 1949 revolution – or exposure of the backwardness of the monks or the incredible poverty of the people.
Instead, this is really more like a generic bookstore of the modern Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Recent books written by the CCP are sold along with capitalist economic textbooks and Confucian classics.
This Chinese Tibetan bookstore is also void of anything to do with Mao Zedong. In Nepal there is a profound interest in Mao’s revolutionary politics and ideas – but in China (and in official China’s bookstores abroad) that is considered uninteresting and even disturbing.
I couldn’t help but feel that it was surreal to walk up to someone representing the Chinese Communist Party (who is standing in Nepal, a country where an actual Maoist revolution has been attempted!), and then being told by the person that there are no books available by Mao.
Or, to put this in perspective: most mainstream bookstores in Nepal sell many books on Maoism and books by Mao. But wait, the Chinese bookstore clerk tells me. In the back of the store is dusty box of handbags adorning Mao’s face. It’s all they have.
On the featured table sit two publications that catch my eye. One is Beijing Review. In the revolutionary days of Maoist China, especially in the 1960s, Peking Review was a radical and highly influential international publication of revolutionary communism. It was distributed and studied wherever young radicals gathered on the planet. And it featured all kinds of debate on the Cultural Revolution in China.
But flipping through today’s Beijing Review is a different experience. In fact, the words “communism” and “socialism” do not appear. Instead, there are articles praising the International Monetary Fund, China’s economic growth, announcements of new skyscrapers, concerns of foreign investors, Confucianism, obedience of Chinese children to their parents, and who could forget an exciting article titled “The Search is on for China’s National Hot Dog Eating Champion.”
Sitting near Beijing Review is the other publication that catches my eye. It is called Greatway Magazine. Its style carries a remarkable similarity to the style of The Red Star (a bi-weekly international publication of the Nepali Maoists). The similarity in style is because Greatway Magazine is now put out by journalists who were once part of the staff of The Red Star. In the faction fight among Nepali Maoists, the followers of Baburam Bhattarai, in the party’s right-wing, are now putting out Greatway – as a competition to Red Star. It features an article by Hisila Yami calling for the “urbanization of Nepal,” polemics against insurrection, and an article applauding the road of “socialist market-economy” in Vietnam.
Flipping through these magazines, I decide to try an experiment.
I walk up to store’s CCP representative and ask him what he thinks of this magazine by Bhattarai. He isn’t familiar with it. So which party do you support, I ask him. “Ah! The UML,” he says, and asks who I support. “The Nepali Maoists,” I say. He gives me a polite smile, nods his head, and then turns away. For the UML, a corrupt status quo party of NGOs, there is a language of Marxism, but really its path is for “development” in a way not too dissimilar from today’s capitalist China.
Nepal is fighting for its future. And its powerful neighbors are fighting for influence. The pro-Indian forces represented by the Tibetan Lamaists wrap themselves in a heavy mystical aroma about peace, while their hopes rise and fall with U.S. and Indian influence and military power.
And meanwhile, the other great neighbor, China, has its appeal wrapped in modernization and money – where the word “communism” has been drained of any practical radical meaning.
None of it appealed to me obviously. I suspect the talk of new skyscrapers in Shanghai won’t impress the tourists, but might attract the urban Nepali elite of Kathmandu.
And I think again, of the dirt poor peasants of Nepal, India and Tibet – separated formally by lines on a map, separated in reality by language, religion, and the massive mountains of the region. What they need is precisely what is banished in all of these efforts – the plans of peasant revolution, the abolition of superstition and fatalism, an end to the feudal poverty a fragmented peasant farm economy. Revolution and Mao Zedong.