Tibetan crackdown in Nepal

As part of its 'One China' policy, Maoist-run Nepal will not tolerate protests by Tibetan exiles - a

The order of events outside the Chinese embassy in Katmandu has now become a well-rehearsed routine.

“It is a cat and mouse game,” says Kunchok Tenzin, a local Tibetan businessman. “The police wait outside the embassy for the protesters to arrive, then they beat them up a little bit, put them in a cell for the night and release them in the morning so the same thing can happen again the next day.”

To show support for Beijing’s “one China” policy, which recognises Tibet and Taiwan as integral parts of China, Nepal will not tolerate any protests against its communist friends within its borders. Hundreds of Tibetan protesters are arrested in Nepal every week. Over 500 protesters can be arrested in a single day. Whilst it is understandable that Nepal maintains good relations with its powerful northern neighbour, many Tibetans living in the country believe they take it too far.

“We realise the government has to listen to China to some degree,” says Kunchok, “But what is happening here is just ridiculous.”

Around 2500 to 3000 Tibetans make the crossing over the Himalayas into Nepal each year. Most only stay briefly at a UN reception centre before moving on to India, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile. But whilst Tibetans exiled in India enjoy a relatively high quality of life in a country that lets them live and protest freely, the same cannot be said for the 20,000 or so Tibetans who choose to live in Nepal.

“We have no problems at all with the Nepali people in the community,” says Tenzin Nanduk, a lecturer from Pokhara. “But the government is trying to knock the life out of us with its pro-China position.”

Even though the Nepali Interim Constitution states that everyone has the right to non-violent assembly, the response by Nepali police to protesters outside the Katmandhu embassy has often been brutal. “My friend had both his ankles broken outside that embassy,” says Kunchok. “He was the only breadwinner for his family.”

Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented not only excessive force during arrests but also ill treatment during detention. “We are particularly concerned by increasing evidence of police use of sexual and other forms of assault during arrests,” read a joint statement released by the two lobbies in March. In May, 560 women were arrested for protesting in Katmandu:

“As they were pulling me away they would feel my breasts,” a middle-aged Tibetan woman said after she was released. “They would just grab me, like they really needed to do this to get me into the van.”

The feeling of injustice growing amongst Tibetans in Nepal has been compounded by the fact that demonstrations by Bhutanese refugees always pass by peacefully without any interference from the Nepali Police.

“There is a double standard working here,” says Tenzin. “Are we paranoid for thinking there just may be other influences affecting the Nepali Government?”

The Nepali administration has a history of appeasing China. In 2007, the Nepal Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of de-registering the Bhota Welfare Office, a local NGO set up to provide community and humanitarian services to Tibetan refugees in Nepal. At the court hearing the Chinese Embassy in Nepal voiced its opposition to the registration accusing the organisation of being an operation of the “Dalai clique.” In January 2005, Nepal’s King Gyanendra, hoping to win China’s support for his February coup, closed the Office of the Representative of the Dalai Lama in Katmandu. The office had been running since the 60’s and was a cornerstone of Tibetan life in the Nepali capital.

The Nepali Monarchy was dissolved in June under pressure from the incoming Maoist government. But although Tibetans and Nepalis alike are hoping the Maoists will be a force for positive change, many are sceptical.

“We could have had it a lot worse here in Nepal,” says Ngawang Sangmo, craft shop owner and worker for the Nepal Tibetan Solidarity Forum. “So since the Maoist resurgence we are worried things could change. We fear it could get violent. I mean, the word itself, “Maoist,” causes immediate anxieties.”

It seems her anxieties were not unfounded. On 19 June, two weeks after I spoke to Ngawang, she was arrested by Nepali police as part of a dawn raid that seized two other Tibetans. Ngawang would sometimes hand out leaflets at demonstrations. She was arrested for conducting an “illegal agitation campaign”. But these three prisoners were not released after the customary single night in the cells. Local leaders fear they will spend three months in jail as this is the maximum time someone can be held without charge under Nepali law.

America has publicly expressed concerns about this recent development. On 26 June the Department Secretary’s Deputy Spokesman, Tom Casey, released a statement condemning the arrests. On 27 June Nepali police arrested 50 more Tibetan protesters.

An added twist in the pressure the Nepali government is putting on Tibetan refugees is the threat of deportation if protesters are arrested without a valid Registration Certificate (RC).

In May 2003 a group of Tibetans were refouled from Katmandu and reportedly beaten and forced to carry out hard labour in a Chinese prison. Tibetans in Nepal hoped this was an isolated incident but the recent threats have made people feel uneasy:

“I am scared because I do not have an RC,” says Pema Tenzin, 22 from Pokhara. “If we get sent back our lives are over. But this will not stop me protesting, nothing will stop us protesting.”

The Nepali government’s reluctance to register Tibetans is perhaps the biggest problem facing this exile community. Registration certificates (RC) give refugees an official identity and status. Without one a refugee has few rights and can be easily harassed by police and local officials. RC’s were provided regularly until the early 70’s when they suddenly stopped being issued. Now the government gives them out randomly and infrequently. Tibetans living in Nepal believe it is yet another tactic to intimidate them.

“There is no good reason why they can’t give me an RC,” says Pema. “Me and my friends are all in our 20s now and none of us have got one. How am I supposed to get a job? They want us to suffer.”

Although RCs provide refugees with some status it is not the same as full citizenship. Even those refugees who are registered cannot access many higher education courses, own land or businesses or be eligible for almost all professional positions. Most Tibetans simply have to be content with working in small restaurants, antique shops and handicraft stalls within the settlements themselves.

“I am a proud person,” says Lhakpa Sicho, 65, from the Tashi Palkhiel settlement in Pokhara. “We get few visitors and I am fed up of having to practically beg the tourists to buy things just so I can survive. I am too old for all this.”

In the 60s, Lhakpa was a member of the CIA trained guerilla resistance movement that fought against the Chinese from a base in Mustang in Northern Nepal, close to the Chinese border.

“The Americans gave us some basic training and some very old guns that couldn’t be traced back to them,” remembers Lhakpa. “We couldn’t do any serious damage but we caused a few headaches for the soldiers at the border!”

These guerilla fighters, or “Lodricks” as they are known in Tibetan, were disbanded in 1974 after the Dalai Lama urged them to put down their weapons. Most blended into settlement life in Nepal putting all thoughts of violence behind them. Tserin Siten is the coordinator of the Lodrick Welfare Society:

“Many of these ex-fighters feel a sense of despair, the guerilla movement did not succeed, the 1989 uprising [in Lhasa] did not succeed- they have resigned themselves to their lives here.”

It seems this feeling of despair is not restricted to ageing ex-freedom fighters. A recent study carried out by a team of researchers from Atlanta found that depression rates among Tibetans living in exile, though much lower than those living in Tibet itself, were high enough to indicate “significant emotional distress.”[i]

“It really is a mental condition,” says Kunchok. “Once you have lost your homeland you develop a completely different mindset, a strange mentality of loss and longing. And we all have it. Under the surface we are all distressed.”

Not only do Tibetans have to battle with the reactive grief of living a stopgap life in a foreign land, they must also deal with the day-to-day hardships that effect every Nepali citizen. In Nepal today people face eight hours of power cuts everyday, 3 hour queues at petrol pumps, soaring food prices and general political unrest.

“Life is hard enough here as it is,” says Pema. “We really don’t need the Nepali government to twist the knife on us with its negative bureaucracy.”

It is perhaps these conditions that are causing increasing numbers to move to the west, particularly to America and Canada. Many move to find work so they can send money back to their families. But even here Chinese influence is dictating the pace. Last year Washington offered asylum to 5000 Tibetans in Nepal as part of a general programme being offered to refugees in South Asia. But the Nepali government, under pressure from Beijing, did not respond meaning only Bhutanese refugees were able to make the move.

Those who remain in Nepal still receive regular direction from the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile based in the hills of Dharamsala in Northern India. The Dalai Lama does not call for independence from China but a “middle way” that would give Tibet autonomy over its own affairs whilst still remaining part of China. Though not ideal, this realistic position gives many Tibetans in Nepal hope for the future.

“We see diplomacy as a light at the end of a very long tunnel,” says Tenzin. “We can move in the direction of that light and it gives us hope. And if we die in the tunnel that is okay too- we know we will see our home again in the next life.”

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

***


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge