Roads to Lhasa

Facing Chinese Facts, Tolerance and Totalisation, Living in the rubble and Satyagraha in exile

By Kabir Mansingh Heimsath


September 2002

Part One

Notwithstanding years of Chinese rule Tibet remains Tibet. There is no grand strategy to extinguish the nation but Beijing's misinformed policies lead to the misplaced suspicion that there is.

All but one road to Lhasa comes from China. The remaining one, from Nepal, was also built by the Chinese. Given this overwhelming monopoly on the avenues leading to the centre of Tibet it is striking how limited the discussion is regarding the Chinese perception of, and attitudes towards, Tibet. In the numerous exile and international reportages concerning policy and implementation within occupied Tibet, the Chinese motivation is generally taken for granted: to suppress and, if possible, get rid of Tibetans. Whether Tibetans are denied the benefits of Chinese modernisation or whether they are subsumed by it, China is still accused of "attempting to exterminate Tibet's unique way of life" (statement by Samdhong Rinpoche, Kalon Tripa: Head of the Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamsala. 2001).

Rather than confine ourselves to this insular view, I think it is valuable to try and understand just who these "Chinese" are, what "China" is, and rethink the possibilities for discussion on the Sinification of Tibet.

Although trade between Tibet and China has continued for centuries, the vehicular roads leading to Lhasa are all constructions after 1950. These various highways are not only remarkable for sheer engineering determination but also for the political, social and economic change that followed their construction. As such they are a microcosm of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The first road to Lhasa (from Xining) was finished in 1954, and a second road from Sichuan was completed shortly after. This route from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, recently burst through a tunnel from the Chinese to the Tibetan side of Erlan Shan and the entire route to Lhasa is scheduled to be metalled by 2003. Judging by the rate of construction over the summer of 2002, it will in all likelihood be completed on time. Warehouses in the Sichuan town of Yan'an are stacked floor to ceiling with long bricks of tea, still packaged the way it was centuries ago for the long trek to Tibet. Yan'an is also the town in which the first Tibetan communists were trained after the long march in 1936 and thus, represents the ideological as well as economic beginnings of the Chinese incursion into Tibet.

Invasion and occupation by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) took place on horseback and by foot in 1950-51, and road construction immediately followed. Over 30,000 Tibetans worked with the PLA in this initial construction and were paid generously in special Da yuan silver coins because they would not accept the new paper currency of the People's Republic. This flow of silver marked the introduction of a cash-wage system in Tibet and this was the first time that ordinary Tibetans (in contrast to businessmen and officials) had access to disposable income. The discipline and fair generosity with which the occupying forces conducted themselves was widely acknowledged and may have played a part in the Tibetans' initial attempts to cooperate with the communist Chinese. A couplet from that period is still remembered, "The Chinese are like our parents/ Silver Dayang falls like rain". Sarcasm and ambivalence is evident even with this early song. The roads also allowed PLA troops to be supplied from the mainland rather than from the already strained local resources, which ensured that they were quickly and substantially reinforced when needed.

By the end of 1954, in the Siliguri-Chumbi Treaty, apart from other things India had signed away her unique trade and communication access to Tibet, and the Lhasa business community looked for opportunities to the east. The Dalai Lama drove out of Lhasa on the new road for his state visit to Beijing in 1954, and China consolidated its military, political and economic hold over Tibet. The era in which Tibet operated with de facto independence ended. The new dependence on China was constructed along with the highways to Lhasa.

Today, the same Da yuan coins are peddled as souvenirs along the road to Lhasa by Tibetan workers looking to make some extra cash. Small ramshackle towns have sprung up along the highways with shops and restaurants catering to the road-crews as well as truckers and travellers. The crews are made up of units numbering around 20 men and some women who get paid 10-20 yuan (roughly 1.2-2.4 USD) per day. In the eastern areas of Kham, which today fall under the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai, the work-units are often mixed Hui Muslim, Sichuan Chinese and Tibetans from different districts. Further west in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) there tends to be less integration and units are generally made up of all Tibetans or all Chinese from a similar background. Whether in the east or in TAR, it is striking that the workers, Tibetan or Chinese, are generally migrant workers from elsewhere. The Tibetans usually set up tents and the Chinese patch together shacks of scrap-wood and plastic tarpaulin on the side of the road; everyone moves when the construction or reconstruction is finished. Most of Tibet is wide-open grassland, high desert, or rugged mountains where habitation is minimal and the roads pass through long stretches of uninhabited landscape. The nomads about in the summer have little interaction with the road except for when they need to cross it.

When the road does reach habitation, it usually runs through the middle of a new road-town, or past a local village. Towns like Lhatse and Damshung are typical of the new settlements, with concrete buildings lining the road and doors facing traffic. Just across a river or open space is usually a traditional village with houses that face a courtyard and the sun. The new towns are overwhelmingly Chinese with Hui Muslim and Sichuan restaurants dominating them. The Chinese establishments are bright with full-length glass doors while a few Tibetan teahouses marked with heavy door-curtains are tucked dimly between. But even these are often run by Tibetans from elsewhere - a day or even weeks away on the road. The concrete towns all have bathroom-tile facades, big government complexes and public toilets and they use electricity, phones, running water, pool tables and blue-tinted glass. Slightly beyond where the road turns to dirt in the original village there is a stream for water, mud-brick courtyards, painted wood-framed windows, and dogs staked beside gateways.

Nali Xian was built at the end of the good road half a day's drive from the district centre. It is the extremity of Chinese immigration and on the other side of the hill from the original town of Lha'i Dzong (not real names since the area is normally restricted). There is a vast community centre with about 10 pool tables and behind these is a row of restaurants all run by Chinese but with almost exclusively Tibetan clientele. The place with the best dumplings is run by a Muslim couple from Gansu who drifted here a year earlier from the main Lhasa highway. The rent was too high there, and in three years they could not save much money, so they moved to this more distant town to set up shop. Now they save a couple hundred yuan a month and should be able to move to a more comfortable city, maybe Lhasa or maybe back to Gansu, after a few more years of earning. They spend all day and night working in the small restaurant - a group of young Tibetan men playing pool yells for another plate of dumplings; some grandparents and kids dressed in rough wool chubas peek in and look around but do not order anything; a group of Tibetans from the police post takes a table and demands a variety of food in vast quantities; the lady of the establishment runs out to buy supplies, which have been trucked in from the main highway. Apparently it is impossible to hire porters since none are around. They are supposedly out gathering wood for the winter though many seem to be playing pool just outside. This is a remote capillary of the road system, but even here there is an evident segregation between those involved with the town system and those who are not. Chinese are making and saving money, Tibetans are lounging about and spending it. Officials (most are Tibetan) are transferred from one area to another and conscientiously spend government money. Locals are detached in their observations of this. This scene is strikingly persistent around lunchtime in towns ranging from Dartsedo (Chinese: Kangding) to Ngari (Chinese: Ali); the characters are stereotypes, but the relationships are illustrative.

Go west There is no question that beginning with those first silver coins in 1951 vast amounts of money have gone towards the 'development' of Tibet. At first this development consisted of model socialist government projects designed to 'liberate', but today it consists of a slightly more sophisticated idea of promoting private enterprise and consumerism in a way similar to what has been accomplished in mainland China. In either case the programmes have been characterised by a lack of participation by, or significant benefit for, the vast majority of Tibetans who live in rural areas. 50 years after the roads were built, the disparity between Tibetans who have continued in the tradition of agricultural activity and the corridors of roadside and urban development remains a graphic feature of the socio-economic landscape.

After the famine of the early 1960s induced by the Great Leap Forward, and the chaotic destruction of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960-70s, Beijing' s new leadership admitted grave mistakes and instituted comprehensive social, administrative and economic reforms at the end of the 1970s. The initial strategy directed administration into the hands of local officials, and during the 1980s this led to a dramatic rise in Tibetan cadres, the rebuilding and reactivation of monasteries, and a certain amount of optimism among Tibetans. However, the hands-off policy of the 1980s was not especially effective in terms of socio-economic development, and the political protests in Lhasa at the end of the decade indicated to Beijing that they had done something wrong.

The Chinese administration changed its stance again, and the 1990s were characterised by increased central government expenditure combined with more severe political restrictions. Efforts to develop Tibet during the last decade concentrated on large-scale centralised infrastructure projects, such as roads. And there was a pressure to keep things politically quiet. In 1994, the Third Work Forum on Tibet put forth 62 projects that have been widely criticised for their lack of local participation and effectiveness.

The Fourth Work Forum in 2001 instituted 117 projects along much the same lines. But overall, the message is clear: Beijing will allocate money if Tibetans will keep quiet. The billions of yuan that have poured into Tibet flow almost exclusively along the roadways, pool in the few towns along the way, and finally end up in the few major cities - Lhasa, Shigatse, Chamdo. A quick glance at a map of Tibet shows the limited extension of roads and also the limited extent of China's development practices. The towns along the roadways and the three cities are the only places in which serious development has taken hold and consequently, these are also the only places where Chinese form a majority.

The vast rural areas of Tibet, where the majority of Tibetans live, are not linked with the road and urban systems. Even where there is a road, uprooted workers who are able to dedicate long and continuous hours to work provide labour for construction projects while local populations take care of fields or livestock. The services that such a labour pool requires are also fulfilled by itinerant entrepreneurs who have the knowledge of and access to the necessary supply channels. The cash paid out on such projects is spent minimally on immediate sustenance and generally saved for investment or families elsewhere. Trucks make the gruelling drive from Xining or Chengdu to Lhasa laden with food staples, consumer goods and building supplies, then they turn around and rush all the way back empty for another load. What has developed is a tertiary economy and lifestyle that has little interaction with the local villages or populations and is utterly dependent on mainland goods. There are plenty of urban and itinerant Tibetans participating in this secondary commercial system but the huge majority live an agrarian life in areas without roads or even if they live beside a road, they have only minimal interaction with it.

In China, the urban boom of the eastern seaboard prompted, and depended on, the creation of a vast unskilled and mobile labour pool. With the reforms of the 1980s, and the dismantling of the Maoist era work unit system in favour of 'household responsibility', a free labour market came into being, which provided the human capital behind much of the economic growth of the last decade. But in recent years the over-saturated industrial cities of the east such as Heilongjiang, Jilin, Shanxi and Henan are full of unemployed and laid-off workers. The forced downscaling of state-owned industries pushed through by Prime Minister Zhu Rongji in the last five years has also contributed to the unemployed pool. The recent labour riots in northeast China combined with demonstrations in certain areas of rural western China demand the most urgent attention from Beijing and it is no secret that the administration is not reconciled on how to deal with them.

Following a lack of prospects elsewhere, millions of labourers from this unskilled floating population have already moved into Tibet. The same Sichuan woman who has no land, no skill or insufficient papers and connections to find work in a big city will join a road-crew in Tibet (or hair salons if she is young and urbane). She will have to work 12-16 hours a day, but there will be a place to sleep, food to eat, and money to save. The man who would otherwise be relegated to menial "shoulder-pole" status in mainland cities can move along the highways to Tibet and set up a little shop or restaurant of his own with a bare minimum of cash, without worrying too much about formalities. These are the Chinese that proliferate in Tibet, men and women (very few children or grandparents) who have already been marginalised by the same system in the mainland. They come to Tibet because there is opportunity and maybe a chance to save some money and set up a home somewhere. These Chinese do not come to preach Maoism or even Han-ism and are concerned about Tibetans only in as much as a Tibetan might endanger or increase their chances to make money. With some exceptions (notably greenhouse cultivators who have a local supply and demand), their opportunities depend on huge government-subsidised projects that fuel Tibet' s tertiary economy. Without these they would be left floating again and would drift to the next prospective region.

The path of development To illustrate the selective assimilation of Tibetans into the new market and social system it is worth taking a glance at Kham and Amdo. Although the bulk of these eastern Tibetan areas have been incorporated into other Chinese provinces since 1956 their development has proceeded as an accelerated version of that outlined above. However, without the political paranoia that exists in the TAR, these areas of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces have been allowed more local autonomy and hence religious freedom. Although many Tibetans have drifted to cities or work crews, these areas are still predominantly rural and traditional life has not changed much despite the proximity and increased access to mainland economic and social systems. In fact, the overt cultural manifestations in the forms of monasteries, festivals, literature, and lifestyle suggest that these eastern areas have been able to assert their Tibetan traditions to a much greater extent than has been allowed in central Tibet. Looking at it another way, despite much greater contact and entwinement with mainstream Chinese systems, Tibetans in Amdo and Kham have not become Sinified. Rather, they have channelled their energy and whatever prosperity they get from the Chinese systems into reinforcing their own culture and identity. The most active monasteries are in the east, there are several celebrated lamas teaching to followings of thousands in Kham and Amdo, and the most dynamic Tibetan literary movement anywhere (including exile) is coming forth from Amdo. There is also a significant group of successful businessmen from Kham and Amdo operating in Chinese cities as well as Lhasa, but their home counties of Derge, Golok or Nangchen still have a reputation for being bastions of Tibetan Buddhism and traditional culture.

This indicates that socio-economic prosperity trucked in from China has not and will not "exterminate" cultural and religious identity within Tibet. Two aspects of this identity are troubling to Beijing: religion and a social system independent of mainland strictures. The largely repressive, but recently ambivalent relationship between the administration and Buddhist institutions is an all-important topic that has received almost exclusive attention internationally. It is worth noting that since 1980 the administration has worked with lamas and monasteries and seems resigned to the fact that nothing will go forth in Tibet without the allowance and support of Buddhist institutions. While monasteries are still destroyed (notably Khempo Jikhpun's centre with upwards of 10,000 followers at Serta in 2001), they are being rebuilt officially and unofficially at a much faster rate with a vitality that clearly has not waned even after decades of Chinese occupation. The recent brutal crackdown on Chinese Falun Gong members illustrates that it is the organisational capacity of religion that Beijing fears, not Tibetan Buddhism itself.

In terms of social systems, it is clear that the roadways network has been unable to incorporate the bulk of Tibet into first its communist and now its capitalist agenda. Much of this has to do with flawed development policy but some of it also has to do with the Tibetans' own priorities. As seen with the nomads around Nali Xian, making a significant amount of extra cash (the fee one would earn for five days' walking with two yaks would be roughly equivalent to a month's income for a roadworker) or cooperating with the officials is not going to take them away from a good game of pool. The various policies promoting Tibetan language, Tibetan quotas in schools and administrative positions, and less strict birth-control limits and enforcement also indicate that "extermination" is not an accurate assessment of the Chinese attitude. One could, and should, criticise the actual effectiveness of these affirmative action policies but one also should not ignore that they exist when, politically speaking, China need not make such gestures.

There is a sense among large administrative institutions (the UNDP no less than the Chinese Communist Party) that a standardised equation can be applied to measure the contentment of a society, and now Beijing is worried about unrest caused by drastic economic disparity. This is a valid fear in mainland China (as illustrated by recent labour riots and farmer protests), but I would propose that it is not necessarily a crucial concern in rural Tibet. Certainly Tibetans should have the means, and would probably choose (as many have) to gain a level of conventional prosperity not available to most of them at this time. But what the examples of Kham, Amdo, selective roadside and urban participation, and monastic reconstruction have shown is that cash prosperity, or the lack thereof, is not the foremost concern for most Tibetans. At a popular tourist restaurant in Lhasa, I overheard a group of Western rangeland specialists complaining that the nomads with whom they were working in Nagchu district did not want to accept the cash-generating plans these specialists had devised. The Tromsikhang marketplace in Lhasa sells a variety of butter and the most expensive is still Tibetan butter, out-pricing even that imported from Australia. Clearly the subsidies, taxation and market system favours commercial contact with the mainland. Yet there are Tibetans who refuse to be incorporated into the grand economic schemes of Chinese development even if it means remaining at a "subsistence level" lifestyle and not being able to buy noodles from Chinese restaurants. Economics does not account for these choices on the part of Tibetans, yet Beijing administration insisted on viewing the situation in economic terms.

Beijing takes a common sense view that a more economically and socially prosperous country will give rise to less political discontentment. The most serious protests since Tiananmen Square in 1989 have taken place in eastern cities during the last year and in each case the promise of increased employment, salaries, and benefits have quelled the discontent. Unfortunately the administration is divided on how to continue its modernisation drive while preserving stability and the power of the party.

Now there is even less cohesion than usual amongst party elites who are struggling for their own positions leading up to the party restructuring scheduled for the end of 2002; the provincial administrations have become more assertive since Beijing has emphasised a decentralisation of economic policy; there is an increasingly strong and savvy business class; and, international business interests with WTO standards in mind have got into the act as well. All these factors have an influence on the policy-making process and there is no consensus on how China will proceed in the coming years. With regard to Tibet, it may be assumed that all these players would like to see the problems of rural poverty, urban unemployment and labour problems solved as quickly as possible. Shipping as many Chinese as possible off to the sparsely populated plateau, to lessen the burden on mainland resources and to kick-start economic activity in Tibet, might seem like a viable solution, but it is not.

Ironically, it is flaws in the development strategy in Tibet that have saved it from inundation. The fast track "develop the west" programmes that Beijing has been trying to push in Tibet since 1994 have been overwhelmingly unsuccessful in creating any real economic base for the Tibetans, or even Chinese immigrants. Since there is only a limited potential for tertiary development without a primary foundation, the qualitative and quantitative incorporation of Tibet into the commercial system can only be partial. Consequently also, Tibet can only sustain so many immigrants and no more.

The Chinese who come to Tibet are often itinerant workers who will leave as soon as a better opportunity presents itself. The ones that stay remain in urban areas or beside the roads. They do not integrate with, and are not integrated into, the local society or primary agrarian systems. The Tibetans involved with the roadways are officials, truck drivers or businessmen who again are not linked to the primary agricultural system of a particular area. While the division between the 'developed' roadway and the 'un-developed' rural sphere means that most Tibetans live in what has been called 'poverty' and do not reap the benefits of modernisation that China flaunts in its urban centres, it also means that Chinese labour and entrepreneurs and the cloud of 'Sinification', which is greatly feared, stays clear of the vast extent of rural Tibet.

Which way forward?

Does the urban-rural economic imbalance signal an official disdain for rural Tibetans and a cynical desire on Beijing's part to benefit only the urban areas that consist of a Chinese majority? China has the same problems with growth imbalance in its impoverished rural areas with totally Han populations, and the reforms of Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji have been widely criticised (by Chinese and the international community alike) for leaving much of the rural Chinese population behind. It may be that these economic-social policies simply follow the classic (much criticised but still prevalent) white elephant style of development that has been practiced with much the same results worldwide.

The current disparity between rural, "impoverished" Tibetans and urban, "developed" Chinese then, is a problem for the Beijing administration. It is neither the result of a coherent and successful policy, nor a carefully crafted plan to keep Tibetans down. The dominant point of view in Beijing is that Tibet has been a messy backyard that remains an embarrassment. No one in Beijing is terribly worried about international pressure regarding the situation (they know that the time for real international involvement regarding Tibet passed when the PLA built the roads almost 50 years ago), but they realise that a radically under-developed Tibet tarnishes the image of a new China.

Construction of the much hailed and hated Golmud-Lhasa railway was inaugurated in 2001 and has gained the attention of Tibet watchers worldwide as the most recent, and most grand, attempt to decimate Tibetan culture. However, it is more likely another major blunder on the part of planners in Beijing, not distinct in motivation, foresight or impact from the existing roadways and similar infrastructure projects (several new airports have also been announced). The roadways only provide a narrow corridor of development, Chinese immigration and relative prosperity on the way back and forth from Lhasa. The railway represents an extreme version of this with even less dispersion along the way. There is no question that it will significantly ease transport to and from Lhasa, but other than the cash opportunities involved with construction work it will have no direct bearing on the majority of Tibetans. The railways project suffers from the same tertiary development isolation as the roadways and as long as there is no primary economic substance in Tibet these projects are only scarring the surface.

There is nothing produced in Tibet (other than medicine) that has a significant demand outside its borders. Even animal products - wool, dairy and meat - are consumed within Tibet's borders and, as shown with butter prices, even here Tibetan commodities are not competitive with their Chinese (or imported) counterparts. The railway in and of itself will not create any substantial integration for Tibetans, or anybody else in Tibet, with the Chinese economy, and will only increase the disparity between primary rural and government-subsidised urban economies.

The main concern then, is how the railway will affect natural resource exploitation in central Tibet. At the moment there is no large scale industry in Tibet (the devastating timber harvesting in Kham has stopped; a chromate mine in central Tibet and illegal gold mines on the Chang Tang are exceptions), but the railway could change the economics of mineral extraction to an extent that might make it viable in the future. This would be an economic development that would not depend on subsidies, may well attract mainland private and foreign investment, and will have more long-ranging and widespread consequences that the roads, railway or airports cannot have. It is important for the TAR administration, run mostly by Tibet ans beholden to Beijing, to devise creative ways in which they can control the development of these resources as other locales have retained control of their own economic prosperity (Shanghai and Shenzhen are striking examples).

International expertise involved in Tibet directly may well be helpful in achieving this end. Foreign voices raised in mass protest against yet another Chinese incursion into Tibet come 50 years too late, provide no insight, and facilitate nothing other than paranoia. The unrest that has occurred in Tibet, and that Beijing fears, has not been focused on socio-economic concerns but on religious and political rights.

The pride that Tibetans feel purely on the basis of being Tibetan is only heightened with the consciousness of proximity to China and Chinese. While waiting for a landslide to be cleared this summer in Derge county, a young and obviously well-off policeman got out of his car and sauntered to the front of the line. As he walked past the various trucks and buses in his sunglasses and carelessly worn uniform he reached into his unbuttoned shirt collar and pulled out a rosary. He was not murmuring or turning the beads but seemed to consciously take out the rosary as a mark of his Tibetan-ness (he was thin, fair-skinned, and in uniform might have passed for Chinese). A friend from central Tibet commented that you would never see that in Lhasa - a figure of authority so ostentatious with his/her Buddhist identity. When even a young police officer takes the trouble to show he is Tibetan through a Buddhist ritual object it is clear that his identity has not faded with prosperity or entwinement with a Sinified administrative system. You would not see this in Lhasa because Tibetan officials in the TAR who are too overtly Buddhist do not get promoted. In neither case - with suppression or prosperity - has the communist administration been successful in eradicating Buddhist belief or identity.

The complaint by some Chinese administrators that whatever wealth Tibetans gather goes "up in smoke" during religious festivals is akin to the complaint by the foreign rangeland specialists that Tibetans will keep a yak and watch it die rather than sell it for slaughter and money. Policies that intend to curb religious tradition, as well as development practices that do not appreciate the local priorities are equally unsuccessful in bringing about genuine change.

Instead of pretending to alleviate 'poverty' in Tibet with yet another grand white elephant such as the railway because they are worried about economic disparity, Beijing would do well to rethink its evaluation of the socio-economic priorities of Tibetans and instead find ways to accommodate their religious and cultural identity.

This may already be happening in a less than intentional way with the shift in Chinese popular opinion regarding Tibet. The Chinese images of Tibet, like the Western or South Asian images, have little to do with Tibet itself. They often contain a romantic ambivalence towards one extreme - barbaric -or the other - glorious. A recent Chinese film (released in 1996, a year before Hollywood productions Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet), Red River Valley aka From the Sacred Mountain, represents this attitude by portraying a stunning landscape, with stunning yaks, and stunning men and women who are not too shy to let down their tops (while the camera discreetly moves to back view). The good/bad roles of Westerners (in the person of Younghusband and his fellow invaders) and Chinese (as an undercover arms dealer) are expectedly reversed but otherwise the role of Tibetans (and it is a role) is much the same as that put forth in Seven Years. Tibetans are a bit savage, but sexy and noble nonetheless. The portrayal of the Tibeto-Mongolian character "Do" in Ang Lee's international hit, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, is also loyal to the stereotype. This exotic portrayal is played out in countless art magazines, travel publications and music videos avidly consumed throughout the mainland. The popular press and official image-makers of China (Xinhua Publications and CCTV) have left behind the Maoist rhetoric of banishing the "Four Olds" and are relishing the little bit of old left within the political boundaries of the "New China".

Official statements by the Beijing administration also speak of this "brilliant and distinctive culture" (the white paper on modernisation, State Council of the People's Republic of China, 2001). Whether or not it is sincere, Beijing wants to be seen as promoting, not hindering, Tibetan tradition. This is cultural appropriation at its best-worst; but at the popular level at least, Chinese are proud of their minorities, and especially their Tibetans. This imagining, if led in the right way, could certainly promote an appreciation for the alternative traditions and lifestyle of Tibetans in the same way that new-age popularity has led to an appreciation of alternate or ethnic styles from the Western point of view.

This is a long way from the impressions of Mao after the Long March, when the cultural distinction of Tibetans shocked him so much he began devising plans to "liberate" the savage land. I do not suggest that twirling ribbons or yak dances are genuine traditions, but what this popularisation could mean is that a new generation of policy-makers in Beijing might lose some of their paranoia of under-developed and under-privileged Tibetans rising up in protest. They might understand that any Tibetan protest of Chinese occupation has little to do with socio-economic circumstances but is rooted in a very basic fact that Tibetans are not Chinese, and that they are not going to become Chinese regardless of being rich or poor, well educated or uneducated. Once this understanding has reached the policy makers in Beijing and Tibetan regions, they can begin to facilitate plans more appropriate to the needs of Tibetans. And thus, they will be more likely to promote at least goodwill and stability, though probably not integration, between Tibetans and their Chinese neighbours.

China and the Chinese are not monolithic in the way they are depicted worldwide in Tibet-related media and the general press. The central government certainly has interests and policies directed towards Tibet but it has admitted its lack of effectiveness in determining the outcome of those policies, and it has shifted its emphasis several times since the occupation. There is no big hand that manages all affairs in China and the days of revolution-method management passed with Mao. There is a certain self-absorption that leads Tibet-specialists to think that China has some insidious plan for eradicating Tibetans. "China" is rent with many of the same socio-economic disparities and problems that occur in Tibet. The prostitutes draped on the couch of the new hair salon in Ngari have drifted to a far-off, cold and desolate place because they need to make money and cannot find opportunities elsewhere. They are not related to Hu Jintao, the former Chairman of TAR and President Jiang Zemin's expected successor, nor are they interested in converting Tibetans to socialism (unless they get paid in advance), but are resigned and also sometimes bitter towards the system that has brought them to this eventuality.

The Chinese still produce and package tea the way Tibetans like it, and while the tea moves out of Yan'an by the truckload nobody takes communism seriously anymore. The problem with China's development of Tibet is not a special plan to destroy Tibetan culture but simply the lack of decent and consistent means that take this culture into account. Tibetans are also not a passive unit of "tradition" composting under Chinese domination; they are diverse, urban, rural, regional, institutional or marginal but definitely very much Tibetans, alive and in Tibet.

Editorial Note South Asia and the Tibetans of Tibet On the map, Tibet is part of Central, East and South Asia. But, even as the rest of South Asia neglects Tibet, changes are afoot in the high plateau, brought about by a surge in economic activity and demographic shifts. With upcoming rail and highway links, the knot with the Chinese mainland is set to be that much tighter. The South Asian mainland has ignored its Tibetan hinterland, if we may call it that, forgetting the close geographical proximity (the Himalayan divide is no longer the barrier it once was) and historical links of culture and economy. True, India, Nepal and Bhutan have provided refuge to Tibetan exiles, but otherwise South Asia has sacrificed Tibet to China. Even in terms of hardheaded long-term strategic, cultural and economic cost-benefit considerations, this seems foolish. When the economic exploitation of Tibet begins in earnest, will we find that a better appreciation of Tibet, even as, if necessary, a singular entity with the People's Republic, would have served 'South Asian' interests better? We tend to think of Tibet only in relation to the Himalayan rimland, but remember that it is inextricably linked to the Pakistani Punjab by the Karakoram highway, and is but a day's drive from Rangpur in north Bangladesh if you take the road up from Siliguri.

Himal has had its gaze away from the 'trans-Himalaya' since it converted from a Himalayan to a South Asian magazine in the spring of 1996. With this issue's special focus on Tibet and the Tibetans of Tibet (rather than the relatively small number living in exile), we are correcting this oversight.

Himal hopes to continue to cover Tibet in the days to come, regarding it as much a part of South Asia as any other.

Facing Chinese facts

South Asia continues to appease the People's Republic, to its own detriment.

By Matthew Akester


September 2002

Part Two

First of all, the bitter facts of history: in the political tumult of post-Second World War Asia, newly independent India found its strategic and security interests dramatically compromised by two equally momentous and unforeseen developments, the creation of an Islamic state in the north-west of the country (1947-48), and the full-fledged occupation of Tibet and East Turkestan by communist China (1949-50). New Delhi's inability to prevent or reverse either development effectively ceded the initiative to China in both regions. In particular, it allowed China to exploit South Asian rivalries, and draw all of India's neighbours (except Bhutan and the Maldives) into its diplomatic camp. More than 50 years later, still enduring the tremendous toll of defending thousands of kilometres of hostile land borders, New Delhi has yet to come to terms with this disadvantage and find a way forward.

Many Tibetans who lived through the 1959 uprising will tell you how, during the holocaust of repression which followed, they fully expected mighty India (which Tibetans, like Buddhists in other neighbouring countries, regard as the Arya-bhumi) to come to their aid. They were living in another world, and paid the heaviest price imaginable for their isolation from modern geo-political reality. But so too were the new rulers of India if they thought that Chinese military occupation of the heart of the Asian continent would be compatible with Jawaharlal Nehru's 'Panchshila', and that Tibet would effectively remain a neutral zone separating two friendly giants.

In 1957, when the People's Liberation Army (and their cohorts of prison labourers) had completed a highway linking Yarkand (in Xinjiang province) with west Tibet across Indian territory in the trans-Karakoram at elevations of above 5000 m, one could barely drive an Ambassador up to Mussoorie. Over the next five years, however, roads were hastily built under impossibly demanding conditions all over the Himalayan valleys (with destitute Tibetan refugees providing much of the labour) that Indian troops had to defend from a position of weakness. Their maintenance still costs the country millions of dollars every day.

In other words, independent India's failure to address the occupation of Tibet as an issue of national and regional concern at the time turned out to be a staggeringly costly miscalculation, which it is still paying for. There are a number of reasons why this fact is not widely recognised in Indian politics and public life. For one, relations with China are the preserve of a bureaucratic and military elite with no discernible strategy other than appeasement. While Beijing has the very nerve to question Indian sovereignty in Sikkim, New Delhi cannot even secure reasonable terms for its citizens making a pilgrimage to Sri Kailasa-Manasarovar. The foreign policy establishment seems to hope that quiescence will bring improved relations, an inscrutable misperception if so, of which China continues to take advantage. In reality, it is startlingly obvious that Tibet is the substantive issue between the two governments of Beijing and New Delhi, and their relationship can scarcely improve in India's favour until it takes the yak by the horns.

Chinese landslide After militarisation, perhaps the most serious consequences for South Asia of Chinese misrule in Tibet are environmental. It is a truism that most South Asians depend on rivers of 'trans-Himalayan' origin, from the Indus to the Mekong. The Tibetan plateau is not only the fountain-head of Asia but the guarantor of the southwest monsoon, and ecological changes there such as deforestation have a discernible effect on regional weather patterns. For decades there have been unconfirmable reports of nuclear waste dumps and long-range missile bases in occupied Tibet. More recently, the economic boom and increasing mobility of migrant labour in China has ignited an explosion of state- funded infrastructure projects in the 'western regions', including the exploitation of river waters. The Chinese regime has a penchant for insanely ambitious mega-projects symbolising the supposed 'mastery over nature' to which Stalinist socialism aspires, hence the Three Gorges and now the diversion of Yangtse river waters (with or without nuclear assistance) to the parched north. Another such project, the construction of a massive hydroelectric power station on the great bend in the Brahmaputra recently won central government approval.

There is no evidence to suggest that the interests of those living downstream will figure prominently in the Chinese planners' calculations. After heavy flooding in mainland China in 1998, the central government was prompted to impose a total ban on logging, notably in the 'Yangtse watershed ', which is made up of the mercilessly deforested mountains of eastern Tibet. This was the first time the state had addressed the environmental fall-out from the over-exploitation of Tibetan timber, and this represented a definitive innovation of policy. In contrast, no such ban was imposed in the Kongpo or Powo regions bordering Arunachal Pradesh, where the downstream consequences of over-exploitation are not China's but India's problem.

The events of July 2000 in that region could be a harbinger of things to come: in April that year, there was a massive landslide at the mouth of the Yiwong Tso lake in Powo, an area which has been plundered by Chinese logging since the 1960s. The slide created a natural dam across the outflow of the lake some 60m high. This eventually burst in early July, releasing a giant surge into the Brahmaputra, which caused the worst flood damage ever recorded in Arunachal Pradesh. When the Arunachal state government made representations to New Delhi about the necessity of reaching an agreement with China on the management of Brahmaputra waters following this incident, they were given no reassurances and the issue has not been raised at national level. A similar surge-flood hit the upper Sutlej valley later that year, causing extensive damage in Kinnaur and Rampur areas of Himachal Pradesh.

Railway to Lhasa The most significant mega-project of all in this context is of course the Qinghai-Tibet railway, a high priority for the Chinese leadership ever since the invasion, but at that time an unattainable one. Even in this age of over-development, the railway remains an extreme technical challenge. Such are the natural barriers between the two countries that China will have launched astronauts into space before it runs passenger trains to Lhasa, even if the railway is completed on schedule in 2006.

Railways were instrumental in Chinese colonisation of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, slightly more accessible territories whose indigenous populations have been decisively outnumbered by Han migration under communism. There has always been a sense among central planners and the military that Tibet cannot be fully assimilated without one, and their inability to build it has been the main reason for the relatively low numbers of civilian Han migrants in most of Tibet until now. These days there are frequent direct flights to Lhasa from a number of major Chinese cities including Hong Kong, the Qinghai-Tibet highway has been significantly upgraded, and there is a road tunnel under Erlang Shan cutting hours off the drive from Chengdu to Dartsé-do (Kangding) and east Tibet, but for sheer logistical capacity, the movement of goods and people, none of this can compete with a railway.

Now that the Beijing government has embarked on a no-holds-barred campaign of economic and demographic assimilation, the long-mooted railway has become - more than just a logistical necessity - a symbol of China's heroic struggle against the forces of nature and moderation. Since the launch of the current construction phase of the railway in 2000, official statements and propaganda seem to have abandoned rational, technocratic justifications and cost-benefit analysis altogether, reassuring the nation that no expense will be spared, with a missionary zeal reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward. The implications for Tibet itself are thus rather clear, for the railway represents the physical erasure of all the notions of autonomy which have haunted Sino-Tibetan relations since 1951. However, such an acceleration of China's capacity to 'develop' Tibet is also bound to aggravate regional tensions with South Asia, as long as Beijing remains bent on hegemony rather than neighbourly relations. This can already be seen from recent concerns over the infiltration of Chinese goods into north Indian markets.

There is one other fact for the cynical to consider, especially those who tend to disregard the Tibet issue as an over-indulged plaything of the West. Certainly, hybrid versions of Tibetan Buddhism and culture have become fashionable in the industrialised countries, but one has to distinguish between popular socio-religious trends, however colourful, and concrete political support by Western governments, which has stood at zero ever since the US military backed out of large-scale assistance to the eastern Tibetan resistance in the mid-1950s. (Indeed, by granting political asylum to HH Dalai Lama and the exile government, India has given the Tibetans much more valuable support than any Western country.) At that time, the onus was very much on Britain, as the former colonial power, and the US, as the non-communist superpower, as well as free India, to stand up for Tibet, at least in the United Nations. They failed to do so, as is well known, but unlike India these powers had no strategic interests in the region and could shirk their responsibility with impunity. Now, since the mid-1990s, it is precisely the growth of Western economic collaboration in China's occupation, in the form of investment, bilateral and non-governmental aid that has done most to embolden the regime, and take the sting out of international protest. After the Tibetans themselves, their South Asian neighbours are the main losers in this scenario.

In conclusion, Tibet is inescapably a South Asian issue, but one effectively q uashed by Beijing's paranoid refusal to countenance anything like the free flow of people, goods and information across the Himalayas, and by New Delhi 's policy of appeasement. As strategic construction, resource exploitation and urbanisation intensify in occupied Tibet, however, tensions with neighbouring states are likely to grow and to attract attention beyond elite foreign policy circles, given that we live in a world fast shrinking under the impact of global economic development, overpopulation, increased mobility and dwindling natural resources. During the 'post-Cold War' 1990s, China's regional profile became more aggressive, its leaders showed no willingness for improved relations with India but maintained and enhanced their posture of strategic containment (Pakistan, Burma), one of the main justifications for increased defence expenditure (particularly on the navy)

in India during this period. There have been numerous lesser irritants, such as Chinese support for the insurgent United Liberation Front of Assam, its indulgence in chequebook diplomacy elsewhere in South Asia, border incursions and smuggling, and failure to support India at the United Nations. In 1962, the patience of India's leaders snapped after their policy of generous deference to the new China was taken for all it was worth, and they ended up going to war in outraged sentiment, ill-prepared and for the wrong reasons. To avoid repeating that history, new thinking is required, including re-evaluation of the status of Tibet.

Tolerance and Totalisation

Religion in contemporary Tibet While the depth of faith in Buddhism and the Dalai Lama has not changed after five decades of occupation, the adaptation and reinvention of religious expression have become key to the survival of Tibetan Buddhist faith.

By Matteo Pistono Himal, September 2002 Adaptation is the primary tool Tibetans use to maintain the practice of religion in China- occupied Tibet. The people have been forced to remain malleable in their expression of religious faith and yet they are today, over four decades after the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, as faithful to Buddhism and to the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader, as they were before the 1949 invasion. And this is so despite what the People's Republic of China (PRC) leaders and Chinese media may say, in articles such as the one in Xinhua newspaper entitled "Support for Dalai Dwindles" (March 2001). The state mouthpiece reported a poll in which 86 percent of Tibetans in Lhasa considered the Dalai Lama a "separatist and a politician". This is propaganda that few China- and Tibet-watchers take seriously.

There is often an assumption by Tibetan support groups in the West, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, and writers on current Tibetan affairs that there are blanket policies emanating from Beijing that cover all elements of Tibet's religious life. This myth of 'totalisation', the false belief that one situation represents the whole of the experience, is counter-productive, giving, as it does, a false impression of the state of affairs. One example is reporting of the kind that implies that because a few nuns at one convent in Lhasa were expelled, all nuns in the Tibetan Autonomous Region are at risk. This kind of myth is created by repeated generalisations that propose a homogenous policy of religious suppression is carried out dutifully in all corners of Tibet by government cadre. Repetition makes the myth self-perpetuating and soon it passes into the realm of 'knowledge' on Tibet.

It is not always so readily apparent what polices are brewing behind the high walls of the offices of the Chinese Communist Party and Religious Affairs Bureau in Beijing even though analysts abound world-wide whose job it is to decipher these signals. Clearly, when it comes to on-the-ground application, whatever policies may emerge from Beijing, these polices are not implemented uniformly throughout the monasteries, nunneries and other religious institutions across the Tibetan plateau.

Tibetans are attempting to quietly carry out their religious practice in the face of formidable obstacles set up by China's state bureaucracy. These obstacles include the United Front Work Department, the Religious Affairs Bureau, the Tibetan Buddhist Association and the Democratic Management Committees in monasteries, political education teams, work inspection teams and a host of security organs. While there is much speculation on what it must be like to be a Tibetan Buddhist in Tibet today, there is little known that is not inspired by either the Chinese state or by counteractive perceptions of the Chinese state. Certainly, much can be said about Tibetan Buddhist expression, and the often brutal repression of it in Tibet today, but a few anecdotes from Tibet should illuminate the resilience of religious expression and the nature of Tibetan Buddhism as it is practised in its native land.

Gar In the eastern region of Tibet traditionally known as Kham, now incorporated into Sichuan province, the phenomenon of 'monastic encampments' (gar) has developed over the last decade. These camps that house monks and nuns from across Tibet, and have a significant number of Chinese students as well, have formed around charismatic lamas in remote areas far from, but not out of the reach of, local government cadre. None of them have significant ties to pre-1959 monastic institutions, hence there is no history of conflict.

Neither are they "rebuilt" monasteries that had been destroyed before or during the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, the gar are not administered or run as traditional monasteries but function more as secluded meditation retreat centres. The number of monks and nuns that they house vary greatly.

From a couple hundred at the smaller ones to 3000 at Yachen Gar in Payul (Chinese: Baiyu) county in Sichuan, by last year an estimated 10,000 monks and nuns lived in small mediation huts at Larung Gar near Serthar in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) prefecture.

Yachen Gar was home to a few hundred Chinese students and Larung Gar hosted nearly 1000 Chinese-speaking students from China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. All were expelled on order of Chinese government officials in the summer and fall of 2001. Before the expulsions, Chinese-speaking lamas at both encampments oversaw the Chinese language curriculum, which included simultaneous translation of the teachings by religious leaders like Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (at Larung Gar) and Achuk Khen Rinpoche (at Yachen Gar).

While the Tibetan and Chinese students followed the same teacher, there were ethnic tensions. As one Chinese nun who studied at both encampments before being expelled said, "Some Chinese at Larung Gar say that the Chinese and Tibetan monks and nuns at Larung Gar are like shining stars in the night sky; we are both beautiful in our own space but if we collide, then there will be a large explosion. Perhaps they are right".

There are around a dozen gars in Kham. Nevertheless, the earthen and mud adobe homes of the encampments, spacious teachings halls, and apolitical teachers that comprise the encampments have become the only place anywhere in Tibet or China where students can receive a comprehensive Buddhist education. In addition to receiving teachings and instructions on philosophy, students are introduced to the core of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices. Essential to these meditation practices are the oral transmissions of scripture and meditation texts, empowerments into tantric practice, and the pith instructions for meditation.

For decades since the Dalai Lama and most other senior teachers fled Tibet, the focus of monks and nuns in search of religious education had been on how to evade border authorities and escape to India to the monasteries in exile. Today, the gars serve as centres for spiritual gravitation; a draw for thousands of monks and nuns who are restricted by Beijing's polices from searching out adequate Buddhist instructions in their home areas.

Patriotism test While there were monastic camps in pre-1959 Tibet, the particular formation of the current ones as well as the sheer numbers found in eastern Tibet is a recent phenomenon. This boom can in part be attributed to the strict controls that have been placed on traditional monasteries and religious practitioners. One of the most relentless efforts to control religious institutions and practitioners began in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in1996 with the "patriotic education" campaign. Government-driven patriotic education is still in full force today across the Tibetan plateau including Kham and Amdo.

Patriotic education aims to instruct and test all monks, nuns and teachers in every monastery and nunnery across the Tibetan plateau on the correct view of religion, law, history and the Dalai Lama. Work teams of Communist Party cadre, both Chinese and Tibetan, conduct study sessions lasting a few weeks up to many months at the monastic institutions. Often work teams become a permanent feature at those monasteries that are historically significant, high profile to tourists or politically active. Examples of this include Labrang Tashikyil in Amdo (Qinghai province), Litang monastery in Kham (Sichuan province) and Tsurphu monastery in central Tibet, home to the teenage Karmapa who fled Tibet in 2000. In March 1998, the patriotic education programme was extended to schools and to the 'citizens' of Tibet.

One of the primary aims of the patriotic education programme is to encourage disavowal of allegiance to the Dalai Lama and to discredit him as a religious teacher. This includes signing written statements condemning the Dalai Lama as a fraud and "splittist". At a July 2002 meeting of the Directors of People's Management of Monasteries, Li Liguo, Deputy Party Secretary in Lhasa and leader of the Regional Group for Monastery and Religious Affairs, stated clearly what the duty of monastics is with respect to the Dalai Lama. The Lhasa Xizang Ribao daily newspaper reported Liguo as stating, "Monks and nuns. should be bold in exposing and criticising the Dalai Lama in order to clearly understand the Dalai Lama's political reactionary nature and religious hypocrisy and to enhance their awareness of patriotism". Discrediting the Dalai Lama is one of the most pernicious aspects of the PRC's patriotic education because it contravenes a fundamental monastic vow of not disparaging one's root teacher.

Patriotic education and other such coercive measures aimed at religious practitioners have proved to be difficult to carry out in the gars of eastern Tibet. The encampments are unconventional, remaining outside established patterns of religious institutional and organisational structures that Chinese officials are used to controlling. There is no formal admission to the encampments and monks and nuns often return to their home monastery after attending a series of teachings. The monastics here do not gather for daily chanting sessions as they do in traditional monasteries and nunneries. Rather, the monastic body gathers as a whole only when teachings and empowerments are being given. A loose organisational hierarchy prevails at the gar, as opposed to the more rigid system of traditional monasteries in Tibet. The prominent incarnate lamas who give religious authority to the encampments attempt to remain outside any administrative role that would place them in contact with local and provincial government cadre. Nearly all the teachers offer teachings in an ecumenical style, as opposed to the sectarianism that is found among some Tibetan Buddhist teachers. This teaching style allows a for a much wider pool of disciples because students can come from any region and any 'school' (including Nyingma, Gelug, Sakya, Kagyu, Jonangpa, Bon as well as Chinese Chan Buddhist), and then return to their home areas to practice and often teach themselves.

Chinese government officials are confounded by a system whose organisational formation they do not understand, and by the sheer numbers living under institutions that fall outside the pale of their administrative system. Because of their enigmatic nature, places such as Larung Gar and Yachen Gar and the lamas who teach there are often seen as un-controllable and thus a threat. In spite of this suspicion, many lamas have developed a close relationship with local government leaders, and this often translates into political currency. Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, however, are examples of what happens when there is a perceived threat and political currency runs dry.

Both encampments experienced mass expulsions of monks and nuns, and both saw the demolition of thousands of meditation huts. The destruction at Larung Gar in particular was on a scale not witnessed since the Cultural Revolution and has been well documented by non-governmental organisations, human rights watchdog groups and foreign governments.

Banning Wednesday "The so-called issue of Tibet is the main pretext for western countries, including the United States, to westernise and split our country. Western countries, including the United States, want to topple our country and further the cause of their own social and value systems and national interests. In order to achieve this, they will never stop using the Tibet issue to westernise and split our country and weaken our power. The Dalai clique has never changed its splittist nature; it has never stopped its activities to split our country. Therefore, our struggle against the Dalai clique and hostile western forces is long-drawn, serious and complicated" - Zhao Qizheng, minister in charge of the Information Office of the State Council at a meeting of National Research in Tibetology and External Propaganda, 12 June 2000.

The PRC makes it abundantly clear to foreign governments and Tibetans and Chinese alike that the Dalai Lama is the most problematic of their problems in Tibet and a concern for their international image. State-sponsored media and government leaders express this quite publicly. Because the PRC accuses the Dalai Lama and those who work with him with attempting to "split the motherland", any activity whatsoever that has to do with the Dalai Lama is by extension seen as "splittist" activity. In 1995, a renewed offensive was made on the Dalai Lama, which included banning his photographs and intensifying media attacks on the Dalai Lama as a religious fraud. This was a change from the 1980s when the Dalai Lama was attacked primarily as a political leader. In Tibet today, religious devotion to the Dalai Lama, including acts such as listening or watching audio or video cassettes about or by the Dalai Lama or conducting any secular or religious ceremony in the Dalai Lama's name are seen as acts of political rebellion. Hence, local government departments regularly issue and enforce strict regulations on politically sensitive dates such as 6 July, the Dalai Lama's birthday, or 10 December, International Human Rights Day and on the anniversary of the Dalai Lama's Nobel Peace Prize. On 24 June 2001, the Lhasa City Government posted citywide notices which stated, among other items: "The People's Government. forbids any person, any group, or any organisation, in any form or in any place to use any situation to represent celebrating the Dalai's birthday, to pray to the Dalai for blessing, to sing prohibited songs, to offer incense to the Dalai, or to carry out barely-flower-throwing illegal activities".

While authorities and security personnel in Lhasa on 6 July and other dates keep a keen eye open and the detention cells ready for use, a contrary event occurs every Wednesday. On that day, Tibetans across Tibet and in particular in Lhasa carry out intensive popular religious practices, more than on any other day of the week. These include devotional practices such as circumambulating and prostrating in front of the Potala and Jokhang temples, making offerings of burning juniper incense, pouring alcohol in traditional vessels in front of the Tibet's protector deity, Palden Lhamo, and tossing barley flour into the air. Why Wednesday? According to the complex Tibetan astrological calendar, the Dalai Lama's birth sign falls on that day. As with many days in the Tibetan calendar which are deemed to be auspicious, pious and devoted behaviour is believed to carry special weight on these days.

This unorganised yet massive expression of devotion to the Dalai Lama that is evident on Wednesdays took place in a similar fashion before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959. But because of the political climate now and the volatility that surrounds the figure of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, according to elderly Lhasa residents, the Wednesday observances are carried out with even more vigour than before 1959. When asked about the possibility of police questioning prompted by these observances a 65-year old Tibetan man responded, "What do you think, will they ban Wednesdays?"

Lamas and comedians Innovative ways to express religious ideals can be seen in Tibetan pop culture as well. Religious expression is well apparent in the many bootlegged music cassette recordings of pop and folk songs. Stand-up comedians also bring to light religious ideals through their humour. Across the Tibetan plateau, from dusty wind-swept small towns to the large Sinocised cities in Tibet, one will find music cassettes interspersed with those of Tibetan Buddhist teachers giving teachings or simply chanting Buddhist scriptures. The cassettes are recorded and informally distributed by students of the specific lama whose voice and name appear on the cassette. Some of the more popular teachers' cassettes found throughout all regions of Tibet are Lamrim Rinpoche from Drepung monastery, the previous Panchen Lama, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok from Larung Gar, and Achuk Khen Rinpoche from Yachen Gar. Invariably, the cover of the cassette tape will depict the individual lama in a celebrated form with various Buddhist deities hovering over him.

The mixture of pop and folk music with Buddhist teachings in these cassettes represents more of young Tibetan monks' interests and less a marketing ploy. Nonetheless, it is a new kind of expression of popular religious practice.

When a monk in Kandze (Chinese: Garze) was asked if the cassette recording of him playing the dramyin, a traditional Tibetan guitar, was a violation of the monk's vow not to indulge in mundane music and dance, he responded, "All my music is an offering to my lama. That is why I put his photo on the cover of the cassette".

In addition to low budget cassette bootlegs, professionally produced video compact discs and digital videodiscs of Tibetan pop music videos that have stars singing and demonstrating devotion to lamas are prevalent throughout Tibet. In the classic karaoke VCD and DVD style, the words of the song (in Tibetan and Chinese language both) run continually on the bottom of the television screen. In monasteries throughout Tibet, monks gather in the evening after their nightly prayers in front of the television to watch the Tibetan equivalent of Hrithik Roshan or Bono singing Tibetan pop tunes that intermingle with long life prayers to Tibetan lamas and praises to Manjushri, Chenrezig and other Buddhist deities.

Joke On Lhasa television, as well as recordings on VCD and DVD, two of the most famous Tibetan comedians use humour in subtle skits to emphasise the importance of symbols of Tibetan Buddhism. One particular joke involves the most revered statue in all of Tibet, Jowo Shakyamuni. Hundreds of devotees daily, and on special occasions, thousands, make traditional butter lamp and silk scarf offerings and prostrations to the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni. The Jowo statue portrays the historical Buddha in his youth and was part of the dowry of the Chinese wife of Tibet's King Songtsen Gampo, Princess Wen Chen, in the seventh century. The Jowo is located today in the inner sanctum in the Jokhang, Lhasa's central and most important temple. Tibetans often say that one must see Jowo Rinpoche at least once in their lifetime.

The joke is told by two stand-up comedians, Migmar and Thubten. The latter pretends he is the Jowo statue. Migmar is a cunning Tibetan art thief who enters the Jokhang late at night to lure Jowo out of the temple. "You must be so bored. All these long years here in the same cold, dark temple. You have to breathe all this butter lamp smoke, day after day", Migmar, the art thief, commiserates with Jowo. "Year after year you sit here in the same clothes, listening to same ol' prayers. Say, why don't you come with me on vacation. I'll take you to a nice place in Hong Kong and then to a really nice cosy home in America. You will be able to visit all your other statue friends who left many years ago". At this point in the joke, the laughing crowd has understood the poking of fun at illegal antique dealers and art thieves and know that their Jowo is not going to have anything to do with the enticements offered. The skit continues in this vein until the gilded statue exclaims to Migmar, "You silly little man, who do you think you are?

I'm staying here with the Tibetan people!"

Article 36 of China's constitution states, "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. The state protects normal religious activities". Crackdowns at monastic encampments in eastern Tibet, the continuation of patriotic education, and the Chinese government's intransigence towards religious devotion to the Dalai Lama are but a few examples demonstrate that Tibetan Buddhists do not enjoy freedom of religion under Chinese rule today. Yet, the innovations of Kham should remind those outside Tibet that there is still today, in some areas, authentic transmission of Tibetan Buddhism. Popular religious practice in the name of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa and other communities is still happening on a weekly basis. And Tibetans are finding new and innovative ways in monasteries and popular culture to express and communicate the importance of Buddhism in their lives.

This adaptation of Tibetan religious expression is analogous to the power and fluidity of a river. Dropping steeply off the Tibetan plateau into Asia' s major river systems, Tibet's waters trickle through the rocky alpine mountains, flow into the arid valleys, and crash into the Himalayan foothills and jungle, overcoming the obstacles in their way. So it is with Tibetan religious expression; adapting to the current environment keeps the river of Tibetan Buddhism flowing.

Living in the rubble

By Matthew Akester


September 2002

Few governments, international institutions or religious organisations missed the chance to condemn the Taliban militia for their wanton demolition of the massive rock-cut Buddha statues at Bamiyan in March 2001, even those, such as the United States, which had failed to deplore the devastation of the country by civil war during the previous decade. But there was one conspicuous absentee from this facile chorus of international protest. It took a long week after the defiant iconoclasts had carried out their threat before the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) published a statement in the English-language edition of its official newspaper expressing mild regret over the incident on behalf of the Chinese Buddhist Association - hardly an organisation representative of the party or government, but one which nonetheless functions exclusively in their interest.

Taliban vandalism had put the Chinese Communist Party in an embarrassing quandary: as a permanent United Nations Security Council member and ardent aspirant to world-power status, it was loathe to remain silent over such a flagrant violation of universal values, but to speak out would have been to risk attracting the aroused indignation of the international community towards its own, incomparably more heinous record. The muted press statement was a belated compromise masking this official discomfort, which it was hoped would go unnoticed in the wider world. Not for the first time in its dealings with China, the wider world unwittingly obliged.

The party leadership, and the Beijing regime at-large, is still in denial about the unspeakable crimes of the past against Tibet because it was never forced to own up to them and make amends. The party has retained power in the post-Mao era through the ruthless, relentless surveillance and intimidation of potential dissent, and in the last instance, as in the nation-wide student movement of 1989, by resorting to the use of massive state force. In the first decade of 'liberalisation' (prior to 1989), some reformist voices emerged within the top echelons of the leadership, but no clean break with the past was ever made. This has allowed the persistence of a certain neurotic, make-believe aura surrounding the official view of recent history.

In Tibet, for example, traditional settlements were typically clustered below the hilltop castles, or 'Dzong'-s, of local rulers. Every Dzong in the country was destroyed after the 1950s occupation with one exception, Gyantsé Dzong, which had been besieged and badly damaged during the 1904 British invasion. These days, this, the only surviving building of its kind in central Tibet, has been restored as an 'anti-British museum'. At the Bezeklik caves in the Turfan oasis in east Turkestan, a modern cement monument commemorates the pillage of 'Chinese' cultural treasures by Western imperialists. German explorer Albert von le Coq had the abandoned cave's frescoes removed and shipped back to Dresden shortly before the First World War. But for these European escapades, neither Gyantsé Dzong nor the Bezeklik paintings would have survived the communist invasion and Maoist terror half a century later, but that is irrelevant. The point is that foreigners must take the blame for ransacking China, and the party must be credited with restoring her honour. It is well illustrated in the 1990s propaganda epic, 'Birth of a Shooting Star', a eulogy of China's atom bomb programme in the early 1960s, wherein the shrewd, rough-edged but golden-hearted PLA commander (Li Xuejian) in charge of logistics rejects the designated test site at Dunhuang in the Gansu desert because of the threat to the nearby T'ang dynasty cave paintings. Rather than endanger China's ancient heritage, he subjects himself and his men to the hardships of the Gobi at Lop Nor. To accuse revolutionary heroes of cultural insensitivity, the film admonishes us, is slanderous nonsense.

De-civilisation Outsiders have tended to assume that the wholesale desecration of temples and annihilation of traditional architecture and artefacts was a temporary phenomenon associated with the madness of the so-called Cultural Revolution after 1966, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Monasteries in eastern Tibet were systematically looted and destroyed from the early 1950s onwards.

When Mao was briefly dislodged from power in 1961-62 following the disastrous outcome of the Great Leap Forward, one of the measures instituted by his opponents was an ordinance for the protection of listed national monuments, in an attempt to stem the already high tide of cultural cannibalism. What distinguished the period of the Cultural Revolution from earlier attacks, was the policy of forcing ordinary people everywhere, particularly the educated and the devout, to destroy their heritage themselves. Many refused and paid with their lives. Those who survived did so amid the rubble and ashes, and with the bitter knowledge that every vestige of their past, their collective identity and values, had been taken from them not simply by a marauding army, but by their own involuntary hands, or those of their relatives and neighbours, terrorised by fear and desperation. It was in this frame of mind that China and its subject peoples re-emerged from decades of Maoist rule in the late 1970s.

Since then, the refusal of the party to loosen its grip on power has entailed that there is a similarly stubborn refusal to come to terms with the legacy of de-civilisation under communist party rule. In the case of Tibet, the state claims all the credit for the nominal re-construction efforts that have taken place since 1980, but except for the handful of 'national monuments' covered by the 1962 State Council ordinance, the funds (including taxes and bribes paid to predatory officials) and labour have been donated exclusively by ordinary people. Even where state funds were allocated, bureaucratic 'leakage' and sheer incompetence resulted in work so shoddy that fresh repairs became necessary within a few years, most notably in the much-vaunted 1991-94 restoration of the Potala palace. Or the great assembly hall at Ganden monastery built in the 1730s and pulled down by official order in 1969. The central government granted funds for rebuilding in the mid-1990s, work was completed in 2000, and already the foundations have begun to subside. Incidentally, most of the monks have meanwhile been expelled for resisting a draconian political re-education programme introduced in the same period.

Indeed, so far-fetched is the arrogance of current official presentations to the outside world on this issue that the PRC now routinely claims to have restored more Tibetan religious sites than were maintained by the Dalai Lama 's erstwhile 'slave-owner' government. To judge from a 'white paper' on 'cultural preservation' in Tibet put out on 22 June 2000 the central government has more than compensated for any losses "in such a special period as the Cultural Revolution" with lavish expenditure on the restoration of temples, the reprinting of Tibetan literature, the construction of a museum, the funding of Tibetan-language television broadcasts, and so on. The white paper on 'development' in Tibet (8 November 2001) refuses even to acknowledge such "special periods". During his landmark visit to the region in 1980, party secretary Hu Yaobang issued a tentative apology to China's Tibetan subjects for two decades of "leftist" misrule. But Hu's outburst is now considered to have been quite uncalled for. 'Development' in Tibet, says the 2001 document, has been on a steady upward curve ever since 'liberation' in 1950.

What is evident is an echo of defensiveness, the sense of denial and insecurity underlying the self-satisfied, cocksure bravado of current propaganda, and indeed policy. The party feels justified in dismissing any and all criticism of its record because it has retained the monopoly on force and effectively silenced dissent (at least in such sensitive margins as Tibet). But the peoples of China and other subject territories of the PRC still live in the rubble, psychological or actual, of their former civilisations, and the reality is that no amount of force can erase the memory of what has been destroyed, no amount of 'development' can legitimise such destruction.

Satyagraha in exile


September 2002

After years of taking steps towards democratising the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama in the summer of 2001 pushed through one of the most significant political reforms to date; the Tibetan diaspora would for the first time hold direct elections for the Kalon Tripa, or prime minister of the cabinet-in-exile. With the Dalai Lama stepping aside, at least on paper, as the political head of Tibetans in exile, an election followed on 29 July 2001. Tibetans in India, Nepal, Bhutan and around the world voted in overwhelming numbers for 62-year old monk Samdhong Rinpoche. In July, Himal interviewed Samdhong Rinpoche, and here we present excerpts.

Himal: What does it mean that Tibetans in exile have elected a monk rather than a secular leader, and where does this leave the Dalai Lama?

Samdhong Rinpoche: It was a curious question for me too. Basically my nature is anti-establishment; I have always opposed the establishment. Not on personal grounds but on principle and philosophical grounds. I have not been much of a public figure and I have never tried to become popular among the people. So, when I was nominated, I considered withdrawing my name. However, I was moved by the messages sent from inside Tibet that were very emotional and particularly asked me not to withdraw my candidacy. They had heard about it by very clandestinely listening to radio broadcasts. And His Holiness was not willing to allow me to withdraw because it would have disrupted the election process.

Himal: Were the Tibetans inside Tibet calling on you to run because they sense that the system in Dharamsala is nepotistic and corrupt?

SR: I have not analysed it in depth but my first-hand experience is that they did not consider who is a monk or who is a secular leader. From the feedback from people who voted for me I gather they trust me not to disobey His Holiness. Therefore, they have not chosen me as a great democratic leader but they have chosen me as a faithful follower of His Holiness.

Himal: If the Dalai Lama passes away during your tenure, what role will you have in the selection of the next Dalai Lama?

SR: During my tenure of five years, His Holiness will not leave the world. This much I know. Having said that, I am conscious that there is a need for clearly written rules and procedures on the part of the government-in-exile, or Tibetan government inside Tibet when we get genuine autonomy, for the searching and recognition of the next Dalai Lama, the 15th Dalai Lama. All procedures right now are in oral tradition and not in written documents. Now we have a legislative parliament and that parliament can legislate and make laws, and that law, if made in exile will be followed by all Tibetans in exile. And if we are able to go back, these types of important national legislations will be re-legislated inside Tibet.

Himal: How do you see the Tibetan government- in-exile viewed inside Tibet?

SR: The Tibetan people, in general, whether inside or outside, want a government headed by His Holiness. This is considered the legitimate government for them. The dissatisfaction among Tibetans inside and outside with the functioning of the Tibetan government-in-exile is because of the consistent Chinese propaganda and also the underground network to make people hate it. Many of these issues are enlarged through Chinese propaganda. For example, the corruption and nepotism within the government-in-exile, in the past or current, has been negligible. The reason they were able to blow it out of proportion was because there was not as much transparency in the government as there should have been. My cabinet's top priority is to make everything transparent with nothing confidential or secret.

Himal: How can the government-in-exile authentically represent the Tibetans inside Tibet when they, inside Tibet, are unable to express their views?

SR: There are two different things here. To represent their views and to represent their faith; these are different things. The government-in-exile represents the faith of Tibetans inside Tibet, and we cannot represent their view. If we did say we represented their views, then we could not call ourselves a truly democratic society because only those who have freedom and a vote live outside of Tibet.

Himal: After 50 years of Chinese rule, education and cultural assimilation, may some Tibetans inside Tibet question the Dalai Lama himself, as well as not believe in the legitimacy of your position?

SR: I think it is quite the contrary. I am sometimes surprised by how strong the faith and devotion to His Holiness is in the minds of those people that were born and brought up in occupied Tibet, in particular, those individuals who where educated in the Chinese system and indoctrinated by the communist party. They have not given up the devotion to His Holiness. Of course it is not a rational faith, it is a sort of blind faith. Year after year, more than 2000 Tibetans from Tibet, the majority of them youngsters, flee occupied Tibet. I meet them and I talk to them. They carry vastly different viewpoints on politics and social and economic issues but one point that they agree on is in their devotion to His Holiness.

Himal: What is the greatest threat to Tibetans inside Tibet right now?

SR: Marginalisation and Sinocisation. It is very dangerous where we are at right now in terms of assimilation of the Chinese culture and language. This follows the population transfer and is the greatest threat.

Himal: The Chinese do claim that there are more schools now than there were before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet.

SR: That is true, the number has increased and we do not challenge that statement. But, one, the rate of literacy has not increased among Tibetans.

It is still very low. Common Tibetans cannot afford to send their children to school because of the cost. Two, at government schools, the education and language is not Tibetan, nor are the students examined in Tibetan but in Chinese. Thirdly, the schools are built in the towns and larger cities and the remote areas where nomads dwell do not have schools.

Himal: You are a champion of the non-violent approach known as satyagraha. Do you see satyagraha as political?

SR: Satyagraha may be political. Again, here it depends on how you define political. If you ask me if satyagraha is rajniti, then yes, I would say it is. Politics is English and is a broad term and can be interpreted in many ways. Rajniti means a system or activity which is related to the governance of a human society. In that case I would say satyagraha is definitely part of politics.

Himal: What is the difference between your satyagraha approach and the Dalai Lama's middle way approach?

SR: There is no difference. The middle way is the concept and philosophy.

Satyagraha is the method to implement it.

Himal: What is the status of satyagraha inside Tibet? In 1997, you were planning to train satyagrahis at ashrams in India and place them inside Tibet.

SR: My concept of satyagraha is not only for Tibetans inside Tibet.

Satyagraha is on principle opposed to all kinds of violence and all forms of injustice. The non-acceptance of injustice and violence is satyagraha. I am of the opinion that independence or autonomy for Tibet is a question of larger geo-political issues. Satyagraha is about day-to-day living. What I have spoken about for years is that Tibetans should perform their human responsibility inside Tibet. This includes non-cooperation and disobedience to the unjust Chinese rule. We always say we are more than willing to remain under Chinese rule, but the quality of rule that prevails at present is absolutely unacceptable. We do not oppose Chinese people. We do not oppose the Chinese becoming sovereign over us. We only oppose the method and way in which the Chinese are ruling in Tibet and this has to be changed. If that is not change d, we will not obey it. And for that, we may lose our lives but we should be ready to accept any punishment and suffering that may come.

That is the basic idea of satyagraha.

Himal: Do you believe there is a significant population of Tibetans, especially young Tibetans, who are willing to go back to Tibet to carry out satyagraha?

SR: Gandhi said, "If I have a hundred satyagrahis then I can overthrow British rule within 24 hours". There were a lot more of his countrymen than there are Tibetans.

Himal: At present there are over 200 political prisoners in Drapchi prison in Lhasa, mostly monks and nuns, jailed for carrying out completely non-violent political demonstrations in the 1980s and 1990s. What does this say of satyagraha as an effective tool of protest?

SR: I think the non-violent nature of action was fine. But I think a small mistake with their actions was that they did not know what to demand from the Chinese. They only yelled 'free Tibet' slogans, and were easily labelled 'separatist' or 'splittist'. As the Chinese consider their national integrity with utmost importance, they can be blamed and imprisoned very easily. If their demands had been more specific, and on a smaller scale, then their satyagraha could have been more effective. For example, say nuns come to Lhasa to ask for permission to be admitted to a nunnery. If they are not allowed, then they must still stick to that demand for their admission. And if they are not allowed admission, they must stay at that nunnery whether they get food or no food. If action was carried out like this, then perhaps the authorities would not be able to imprison the nuns for such long periods of times, or they may not think there is a need to imprison them.

Satyagraha needs to move through the grassroots level and step by step. It cannot ask immediately for the highest thing.

Himal: With all due respect, it is easy to talk about satyagraha for someone like yourself who speaks with freedom, unlike in the case of Gandhi or Aung san Sukyi. It seems that those who are calling for peaceful protest in Tibet are all outside Tibet.

SR: The Tibetans inside Tibet should do exactly three things. Number one, they should keep their Tibetan-ness intact, and try and bring up their children as Tibetans. This means more than just culture. It means preserving the core of being Tibetan against the huge influence of the Chinese. That is a difficult satyagraha to do. The second thing is that they should stop cooperating with the Chinese and the implementation of Chinese policies and have, if nothing else, an inner non-acceptance. Even if they are not able to express it with words or actions, there still must be a rejection and disassociation of these things from the core of their mind. This must be done without any hatred or intention to harm the Chinese people. Thirdly, everybody should do constructive work that is not dependent upon anyone telling them to do so, even if it is small. By these methods, everyone should become self-sufficient for their food, clothing and shelter. These basic needs must be produced by oneself so that one does not have to depend on the Chinese economy. These three things are important and dangerous. But if one is careful, they can do it.

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