Fear in the Shadow of the Himalayas

China Throttles All Opposition in Tibet

Ulrich Schmid

NZZ Online

Thu. 6 Jun 2002

Many people in Tibet are fearful. Members of the ruling Han Chinese minority are ill at ease and feel potentially threatened, the Tibetans fear the authorities' repressive measures, and many believers live in great fear of the consequences of a sinful life. Meanwhile the Communists try to justify their unjust rule by pointing to social and economic progress.

When the Chinese tourists have shuffled through the dark, mysterious corridors of Lhasa's Potala Palace, past the murmuring worshipers, past the immobile Buddhas with their countless, equally immobile followers, past the monks in their burgundy-red robes, past the golden altars, the shelves bearing sacred scriptures and candles flickering in imported Nepalese butter; when they have climbed onto the roof, enjoyed the magnificent panoramic view, gotten themselves into ranks for the group photo, and raised their hands in the inevitable V-for-victory sign - then, for the first time, something like relief flashes across their faces. Until then, they are tense and silent in a way that Chinese seldom are.

"I feel terribly divided," says Zhang Liu, a young tourist from Shanghai. On the one hand, she says, it is splendid here "in terms of landscape." But her basic feeling is one of fear. Not because of the altitude (3,700 meters - 12,2000 feet - above sea level), nor because of the ubiquitous "superstition" one encounters here. No, what she is afraid of is "these Tibetans." These monks, these towering dark figures, so strong, so shameless, with their bare arms, so brown, so crude, so ominous: necks like yaks, noses like Europeans. But even the smaller people, the nomads, make her shudder. They ... well, they smell. Does the Swiss gentleman know, she asks, that Tibetans give their dead to the vultures to eat?

Self-Confidence and Fear One can understand Ms. Zhang. Tibet really is utterly different from China. But not only because of the sensible, hygienic ritual of "heavenly interment," in which the dead, instead of being consigned to the barren, hard soil or burned, are cut up and left for the tearing beaks of vultures.

Nowhere, with the possible exception of Xinjiang, do Han Chinese people stand out as they do here - and being in a minority is something to which the Han Chinese are not at all accustomed. Old Lhasa is almost medieval, colorful, in places fabulously beautiful, exciting - and un-Chinese through and through. No wonder that, despite the Beijing government's numerous efforts to steer people here, even today only about 5% of the people living in Tibet are Han Chinese. They willingly move to Xinjiang Province (in China's northwestern corner) and to Inner Mongolia, if there is hope of gain in doing so, but so far no one has been able to force many of them to take up residence in the cold and windy heights of Tibet.

In Lhasa's old center, with its harmonious Tibetan buildings, members of various Tibetan tribes are on parade, shopping, trading, chatting, looking around. Many of them, even poor folk, wear traditional costumes, the women have red or blue ribbons woven into their braided hair, and everyone adds a daring personal touch to the prescribed costume. Individualism is rampant.

Self-confident beggars sit on the curb; ragged, artfully dirtied children tug at tourists' trousers; short-statured semi-nomads from the vast western plateaus stare in amazement at the displays in the marketplace. Well-fed monks, truly grown surprisingly full-bodied thanks to a peaceful lifestyle and reliable financial support, stroll through the crowd bestowing their merciful smiles. An old woman throws herself prone on the ground, her hands protected by two small boxes, gets up, walks two steps forward, throws herself down again, and repeats the process time after time until she has circumambulated the entire temple.

Tibet is living proof that self-confidence and fear can mix. Here is a group of young men, fresh, loud, impertinent, wearing huge black sunglasses and broad-brimmed hats, silver jewelry on hands, ears, and neck, cheerful, proud cocks on the lookout for fun and adventure. And there an old woman dressed in brilliant blue, resting on the sidewalk, lying comfortably in the dirt, smoking contentedly, taking an occasional swig of Tibetan beer, calling out to the passersby; when she laughs - and she laughs a great deal - her eyes sparkle with such a powerful, earthy, disreputable wildness, that the Chinese strolling by turn away with a shudder. Where could they possibly see such sights back home?

But if you attempt to approach the Tibetans, these proud mountain folk turn into anxiety-ridden tacticians, their suspiciousness leading them even to self-denial. "I'm Chinese," says an elderly, sunburned merchant, clearly a Tibetan. "Yes, a Chinese. Everyone here's Chinese, there are no Tibetans."

There is not a trace of irony in the man's eyes; he is censoring himself even more severely than the Chinese government would demand, for Beijing has never denied that there is a separate Tibetan culture with its own language, script, and customs. Yet the street merchant is not the only one to fear that even naming his real nationality could bring him trouble. A question about the Tibetan flag triggers something akin to horror: Good heavens no, there is no such flag, there can't be, only the Chinese flag, it flies everywhere. The fear of the Tibetans is so palpable you could almost touch it.

Social Progress And no wonder. A good 50 years after its bloody annexation, Beijing maintains an unparalleled regime of terror in Tibet. Of course, the Communists present their policy here quite differently. The conquest of Tibet and the bloody suppression of the 1959 uprisings are labeled a "liberation," despite admissions that, as in China itself, some "mistakes" were made - during the Cultural Revolution, for example, when things were "exaggerated" even in China. But the Tibetans were liberated from their "backward" social structure, from serfdom, exploitation, political and religious repression, and for all this - so the official propaganda insists - they are grateful to the Beijing government. Of course, the propaganda continues, the real goal has not yet been achieved, the Autonomous Region of Tibet is still one of the poorest parts of China; but the billions invested by Beijing in the development of the Tibetan highlands have been worthwhile. Average incomes have risen, most children receive schooling, women are allowed to work, serfdom has been eliminated once and for all, and the people's health has improved markedly. Today, say the Chinese, a large proportion of Tibetans have access to modern telecommunications. Religion and traditions are respected, destroyed Buddhist temples have been rebuilt, for the purpose of which the government has put up not only gold and silver but also 300 million yuan.

There is much truth in these assertions. It would be senseless to reject them in toto just because they emanate from Beijing. Most Tibetans are better off than they were 50 years ago, and some projects launched by the Chinese are very sensible. Before many farmyards stand simple solar-powered stoves on which people can boil water without consuming precious firewood; new roads make it easier for farmers to get to the city and find new customers for their produce; most children now attend school. It is also true that Tibetan Buddhism is by no means the easy-going, fashionable and uncommonly humane faith that it is generally presented to the West as being.

In the monasteries, fear is rampant. Many monks, having been placed in seclusion as children, remain only because they fear having to atone for disobedience in a later life. The poor, and even the most poverty-stricken, believe that they must turn over their hard-earned money to the monks.

Handicapped people get no mercy, and certainly no active caritas; they are thought to have sinned in a former life, and no one wants to sully himself by contact with them. The sale of indulgences continues despite an official ban; the monks accept all gifts, many of them drive fancy cars, and as everyone can plainly see, they enjoy good food and plenty of it. One may find it "gratifying," as one eager, middle-aged, German high school teacher put it, to see with what "capacity for devotion" pilgrims from the countryside throw themselves down into the dust, humbly prostrating themselves before divine authority, and one may even regard such an emphatic relinquishing of individuality as a "counter-model to the excessive individualism of the Enlightenment." Others, including this writer, find themselves rather baffled by these rituals of the search for transcendence.

Religiosity as Resistance But all of this naturally does not alter the fundamental problem: Tibet was conquered by China against the will of most Tibetans, and the "historical" justifications used by the Communists to prettify their aggression are almost uniformly rejected among knowledgeable Westerners. (Quite aside from the fact that such a use of history could be made by practically any nation to lay claim to territory in neighboring countries. Should, for example, western Poland be given back to Germany?)

There is no democracy in Tibet, nor any individual human rights. Contrary to official assertions, practicing Buddhists are often harassed; monasteries thought to be nests of resistance are razed; the military and security forces are ubiquitous in the streets of Lhasa, and anyone daring to speak even a word against the regime is immediately arrested and subjected to horrible punishment. The autonomy which the region allegedly enjoys is a pure chimera. Beijing rules Tibet with an iron fist. Its routine defense against unceasing Western criticism is that China defines human rights differently. Its claim is that people here value the government-guaranteed right to subsistence and economic development more highly than personal freedoms, and that the system of party rule and controlled representation by the People's Congress has proved its worth. Moreover - so goes Beijing's assertion - the Tibetans, like the Chinese in general, prefer stability to the chaos of democracy, and only stability can guarantee economic progress.

Hidden Insubordination Just how the Beijing government knows all this so well is rather mysterious; they've certainly never asked the Tibetans. In the streets of Lhasa one feels little of the alleged gratification for the murderously imposed happiness, and in private conversation Chinese officials freely admit that in reality they perceive these hard-edged mountain people as an ungrateful, barbaric rabble that can only be kept down by force.

There is a clear element of resistance in the blatant doggedness with which the Tibetans cling to their religion - not unlike the situation in Poland in the 1980s, when it was the Catholic church which inspired the Solidarity trade union movement and held it together. To the Chinese - far more secular, more practical, more worldly - the pervasive, ubiquitous religiosity of the Tibetans seems uncanny and profoundly suspect, a form of veiled insubordination. And probably rightly so. Only in prayer, says one old man with long, rolled hair, does he feel himself fully a Tibetan. Then he falls silent; he has said it all, and looks thoughtfully after an old woman who turns her "mani," her small prayer wheel containing sacred writings, as she walks by. With firm steps the old woman walks off, her head grimly bent forward, and from the distance the prayer wheel suddenly looks like an ominously raised fist.

* First published in German, May 30, 2002

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