WHAT CHINA'S TIBETAN GLASNOST MEANS ?
Vijay Kranti THE ORGANISER,
New Delhi - 15th Sep. 2002.
(Vijay Kranti, a Tibet watcher for three decades, is the first ever Indian journalist who traveled inside China controlled Tibet for eight days as an ordinary tourist without Beijing's patronization or direct control. )
Tibet, China's latest colony among the '56-Sisters' is once again in news. In quite a different context this time. Unlike the usual condemnation of Beijing by Parliaments, human rights groups and millions of Tibet supporters across the world, Tibet is in news for China's latest policy of opening Tibet to international tourism in a big way.
The effort has two distinct aims -- showcasing what Beijing claims 'the economic progress and religious freedom' being enjoyed by the Tibetan masses under its 51 year rule. And, of course, to rake in a few billion dollars from teaming tourists from abroad. One section of these tourists comprises of the faithful and rich Buddhists from Taiwan, Hongkong, Mainland China, Singapore, Korea and Japan etc. who leave behind heaps of Yuans in front of statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and Avalokiteshwar in Tibetan temples and monasteries.
The other section, interestingly belongs to the same very westerners who know Tibet mainly because of Dalai Lama's fight for human rights and self rule for his countrymen. The third reason, as presented by Prof. Samdong Rimpoche, Prime Minister in Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, is Beijing's eagerness to present a Tibet friendly face in its run up towards Beijing Olympics-2008.
Under this new policy China is taking some startling bold decisions which were quite unimaginable until only a few years ago. Not only that Beijing has started inviting tourists from all over the world to Tibet with open arms, it is also taking selected foreign journalists on conducted tours of the same very 'Roof of the World' that it has been hiding from media for over 50 years now.
The very first two visuals which today's Chinese occupied Tibet presents to an outsider in a city like Lhasa or Shigatse are quite overwhelming. Wide, open, geometrically running roads flanked by some of the most fashionable shopping complexes and multistoried buildings offer the first shock to those who expect Lhasa still to be a poor town of rain washed mud houses. Next shock comes from the crowds of Tibetans circumambulating Potala Palace, Jokhang temple and Tashi Lhumpo monastery to those tourists who believed that China's role in Tibet during past 50 years was limited only to destroying monasteries, temples, Chortens (Stupas) and arresting anyone who dare holds a 'Mani' (prayer wheel). Many among these crowds are villagers from distant places who are, these days, encouraged by the Chinese government to travel to Lhasa for pilgrimage. No wonder they come in the best of their traditional dresses along with their rosary and traditional 'Mani' - a true picture post-card image for a western tourist's camera.
But this is the last meeting point of those tourists who are overwhelmed by what they see in China's Tibet and those who are keen to go beyond what is easily visible. One needs to take a 10-Yuan ride in a taxi in any direction away from Potala to discover who are the real beneficiaries of this progress -- local Tibetans or the Chinese who arrive by thousands every month to settle in Lhasa permanently? Just a peep into the multistoried houses, government offices and glittery shopping arcades will tell you that a large majority of houses, jobs and businesses belong to the Chinese.
Tibetans get the crumbs viz. low menial jobs like street sweepers, drivers, junior positions in local civic bodies. Tourist guide is a job that Tibetan boys and girls get easily just because western tourist hate to have Chinese guides who talk more propaganda than anything else. This year complaints about Tibetan guides' poor quality increased because the licenses of almost all good English speaking Tibetan guides were cancelled as most of them were educated in India in schools run by Dalai Lama's Tibetan government-in-exile.
In the matter of religion one can not fail to notice a remarkable change in the Chinese strategy which used to be expressed only through brutal denial of religious freedom in past decades. Today Tibetans in tourist cities like Lhasa and Shigatse have freedom to go to temples and prostrate in open places like the Barkhor square in front of the Jokhang temple. Daily debate sessions of monks in Drepung monastery in Lhasa are well tuned with the arrival and departure of tourist buses. They present a perfect photo opportunity to all those westerners who come with the hope to see traditional Tibet.
Once the photo session is over, no tourist is interested in finding if all the young men dressed in maroons were genuine scholars. Tourists witness a similar theatric ritual in the government run majestic Tibetan handicraft store opposite main entry gate of Potala. After your tourist guide has almost forcibly pushed you inside the store, Chinese girls dressed in unusual golden Tibetan Chubas (gowns) take you through well presented sections of Thanka paintings, metal crafts and carpet weaving. In a hurry to show that the design shop of the carpet section is a serious business, the pretty Chinese designer girl starts giving fine touches to a carpet design with a fine brush. The real fun is yours provided you could notice that brush had no colour in it.
All said and done, one can not deny that almost all visual aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are being preserved and presented to the visitors in their best possible colours. But no Tibetan has the freedom to open mouth on issues unpalatable to the Chinese masters. Five monks of Drepung monastery were arrested early August this year for listening to pro-independence songs on tape.
While pot bellied Tibetan policemen dominate prominent Tibetan public places like the Barkhor street, video cameras installed inside almost each room of Potala, monasteries, house tops and on trees and lamp posts in other sensitive places keep the real vigil on every movement of Tibetans and tourists. I had a first hand feel of this Chinese grip in the Barkhor street, famous for 1987 public uprising against the Chinese rule in Tibet.
Nearly twenty Chinese agents of notorious Public Security Bureau (PSB) appeared from nowhere within two minutes after a physical altercation started between two Tibetan stall owners. Both were whisked away and quickly shoved behind a huge gate which opened dramatically in a nearby room of Jokhang temple. In less than five minutes the street had no leftover signs of the melee. Everything appeared as normal and quiet as before the drama started.
But all this does not mean that Tibetans have given in or they don't express themselves. Photos of exiled Tibetan ruler Dalai Lama and Gedhun Choeky Nyima, the incarnate Panchen Lama recognized by him, are strictly banned in today's Tibet. In Panchen Lama's city of Shigatse no one would dare to display their pictures. But not a single shop, restaurant, house or private vehicle I saw during eight days of my stay in Tibet displayed the photo of Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese sponsored 11th Panchen Lama. As a middle way, people display and buy big posters of the late 10th Panchen Lama who was acceptable to the Beijing regime but who also represents free Tibetan spirit because of his daring statements against the Chinese communist rulers during his life time.
In Tashi Lhumpo monastery, the supreme seat of Panchen Lama in Shigatse, one rarely see a Tibetan bowing or offering scarves before the Chinese sponsored Panchen Lama's photo whereas the empty seat of Dalai Lama looks outstanding because of an abnormally large heap of scarves offered by lay Tibetans. In the Potala Square of Lhasa too, people crowd around the photographer stalls to get their photos with Potala in the backdrop. But I did not see a single Tibetan getting oneself photographed with the majestic and tall memorial installed last year to commemorate 50 years of 'peaceful liberation' of Tibet.
The landscape and house architecture in the Tsang region of Tibet, housing cities like Shigatse, Gyantse and Tingri, remarkably resembles India's Ladakh region in Jammu & Kashmir state. The only element that helps one in knowing whether one is in Tibet or Ladakh is the total absence of Chorten (Stupa) from the Tibetan countryside. Though almost all stupas were destroyed during fateful days of Cultural Revolution the two giant stupas guarding the front of Potala are among those handful ones that appear to be preserved by the Chinese masters.
However, the strategic placing of these two stupas is enough to explain how much respect Beijing masters hold for their Tibetan subjects and their religion. In Tibet it is considered to be sinful and inauspicious to cross a stupa from the anti-clockwise direction. But the two holy structures have been positioned in the middle of the majestic 'Beijing Road' in such a manner that every vehicle must cross them the wrong way. No wonder you see old Tibetans closing their eyes and raising folded hands in prayer when their bus or rickshaw crosses each stupa from the wrong side.
HOW TIBETANS SPEAK UP THEIR MIND
Vijay Kranti THE ORGANISER,
New Delhi - 8th Sep. 2002.
[Despite all Chinese controls and regulations, ordinary Tibetans have developed an ingenious sense of hammer that leaves a Tibet visitor dumb stuck.] (Vijay Kranti, a Tibet watcher for three decades, is the first ever Indian journalist who traveled inside China controlled Tibet for eight days without Beijing's patronization or direct control.)
As a tourist inside China's Tibet you rarely run into someone who can speak English. Much fewer who would dare to speak to a foreign at length in a public place. But no one who has a mind of his own and still would take risk of getting into trouble with the omnipresent PSB (Public Security Bureau) agents. But that does not mean that Tibetans don't speak out their mind on their Chinese colonial masters.
The first statement of this kind, and a bold one, was from a Tibetan whom I met at the airport. He was going back to his home in Tibet after leaving his only son with a Tibetan refugee relative who would drop the kid at a school run by Dalai Lama's 'government-in-exile' at Dharamsala, India. The little boy was smuggled out of Tibet a month ago with the help of a Nepalese agent who charged more than 2000 Yuan for the service. Sad father was not sure if he would ever meet his son again in life. He didn't care either.
The young father, in his late twenties, was in tears as he explained through his relative what made him take this extreme step. The child had been going to the local Chinese school. One day he gave the shock of their life to his parents when he pointed at the Dalai Lama's picture in the family altar and said - "He is a traitor. My teacher says he is the enemy of our motherland. Throw out his photo!" "That is the education he was going to get from his Chinese teachers. So, we decided to send him to a Tibetan school in India," said the young man wiping his tears with his Tibetan gown. The family had to sell some precious part of their land and some other possessions to arrange the deal.
Before the Chinese authorities cracked down two years ago on Tibetans who had sent their kids to exile schools, their total number was far above the 2000 figure. Still there are a few hundred whose parents have decided to take the risk.
But that is not the only way of making a statement. Five decades of Chinese rule has left Tibetans more intelligent on when and how to express their opinion. It could be an as impossible place as a discotheque also. Unlike the Chinese Karaoke bars that offer every kind of music and sex escapades through an ever increasing population of Chinese prostitutes from the mainland, the Tibetan 'Nangma' is a different kind of experience in beer, dance and social life. These discotheques have come to stay practically as the only public place where 10, 50 or even a hundred Tibetan youths can meet under one roof.
A Nangma comes to life after 11pm when Tibetan girls and boys in the age range of 13 to 30 suddenly start pouring in groups of twos, fours and even a dozen at a time. All, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, sip Coke, beer or just mineral water and swing on hard Chinese Rock amidst a flood of laser beams, crystal lights, dry ice fog and nauseating cigarette smoke. Dance sessions take intermittent breaks when live singers take to the floor.
The evening when I witnessed a show in a Lhasa Nangma started with a 'Tashi Delek!' song by a young male singer. Sung in Tibetan, the good-luck wishing song attracted a long scarf from the management and many cheers from the crowd. Next song was a politically correct one praising Beijing for whatever it does to Tibet. Not a single clap. No cheering. No scarves. The real hero was another young Tibetan who presented a traditional Tibetan love song that filled the hall with a bursting applause and two scarves from the crowd in addition to the one from management. But anyone hardly listened to him when he presented a politically correct song in Chinese that showered praise on China for improving the environment of Tibet.
But the real stealer of the hearts was 'Madhuri Dixit', a young Tibetan girl dressed in an Indian Saree and an over done make up. Though a poor imitation of the famous Indian cinema heroin from whom she borrows her nick-name, yet her Hindi song 'Chal Jhhoothi.' pulled all the plugs and drowned the hall in claps, cheers, whistles and - five scarves from the audience. Among Tibetans inside Tibet India commands big respect, rather reverence, for being home to the exiled Dalai Lama. Another expression of Tibetans' love for India is through Hindi cinema songs, video cassettes and big colorful posters of Hindi cinema stars like Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Preeti Zinta.
Among the Tibetan society at large too, there are many innocent looking songs like 'Agu Pema' (Uncle Pema) which quickly do rounds in the community and disappear before the Chinese authorities realize that the song had a political message embedded intelligently between the notes. This particular song which looks like one sung in the memory of a lost dear uncle is actually dedicated to the exiled Dalai Lama who is also revered as 'Pema' (meaning 'Lotus') among the Tibetans. This song is already out of circulation inside China's Tibet but it is still a hot number among the exiled Tibetans who are always eager to hear any political statement that emanates occasionally from their colonized motherland.
After the 1987 public demonstrations and the ruthless Martial Law that followed, the frequency of open public demonstration of anger has gone down drastically. Only once in a few months a couple of monks, nuns or lay Tibetans would surprise the PSB agents and the onlookers in Barkhor with a Tibetan flag, flying pamphlets and shouting slogans. It is a public knowledge that this kind of act is bound to result in severe physical torture plus 8 years in jail, if not 25 or 40 years. There are more than 400 of them languishing in the dreaded Drapchi prison of Lhasa alone.
In Chinese controlled Tibet today one of the worst crimes is keeping the photo of Dalai Lama or that of Gedhun Choeky Nyima, the 13 year old boy who lives under house arrest since 1995 when he was recognized as the 11th incarnate of Panchen Lama. But even in Shigatse, the home city of Panchen Lama's seat at Tashi Lhumpo monastery I did not see a single restaurant, bakery or a private house displaying a picture of Gyaltsen Norbu, the Beijing sponsored Panchen Lama. As an intelligent compromise people have settled for the photos of 10th Panchen Lama even 13 years after his death.
Inside Tashi Lhumpo monastery too Tibetan devotees quietly avoid passing in front of Gyaltsen's photo. But they leave behind a heap of scarves and currency notes in front of the empty seat reserved for the Dalai Lama - the loudest statement of all that leaves one dumb stuck at the remarkable sense of hammer illiterate Tibetans have acquired in five decades of Chinese rule.