“That looks really nice,” I thought to myself. “I should try visiting the Far East rather than just keep going to Europe year after year.” So it began, and Asia was in my mind as a place to visit. I had narrowed it down to either Japan or China for the next year, and ultimately chose China, as a trip there was the less expensive.
That trip that I chose also included a number of days in Tibet, as I’d been fascinated by that place up on high. Finally I was going to see it – or so I thought. The very next day after I made my tour payment to my travel agent, the New York Times had a front page headline which basically read: “China Declares Martial Law in Tibet.” One week later, the other shoe fell. My trip was cancelled due to an uprising by Tibetans against the Chinese who occupied their land.
Now, nearly 19 years later, the Tibetans have risen up once again in protest. The Chinese, of course, can’t admit that the cause of the unrest is their failed policy of religious and cultural repression in Tibet, so they’ve been laying the blame on Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who has openly renounced violence.
I finally made my trip to Tibet last year and saw both the beauty of the land and the beauty of the people in their spiritual devotion. Try as the Chinese may, the Tibetans refuse to let their Buddhist beliefs – and their devotion to the Dalai Lama – fade away. In the Barkhor area – the Tibetan section of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa – hundreds of pilgrims, prayer wheels in hand, still walk the ceremonial circuit around the sacred Jokhang Temple. Pilgrims also walk the circuit around and prostrate themselves in devotion in front of the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s former residence.
(The photos posted here show monks in Samye Monastery, the oldest in Tibet, a woman I met at Trandruk Monastery and a girl who I came across just outside.)
Notice that I wrote “the Tibetan section of the Tibetan capital.” This would be like saying “the Italian section of Rome” or “the French section of Paris” or, indeed, “the Chinese section of Beijing.” The ideas seems ridiculous – all of Paris is French, of course – but in Lhasa it isn’t ridiculous, as most of the city is yet another Chinese place populated by Chinese shops and people. With the influx of Chinese into Tibet, Tibetans are becoming a minority in their own land, with most of the economic opportunities there going to the Chinese, from what I’ve read. (I couldn’t ask any Tibetans this, of course, as we were warned of the dire consequences that would befall a Tibetan for speaking out on such things.)
Likewise, religious freedoms are being denied. While pilgrims may walk around the Barkhor and the Potala, students and government employees are prohibited from being practicing Buddhists. Someone wanting to become a monk must be vetted by the Chinese to make sure that he has no family involved in anti-Chinese activities. The Chinese impose limits on the number of monks that each monastery may have, and they are forced to undergo Communist indoctrination and to renounce their allegiance to the Dalai Lama. (That would be like a Roman Catholic priest being forced to renounce allegiance to the Pope and the Vatican.) It’s no wonder that the Tibetans are angry that their world is being taken away from them.
I’ve been trying to come up with something comparable to the 1950 Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 comes to mind, but as Tibet has no oil, nobody really cared about Tibet. I think a better example is the Roman occupation of ancient Israel during and after the time of Jesus – a case of an invader building roads and public works but doing so for its own benefit and seeking to suppress and destroy the local culture. The Israelites rose up against the Romans several times, just as the Tibetans have risen up against the Chinese.
This year the Olympics are to be held in Beijing, and the Chinese want to put on a good show, showing the world that their land is one big happy place with one big happy family. If only it were true. So far, Steven Speilberg has resigned as artistic advisor in protest over the Chinese government’s support of the genocidal regime in Sudan. Champion distance runner Haile Gebreselassie has said that he won’t run in the marathon because the air in Beijing is too polluted. Now the unrest in Tibet shows the world how happy Tibetan people really are.
I guess that there are two ways to see to it that your people appear to be living harmoniously. The first is that you can actually make an effort to create harmonious living conditions. The other way is to tell your people, “Be harmonious – or else!!!” It’s obvious that with its campaign of repression the Chinese have chosen the latter method.
Now there’s talk of some countries boycotting the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. On the News Hour earlier this week, some Tibet experts warned that doing so would likely inflame the Chinese even more, put strains on China’s relations with the west and would cause the Chinese to punish Tibet even more. Unfortunately, when it comes to dealing with China, it seems to be a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’
Or, it could just be China’s way of saying to the world, “Be harmonious with us – or else!”