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Tibet Disenchanted

1.

The first time I visited Tibet, in the fall of 1982, scars of the Maoist years were still plain to see: Buddhist wall paintings in temples and monasteries were scratched out or daubed with revolutionary slogans. Now that new winds are blowing, these offending daubs have been scrubbed out in their turn. Chinese were around then, though not in large numbers, and almost all of them in military uniform. But the early 1980s were a time of relatively liberal policies. There was little sign of terror. And Tibetan towns still looked entirely Tibetan. Han Chinese influence was mainly confined to the barracks. Hotels hardly existed; restaurants were few and mostly bad. Even in the main cities of Lhasa, Gyantse, and Shigatse, there was little evidence of a modern economy.

Things have changed a great deal since then. Modernization replaced class struggle as the main form of propaganda, even though revolutionary dogma has not disappeared. Modernization is how many colonial powers before the Chinese justified their imperial rule in Asia, and elsewhere. And it is to a large extent how the Communist Party of China justifies its grip today. A huge amount of government money is being poured into the “Tibet Autonomous Region,” and Chinese fortune hunters are flocking there in ever larger numbers. Stories I had been hearing of the results, from travelers and reporters, were disturbing and often a little fantastic: gambling casinos, gigantic discotheques, four-story brothels. These are not uncommon establishments in the wild frontier towns of Chinese-style capitalism, but it took some imagination to picture them in front of the Potala palace or the Tashilhunpo monastery. When I decided to have a look, it was less in a spirit of outrage, however, than of curiosity about who, among the Tibetans, might be benefiting.

I did not see a gambling casino in front of the Potala, but it is true that the road into Lhasa is lined with shabby little bordellos masquerading as karaoke bars, which means that customers are given the opportunity to sing before moving on to the main entertainment. That same road passes by a large, ugly sculpture of two golden yaks, which stands where the old West Gate of the city used to be until it was smashed by Red Guards in the 1960s. The golden yaks were a gift from the Chinese government to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of “peaceful liberation.”

Orville Shell complains in his book Virtual Tibet that Lhasa looks “drab.” I am not sure I agree. Much of the dilapidated charm of the old Tibetan city has gone, to be sure. Lhasa looks more like the market towns one finds around the borders of Thailand or in southern China—the East Asian versions of Dodge City in the old Wild West—teeming with Chinese carpetbaggers, hucksters, hookers, gamblers, hoodlums, corrupt officials, and other desperados lusting after quick cash. At the same time, as though from another planet, there are the Tibetan pilgrims, fingering their beads, spinning their prayer wheels, and moving their lips to endless prayers, and nomads with silver daggers and long hair tied up in red silk, and countrywomen in long skirts and striped aprons, and monks dressed in saffron and red. There is the constant din of Chinese and Hindi pop songs, market salesmen pitching their wares, and rattling machine gun fire from the video arcades (I saw a group of young monks staring in rapture at Tom Hanks stopping a tank in Saving Private Ryan). Weaving their way through all this hurly-burly with an air of imperial swagger are riot police in their green uniforms and the regular police in white—country boys with almost unlimited power speeding along in white jeeps, or cruising very slowly in unmarked Chinese-built Volkswagen cars. The general impression, then, is noisy, vulgar, raucous, and a little menacing, but drab it certainly is not.

One quickly gets a sketchy idea of the general divisions of labor. The stores, restaurants, and most other forms of commercial enterprise are in the hands of Han Chinese, mostly from Sichuan, to judge from their accents and the preponderance of Sichuanese food. Petty traders, market salesmen, money-changers, and so on are often Muslims from the poor western provinces, such as Qinghai. They wear white caps and you see them hanging around the central market. Tibetans themselves tend to fall into two categories: country folk in traditional dress, who have come to the city to visit the holy places, and middle-ranking government employees, who sit around the Chinese fast-food restaurants, wolfing down plates of rice or noodles. Like many colonial people dependent on government jobs, they tend to run to fat.

I tried to see how the Tibetans fit into the brash new economy. At first sight it seemed that they did not, or at least only very few of them did. The pilgrims, nomads, and country people walked the same streets as the Chinese hustlers and traders, but they might as well have been in another country. They were also in a minority. More than half the people in Lhasa are Chinese, even though few of them stay there for very long, and almost none speaks Tibetan. This constant va-et-vient of fortune hunters is what gives Lhasa the impermanent, feverish atmosphere of a typical cowboy town. What makes it look more and more Chinese, apart from the people, is the new architecture, much of it gimcrack, most of it hideous, but of the same type you see all over the modern Chinese empire: squat white-tiled buildings with blue windows and kitschy, Chinese-style roofs.

The old Tibetan economy, before “liberation,” had been, like so much else in Tibet, an integral part of religious life, for the monasteries were more than spiritual institutions; they managed real estate, acted as brokers and money-lenders, and ran schools and other public services. These functions have all been replaced by government institutions. There was once a Tibetan merchant class, too, trading mostly with India and Nepal, but I was told it had pretty much disappeared. Trade with India has been blocked by the Sino-Indian border problems, and by the government’s successful policy of making Tibet dependent on China. Merchant families have either fled abroad or found jobs in the government.

In one of the Tibetan restaurants around the seventh-century Jokhang temple, where pilgrims and tourists mingle with hawkers of incense, jewelry, and religious objects (“hello, look look, cheap cheap!”), I met two Tibetan friends, both in their twenties. They spoke Tibetan in the way well-educated Indians speak Hindi, or Hong Kong Chinese speak Cantonese, spraying their native language with words, or even entire sentences, from the language of the colonial power. Chinese is the language of their education, their workplace, and some of their social life. Both were doing well working for Chinese financial institutions. One rode a fine Japanese motorcycle. They said it was people like themselves who benefited most from Chinese education, for it had opened up a wider world, of technology, economics, politics, and even some Western ideas. Tibetans in the countryside, they said, still led traditional lives, getting by on very little, and derived no benefit at all from China.

One of the men ordered a pizza, the other had Chinese noodles. Then, what had begun as a quiet conversation about the economy turned into an argument, in which I was merely a passive bystander. Perhaps for my sake, out of courtesy, they spoke Chinese, but with more and more Tibetan words thrown in. They disagreed about religion. The more studious of the two friends believed that religion was important. Without it, he said, the human spirit withers. He explained that without religion most Tibetans would never have survived the harsh conditions of living in arid, icy highlands, with little more to eat than dried yak meat and clumps of stamped barley. But affluence, he said, creates a thirst for religion too; you cannot live on materialism alone. I thought of Richard Gere and the other Hollywood Buddhists. But then his friend took the opposite, more conventional Chinese Communist line: religion was out of date; contemporary problems could only be solved by science. Science, in his view, had replaced religion.

It seemed to be a straightforward clash between a man of faith and an atheist. In fact, there was more to it than that. For the “atheist” was from a Muslim family. And although he didn’t believe in religion himself, he still stuck to many of his family traditions. He did not eat pork, and said he would marry a Muslim girl. He even said he might go on a pilgrimage to Mecca one day, as his parents had done. It was a way to see the outside world. Religion to him did not carry the same meaning it did for his Buddhist friend. Muslims had been persecuted in the past by Tibetans who wanted to keep Tibet “pure,” that is, purely Buddhist. Buddhism, to a Tibetan, cannot be separated from nationalism—to be Tibetan is to be Buddhist—which is why the Chinese government wishes to control it, and those from religious minorities view it with a sense of unease. In a way, Muslims occupy a position in Tibet similar to Jews in Poland under communism, when the Pope acted as the Dalai Lama of Polish nationalism.

Later that evening, the Buddhist and I repaired to a Tibetan nightclub. These are good places to talk. They are noisy, and there are few Han Chinese around. The décor looked vaguely Tibetan, with white curtains lined with blue, green, and red stripes, and the singers, some in traditional dress, sang Tibetan as well as Chinese songs. There are rules about this: the number of Tibetan songs and their content are strictly controlled, so as not to provoke unwelcome outbursts of nationalism. Video screens showed clips from Hollywood movies. I saw bits of Titanic and the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind, as well as stock images of Tibet, copied perhaps from videos promoting tourism: the Potala, country dances, yaks grazing, monks blowing horns, and horse fairs. A reproduction of the Mona Lisa hung on the wall next to the plastic head of a bodhisattva.

I asked my friend what went through his mind when he saw how Tibetan folklore was presented at official celebrations in Beijing, those pumped-up occasions for endless parades on Tiananmen Square. Between the tanks and the missile launchers and the adoring schoolchildren, the fifty-five official “minorities,” including Muslims, Mongols, Miao, and Tibetans, are always in attendance, dancing in colorful costumes for the leaders waving from their platform in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait. He said it was both ridiculous, because many of the details were wrong, and outrageous, because it was so patronizing.

Despite the noise from the stage, where a woman in a red ballgown was singing a Chinese song in praise of the Tibetan mountains, my friend lowered his voice and studied his knees. The trouble was, he said, that it had become almost impossible to study Tibetan culture seriously, especially religious culture. And without the latter, you could not possibly understand Tibet. To take a serious interest in religion invited suspicion of political subversion. You might be denounced as a “splittist,” a promoter of Tibetan independence, splitting the country from the “motherland.” And the monasteries were no good anyway, because the monks were government employees who knew little about religion. Yet my friend wanted to know about his own culture and to be more literate in Tibetan as well. He spoke of his sense of shame at not mastering his mother tongue. The fact that he was compelled, because of his own education, to read about Tibetan Buddhism in Chinese made his situation even more galling. The Tibetan-language textbooks he had read at school were all about the glories of Chinese communism, and the few books he had studied about Tibet were written by Chinese. I glanced at the video monitor with its tourist images of yaks, horse fairs, and white mountains, and couldn’t help wondering whether in the end Tibetan culture would be reduced to this: the commercial equivalent of the folk dancers on Tiananmen Square.

On another night, at a similar nightclub in Lhasa, this one with a small dance floor lit by a revolving ball reflecting speckles of blue light on the dancers, I got involved in another discussion about the Tibetan “identity.” There were video screens showing the same stock images of Tibet as at the other club. A rather fey young man, dressed in the garb of a Tibetan herdsman, sang a folk song, prompting a female admirer to wrap a silk scarf around his neck in the traditional Tibetan manner of showing respect. After his act, he came up to me and told me in English that he was an art student. He sat down and I asked him what kind of art. Any kind, he said, oil painting, Western art, any kind. What about Tibetan art? He hesitated. Yes, he finally said, Tibetan art too. But he wanted to go to the United States, to work with computers. What about his art?I asked. He shrugged and said he couldn’t express himself in art. I asked him why not. He drew closer and whispered in my ear: “Politics.” He wanted to do Tibetan painting, but was not allowed to study religious art, and without that, Tibetan painting made no sense.

After the singer had gone back to the stage, where he started a comedy routine in Tibetan, which failed to provoke much laughter, I sat awhile nursing my glass of beer. Couples were dancing under the revolving ball, men with women, women with women, men with men, some of them going through well-practiced moves of Western ballroom dancing. I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Where you from?” asked a neatly dressed man of about thirty. He looked Han Chinese, which was indeed what he turned out to be. He had been living in Lhasa for three years and was almost due to go home. He wanted to know what I thought of the Tibetan situation. Not knowing who he was, I made a banal remark about every place having its problems. He nodded gravely. Then he asked what I thought of human rights in China. Again, I erred on the safe side. And what about democracy? Well, living in a democracy myself, I had to say I was rather in favor of it. He nodded, and said the one-party state was no good. There was too much corruption and abuse of power. China needed more political parties.

I was surprised to hear this, especially when he told me he was a Communist Party member and had been sent to Tibet by the government. But nothing had prepared me for the next question. Did I think Tibet was like Kosovo? I gulped, took a long sip of beer, recalled the nationalist fervor in China after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and asked him whether he meant China was like Serbia. He looked me in the eye, and nodded quickly. That is what he meant. Living in Lhasa had opened his eyes to many problems, he said, problems of nationality and human rights. “In the West,” he said, “people are allowed to chose their own governments. Here in Tibet, the government chooses its people.”

I noticed another man, on my other side, who was straining to hear what was being said, a thin man with a dark brown complexion. He was a Tibetan friend of the Chinese official. Now it was his turn to talk. He cupped his hands around my ear and said in perfect Chinese that he was working for a Tibetan company. What did I think of human rights in Tibet? Once more, I played it safe: human rights were important everywhere, in the rest of China, as much as in Tibet. “No, no,” he said, “we have a special problem in Tibet. We are losing our language, our religion is controlled, our culture is disappearing. You see, the forces of economic modernization are directly opposed to our own traditions.” Still trying to be as bland as I could, I mumbled something about national traditions having survived modernization in other countries. This made him agitated. Surely all foreigners understood, he said, that Tibet was special: “As long as we are part of China, we cannot survive, we are like a man who is thrown into a lake without being able to swim. We are drowning. You foreigners must help us.”

There was nothing much I could say. All three of us drank in silence. We all felt helpless in our different ways. The Chinese official had told me that others in the Party shared his views, but lacked the power to act on them, or even mention them in public. His friend just repeated that I should let the world know about Tibet. The world should come to the rescue. And I knew that the world would do no such thing.

The impression I got from these conversations in Lhasa was that the Tibetans who suffered most from Chinese cultural imperialism were precisely the most educated, the ones who benefited from economic modernization. The better you were able to function in Chinese, the more successful you were bound to be. Without Chinese, you were cut off from the urban economy. The man in the nightclub was right: Chinese-style modernization, with its eradication of the past, its official atheism, its consequent intolerance toward organized religion, and its emphasis, politically, philosophically, and economically, on materialism, is opposed to the Tibetan tradition. This does not mean that the Chinese-educated Tibetans all yearn for the revival of a Buddhist theocracy. Few, if any, want that. But to survive in the Chinese economy, Tibetans are forced to blot out their own cultural identity, and that leaves a sense of deep colonial humiliation.

The only Tibetan I spoke to who did not seem to care about the gradual replacement of the Tibetan language by Chinese, or the new dominance in urban areas of Chinese low life and pop culture, was the Muslim. He was able to speak like a true modernist. It was inevitable, he said, that traditions were hollowed out by modern life. It happened everywhere, in Europe and Japan as much as in Tibet. And if Chinese was more practical than Tibetan, why then people would speak Chinese, or English, or whatever. It was surely a waste of time to regret the past. After all, things were much better now; there were banks, and hospitals, and more schools. But it was easier for him to praise these developments than for his Buddhist friends, since the monasteries that used to perform some of these functions were not part of his spiritual tradition. The crude new cosmopolitanism of Lhasa was, on the contrary, part of his liberation.

2.

To leave Lhasa, or one of the few other cities, such as Shigatse or Gyantse, is in a sense to leave China, not officially, of course, but culturally. Little or no Chinese is spoken in the villages, let alone among the nomads who roam the vast, empty highlands which to most Han Chinese are as strange and intimidating as the surface of the moon. Where the outside world does happen to touch the life of a Tibetan village, economic transactions of the crudest kind take place.

There is only one road from Lhasa to Gyantse, the town to which Major Francis Younghusband, the commander of a British expedition to Tibet, was heading when he mowed down some seven hundred unruly Tibetans with a Maxim gun in 1904. It is a rocky, unpaved road that winds along some terrifying mountain passes with straight drops down to a glorious, deep blue lake. Jeeps and mini-buses hired by tourists all stop at the same scenic spots, marked by Tibetan prayer flags fluttering from ceremonial piles of stones, or outside villages with whitewashed stone houses, inhabited by people in richly embroidered boots and coarse brown robes slung across their shoulders. The villagers are well aware of their photogenic appeal, and as soon as a tourist vehicle is sighted, women and children take up their positions together with a yak, whose long black hair contrasts prettily with red ribbons tied around its horns.

The tourists invariably stop, and are surrounded by children in states of remarkable squalor—long matted hair like old rope, green mucus clotted around the nose and mouth, various kinds of milky eye infections, and layers of hard, black grime on every inch of exposed skin. “Hello,” cry the children, while rubbing their thumbs along the palms of their hands, “how are you, money, money!” An old man in dark rags and with a black face sticks out his pink tongue in the old-fashioned Tibetan gesture of obeisance to social superiors. One child dressed in a fine silk jacket is placed on top of the yak, and his mother holds up five fingers: five Chinese yuan for a photograph. Acting out a debased variation of themselves is the only way the villagers know how to make money from the tourist economy.

Few villages are on the tourist beat, however. Most villagers don’t even have the occasion to beg. I visited a village several hours from Lhasa. It was actually less a village than a cluster of small, gray, stone huts in a beautiful green valley. The inhabitants herded yaks and sheep. The richest person had several hundred yaks, the poorest just a few. Only the village head, elected by the villagers, understood some Chinese. I was taken to the village by a man who was born there. He had not had any formal education; he called himself “a man without culture.” But he had managed to leave the village and make a life in Lhasa by serving for a few years in the People’s Liberation Army. It had not been a pleasant experience; the few Tibetan soldiers were harshly treated. But at least he had made some money and learned to speak Chinese. He was an intelligent, humorous person in his forties with the wrinkled, reddish-brown face of a much older man.

Most of the people in the village looked poorer than the ones I had encountered on the road to Gyantse. A few of the younger ones could read and write. There was a new school nearby. I was politely offered cup after cup of yak butter tea, which tastes a bit like very greasy soup, but keeps one’s lips from cracking in the bone-dry air. One of the herdsmen reached inside his filthy shirt, tore off a chunk of dried raw meat, and kindly handed it to me. The meat was a year old. His hands were encrusted with dirt. My friend explained that most people suffered from intestinal diseases. The hard, raw meat tasted sweet, a bit like horse meat.

The poorest house consisted of one dark room, home to a family of six, but the richest was more sturdily built, and had a gate decorated with yak horns and had whitewashed walls. The inside was pleasantly furnished with painted wooden chests and sofas covered in carpets. On the wall were four religious paintings. One of them looked old and was quite finely drawn. The wooden ceiling beams were painted bright blue, apple green, and pink. The one thing both the rich and the poor house had in common was the open display of pictures of the current Dalai Lama, something for which a person in Lhasa would certainly be arrested. I also noticed a photograph of the Karmapa, the young lama who had recently escaped from China to India, to the acute embarrassment of the government in Beijing.

I asked my friend whether there was any risk in displaying these pictures. He made a dismissive gesture and said the officials hardly bothered to come to the villages. “They would not be welcome here,” he said. Naively I then asked whether the villagers knew about the Karmapa’s escape to India. “Of course,” he snorted, “they knew before the government in Lhasa did. Every night, before going to sleep, they listen to the Voice of America.”

It was clear from his account that the links between Tibet, even in the villages, and India had not been cut. People knew where the Dalai Lama was, and what he has been saying around the world. Young people still make their way to Dharamsala, despite border patrols and the risk of arrest. “They can’t control what is in our heads,” the driver said. It was not the first time I had heard that phrase in Tibet. He said: “They can make us say we love the Communist Party, but they can never make us hate the Dalai Lama.”

Later, while having a picnic at the side of the river, my friend showed a sign of despair. He had told me before that he had thought many times of going to India, but had never had the opportunity. “It’s all over for me now,” he said. I said nothing. Then: “But maybe not for my son.” He asked me where I was from. I said that I lived in England, in London. “Ah, yes,” he replied, “you English. You English came here with guns and killed many Tibetans. When was it again?” I said it was in 1904. He smiled, as though it were a fond memory, and said: “If only you English would come here again, with many guns. Then we Tibetans would dress up in our finest clothes, and give you a warm welcome.”

It was only a passing fancy, of course. He went on to talk of the hard times in the past, of the killings during the Cultural Revolution, and the destruction of temples and monasteries, often carried out by Tibetan Red Guards. They were the worst, he said. The Tibetan cadres were the most fanatical. “Long Live Chairman Mao,” I said facetiously. He looked at me, and casually tossed an empty beer can into the clear blue river: “Bullshit!” he said. “Long live us, the people!” We could both drink to that.

3.

The Chinese are the last great power to try to run an empire, and they are finding it no easier than others did before them. They try to contain the discontents of the native elite by bringing them into the government (though never at the very top), and by pumping ever larger amounts of cash into the economy. Unlike many provinces of China, the Tibet Autonomous Region is almost entirely dependent on central government money, and has less autonomy as a result. Modernization will go on. There will be more schools, hospitals, post offices, banks, and better roads. These are the gifts of all successful empires. But as the influence of China slowly erodes what is left of Tibetan culture, first in the cities where most Han Chinese settle, then perhaps, far more slowly, in the rest of the country too, the discontent will fester. Colonial humiliation does not vanish with time. Even with the careful screening of reliable monks, the monasteries still erupt in protest on occasion. Horrifying stories emerge from the prisons where protesters are held, stories of torture, years in solitary confinement, and suicidal deaths of men and women who cannot take it anymore.

How, then, is the Tibetan problem to be solved? “Free Tibet!” cry the crowds at American rock concerts, organized in aid of good causes. Tibetan independence is what most Tibetans abroad want too. But what do they mean by “Tibet”? More than half the almost five million Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China are living outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. If an independent Tibet should contain all those who speak Tibetan, eat stamped barley, and follow the Dalai Lama, large chunks of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Qinghai provinces would have to be torn off the PRC. Beijing, understandably, would never stand for that. If, on the other hand, Free Tibet were to be confined to the Autonomous Region, most Tibetans would be left outside, and the Tibetan government in exile cannot allow that. And neither, for that matter, will Beijing. Too much Chinese nationalism has been invested in the ideal of One China, including Taiwan and Tibet, for any Chinese government to let it go.

The dissident Wei Jingsheng believes that democracy is the only solution. It would certainly help. Under a democratic Chinese government there would be more civil liberties and fewer political prisoners. But even a democratic government is likely to tap into the deep reservoir of Chinese nationalism. At best, some kind of federation might be set up, which at least would allow Tibetans to run their own affairs, while the central government took care of foreign policy and defense. The Dalai Lama advocates this solution, and it is difficult to see how he could hope for more. Even so there would be problems: What about the Han Chinese and the Muslims who live in Tibet already? What about the role of the Buddhist institutions? And what about the Tibetan government abroad?

A Tibetan historian in London told me Tibet would be like Northern Ireland, a continuous conflict between peoples with incompatible aims. It is not unlike Kosovo either, a pawn in a brutal nationalist propaganda campaign. But at least the Albanians have their own independent state outside Kosovo, however wretched. As long as independence remains an impossible goal, Tibetans all over the world can only pray for better days, worship the Dalai Lama, and think to themselves, more in hope than expectation: Next year in Lhasa.

—This is the second of two articles on Tibet.

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