The Quiet Heroes of Tibet

Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet. Denouncing the recently built railroad to Lhasa as a “colonial imposition,” she said that the Communist leaders in Beijing hoped to use the $4 billion project to speed up Han Chinese emigration to Tibet and to plunder the province’s abundant mineral resources.

Views such as these, which have made Woeser famous among Tibetans both in China and in exile, have got her into trouble with the Chinese authorities. In 2003, they banned Woeser’s most popular book, Notes on Tibet; they also fired her from her government job in Lhasa as editor of the magazine Tibetan Literature and forbade her to leave China.

Ordered to undergo “reeducation” by writing articles praising the railroad to Lhasa, Woeser left Tibet, and now lives in Beijing with her husband, Wang Lixiong, a writer of Han Chinese ethnicity who specializes in Tibet and Tibetans and in China’s other ethnic minorities. Both Woeser and Wang depend for a living on the Chinese-language press in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and, occasionally, the relatively independent periodicals published in southern China. She also posts articles and poems on blogs, which the Chinese authorities keep shutting down. Policemen constantly monitor the apartment she shares with Wang and his mother in suburban Beijing.

For a Tibetan dissenter, Woeser has an unusual background. Her half-Tibetan father was part of the advance guard of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that “peacefully liberated” Tibet in 1951, establishing Communist rule over a mostly Buddhist population and eventually forcing its erstwhile ruler, the Dalai Lama, along with thousands of Tibetans, to flee to India. Born in 1966, Woeser grew up in an army family, learning to read and write Mandarin rather than Tibetan, and she never questioned the Chinese presence in Tibet until, in her mid-twenties, she came across a book by the American journalist John Avedon about the modern history of Tibet and its devastation by the Chinese.1

In 2000, she met Wang Lixiong, who encouraged her to publicly criticize Chinese rule over Tibet. In 2005 a team of translators in India and Europe rendered some of Woeser’s and Wang’s essays into English.2 Privately published in Switzerland, and impelled more by political urgency than literary ambition, the translations are scarred by solecisms, typos, and misspellings. A large part of the book consists of Wang’s theories about likely constitutional arrangements in the future between a democratic Beijing and ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, the book—especially Woeser’s personal essays and Wang’s critique of Chinese policies—is important for what it reveals of Tibet today: how the province’s modernization under Chinese auspices has its own momentum, even as the Dalai Lama is received by President Bush, and as midlevel Chinese officials and representatives of the Tibetan community in exile meet regularly—five times since 2002—to discuss the province’s political future.

The violence suffered by Tibet during the Cultural Revolution (between 1966 and 1976), when Red Guards hunting for “capitalist-roaders” and “feudal rightists” killed Buddhist monks and destroyed temples and monasteries, appears to belong to the past. Helped by more than a million tourists and generous subsidies from Beijing, the economy of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) grew at 13.2 percent last year, faster than China’s national average of 10.4 percent. Its wide boulevards lined with glittering shopping malls, office buildings, nightclubs, hairdressing salons, and massage parlors (which are often poorly disguised brothels), Lhasa retains few traces of its medieval origins that were visible to visitors only several years ago. Billboards with Deng Xiaoping’s gnomic statement “Development is the only rationale,” a common sight in Chinese cities, loom everywhere, underlining that Lhasa, too, has been enlisted into the swiftest and biggest urbanization in history.

Woeser, however, is not impressed. In an article on the commercializing of the Potala Palace, the seat of the Dalai Lama, she writes:

Under the dizzying Lhasa sunlight, the material desires of Tibetans have never been fueled by such excitement; but, after all, how many average Tibetans can actually afford those luxurious cars and restaurants that stretch along the two wings of the Potala Palace walls and spread around the square; they all look like clones of large or small cities in inland China. Together with the “modern” buildings covered in porcelain tiles, with windows framed in aluminum inlaid with dark blue glass, they are the culture of “contractor troops” made up of peasant-turned- construction-workers from the inland.

Judging China’s modernization from the vantage point of an older, subtler civilization, Woeser finds it wanting in both tact and taste. She exhorts Tibetans to choose their ancestral ways in language, architecture, and dress. Careful to say that tradition must be rescued from “ignorance and conservatism,” she upholds it as a form of resistance against the more vulgar forms of modern Chinese culture:

Even if we are powerless to resist railway construction, mining, and all kinds of development carried out by the Chinese government, at least we can restrain ourselves from building Chinese-style hotels, restaurants, and shops, or attracting customers and tourists to the business of gambling, karaoke, and Han and Tibetan prostitutes.

Much of this may sound like the antimodern rhetoric of contemporary Islamist movements. Woeser told me that she wasn’t against modernization per se. She said that Tibetans ought to be able to choose their own form of modernization, one suitable to their physical landscape, religion, and culture. China’s connections with its rural past and traditions were broken by the successive disasters and tragedies of the Communist revolution; it had, and has, little choice but to rush headlong into an urban and purely materialist future. But Tibetans, who have preserved their culture against great odds, neither desire nor deserve the fate of the Chinese.

Woeser told me about the American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, who in the 1980s traveled to the then rail terminus of Golmud in Qinghai province, which borders Tibet. In the book he subsequently published, Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China (1988), he wrote that the impassable Kunlun mountain range, which begins near Golmud and forms a natural northern boundary of the Tibetan plateau, “is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa.”

Woeser said that almost all the reports in the Chinese press celebrating the rail link to Tibet had quoted this line, crowing that the extension of the tracks beyond Golmud proved the American writer wrong. She then added excitedly, “The reports don’t quote his next sentences: ‘That is probably a good thing. I thought I liked railways until I saw Tibet, and then I realized that I liked wilderness much more.’”

Lhasa was still far from being made over in the Chinese image when Paul Theroux visited it in 1986.3 Such defensive romanticism is more easily provoked today by Chinese claims for the railroad, which echo the aggressively paternalist British colonials who introduced railways to India.4 A three-hour documentary that was shown last year on a state-run Chinese TV channel insisted that the train will bring “modern civilization” to the Tibetans. It contained much rhetoric about kuayueshi fazhan—“leap frog” development—for Tibet, economic as well as social and cultural. It claimed that the railroad would help improve access to Tibet’s natural resources, mostly copper, iron, lead, and zinc, which previously had been too expensive to mine and transport.

The first train for Lhasa left Golmud on July 1, 2006, marking the eighty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. There is now regular service to Lhasa from almost all major Chinese cities. Ingeniously laid over hundreds of miles of permanent frost, at altitudes exceeding 13,000 feet, the railroad from Golmud to Tibet is undoubtedly a marvel of engineering. But the benefits it brings to Tibet are decidedly mixed.

When I took the train from Beijing to Lhasa, most of the people on it were Han Chinese government officials, potential emigrants, and tourists. There were few Tibetans, and few people got off or boarded the train on the rare occasions it stopped. Most were headed to the Tibetan capital, where Han Chinese already make up half of the 500,000-strong population.

Lhasa looked bigger and more crowded than on my last visit there in 2004, but it is the Chinese rather than the Tibetan quarter that has expanded, toward the new railway station to the south of the ethnically segregated city. Here, a Chinese tycoon, a former officer of the PLA, has opened the province’s first luxury hotel. More hotels are being built in expectation of visitors from China and abroad.

Tibet’s high altitude and remoteness still deter many foreign tourists. But jaded Chinese with money to spend are discovering what they take to be the spiritual ways of Tibetan culture, and there is a growing fascination with the province. Almost every major Chinese city has shops selling Tibetan knickknacks. The streets of Lhasa are full of Chinese youth claiming to be “artists” and “seekers”; and groups of nouveau-riche tourists from the prosperous coastal cities of China throng the monasteries and temples rebuilt by the Chinese government.

The Chinese regime in Beijing is keen to make Tibetan culture profitable rather than defunct, as was the case during Mao’s time. The Chinese authorities are increasingly assisted by a local elite of Tibetan officials and businessmen, who can be seen cruising down Lhasa’s boulevards in big cars or dining at expensive restaurants, and whose children—the beau monde of Lhasa—fill the nightclubs around Potala Palace, bantering among themselves in a Chinese full of English words rather than the Tibetan that most of their less-well-to-do compatriots speak.

Many of the Tibetans are investors in the nascent industry of tourism. In an essay, “A Killing Trip,” which was originally published in 2001, Woeser describes traveling to a hot spring with four young Tibetan entrepreneurs. Born in the 1970s, educated in China, these men have resigned from government jobs to become hoteliers. As Woeser describes these members of the small Tibetan business elite, they

come from well-to-do families, their parents mostly being born to families of liberated serfs. They love the Party, the Party treats them well and generously, so in the being of their children is an air of superiority.

Armed with rifles, these brash young men shoot at every animal in sight. They feel no compunction about forcing some nuns from their convent near the hot spring and turning it into a hotel. Intoxicated by a sense of power, one of them tells an appalled Woeser: “You like to write about Tibet, you should write about young Tibetans like us. We are masters of Tibet’s future.”

This sounds like bragging. Tibetans capable of exploiting the connections between Chinese Party officials and businessmen belong to a tiny minority among the Tibetan population of seven million. Indeed, the biggest Tibetan fear is of being overwhelmed by Han Chinese. In recent years, Tibet absorbed some of the floating Chinese population, estimated to be as big as 100 million, of migrant workers, criminals, carpetbaggers, and prostitutes. These Chinese drifters conspicuously dominate native Tibetans, at least in the main cities of Lhasa, Gyantse, and Shigatse, where they own most of the shops and businesses, including the brothels disguised as massage parlors and hairdressing salons.5 Tibetan activist groups in the West expect a significant increase in Han Chinese migration to Lhasa in the next few years.6

The railroad in Tibet seems to be doing what it has accomplished in recent years in other minority regions. In Xinjiang, Urumqi, the capital, is already a predominantly Han city, and Kashgar’s Han population increased by 30 percent in 2001, the year after the railway there was completed. Ordinary Tibetans told me that rents had gone up steeply in Lhasa since the arrival of the first train. Remarkably, no one among the Tibetans I spoke to expects their lives to be improved by the railway. They all saw it as something devised by, and for, the Han Chinese majority.

In Beijing Woeser told me about a tale that had spread among Tibetans as the railroad crossed into the Tibetan grasslands to the north of Lhasa. Construction workers, it was said, had dug up a frog from the earth. The frog had been badly injured; but as the story moved from teahouse to teahouse he became bigger in each retelling, to the point where, in one story, he had to be hauled off in a truck.

Woeser said that the story would make sense if you knew of the high status of animals as guardian spirits in Tibetan culture. She explained that the frog injured by Chinese workers represented the Tibetan sense of defeat and frustration over the railway.

Certainly a sense of siege lay heavy over the Tibetans who risked police scrutiny in order to speak to me. Listening to them, I often remembered the gloomy prediction of the Tibetan novelist in exile Jamyang Norbu, who believes that the Chinese are turning the Tibetans into a “sort of broken third-rate people,” who some years from now will be reduced to “begging from tourists.”

However, Chinese claims about Tibet present a very different picture; and after allowing for some inflation in official statistics, they have to be taken into account, partly to understand the extreme Chinese distrust of the Dalai Lama. Woeser is right to claim that not many Tibetans can enter the utopia of “development” promised by the Chinese—a consumer lifestyle in urban centers. Most Tibetans living in rural areas have seen few benefits of economic growth. But the Chinese have announced plans to improve facilities for education, health care, sanitation, and transport in large parts of rural Tibet. Both the ongoing extension of the railroad to the southern city of Shigatse and an ever more ambitious highway construction plan are expected to integrate the remotest regions of Tibet into the national economy.

To allay fears that the railroad would worsen Tibet’s already very serious environmental crisis, the Chinese government has announced many measures, including systems to store garbage and waste water and treat them in designated facilities.7 The official Chinese documentary on the railroad offers a touching story about Chinese construction workers nursing orphaned baby antelopes, and claims that thirty-three “animal underpasses” have been put in place under the tracks.

State-imposed modernization tends to incite more resentment than gratitude among the supposedly backward people it aims to uplift. Still, in view of the hectic Chinese efforts to appease it, the Tibetan mood struck me as extremely sullen. “Virtually all Tibetans,” Wang Lixiong claimed in an article in 2002, “have the Dalai in their hearts.”8 Five years later, the Tibetans remain defiantly loyal to their long-exiled spiritual leader. That the Chinese have brought, in the meantime, many more roads, bridges, schools, electricity, regular jobs, and salaries to Tibet has not changed their allegiance to him.

Pictures of the Dalai Lama are banned in Tibet. Yet a Tibetan farmer I met claimed that every house in his village concealed an image of the spiritual leader. Last year the Dalai Lama’s disparaging remarks about fur-wearing Tibetans sparked bonfires of animal skins and fur-trimmed clothes across Tibet.9 Mass protests erupted this year in the town of Lithang after police arrested a Tibetan nomad who climbed on a stage erected for Chinese officials at an annual horse festival and, seizing a mike, pleaded for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.10 In October, after monks celebrated the awarding of the US Congress’s highest civilian honor to the Dalai Lama, the Chinese police sealed off the biggest monastery in Lhasa.11

Not surprisingly, Chinese authorities are trying hard, if often clumsily, to undermine the Dalai Lama’s authority. In 1995, Chinese authorities kidnapped the boy—called Gendun Choekyi Nyima—whom the Dalai Lama had identified as the eleventh Panchen Lama, and installed their own child candidate in this important position in Tibetan Buddhism. (The whereabouts of the kidnapped boy remain unknown.) In an attempt to forestall the Chinese regime from usurping his position, the Dalai Lama announced that he will be reincarnated outside Tibet, guaranteeing that his successor will be born among the Tibetan community in exile. In August this year, the officially atheist Chinese regime passed legislation effectively banning Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which stipulates the procedures for rebirth, is “an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation.”

Wang Lixiong, who is one of the very few Chinese intellectuals to have met the Dalai Lama, told me that Tibetans have no faith in the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, whom they refer to as “that little brat.” He thinks that the Chinese missed an opportunity in suppressing Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the Dalai Lama’s candidate for the seat of the Panchen Lama. Traditionally, Panchen Lamas have had a crucial part in choosing the Dalai Lama, and had the Chinese respected the choice of Nyima and educated him carefully, they would have had a good chance of legitimizing their choice of the next Dalai Lama. As things stand now, few Tibetans are likely to accept the decisions of China’s substitute.

Remarking on the missteps the Chinese have made in Tibet, Wang said that market reforms have weakened Beijing’s authority. Communications between central and provincial governments have broken down, leading to arbitrary and thoughtless decisions such as the expulsion of Woeser from Lhasa, which has led to her acquiring bolder views and a higher profile in Beijing. Communist Party officials correctly feel themselves most vulnerable in regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, where Han Chinese are a minority; the oppressive atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution still lingers in Tibet, where villagers are required to fly the Communist flag and display a picture of a laughing President Hu Jintao flanked by Tibetans in colorful ethnic costumes. Tibetans talking to foreigners invite the attention of the police. By contrast, small spaces for dissent have opened up almost imperceptibly in Beijing and the coastal cities, escaping the scrutiny of officials who are busy either pursuing private fortunes or grappling with corruption, social breakdown, and environmental disasters.

This seemed true when I returned from Lhasa to Beijing, and found that I could talk to Woeser without fear of police harassment. I met her a few times in my hotel room and once in an Indian restaurant. On two occasions she was accompanied by Wang Lixiong, who was born in 1953 and is thirteen years older than Woeser; his calmly cerebral and courtly presence contrasts attractively with her ebullient manner. Woeser told me that she first heard of him through his outspoken writings on Tibet; Wang was, she said, the first Han Chinese writer to have written honestly about Tibet. They e-mailed each other for a year before finally meeting in 2000 when Wang visited Lhasa to research an article.

Wang said that Woeser had helped him shed his condescending Han Chinese perspective on Tibet as an integral part of China and on Tibetans as a backward people. He said, “It is widespread in China. I still have to be on my guard against it.”

Shortly after corresponding, Woeser sent Wang some revealing photos taken during the Cultural Revolution by her father, an officer with the PLA in the late 1960s, when Red Guards rampaged across Tibet. Wang, who had himself been a Red Guard, encouraged her to interview the people in the photographs, which show scenes of mob fury and individual humiliation, and to write a text to accompany the photographs.

The book was subsequently published in Taiwan. Chinese authorities tend to be very sensitive to anything related to Taiwan and Tibet. But Wang spoke equably of the double hazards for a China-based writer on Tibet publishing in Taiwan. Certainly he now takes risks that would have struck his parents as near suicidal.

Like Woeser, Wang, too, had been born into China’s ruling elite. His father, an early member of the Communist Party, received his education at a Moscow polytechnic at the same time as Jiang Zemin, China’s former president. Then, in 1968, at the height of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, his father, denounced as a “capitalist-roader” and “Soviet-revisionist spy,” committed suicide after months of detention in a cowshed, and his mother, an editor at a film studio, was sentenced to hard labor in the countryside.

Wang spoke with remarkable detachment about the destruction of his parents’ lives. As a Red Guard, he said, he had even wondered if his parents were suffering for a noble ideal. He told me that he first became interested in Tibet in the mid-1980s, when, after giving up a conventional career as an engineer, he built a raft out of the rubber inner tubes of truck tires and floated down the entire great length of the Yellow River.

In 1991, he published a novel titled Yellow Peril, which became a best-seller before being banned by the Chinese authorities. In 1999, while researching a book about Xinjiang, he was arrested and detained for forty days in the Uighur-majority province. Undaunted, Wang traveled to the United States in 2001, and published an account of his meetings there with the Dalai Lama.

Wang is a member of a “lost generation” of Chinese youth that was unmoored by the chaos created by Mao in his last years. He struck me as someone who had become fearless while improvising his life. He told me that ethnic minorities like the Tibetans and the Uighurs desperately needed courageous public intellectuals. Tibetans were lucky to have Woeser, who could articulate, both at home and abroad, their wishes and aspirations. He added that it would be a mistake for foreigners to see her simply as protesting human rights violations, for she represented something new: a Tibetan who had come through the Sinicized education and literary system, and who now used her fluency in Chinese to bypass the system of state patronage and participate in the transnational free market in culture that had opened up for Chinese writers in recent years.

On my last afternoon with Woeser and Wang I asked them if I could visit the apartment they share with Wang’s elderly mother. Woeser had earlier told me that this was not a good idea since it risked provoking suspicions by the policemen monitoring her home. Now it was Wang who looked doubtful. He said that I could go but that he was very likely to be followed and would rather not accompany us.

Woeser’s apartment looked far from downtown on the city map. But the taxi took a freeway running across Beijing’s six ring roads, and brought us very quickly to what looked like the edge of the city. Her apartment house seemed new but, like most new construction in China, already touched by decay. I glimpsed uniformed men in the guardroom watching us, and was reassured to see Woeser indifferently walking past them to the elevator.

Wang’s mother opened the door. A small, gray-haired, gentle-looking woman, she smiled faintly at us and then abruptly left the apartment—in order to give us, Woeser explained later, more privacy. I remembered what Wang had told me of his father’s suicide and his mother’s three-year imprisonment in a cowshed during the Cultural Revolution, followed by four years of hard labor in the countryside. I couldn’t help staring at her, half-expecting her face to hold some trace of her ordeals. But she looked serene, like many of the old Chinese of her generation I often saw sitting in public parks, on whose faces a cruel history had finally bestowed a kind of grace.

Carefully organized, the apartment looked bigger than its two small bedrooms and kitchenette leading off the living room. Woeser busied herself with tea. I walked over to her desk in one of the bedrooms. The shelf beside her desk held Chinese translations of books by Susan Sontag, V.S. Naipaul, Edward Said, and Orhan Pamuk, among other writers.

Woeser had been dismissive about the few Chinese writers I mentioned. Wang had explained, “None of them really say what they feel about China today, so it is hard for us to respect them.” The books on her shelf revealed something of how Woeser, who has never left Chinese territory, had formed her sensibility; how she had arrived at the aesthetic and political judgments that depend on a deep acquaintance with the experiences of other societies.

From where I stood I saw the view from the window: Beijing sprawling to the west, light wintry mist blurring a harsh landscape of new anonymous city blocks, freeways, factory chimneys, construction cranes, and planes hanging low in the sky, waiting to land at the airport to the north—the airport which, like much else in the city, is presently being expanded and renovated for the Olympics next year.

Wang had told me that he saw the Communist system in China in serious peril. The Party could not control China anymore; it had allowed no other political institutions to grow and when it collapsed the whole oppressive structure was bound to crumble. But looking out Woeser’s window—the planes circling in the sky, as if in homage to the feverishly blooming city—the power and wealth of China could seem unassailable, and Tibet a forgotten, perhaps lost, cause.

Returning to the living room I noticed pictures of the Dalai Lama hanging from one recessed corner; DVD recordings of his teachings were stacked below them. The casual display of the prohibited image in a Beijing apartment, a few hundred feet from a policeman below, startled me. Woeser saw me examining the DVDs on her shelf. She said, “Tibetan friends of mine often get together to watch them. We dim the lights and project the films on a big screen. It feels wonderful, even though the evenings usually end with all of us in tears.”

Woeser had not spoken to me of her religious beliefs. I wasn’t even sure if she, a writer in the modern secular mode, had any. More likely, images of the Dalai Lama keep alive an idea of Tibet as much for Woeser and her friends in their suburban exile as for the devout farmers in the Tibetan fastness. Such private affirmations of Tibetan identity, and Woeser’s and Wang’s testing of the limits of intellectual freedom in China, may not accomplish much at present. Nevertheless, they show how the great consolidation of Chinese power today obscures many collective and individual gestures of dissent and defiance in Tibet—gestures that may yet cohere into a movement, not so distant perhaps, of political change.

—December 19, 2007

  1. 1

    In Exile from the Land of the Snows (Knopf, 1984).

  2. 2

    Unlocking Tibet: A Chinese Author’s Perspective on Tibet Issue, 2005.

  3. 3

    For an eloquent account of the changes in the city’s geography, see Robert Barnett, Lhasa: Streets with Memories (Columbia University Press, 2006).

  4. 4

    Connecting the Indian hinterland with port cities by rail, the British hoped to speed up the export of raw materials and the import of manufactured goods. Though similarly motivated, the railroad to Tibet also comes out of an old Chinese nationalist dream of unity and consolidation. As early as the 1910s, when China had no real authority over Tibet, Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, outlined a plan to connect Lhasa to the Chinese rail system. However, civil war and the Japanese invasion of China ensured that at the time of the Communist takeover in 1949 China had only a few thousand miles of rail, mostly in the north and northeast.

  5. 5

    See Ian Buruma, “Found Horizon,” The New York Review, June 29, 2000.

  6. 6

    See Crossing the Line: China’s Railway to Lhasa, Tibet, a report by the International Campaign for Tibet, 2003, available at

  7. 7

    Global warming has caused the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau, which regulate the water supply to the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Thanlwin, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, to melt at an alarming rate, threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of millions in Asia. See An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China (World Wildlife Fund Nepal Program, March 2005).

  8. 8

    Reflections on Tibet,” New Left Review, March–April 2002. See also “Still Tibetan After All These Years,” The Economist, February 3, 2007.

  9. 9

    Jane Macartney, “Festival-Goers Ordered to Wear Fur or Face Fines as China Flouts Dalai Lama’s Ruling,” The Times (London), July 27, 2007.

  10. 10

    Outspoken in Tibet,” The Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2007. In November the nomad was sentenced to eight years in prison.

  11. 11

    Tibet Monastery Surrounded by Military amid Security Crackdown After Dalai Lama Award,” International Herald Tribune, October 24, 2007.