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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

  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 www.savetibet.org/documents/pdfs/2003RailwayReport.pdf.

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