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…

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