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Beijing's Reality Intrudes on Shangri-la

By Don North
April 5, 2008 (A Special Report)

“Wreathed in the romance of centuries, Lhasa, the secret citadel of the undying Grand Lama, has stood shrouded in impenetrable mystery on the Roof-of-the-world, alluring yet defying our most adventurous travelers to enter her closed gates.”
L. Austine Waddell, Lhasa and its Mysteries, 1905

As the Beijing-to-Lhasa train pulls out of Golmud in western China, starting the long climb into Tibet, it passes through an archway with a debatable slogan in Chinese characters: “The railroad is to create happiness for the people of all nationalities.”

At 16,640 feet above sea level, the train crosses through the Tanggula Pass into the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region. Three diesel locomotives power the rapid ascent of the highest rail line in the world.

Young Chinese Army recruits filling three of the train cars gulp as they inhale pure oxygen that is pumped from tanks and pours into the coaches as a light mist. The soldiers laugh at the novelty of breathing the oxygen as a diversion from the long trip rather than any health necessity.

So many battalions of the Chinese Army have taken the new train line into Tibet there is a separate terminal for them at the railroad station in the capital of Lhasa.

The railroad is an astonishing feat of engineering. Completed last July at a cost of $4.5 billion, more than half of its 710 miles is built on ground constantly in flux, sometimes frozen sometimes not. With the ground sinking and rising as much as one foot during a winter freeze, liquid nitrogen is pumped around the rail bed to keep it stable.

The Beijing government describes the railway as the centerpiece of its western China development strategy to bring economic levels comparable to those along China’s wealthier eastern seaboard.

“Jacky Chan and the Warriors of Xian” plays full time on the flat screen TV in each compartment. Breakfast of porridge and fried eggs is served for $3 in the restaurant car.

As seen through the window of the new high train to Tibet, Yak herds graze before a background of jagged peaks. Photo by Don North.

Through thick windows that block the intense ultra-violet rays, you watch the Tibetan tundra, the grazing yak herds and jagged peaks in the background. There is an unreal quality to the scenery as if painted on a wide canvas.

In the evening, the mostly Chinese travelers hunched over card games shout toasts “Ganbeii” as they quaff Tsing-Tsau beer for $1. My ticket to Lhasa in a first-class soft bunk cost me $175. The trip took 48 hours from Beijing.

Lhasa at Last

In 1963 as a young trekker-journalist in Asia, I taught English to Tibetan “Tulkus,” young monks at an ashram, or school, in Dalhousie, India. The school looked out at the high mountain peaks of Tibet to the north.

The school was run by a British Buddhist nun Freda Bedi. Many of the Tulkus had fled into exile with the Dalai Lama on March 31, 1959.

Upon learning English, they regaled me with mysterious tales of Tibet, planting in me a lifelong fascination with the enigma that is Tibet. It took me over 40 years to fulfill my youthful dreams of visiting Tibet.

When I arrived on Dec. 9, 2007, Lhasa was calm and serene in the warm winter sun. There were few Chinese or foreign tourists.

A Tibetan pilgrim swings a prayer wheel as other pilgrims circumambulate the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Photo by Don North.

Colorful Tibetan pilgrims flocked into the city to prayerfully circumambulate the imposing Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lamas since the 13th Century. But there were whispers of gathering clouds regarding Tibet’s often tumultuous relationship with China.

My tour guide, who was rewarded with a college education in England for saving the life of a wealthy British mountain climber, began to speak freely to me after a few days. He described the anger of Tibetans toward their exploitation by the Han Chinese.

Visiting the Drepung Monastery a few miles up a steep mountain from the city, he told me with great glee about an incident there in October when resident monks celebrated the award of the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal to the exiled Dalai Lama.

After the monks learned of the award through YouTube, clashes between the monks and over 1,000 police broke out.

In retaliation for President George W. Bush honoring the Dalai Lama at the White House, Chinese authorities refused to let the USS Kitty Hawk dock in Hong Kong at Thanksgiving.

But there were few police or Army in the streets during my visit the next month. Tibetans who spoke English approached me constantly to chat about life in Lhasa and how the new train was affecting their lives.

“The Chinese now want to make Tibetan culture profitable rather than defunct like Chairman Mao did,” laughed one man who said he was an English teacher.

Turning more serious, he complained of the railway bringing in thousands of Han Chinese settlers. He said he was angry about the restrictions and rules governing monks in the monasteries and constant demands that holy men denounce the exiled Dalai Lama.

He was reflecting concerns expressed by the Dalai Lama recently that the new train enabled numbers of homeless people, the unemployed and prostitutes, to arrive in Lhasa from China, eroding the character of the city and marginalizing its Tibetan residents.

China’s Historic Claim

My tour guide, who will remain nameless for his own safety, had a more charitable view.

“Many of the 2,000 Chinese who arrive by train every day come from Sichuan Province, one of the most populated areas in China, and are only trying to escape poverty. Tibet is a pressure valve for all the unemployed Chinese.

“Tibet may be paying the price for China’s problems, but those problems are not the fault of the people coming to Tibet to make a living. But our culture has been packaged for tourism. Business is booming, but we Tibetans do not benefit.”

Shopping for souvenirs in the “Bokhara” at the heart of old Lhasa, I noticed most goods on sale were made in Beijing or Nepal.

My guide conceded that the railroad and new roads to remote mountain areas gave pilgrims a better chance to visit Lhasa, but he quickly noted that the illiteracy rate remains four times that of neighboring Sichuan province and there are fewer vocational schools per capita than in the rest of China.

The Chinese consider Tibet to be a part of China, in their view as much as Texas is to the United States.

But the history of the Chinese state is complex. The non-Chinese territories that now make up the western third of the nation – the deserts of Muslim Xinjiang and the plateau of Tibet – were not conquered by Chinese, but by the Mongol empire that swept across China in the 13th Century.

The Ming Dynasty took little interest in Tibet. However, when the Manchus conquered China in 1644, they too brought Tibet under Beijing’s rule. When the Manchu dynasty was overthrown in 1911, Tibet experienced independence for the next 40 years.

When the Communists took power in 1949, they invaded Tibet claiming “what was once ours is ours forever.”

So, there is about as much chance that Beijing would consider independence for Tibet as Washington would sanction independence for Texas. Even the Dalai Lama does not insist on independence.

Mystique in the West

“Through all ages Tibet has held a paramount position among those regions of the world which have been popularly invested with a veil of mystery because they are inaccessible and unknown,” wrote Sir Thomas Holdrich in 1906.

This infatuation with Tibet in the West puzzles the Chinese. Jiang Zemin, when he ruled China, complained that he could not understand why the West, where education in science and technology has developed to a high level, could have any truck with backward and superstitious Tibet.

Orville Schell, former Dean of Journalism at Berkeley, in his brilliant book Virtual Tibet, explains why the West is enamored of Tibet: “It was the dream of Shangri-La itself that was at stake. For many Westerners who had allowed themselves to dream the dream of Tibet, Chinese rule represented a paradise lost.”

Schell’s book traces the power of the Tibetan myth, the books, the movies and the Hollywood stars that have taken up the Tibetan cause.

“When James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, was released as a film in 1937, it was the apotheosis of Tibet as fantasy realm. With it, the notion of that land as the paradisiacal Shangri-La entered both the imagination and the vocabulary of Western popular culture, becoming one of the most powerful utopian metaphors of our time.”

Interviewing a Tibetan monk who had been an extra in the film “Seven Years in Tibet” starring Brad Pitt, Schell was told:

“This movie portrays what used to be. Then, people might have been poor and dressed in skins and rags, but they were proud and happy. But now this old Tibet is completely lost, except for here on these sets. Under the Chinese, maybe some Tibetans have electricity and cars, but they have lost their dignity and identity.”

Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, 72, now considered to be in his 14th reincarnation, perpetuates the iconic image of Tibet through a careful combination of spirituality and political acumen. He keeps the dream alive.

And the more the Chinese denounce him, call him a “splittist,” and the more they chastise countries, such as Germany and the United States, for honoring him, the more they empower him.

The Dalai Lama’s criticism of China’s actions in Tibet continues to be tempered by his insistence that opposition must be non-violent. His appeal that the Tibetan struggle be peaceful contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

When the Dalai Lama dies, it is highly unlikely Beijing will allow monks to freely find a 15th incarnation in some humble household on the Tibetan plateau with a young boy who fits the mysteries that are used to pick out the next Dalai Lama.

Chinese authorities will want to pick the next Dalai Lama. China’s long-term strategy, which the recent violence may have reinforced, is to wait for the Dalai Lama to die in the belief that the government can control his successor.

In 1995, China arrested the Panchen Lama, the number two in Tibetan Buddhism, a six-year-old, Gedun Nyima. He has not been seen since, but many Tibetans told me they believe he has fled to India.

China authorities named another Tibetan youth, Gyaltsen Norbu, the son of Communist Party members, as the designated replacement for the Panchen Lama. The government controls his education and public duties.
Tibetans call the youth the “Gya Panchen,” meaning Chinese Panchen. Traditionally the Panchen Lama names a new Dalai Lama, which would give the Chinese government control over the Dalai Lama’s succession.

The controversy around China’s installation of a “patriotic” Panchen Lama over the choice of the next Dalai Lama has for many Tibetans come to epitomize China’s domination and even desecration of Tibetan Buddhism and upon the Dalai Lama’s death will no doubt cause new trouble.

The Dalai Lama has suggested he might return as two Dalai Lamas or choose his own successor or even come back as a woman.

Donald S. Lopez Jr. in the 1998 book, Prisoners of Shangri-La, notes that incarnate lamas are being discovered more frequently in Europe and America.

Recently even action film star Steven Seagal was identified as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama.

Lopez wrote, “In this way Tibetans have literally incorporated foreigners into their patronage sphere through their own version of colonialism. Rather than taking control of a nation, Tibetans are building an empire of individuals who, inhabited from birth by the spirit of a Tibetan saint, become, in effect Tibetans, regardless of ethnicity.”

Violent Protests

On March 10, open protests began in Lhasa to mark the 49th anniversary of the failed Tibetan revolt against the Chinese Communist occupation and the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile.

Police blocked monks from the Drepung Monastery from marching into the city. When protesters with Tibetan flags joined the monks, 15 were arrested. It was a fairly typical protest and police response, but tempers continued to build on rumors that monks had been beaten.

The next day, March 11, police stopped another protest by monks from the Sera Monastery. Then, on March 12, the monasteries were closed to visitors.

By March 14, as the police confronted minor protests from monks at the monasteries, tourist eyewitnesses say they saw a Tibetan man wielding two knives jump up on a police vehicle shouting and slashing. The vehicle was upended and set on fire.

A Swiss tourist said he saw an elderly Chinese man clawed off his bicycle and his head smashed with a large rock. A crowd of about 100 protesters, including what tourists described as “five people in monks’ robes,” attacked Chinese restaurants and a mosque.

During the riots, looters set fire to a clothing store, burning to death five employees. A Chinese hotel owner, Zhang Bing Quan, watched the riots from his roof:

“At 3 p.m., I heard a high-pitched sound and saw a gang of 30 swing into my street howling. I was surprised to see that most in the mob were young women who had masks over their mouths and were wearing backpacks. They were attacking even more fiercely than the boys.”

Such militant and orchestrated violent protest is not typical in a Buddhist society and may indicate foreign coordination, although Chinese authorities have not identified ringleaders other than to vilify the Dalai Lama in exile.

While the center of Lhasa descended into chaos, the vastly outnumbered police and firefighters beat a retreat. Authorities claim that 19 Chinese were killed and over 600 injured.

Despite strict controls over the flow of information out of Tibet, the Chinese government could no longer deny the violence spilling over into surrounding areas. Riots spread to the neighboring province of Gansu with demonstrators storming a government office.

In the Tibetan-populated areas across western China, mostly peaceful protests erupted in 49 cities. Tibet’s government in exile has said 140 people were killed in the rioting, while China has claimed a total of 22 deaths, 19 of them in Lhasa.

The Chinese government accused the Dalai Lama of orchestrating the riots to wreck Beijing’s Olympic games. On March 20 in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama called for calm and said he was prepared to meet with Chinese leaders, stating that he wants autonomy, not independence for Tibet.

Countdown to Olympics

Looming over the conflict is the fast approaching Beijing Olympics. Human rights activists have long made it known that they intend to use the Olympics to draw global attention to the Chinese government’s record of human rights abuses.

At the torch lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, the first official event of the Olympics, protesters broke through heavy security to unfurl a banner showing the Olympic rings as handcuffs. They also tried to stop the torch’s relay as it was carried from the site.

In May, plans call for the torch to be carried through Lhasa. Human rights activist Wei Jingsheng wrote in the Washington Post that Beijing risks this Olympics being remembered like the 1936 games in Berlin, as a massive public relations event for an oppressive regime.

My friend Peter Arnett, who seems to have survived as many reincarnations as the Dalai Lama, is now a visiting Professor of Journalism at Shantou University in southern China. Arnett writes:

“I noticed from the beginning my students were all too willing to accept the government side of the case, and referred to Tibetan rioters as ‘terrorists.’ There is clearly a strong nationalist element to their thinking.

“Some Chinese faculty members fault the government for not being more aware of the potential for trouble in Tibet as the Olympics approach. They also believe that more should have been made of the ‘unprovoked’ Tibetan attacks on the Han Chinese businesses in Lhasa.

“All the Chinese around here seem to be putting the success of the Olympics above any requirement to resolve the Tibet issue by negotiations.”

On March 30, German Chancellor Angela Merkel became the first world leader to announce she would not attend the Olympics in Beijing. Donald Tusk, Poland’s Prime Minister, and President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic also announced a boycott.

“The leadership could be riding a real tiger with the Tibet issue,” says David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University. “Various and sundry nongovernmental human rights activists smell blood, and they will all be using Tibet to press their causes.”

Shambaugh characterizes the governments attempt to manage its image in the aftermath of Tibet violence as “heavy handed” – resorting to vilification of the Dalai Lama and questioning motives of foreign critics.

“The Chinese government is not particularly adept at public diplomacy, as they define it as external propaganda, and pursue it as such.”

Hopeful Motto

The hopeful motto of the 2008 China Olympics – “One World, One Dream” – dominates the skyline of every city in China but may become a mockery unless China can effectively deal with world opinion that has been fired up by the Tibet problems.

Olympic Slogan at Great Wall of China. Photo by Don North.

Those concerns about China extend to its policy on the Darfur violence and to domestic human rights issues. Officials in Beijing seem to fear that enhancing the political autonomy of Tibet could incite demands from dozens of other ethnic or religious groups in China.

An unprecedented appeal by a group of 30 Chinese intellectuals in the wake of the Tibetan protests has urged the government to rethink its response to protest movements.
The organizer, Beijing writer Wang Lixiong offered a novel suggestion:

“The most efficient route to peace in Tibet is through the Dalai Lama, whose return to Tibet would immediately alleviate a number of problems. Much of the current ill will is a direct result of the Chinese government’s verbal attacks on the Dalai Lama, who for Tibetan monks has an incomparably lofty status. To demand that monks denounce him is about as practical as asking that they vilify their own parents.”

China’s leadership under Deng Xiaoping decided in 1989 that their put-down of protests in Tiananmen Square and Tibet was worth suffering humiliation abroad. The difference now is that China wants to play a different role as hosts of the Beijing Olympics – the role of a modern country embracing the world.

”One World, One Dream” is in jeopardy unless the leaders of China can effectively and openly deal with growing demands for reform – in Tibet and elsewhere. 

Don North is a veteran war correspondent who has covered conflicts around the globe, from Vietnam to Central America, from the old Yugoslavia to Iraq.

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