Pico Iyer Journeys

A Hell on Earth

Tibetans are outnumbered by Han Chinese by more than 200 to 1, so any act of violence towards the Chinese will bring only more suffering on those Tibetans in Tibet who have suffered too much already (and, for that matter, on many Han Chinese). Nor has Beijing ever shown itself very responsive to provocation from abroad or to direct challenges to its authority. The one reason why Tibet has won the support of most of the world is that it has so far refused the path of violence; a single terrorist attack on Chinese roads or power stations might win the headlines of the world press for a few days and then squander the world’s good will forever. In any case, the Dalai Lama and his fellow exiles are in India as spiritual refugees. If they were to engage in political mischief from there, they would not only enrage China and imperil their fellow Tibetans, but also put their hosts in a difficult position, and even perhaps precipitate a confrontation between the two huge Asian powers.

The fact that the Dalai Lama’s policy has reaped no evident fruits so far only makes more and more of those concerned about Tibet desperate for another approach, of course, and feel that, given the odds against them, they might as well ask for the impossible (even the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother was an outspoken advocate of independence, and not the Dalai Lama’s conciliatory call for “autonomy”). Yet when the meetings to chart a new policy took place in November, the Dalai Lama remaining completely absent, so no Tibetan would try to follow him, yet again the Tibetans decided to follow the Dalai Lama’s course.

This leads to the difficult position of Tibetans following the course of peace even as many of them hunger for something more decisive. The Dalai Lama, characteristically, says he is open to any approach so long as it is objective, realistic and carefully reasoned. “This is not a matter of emotions, for us to scream and shout about,” he told the Chinese professors. Many in the Tibetan community and abroad, centered around the Tibetan Youth Congress, call for nothing less than full independence. “But I always ask them: How are you going to attain independence? Where are you going to get the weapons? How are you going to pay for them? How are you going to send them into Tibet? They have no answer.”

Meanwhile, though 98% of all Tibetans–those inside Tibet itself–have essentially been silenced, through Chinese control, discreet enquiries from their cousins in Dharamsala suggest that they are at once entirely behind their exiled leader, yet finding it hard to hold onto their patience (as they watch their neigbors imprisoned or tortured, and monks and nuns arrested if they do not denounce their spiritual leader). Traveling regularly to Tibet since 1985, I have been surprised to see Tibetans growing ever more strongly committed to the Dalai Lama and their distinctive heritage–even as Lhasa and other parts of their country are turned into generic Chinese versions of Las Vegas–precisely because they are being stripped of external ways of defining themselves. Their leader and their culture and their religion are the only ways they can remind themselves that they are Tibetans, and not just Chinese citizens with an exotic background.

The stakes in Tibet right now could not be higher, even for those of us who live very far away from Asia. “In 15 or 20 years,” the Dalai Lama told a TV interviewer in Tokyo, citing recent research he had seen, “if nothing is done, the Indus River will die.” In China, Tibet is sometimes referred to as the “Third Pole,” an indication of how much its huge quantities of ice and snow, almost as great as those of the North Pole, are subject to the ravages of global warming. Americans and Australians and Frenchpeople may have taken up Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama told an overflow crowd of 300, crammed into a twentieth-floor breakfast room in Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, but without Tibetan practitioners, for at least a generation or two more, Tibetan Buddhism might not survive. Tibetans are glad and grateful for all the modern facilities and material opportunities that Beijing has brought them, he constantly stressed, but that did not mean they felt they should give up their distinctive cultural tradition and basic freedoms of speech and religion in return.

As Tibet enters its second half-century as an oppressed nation–this fall marks the 60th anniversary of the arrival of People’s Liberation Army troops in eastern Tibet–there is a sense that what happens there has implications for us all, not just in environmental terms, but political. How China deals with Tibet will affect its relations with Taiwan, and if Beijing does come to its senses, and take a more enlightened and far-sighted approach to Tibet–as small a threat to it, population-wise, as Idaho might be to Washington–it will inevitably win the respect of the larger world and do much to secure its own legacy. Part of the particular power and fascination of the China-Tibet issue, after all, is that it seems to suggest a larger question beyond the geo-political; how much can anyone live on bread alone, and to what extent does some sense of inner wealth either trump or at least make sense of all the material riches we might gain?

The Dalai Lama has done his bit by announcing himself “semi-retired,” something like a “senior advisor,” in his own words; if Beijing thinks he is the cause of the recent disturbances and problems in Tibet, he has been effectively saying, he will gladly take himself out of the equation altogether to see if that can help. The Tibetans in Tibet have endured a lifetime of oppression with uncommon patience and fortitude. Now it remains only for China to be as “realistic” and transparent in its handling of Tibet as, the Dalai Lama noted, it was in the wake of the tragic earthquake in Sichuan last July. His final words to the Chinese students, some of whom were sobbing and working Tibetan Buddhist rosaries as he spoke, were “Investigate, investigate. Analyze, analyze.” He left the Chinese professors with the words, “Keep out the propaganda. Keep out our Tibetan side, too, our emotions. Study the situation!” Two days later, however, as he was addressing the journalists in Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, another Tibetan man was imprisoned, for five years, according to Human Rights Watch. His crime? Daring to tell relatives abroad about what is happening inside Tibet.

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