Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
March 20, 2008
XINING, China: Count the ways that China has sought to bring Tibet to heel since the People’s Liberation Army rolled into the country in 1950, brutally ending a phase of nominal independence.
It has tried decapitation. No, heads didn’t roll, but one of the heads of Tibetan Buddhism has disappeared. Here, I speak of Gendun Choekyi Nyima, a 6-year-old boy who was apprehended by Beijing after the Dalai Lama named him Panchen Lama, the second holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, in 1995. Nyima, ostensibly one of the world’s youngest political prisoners, has not been seen or heard from since.
It has tried cartographic dismemberment, gerrymandering western China to place heavily Tibetan areas under non-Tibetan jurisdictions. That is why when protests broke out in Lhasa last week, they were followed quickly by sympathetic demonstrations by Tibetans here in Qinghai Province, and in Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan.
It has tried ethnic drowning, flooding Tibetans with officially encouraged westward migration of members of China’s Han majority, who may already outnumber Tibetans in Lhasa and control both the political administration and every meaningful sector of the economy.
It has attempted suffocation, as well: not literally smothering Tibetans, but rather rewriting the region’s history to take out every politically inconvenient or embarrassing fact. Such ambitious management of history is hard and never-ending work, which partially explains why Chinese news accounts of recent events have been so one-sided, and in the end, believable only to people who have been raised within the intellectual garden zealously roped off and tended by the Chinese state.
As I prepared to leave home for work Thursday, I overheard via the Internet an interview with China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shumin, who likened China’s use of heavily armed police and military forces to put down protests in Tibetan areas to the responses of the authorities in the United States and France when there are civil disturbances. “This is normal,” he said, striving for a reassuring line. Others have spoken of China’s “utmost restraint” and pledges to avoid lethal force.
What, then, was I to make of the pictures that greeted me in the foreign press that showed Tibetans gathered around the corpses of several of their brethren slain near a monastery in Sichuan Province the other day?
Many Tibetans think of Chinese as faithless, but the people who govern China believe firmly in one thing, the irresistible power of the state. Under Mao Zedong, under the guise of Marxism, this ideology was unleashed on man and on nature alike, the first of which Mao repeatedly sought to remake, and the second, to tame.
A war on religion soon followed in the 1960s, with marauding youths and troops smashing temples and burning relics all over China, but nowhere more fiercely than in Tibet, which suffered more than most places during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.
But while most of China has succumbed to official teaching that religion is superstition, replacing spiritual pursuits with the quest for money and personal advancement, the events of the last week or so suggest strongly that in the Tibetan world, dialectical materialism has met its match in the Tibetan’s people’s attachment to their own culture, to their identity and to their beliefs.
Tibetan anger, and the willingness to die for a cause, is more than a routine minority grievance, such as one sometimes sees in civil disturbances in the West. It is about survival as a people with cultural and religious integrity in the face of state-sponsored migration and Chinese-style modernization.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao may have thought he addressed this in saying that China “not only has the ability to maintain stability in Tibet and normal social order, but also will continue to support Tibet’s economic and social development, to raise the life standards of all ethnic groups in Tibet, and to protect Tibetan culture, ecology and the environment. This is an unwavering stand.”
To Tibetans, it is a stand with no ground to support it. All along China’s northern periphery, once strong local cultures are being supplanted or just plain wiped out. Kerry Brown, in his book “Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century,” writes this about Inner Mongolia, which has already been largely homogenized:
“Dressing up in colorful clothes, dancing exaggerated dances, eating mutton and drinking white spirit are all O.K. But musing about just what the historical claims of the current Chinese state on Inner Mongolia are, or writing more trenchant articles in Chinese about the gradual annexation of the region are good ways to be rewarded with unwanted police attention and very probably lengthy prison sentences.”
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Copyright The International Herald Tribune