The Quiet Heroes of Tibet

Pankaj Mishra – The New York Review of Books

Copyright The New York Review of Books
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However, Chinese claims about Tibet present a very different picture; and after allowing for some inflation in official statistics, they have to be taken into account, partly to understand the extreme Chinese distrust of the Dalai Lama. Woeser is right to claim that not many Tibetans can enter the utopia of “development” promised by the Chinese—a consumer lifestyle in urban centers. Most Tibetans living in rural areas have seen few benefits of economic growth. But the Chinese have announced plans to improve facilities for education, health care, sanitation, and transport in large parts of rural Tibet. Both the ongoing extension of the railroad to the southern city of Shigatse and an ever more ambitious highway construction plan are expected to integrate the remotest regions of Tibet into the national economy.
To allay fears that the railroad would worsen Tibet’s already very serious environmental crisis, the Chinese government has announced many measures, including systems to store garbage and waste water and treat them in designated facilities.[7] The official Chinese documentary on the railroad offers a touching story about Chinese construction workers nursing orphaned baby antelopes, and claims that thirty-three “animal underpasses” have been put in place under the tracks.
State-imposed modernization tends to incite more resentment than gratitude among the supposedly backward people it aims to uplift. Still, in view of the hectic Chinese efforts to appease it, the Tibetan mood struck me as extremely sullen. “Virtually all Tibetans,” Wang Lixiong claimed in an article in 2002, “have the Dalai in their hearts.”[8] Five years later, the Tibetans remain defiantly loyal to their long-exiled spiritual leader. That the Chinese have brought, in the meantime, many more roads, bridges, schools, electricity, regular jobs, and salaries to Tibet has not changed their allegiance to him.
Pictures of the Dalai Lama are banned in Tibet. Yet a Tibetan farmer I met claimed that every house in his village concealed an image of the spiritual leader. Last year the Dalai Lama’s disparaging remarks about fur-wearing Tibetans sparked bonfires of animal skins and fur-trimmed clothes across Tibet.[9] Mass protests erupted this year in the town of Lithang after police arrested a Tibetan nomad who climbed on a stage erected for Chinese officials at an annual horse festival and, seizing a mike, pleaded for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.[10] In October, after monks celebrated the awarding of the US Congress’s highest civilian honor to the Dalai Lama, the Chinese police sealed off the biggest monastery in Lhasa.[11]
Not surprisingly, Chinese authorities are trying hard, if often clumsily, to undermine the Dalai Lama’s authority. In 1995, Chinese authorities kidnapped the boy—called Gendun Choekyi Nyima—whom the Dalai Lama had identified as the eleventh Panchen Lama, and installed their own child candidate in this important position in Tibetan Buddhism. (The whereabouts of the kidnapped boy remain unknown.) In an attempt to forestall the Chinese regime from usurping his position, the Dalai Lama announced that he will be reincarnated outside Tibet, guaranteeing that his successor will be born among the Tibetan community in exile. In August this year, the officially atheist Chinese regime passed legislation effectively banning Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which stipulates the procedures for rebirth, is “an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation.”
Wang Lixiong, who is one of the very few Chinese intellectuals to have met the Dalai Lama, told me that Tibetans have no faith in the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, whom they refer to as “that little brat.” He thinks that the Chinese missed an opportunity in suppressing Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the Dalai Lama’s candidate for the seat of the Panchen Lama. Traditionally, Panchen Lamas have had a crucial part in choosing the Dalai Lama, and had the Chinese respected the choice of Nyima and educated him carefully, they would have had a good chance of legitimizing their choice of the next Dalai Lama. As things stand now, few Tibetans are likely to accept the decisions of China’s substitute.
Remarking on the missteps the Chinese have made in Tibet, Wang said that market reforms have weakened Beijing’s authority. Communications between central and provincial governments have broken down, leading to arbitrary and thoughtless decisions such as the expulsion of Woeser from Lhasa, which has led to her acquiring bolder views and a higher profile in Beijing. Communist Party officials correctly feel themselves most vulnerable in regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, where Han Chinese are a minority; the oppressive atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution still lingers in Tibet, where villagers are required to fly the Communist flag and display a picture of a laughing President Hu Jintao flanked by Tibetans in colorful ethnic costumes. Tibetans talking to foreigners invite the attention of the police. By contrast, small spaces for dissent have opened up almost imperceptibly in Beijing and the coastal cities, escaping the scrutiny of officials who are busy either pursuing private fortunes or grappling with corruption, social breakdown, and environmental disasters.
This seemed true when I returned from Lhasa to Beijing, and found that I could talk to Woeser without fear of police harassment. I met her a few times in my hotel room and once in an Indian restaurant. On two occasions she was accompanied by Wang Lixiong, who was born in 1953 and is thirteen years older than Woeser; his calmly cerebral and courtly presence contrasts attractively with her ebullient manner. Woeser told me that she first heard of him through his outspoken writings on Tibet; Wang was, she said, the first Han Chinese writer to have written honestly about Tibet. They e-mailed each other for a year before finally meeting in 2000 when Wang visited Lhasa to research an article.
Wang said that Woeser had helped him shed his condescending Han Chinese perspective on Tibet as an integral part of China and on Tibetans as a backward people. He said, “It is widespread in China. I still have to be on my guard against it.”
Shortly after corresponding, Woeser sent Wang some revealing photos taken during the Cultural Revolution by her father, an officer with the PLA in the late 1960s, when Red Guards rampaged across Tibet. Wang, who had himself been a Red Guard, encouraged her to interview the people in the photographs, which show scenes of mob fury and individual humiliation, and to write a text to accompany the photographs.
The book was subsequently published in Taiwan. Chinese authorities tend to be very sensitive to anything related to Taiwan and Tibet. But Wang spoke equably of the double hazards for a China-based writer on Tibet publishing in Taiwan. Certainly he now takes risks that would have struck his parents as near suicidal.
Like Woeser, Wang, too, had been born into China’s ruling elite. His father, an early member of the Communist Party, received his education at a Moscow polytechnic at the same time as Jiang Zemin, China’s former president. Then, in 1968, at the height of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, his father, denounced as a “capitalist-roader” and “Soviet-revisionist spy,” committed suicide after months of detention in a cowshed, and his mother, an editor at a film studio, was sentenced to hard labor in the countryside.
Wang spoke with remarkable detachment about the destruction of his parents’ lives. As a Red Guard, he said, he had even wondered if his parents were suffering for a noble ideal. He told me that he first became interested in Tibet in the mid-1980s, when, after giving up a conventional career as an engineer, he built a raft out of the rubber inner tubes of truck tires and floated down the entire great length of the Yellow River.
In 1991, he published a novel titled Yellow Peril, which became a best-seller before being banned by the Chinese authorities. In 1999, while researching a book about Xinjiang, he was arrested and detained for forty days in the Uighur-majority province. Undaunted, Wang traveled to the United States in 2001, and published an account of his meetings there with the Dalai Lama.
Wang is a member of a “lost generation” of Chinese youth that was unmoored by the chaos created by Mao in his last years. He struck me as someone who had become fearless while improvising his life. He told me that ethnic minorities like the Tibetans and the Uighurs desperately needed courageous public intellectuals. Tibetans were lucky to have Woeser, who could articulate, both at home and abroad, their wishes and aspirations. He added that it would be a mistake for foreigners to see her simply as protesting human rights violations, for she represented something new: a Tibetan who had come through the Sinicized education and literary system, and who now used her fluency in Chinese to bypass the system of state patronage and participate in the transnational free market in culture that had opened up for Chinese writers in recent years.
On my last afternoon with Woeser and Wang I asked them if I could visit the apartment they share with Wang’s elderly mother. Woeser had earlier told me that this was not a good idea since it risked provoking suspicions by the policemen monitoring her home. Now it was Wang who looked doubtful. He said that I could go but that he was very likely to be followed and would rather not accompany us.
Woeser’s apartment looked far from downtown on the city map. But the taxi took a freeway running across Beijing’s six ring roads, and brought us very quickly to what looked like the edge of the city. Her apartment house seemed new but, like most new construction in China, already touched by decay. I glimpsed uniformed men in the guardroom watching us, and was reassured to see Woeser indifferently walking past them to the elevator.
Wang’s mother opened the door. A small, gray-haired, gentle-looking woman, she smiled faintly at us and then abruptly left the apartment—in order to give us, Woeser explained later, more privacy. I remembered what Wang had told me of his father’s suicide and his mother’s three-year imprisonment in a cowshed during the Cultural Revolution, followed by four years of hard labor in the countryside. I couldn’t help staring at her, half-expecting her face to hold some trace of her ordeals. But she looked serene, like many of the old Chinese of her generation I often saw sitting in public parks, on whose faces a cruel history had finally bestowed a kind of grace.
Carefully organized, the apartment looked bigger than its two small bedrooms and kitchenette leading off the living room. Woeser busied herself with tea. I walked over to her desk in one of the bedrooms. The shelf beside her desk held Chinese translations of books by Susan Sontag, V.S. Naipaul, Edward Said, and Orhan Pamuk, among other writers.
Woeser had been dismissive about the few Chinese writers I mentioned. Wang had explained, “None of them really say what they feel about China today, so it is hard for us to respect them.” The books on her shelf revealed something of how Woeser, who has never left Chinese territory, had formed her sensibility; how she had arrived at the aesthetic and political judgments that depend on a deep acquaintance with the experiences of other societies.
From where I stood I saw the view from the window: Beijing sprawling to the west, light wintry mist blurring a harsh landscape of new anonymous city blocks, freeways, factory chimneys, construction cranes, and planes hanging low in the sky, waiting to land at the airport to the north—the airport which, like much else in the city, is presently being expanded and renovated for the Olympics next year.
Wang had told me that he saw the Communist system in China in serious peril. The Party could not control China anymore; it had allowed no other political institutions to grow and when it collapsed the whole oppressive structure was bound to crumble. But looking out Woeser’s window—the planes circling in the sky, as if in homage to the feverishly blooming city—the power and wealth of China could seem unassailable, and Tibet a forgotten, perhaps lost, cause.
Returning to the living room I noticed pictures of the Dalai Lama hanging from one recessed corner; DVD recordings of his teachings were stacked below them. The casual display of the prohibited image in a Beijing apartment, a few hundred feet from a policeman below, startled me. Woeser saw me examining the DVDs on her shelf. She said, “Tibetan friends of mine often get together to watch them. We dim the lights and project the films on a big screen. It feels wonderful, even though the evenings usually end with all of us in tears.”
Woeser had not spoken to me of her religious beliefs. I wasn’t even sure if she, a writer in the modern secular mode, had any. More likely, images of the Dalai Lama keep alive an idea of Tibet as much for Woeser and her friends in their suburban exile as for the devout farmers in the Tibetan fastness. Such private affirmations of Tibetan identity, and Woeser’s and Wang’s testing of the limits of intellectual freedom in China, may not accomplish much at present. Nevertheless, they show how the great consolidation of Chinese power today obscures many collective and individual gestures of dissent and defiance in Tibet—gestures that may yet cohere into a movement, not so distant perhaps, of political change.
—December 19, 2007

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