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China's Undercover War on Religious Life

REPORT FROM TIBET Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AN elusive patina of peace now envelops Lhasa.

Although radical Tibetan protesters stoned government buildings and Chinese-run businesses earlier this year, security forces that now guard the Chinese settlements and plainclothes police who circulate among the Tibetan pilgrims enforce an unspoken cease-fire.

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Yet beneath the surface tranquility of Lhasa, the opposing forces of Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Marxism are still engaged in a four-decade-long battle over the future of Tibet. Tibetan monks, students, and workers say that an influx of Chinese into the region, along with Beijing's expanding infiltration of monasteries, threatens to bury Tibetan culture.

``Within this peace is a kind of war,'' says one young monk.

On the streets outside the Jokhang Temple, Tibet's holiest shrine where demonstrators and police clashed earlier this year, harmony masks dissent.

Closely watched by security forces and surveillance cameras, dark-robed pilgrims prostrate and turn brass prayer wheels as they circle the temple. Tibetan children and elderly beggars receive a few coins or barley kernels from worshippers and share their alms with monks, or lamas who chant prayers for the liberation of man. Nearby, new bars, mahjong parlors, and karaoke halls line Beijing Avenue, the main street that bisects the capital.

Once-impoverished peasants from China's nearby Sichuan Province profiteer by buying raw materials from Tibet at state prices or by selling ``imported'' Chinese goods on the free market. They share their riches with Chinese Communist Party officials who issue business permits and fund new military projects outside the city.

The authorities, in turn, issue passes to select Tibetan pilgrims for entry into the Place of the Gods, as Lhasa is known. Plan's pitfalls

But this growing Chinese influence and control are fueling Tibetan nationalism.

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``In the past, the party attacked Tibet's monasteries with guns and tanks,'' one monk says. ``But today the government uses undercover police and management committees to attack us from within.''

``This is a much more sophisticated method of causing the slow death of Tibetan Buddhism,'' he said, ``and may succeed where the weapons failed.''

Democratic Management Committees, made up of religious personnel and party officials, have replaced Buddhist abbots at the head of major monasteries and temples, according to lamas and Western human rights monitors.

These committees control lamasery funds, sometimes pay for secret police to monitor monks, and include officials who oversaw the destruction of monasteries nearly 30 years ago, says John Ackerly, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based International Campaign for Tibet.

At that time, Chairman Mao Zedong presided over a countrywide purge of traditional beliefs during the Cultural Revolution. Radical young Red Guards pillaged thousands of Tibetan cloisters and temples, and tens of thousands of monks and nuns were killed or sent to concentration camps. In even the most remote valleys of this fervently religious region, Mao's portrait replaced Buddhist icons, including pictures of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled god-king. Anyone caught praying or offering sacrifies to the gods was subject to torture and imprisonment. ``The Cultural Revolution wiped out almost an entire generation of monks, scholars, artists, and doctors,'' says a lama in Lhasa.

Monasteries served as Tibet's sole universities, the lama says, and offered training not only in religion, but also in art, philosophy, medicine, and architecture. ``So by attacking the church,'' the lama says, ``the party struck at the heart of Tibetan culture.''

After Mao's death in 1976, Beijing announced that it would finance the reconstruction of some Tibetan temples as part of the party's liberalized management of religion. A Buddhist revival restored traces of Tibet's mythical history.

Hundreds of monks who remained of the half-million that once inhabited Tibet returned to the ruins of their temples. Pilgrims once again began trekking into the Lhasan valley, and brought with them long-hidden Buddhist relics or coins.

Yet even today, the party strictly controls religious life, according to Tibetan monks and Western scholars. Lamaseries are no longer permitted to admit school-aged children, and public schools teach in only Chinese. ``If Tibet doesn't regain its independence within the next generations, we may lose not only our religion, but also our language and entire way of life,'' a teacher in Lhasa laments.

Strict limits are placed on the size of each monastery, and novices are required ``to love the Communist Party,'' according to the official Chinese press. Buddhist shell

``The party wants to restore the form of the temple, but destroy its inner life,'' a young monk says. ``The government knows that the monasteries draw foreign tourists, but also believes that the clergy is at the heart of the independence movement. So they want to transform us into museum keepers, workers, or traders - anything but monks.''

The Chinese media frequently issues glowing reports of Tibet's economic progress under the leadership of the party. Yet Tibetans' average annual income is now only 490 yuan ($86), or less than one-fifth that of urban Chinese workers, according to official statistics.

``China brags that it has built roads, power lines, and new businesses throughout Tibet,'' says a Tibetan student. ``But the roads are only used by the Chinese Army and traders to enter Tibet. Most Tibetans can no longer afford electricity, while the new shops are all owned by Chinese.''

Anger over the growing income gap is causing a wider spectrum of Tibetans, including students, peasants, and the jobless, to join monks in anti-Chinese protests, Tibetan intellectuals and Western scholars say.

Beijing's migration and religious policies are also creating a level of inter-ethnic tension that threatens to explode in the near future, says a Western diplomat who monitors Tibet. ``When these conflicts begin, the loss of life through clashes on the streets will take a dramatic rise.''

But for now, Lhasa, the traditonal flashpoint of Tibetan-Chinese conflict, appears calm. Tibetan pilgrims continue to trickle into Lhasa, along with waves of Sichuan peasants seeking their fortune in the Western Treasurehouse, as Tibet is called in Chinese.

And each day, as Chinese troops stand sentinel over the gates of the city, an army of monks whispers prayers for the liberation of the land.

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