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After Decades,Tibet Won't Bend to Chinese Ways

Beijing promised Tibet autonomy when it took control in 1950. But its actions since then suggest it's trying to 'civilize' this very different culture

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The world seems to be watching every step taken by China's new, hand-picked rulers in Hong Kong to gauge whether Beijing plans to live up to its guarantees of freedom and autonomy for the enclave.

But an earlier generation of Chinese communist rulers made eerily similar promises when Tibet was "peacefully liberated" nearly 50 years ago.

Beijing pledged during its takeover of Tibet in 1950, and again in Hong Kong earlier this month, that both regions would be largely self-ruled by local elites, with entrenched customs, social systems, and religious rights preserved.

The "Tibet Autonomous Region" of China, created after Chinese troops crossed into the remote Himalayan region in 1950, was initially ruled by a curious coalition of Communist Party, Army, and Tibetan Buddhist officials.

Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders said they were committed to protecting Tibet's unique Buddhist culture while reforming its feudal, serf-based economy. To back that policy, they chose the teenaged Dalai Lama, the head of Tibet's Buddhist theocracy, to lead the experiment in joint rule.

Tibet's religious foundations have since been subject to constant attack, first by Communist troops and now by party controls on monasteries. The Dalai Lama, who was forced to flee into exile during a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, has been branded a secessionist and the Communist Party is trying to wipe out his influence in Tibet.

Yet few expect Hong Kong to follow in the steps of Tibet's decline. The meshing of a common Confucian culture, language, and ethnicity is likely to help smooth Hong Kong's integration with China, say Chinese and American scholars.

Chinese nationalism is propelling Beijing's peaceful annexation of Hong Kong. But the same trend is sharpening the cultural fault lines that divide ethnic Chinese and Tibetans, says Dru Gladney, a China scholar at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Chinese Communist rule in Buddhist Tibet has been marked by an unending clash of civilizations, says Bhuchang Tsering, a spokesman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.

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Tibet's religion, language, and traditions were isolated from Chinese influence for centuries by the world's highest mountains, and Indian Buddhism rather than Chinese Confucianism helped build the foundations of Tibetan society.

In the decades following its armed conquest of the region, China tried to impose Chinese culture in the vast Tibetan plateau "through military occupation and the destruction of monasteries and monks," Mr. Tsering says.

Yet religion still pervades nearly every aspect of daily life in Tibet. Every Tibetan makes a pilgrimage, sometimes on hands and knees, to Lhasa, which means "the place of the gods." The Dalai Lama is considered the center of Tibet's spiritual universe and decades after his departure is still fervently revered.

Armed attacks on Tibet have in the last decade been replaced by a much less visible invasion of Tibet's remaining temples: the silent replacement of leading monks loyal to the Dalai Lama with pro-Beijing figures, Tsering adds.

The Chinese leadership is attempting to strengthen its political control by "destroying Tibet's religion and civilization from within," Tsering says.

He and other Tibetan exiles say that a "peaceful war" over Tibet's cultural identity and future has replaced the armed conflicts of the past. But the clash continues to claim casualties.

They cite as an example the recent struggle over the search for the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highest religious leader. Tibetans believe that high lamas, or monks, like the Dalai and Panchen are able to choose the timing and place of their rebirth.

Days after the 10th Panchen died in 1989, China's State Council, or cabinet, said that it would fund a golden shrine to him and helped organize a search party to track down his new incarnation.

But Chadrel Rinpoche, abbot of the Panchen Lama's Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in eastern Tibet, faced an impossible dilemma when Communist Party officials named him to head the search committee.

Centuries-old Tibetan custom dictates that senior monks consult countless mystical markers on the rebirth, which should then be interpreted by the Dalai Lama.

But the Dalai Lama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for publicizing the plight of Tibet's people and culture, has been branded a traitor and "national splittist" by Beijing for the same actions.

When Mr. Chadrel decided to follow the dictates of his conscience rather than those of the party, he was tried and sentenced to six years imprisonment for treason and espionage some months ago.

During the search for the Panchen Lama, "Chadrel secretly communicated with the Dalai Lama, who has long staged activities abroad aimed at splitting the country," says Li Guoqing, a senior Beijing-based official on Tibet. "In plotting to secretly find the Panchen Lama, Chadrel and the Dalai Lama aimed to usurp the authority of the central committee," he adds.

Eight-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Dalai Lama's choice for the No. 2 spot in Tibetan Buddhism, has been dethroned by China's leaders and replaced with their own candidate. Instead, Beijing selected Gyaltsen Norbu as the "chosen" one.

Mr. Li says the dethroned boy, who is being held incommunicado, "has been placed under government protection to guard against the Dalai Lama sending teams into China to seek him out."

"Dozens of monks at Tashi Lhunpo who protested the arrest of Chadrel Rinpoche or the replacement of the Panchen Lama have been detained," says a Chinese intellectual with high-level government contacts.

"The attacks on Tibet's religion are considered a worse crime than the military occupation of the region," Tsering says. "Religion is at the heart of Tibetan culture, and this act is part of China's plan to destroy Tibet's collective soul."

The Dalai Lama, who says Chinese rule in Tibet is aimed at "cultural genocide," recently asked that the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong be implemented in Tibet.

But a Beijing official scoffed at the notion that the same standards be applied in Hong Kong, a rich economy dominated by ethnic Chinese, and Tibet, one of the poorest regions in Asia. "The Tibetans' poverty has been caused by their superstitious religion and primitive culture," he says. "China wants to help civilize Tibet, and that is its top political goal in the region."


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