Tibetans Reach a Crossroads |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 16, 1999; Page A1
LHASA, China It's always Christmas at JJ's Disco in Lhasa, a cheesy Chinese nightclub in the heart of Tibet's ancient capital. Grimy plastic cutouts of Santa line the halls into the cabaret. Neon-colored tassels of tinsel droop from its Greco-Roman columns.
Inside, Lu Zhen, a Tibetan elementary school teacher moonlighting as a nightclub singer, croons to a crowd of Chinese patrons, decked out in three-button suits and ultra-minis, all wielding mobile phones.
"Chinese, Tibetans," she sings as two drunken policemen stagger into the bar, "we are all the daughters of one mother."
Lu's salary at the nightclub is 10 times what she earns teaching Chinese and Tibetan language classes in a ramshackle school across town. "She loves singing and this is the best place in town for her," said a friend. "And with the money they give her, well, it makes it easier to believe the words she's singing."
Forty years after Chinese troops crushed a rebellion against China's rule here, Tibet is at a crossroads its soul longing to be rid of China but its livelihood tied ever closer to Beijing. While China pours billions of dollars into developing the spectacular and forbidding region, Tibetans say they have little love for their colonial masters. Despite a campaign of "patriotic education" that since 1997 has defrocked hundreds of monks and closed dozens of monasteries, support for the Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader who is the campaign's target, remains sky-high.
A two-week trip across Tibet and Tibetan areas of western Sichuan province provided a rare portrait of many Tibetans' desire to escape Chinese influence and the deep economic and other ties linking Tibet to China's fortunes. The first part of the trip involved unrestricted travel and unmonitored interviews in the highland desert of Sichuan province with monks and herders, farmers and car mechanics. Travel inside Tibet was organized by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some interviews were monitored by Chinese officials but many others were conducted freely in the back rooms of bars, the darkened chapel of a monastery, in alleyways and cafes.
Tibet is quieter these days than it has been in years. Pro-independence demonstrations are rare. But the calm masks problems.
A year ago, a rapprochement seemed possible between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. As President Jiang Zemin spoke openly with President Clinton about China's secret contacts with the Dalai Lama's representatives, Chinese strategists floated an image of a multiethnic Chinese empire, of one country with many systems, a federation encompassing freewheeling Hong Kong, ancient Tibet, rust-belt Manchuria and Islamic Xinjiang.
Today the winds are blowing in another direction. Chinese policy in Tibet is now heavily influenced by the war in Kosovo, which fanned Chinese fears that some Tibetans would take up arms against China and win backing from the West. Negotiations with the Dalai Lama are broken off, and the Chinese approach seems to be to let the 64-year-old religious leader die in exile in India. But this strategy could bury the last chance for a peaceful solution to one of China's most vexing internal problems. The bespectacled Nobel Peace Prize laureate is perhaps the only person who can ensure that Tibetans do not embrace violence, as some young Tibetans in exile are advocating.
In the West, Tibet is framed as a simple issue, the lines of right and wrong so tightly drawn that no room is left for ambiguity. In movies like "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun," the Chinese, toting AK-47s and backed by howitzers, were depicted as invading an independent "Shangri-La" when they occupied Tibet. The reality is more complex. China is an empire struggling to become a modern country. Tibet, as it has for centuries, remains one of its vassal states.
At a bend in the road, Kagong, a pint-sized 14-year-old in tattered clothes, explains his stunted frame in simple terms: "I eat one meal a day."
About 2 million ethnic Tibetans live in Tibet about half of all the Tibetans in China. Although 78 percent of the population are farmers or herders, they are unable to feed themselves. China's annual shipments of food aid averaging 110 pounds for each person in Tibet tide over the region during the barren winter months.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company