China's plan to turn Tibet into a kind of Disneyland in the Himalayas has fallen on hard times. Since last October, when Tibetans rioted in the streets against their Chinese overlords, the country has been closed to Western journalists and most foreign travelers. Reports from Tibetan refugees who have managed to slip out tell a grim story of arrests, torture, killing and a frantic propaganda campaign by the Chinese to bring the Tibetans into submission.

It is a far cry from the quaint, picture-postcard Tibet that tourists saw before last fall. Our sources say that picture was carefully crafted by the Chinese, who see Tibet as a valuable tourist attraction, a sort of time capsule of Asian Buddhist theocratic culture. Except that the Chinese have laid waste to that culture since they occupied Tibet in 1950, destroying 6,000 monasteries, temples and shrines and sending the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile. That leaves a facade of old Tibet for the tourists, and since October the Chinese have made no pretense of keeping up that facade.

The Tibetan plateau, called the "Roof of the World," has been closed to outsiders for most of the 38 years of Chinese rule. But in recent years, the Chinese have been allowing more tourists in, and have been cultivating potential trade relationships with the West. That ended last fall. The Dalai Lama visited the United States to propose a peace plan between his Tibetan supporters and the Chinese. Two days later, on Sept. 24, Chinese troops rounded up 15,000 Tibetans in a stadium and made them witness the execution of two Tibetan nationalists.

That, plus the public beating of monks, touched off anti-Chinese rioting. The Chinese claimed six people died, and that most of the injured were policemen.

But two congressional aides who met with the Dalai Lama and interviewed Tibetan refugees in neighboring Nepal this month said the death toll may have been as high as 40. Paul Berkowitz, a staff assistant for Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), and Keith Pitts, legislative director for Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.), heard stories from refugees about hundreds of arrests since the riots and a massive "reeducation" effort by the Chinese. They interviewed one woman who was "tortured with an electric cattle prod in her private parts," Berkowitz told our associate Daryl Gibson. "They {the Chinese} just treat the Tibetans like dogs. That's what started the riots. They were beating monks with shovels."

Pitts said that while they were in Nepal, a refugee confirmed the rumor that the Chinese are paying a $100 bounty to Nepalese border guards for every fleeing Tibetan that the guards turn in. The Chinese turned to bounties when their effort to close the border with Nepal failed.

Providing a backdrop to the oppression in Tibet are the persistent rumors the Chinese plan to use the region as a dumping ground for international nuclear waste. Central Intelligence Agency reports have said as much.