Life returns to an anguished land

August 12 1985

Life returns to an anguished land

August 12 1985

Life returns to an anguished land



Of all the victims of China’s cataclysmic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), few suffered more than the people of Tibet. Culturally distinct from the Han (ethnic Chinese) people, Tibetans endured fierce persecution by Maoist Red Guards. Peking’s ultraleftists poured into the remote Himalayan territory and brutally suppressed local culture and religion.

Scores of monasteries were looted and destroyed and thousands of monks, or lamas, sent into labor camps.

Now, Peking’s moderate new leaders are attempting to make amends for past excesses. They have allowed a gradual religious revival, introduced a program of economic modernization and encouraged tourism.

Local administrators plan to showcase their reforms in a massive oficial celebration scheduled for Sept. 1, when the territory marks its 20th anniversary as an autonomous region of China. Maclean’s correspondent Wendy Lin recently visited the territory. Her report:

DeChinis a“living Buddha,” one of the holiest Buddhist monks in Tibet. By night he leads the chanting of the sutras, or Buddhist precepts, at the Tashilampo monastery in the lofty city of Xigatse,

3,000 km southwest of Peking. But by day his pursuits are more secular: shepherding curious foreign tourists through his monastery. He is both the highest religious figure living in the 50-yearold structure and a member of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, an elite advisory body. Although he is on Peking’s payroll, he refuses to join the Communist Party. “I am a lama,” said the 37-year-old cleric. “How can I be a member of the party?” •

DeChin is proof of the uneasy compromise that has evolved between Tibet’s devout Buddhists and China’s officially atheist leadership. After years of persecution by Peking’s Communist government, which has ruled the region of two million since 1951, Tibetans are once

again giving expression to their fervent religious feelings. Authorities are rebuilding the region’s ravaged monasteries. Thousands of lamas have been released from the camps and allowed to return to the monasteries. But Peking is determined that Buddhism will never

become the focus of opposition to Communist rule, as the Roman Catholic Church has become in Poland. “They let us worship,” said one young man. “But they still run our country.”

The revival of Tibet’s ancient religion, paralleled by the introduction of the market economy reforms that are sweeping China, has produced some jarring contrasts. In Lhasa, one of the

world’s highest cities at 11,830 feet above sea level, chanting pilgrims circle the 700-year-old Jokhang monastery in a continuous clockwise procession that begins at dawn and lasts until long after sunset. Nearby, on the well-worn path to the monastery, the former home of Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, vendors selling incense and prayer flags have added Chinese-made shoes, buttons, batteries and sunglasses to their stock.

But while some Tibetan youths are dazzled by modern gadgets from the outside world, many have embraced Buddhism with even greater enthusiasm. Hundreds of youths are training to replace the old men who currently predominate in Tibetan monasteries. After a traditional period of study, they will have to submit to an interview given by officials of the Chinese Religious Bureau, a state-run agency that regulates all spiritual activity in Tibet. The bureau allocates funds for restorations, controls the number of ordained monks and screens each applicant for the monkhood with literacy tests, personal interviews and background checks. Many do not make it through the process. “I am one of the lucky ones,” said a young monk in Jokhang. “There are many more who want to be monks, but 50 is the fixed figure here. Others can study the scriptures, but they have no hope of a position.”

Leaders of the religious bureau, composed of 35 members, seven of them Chinese and the rest Chinese-appointed Tibetans, insist that they do not interfere with what is taught in the monasteries. “The content is up to them,” said Chen Rende, the Han deputy chief of the bureau in Lhasa. “We simply propagandize the fundamental policies of the party. If you want to believe in religion, you are free to do so. On the other hand, if you once believed but no longer want to, you’re free to do that too.”

Given that choice, the overwhelming

majority of Tibetans have opted to resume their religious rites. Monasteries all over the country are swamped with pilgrims, many of whom travel on foot for hundreds of kilometres, usually bearing modest offerings. Some donate old Chinese and Tibetan bank notes, which they secure on altar tables with a handful of highland barley. Others pin prized objects such as bracelets and even digital watches to the robes of temple figurines. One man from Qinghai, a western province of China which was once part of greater Tibet, shared an 11-day truck ride with 16 pilgrims to reach Jokhang, bringing with him a jar of hand-churned yak butter from his own herd. “It was a difficult journey,” he explained, “but

it’s a lot better now than it was during the Cultural Revolution.”

The focus of religious fervor, the sun around which the Tibetan world revolves, is the Dalai Lama. Although he has not set foot in his homeland since 1959, when a failed anti-Chinese uprising forced him to flee into exile in northern India, his presence is keenly felt. “I think about him every moment,” said a carpenter who has made his tiny home into a shrine for the 50-year-old godking. “The only time I don’t have him on my mind is when I’m asleep.” Dalai Lama buttons and keychains are sold every few feet in Tibetan markets. His movements around the world from his base in India are monitored by shortwave radio and news of his speeches spreads rapidly by word of mouth.

Peking has conceded the Dalai Lama his title as supreme religious leader of the Tibetans, but it insists that he will be allowed to return only if he accepts

Chinese rule. In a five-point statement released last November Chinese officials said the Dalai Lama “should not argue over the events of 1959. It is better to forget.” But Tibetans have not forgotten. Although the violent guerrilla attacks of past years are rare now, the People’s Liberation Army must still maintain a highly visible presence to discourage rebellion. For his part, the Dalai Lama has rebuffed Peking’s invitation, declaring, “In the current circumstances, I think it is better that I do not go.” If Tibetans appear temporarily subdued, it is because “the Dalai Lama wants it that way,” says a former resistance fighter who now works for Peking in Lhasa. “He sent down word that under no circumstance will there be any

violence, so we have obeyed.”

Chinese authorites hope that an improvement in the standard of living will cool resentment against Peking’s rule. Using the same formula of economic reform that has been applied to the rest of China, Peking raised the per-capita income of Tibetans to the equivalent of $150 in 1984—a 50-per-cent increase over the year before. The Chinese-imposed agricultural communes have been dismantled and farmers can farm their own land and sell their produce at private markets. Trade in such products as food, trucks, tractors and wool between Tibet and other parts of China has also resumed after years of isolation. “Before it was almost like a blockade,” said Yan Zuoxi, a Chinese planning expert. “But now we’re encouraging contacts.”

Sinologists suggest that the Chinese

have little to lose by reforming economic policy. By their own admission, past Maoist economic experiments have been a spectacular failure throughout China. Tibet continues to rely on subsidies from Peking—$267 million this year alone —which it uses primarily to buy consumer goods from other parts of China instead of investing it in income-generating enterprises. “The more blood is transfused, the more serious is the anemia,” a group of Chinese economists wrote jointly in a Peking journal earlier this year. To. attract badly needed foreign exchange, officials are opening the doors of the long-isolated mountain territory to tourism. They plan to admit 6,000 visitors this year, four times the number in 1984, with a target figure of

100,000 a year by the end of the century. The opening of the long-sealed border with Nepal in March means that foreign visitors can now bypass the exhaustingly circuitous route through China.

In addition to commemorating the formal end to Tibet’s isolation at the special 20th-anniversary celebrations on Sept. 1, Peking also will unveil 43 new stadiums, libraries, schools and hotels built for the occasion at a cost of $215 million. Although thousands of Tibetans have been pressed into service to prepare for the festivities, few express much enthusiasm. The survivors of often-brutal repression at the hands of the Chinese, they can find little reason to rejoice after two decades under Communism. “It is the hope of all Tibetans to see the return of the Dalai Lama,” another former resistance fighter told a foreign visitor. “You’ve been outside. Can you tell me, do we have a chance? Will anyone help us?”^