Tibet clings to identity, but it is growing weary   

Tibet clings to identity, but it is growing weary

By Paul Wiseman
USA TODAY November 17, 1999

LHASA, Tibet -- Inside the Drepung monastery on a barren hillside west of this holy city, Buddhist monks in maroon robes wait for their leader, the Dalai Lama, to return from exile in India. But they have been waiting for a long time, and they are beginning to lose hope.

''We Tibetans, we hold him in high regard,'' a 33-year-old monk says quietly.

''But the Chinese will never allow him to come back.''

''There's nothing we can do,'' another monk says. Neither would give their names because of the politically sensitive nature of their comments.

Forty years after the Dalai Lama fled Chinese occupation, Tibetans increasingly are resigned to Chinese rule and to life without their spiritual leader. Only a brave few continue to defy Chinese security forces and call for independence.

A visit to this desolate and beautiful land suggests that most Tibetans are quietly struggling to protect their way of life amid a wave of migration from China and to fend off the forces of social disintegration.

Daily lives

''As a Tibetan, I want to retain my own basic identity, my culture, some traditional ways of life,'' says Tashi Tsering, one of Tibet's most outspoken intellectuals.

A recent week-long trip to Tibet by a dozen foreign journalists was arranged by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many interviews were monitored by Chinese officials. But the journalists also got a chance to wander the streets of Lhasa and Shigatse, Tibet's second-biggest town, and to speak freely with the people -- monks, migrants, merchants.

At least on the surface, the atmosphere is relaxed, despite the presence of thousands of Chinese troops. Most people go about their daily lives unruffled by police or soldiers:

* Pushy merchants peddle colorful door hangings, prayer wheels and other wares from street stalls.

* Idle young men play pool at outdoor tables.

* Raggedy pilgrims prostrate themselves at the entrance of the Jokhang Temple, the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism.

But Big Brother is clearly watching. At Lhasa Middle School, wall-mounted surveillance cameras scan classrooms of bright-eyed teenagers in red, white and blue uniforms. The monks at Drepung say six Communist Party officials are stationed there to monitor their activities.

The regional government keeps limits on the number of monks and nuns, who often emerge as independence activists: The current number -- 46,000 -- is enough to meet Tibet's religious needs, says Xu Mingyan, vice chairman of the government of the Autonomous Region of Tibet.

'Peaceful liberation'

In October 1950, China launched what it calls ''the peaceful liberation of Tibet.'' In fact, it was an invasion by 30,000 troops from China's People's Liberation Army.

The Chinese said they came to modernize Tibet and free its people, most of whom lived in a state of serfdom under a backward and corrupt theocracy that filled the 17-year gap between the death of the last Dalai Lama and the coming of age of his successor.

But Tibetans rebelled against their would-be liberators in 1959, the same year the Dalai Lama (the spiritual and then-political leader of Tibet) went into exile. The Chinese crushed the revolt and have been snuffing out dissent ever since.

* In July, a 16-year-old novice monk was sentenced to three years in prison for shouting ''Free Tibet!'' and other independence slogans in Lhasa's Barkhor Square; a 21-year-old monk involved in the same incident got a four-year jail term, according to Amnesty International.

* Eleven people, including six nuns, were killed in prison last year after staging protests inside Tibet's Drapchi prison during a visit to Tibet by a European Union delegation.

* In August, a Lhasa carpenter, who had strapped explosives to his body, tried to replace a Chinese flag with the banned flag of Tibet in the public square below Potala Palace, where the Dalai Lama once lived. He was quickly subdued by police. The man's fate is unclear. The Tibet Information Network, citing a reliable unofficial report, says he died in a hospital after being beaten by police. Vice Chairman Xu says the man is alive and has recanted his crimes against the state.

Positive efforts

The Chinese have brought more than police-state tactics to Tibet. In some ways, their efforts to modernize Tibet seem positive. Power lines reach even remote settlements on the bone-jarring highway through steep mountain gorges between Lhasa and Shigatse.

And the Chinese have labored to wire Tibet to the nation's phone system. In 1959, Tibet had the capacity for 460 telephones; now it has the capacity for 149,000, says Zeng Zhongyi, a telecommunication official in Lhasa.

The effort is costly: The state phone monopoly, China Telecom, absorbed a $48 million loss in Tibet last year.

The Chinese influence, however, threatens to overwhelm traditional Tibetan culture. Chinese migrants seeking work have flooded Tibet from neighboring Qinghai and Sichuan provinces and beyond. The government says non-Tibetans account for just 5% of the region's population. But most experts say the real figure is far higher, in part because the official tally doesn't include soldiers and migrants who haven't legally registered to live in Tibet. In Lhasa, non-Tibetans are believed to make up about 50% of the population, and they dominate its commercial life.

Prosperous 18-year-old John Guoqiang, for instance, sells used books and racy magazines at a night market in Lhasa; he also runs a souvenir shop in the city. Guoqiang says he came from China's northern Gansu Province to find work at age 12. He says he has lots of Tibetan friends (''more than 10'') but admits that most Tibetans don't like people like him -- migrants from China's dominant Han ethnic group.

Modernization and migration also have brought modern problems to an ancient land. Runny-nosed children walk the streets during school hours begging for money. Many know at least two words of English: ''Hello'' and ''Money?''

Alcoholism is common, and prostitution is widespread. Lhasa has one brothel for every 304 residents, according to the Tibet Information Network. Young women sell themselves on the street below the Potala Palace. From open storefronts lined with red lights, girls from Sichuan and other Chinese provinces call to passers-by. ''Yao, bu yao?'' one demands in Chinese: ''You want me or not?''

Lhushang, 72, is a retired Communist Party neighborhood committee chairman who speaks in glowing terms of the benefits Chinese rule has brought Tibet. But even he is bothered by the growth of nightclubs, karaoke bars and brothels. ''Those nightclubs are too much,'' says Lhushang, who like many Tibetans uses only one name. ''The younger generation, they enjoy their life too much. They are always playing, drinking beer, not working hard.''

Lack of education

Han Chinese disproportionately hold top jobs in Tibet. Most Tibetans are poorly educated and unprepared to compete in an increasingly modern economy. The annual per-capita income averages about $140 in Tibet's rural areas and about $660 in the cities, Vice Chairman Xu says.

Many children drop out of school before they reach their teens; others never attend classes. In the countryside, it is common to see children younger than 10 tending sheep or goats during the week. Primary school enrollment is only 67% in Tibet compared to 98% in the rest of China, according to official statistics cited in the book Education in Tibet.

Even after the school-building boom, educator Tashi says, nearly a quarter of Namling County's 13,000 children ages 6 to 12 don't attend school. Their families believe the children are more valuable on the farm than in the classroom.

Fatima, a Muslim migrant from Qinghai who sells clothing at a Lhasa street stall, says she can't afford to send her 8-year-old son or 10-year-old daughter to school. School fees are 1,500 Chinese yuan (about $180) per semester per child, exorbitant for a family trying to get by on 200 yuan ($24) a month.

More than 73% of Tibetans -- 84% of women -- are illiterate or semiliterate compared to 18% in all of China, according to the 1990 census.

Tibetans are outnumbered in their own universities: They accounted for 45% of students admitted to the University of Tibet in 1992, and 26% of students in science programs. To get ahead, many are abandoning the Tibetan language and trying to master more marketable languages -- English or China's main language, Mandarin. ''Many young Tibetans are reluctant to learn Tibetan,'' Tashi says. ''They say, 'Tibetan is not feeding us.' ''

Given this reality, Tashi is steering clear of the political fray. He now spends his time on a practical but uncontroversial pursuit: raising money to build schools in Tibet's poor Namling County. ''I know what I can do and what I cannot do,'' he says.

WTN-L World Tibet Network News