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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibet: Serenity Returns

May 24, 2008

Louise Blouin MacBain
May 23. 2008

LHASA, Tibet -- I have been in Lhasa, Tibet, for three days, arriving under special permission from the Tibet Autonomous Region government as the first foreigner to be allowed into the TAR since the March 14 riots shook the city and drew the attention of the world.

While the situation in Lhasa can be described as sensitive--and destruction of property and loss of life from the riots significant--the city, two months later, appears to me to have a sense of normalcy and ease.

What is apparent, and rather sad, is the absence of tourists--whether foreign or Chinese. While the TAR has recently opened to Chinese tourists, the region will remain closed to foreign guests for several more months. This has been no more apparent than at our hotel, The Grand Tibetan, which has over 500 rooms but is now hosting only our party of six as guests.

The purpose of my trip to Lhasa has not only been to witness the city in the aftermath of the riots--there are still many burnt-out shop fronts and shells of buildings--but to discover for myself what is meant by the term "Tibetan culture" and its current welfare.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama for many years has said that "cultural genocide" is taking place within Tibet as the result of modernization and the settlement of Han Chinese. Since I hold the Tibet issue and the relationship between China and the West close to my heart, I wanted to see with my own eyes the real state of Tibet.

It is difficult not only to appreciate the present-day Tibetan Autonomous Region without physically traveling to Lhasa in order to see the ancient and sacred sites situated on the High-Plateau, but also to witness the amount of development that has occurred since 1950 without going there.

Just 58 years ago, before Tibet became governed by the Chinese, it maintained one of the most repressive systems of feudal serfdom in history. This system was based on a harsh disparity between the ruling religious-aristocratic class--of which successive Dalai Lamas were at the head--and the serfs, who were viewed as sub-human and sold or traded as slaves by a regime that exercised stringent and barbaric modes of punishment in order to maintain social control. If this system, existing from the 1600s until the late 1950s, wasn't a crime against humanity, I don't know what is.

In a conversation I had this week with a TAR Party official, the Director General of the Cultural Department responsible for overseeing the restoration and protection of over 2,300 ancient and sacred Tibetan sites, I asked what had been the most significant change since his birth in 1950. He responded by talking about education.

Until 1963, when the Chinese government took a more active role in regional development, he said, there had only been one school in the entire area. After 1963, numerous schools opened, and, in time, some of these schools turned into universities. In 2006, the TAR reported it had 890 elementary schools, 1,568 teaching centers and a total student body of 329,500. His education, and his rise to Director General--as opposed to becoming either a monk or a military officer due to his lower status--was made possible, he said, only by the Communist Party.

This is what I have found most striking about my visit to Lhasa. The city itself is fully developed, no one is starving, the new generation of Tibetans is educated and there is abundant economic opportunity. More important--and contradicting the criticism of His Holiness the Dalai Lama--there is a growing effort and awareness to preserve, enhance and promote Tibetan culture.

When His Holiness uses the phrase "cultural genocide," it begs the question, Which Tibet is he actually describing? It certainly is not the one I have seen. The TAR contains three United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage sites, which come with a seal of approval in respect to cultural protection that is not easily obtained.

Prior to my trip to Lhasa, I met with high-level officials in Beijing to discuss a strategy for the cultural preservation of Tibet, as well as the promotion of Chinese culture in an international context. I prefaced these meetings by explaining that I felt that culture was at the heart of many of our conflicts today and, therefore, cultural diplomacy could be seen to play a vital role in defusing tensions within the TAR and to help the West gain a greater understanding and appreciation of China.

I conveyed this same message to the Vice Chairman of the TAR Party, with whom I spoke at length about cultural preservation and the role of cultural diplomacy for Tibet. What has been evident from the dialogue and from visiting various historical sites, as well as from driving through the streets of Lhasa, is that Tibetan culture is well preserved and flourishing, yet no one knows about it.

Of course it has to be acknowledged that Lhasa, like many other cities today, faces the dilemma of modernization and globalization--on the one hand, a requirement for development, and, on the other, the need to protect ancient local culture and a fragile environment. Yet in speaking with officials of the TAR, I can see that there is a real opportunity to preserve the uniqueness and the beauty of Lhasa and Tibetan culture.

Since the March 14 riots and the criticism of the Chinese government by His Holiness, I have actively made appeals to heads of state and Western media to learn the facts about the demands of His Holiness as part of the "Middle Way" approach.

The key message these texts contained, and a message that is still applicable to the current negotiation between the envoys of His Holiness and the Chinese government, is that His Holiness is seeking political control of over 25% of China, extending Tibet beyond the borders of the TAR. This demand will face a brick wall from the Chinese due to its lack of pragmatism and good will. My personal message has also included an appeal to His Holiness to moderate his demands and to work with--not against--the Chinese. His constant negative criticism is fueling separatism and further destabilizing relations between China and the West.

We do not want--and cannot afford--to divert China from its current policy of a peaceful, gradual rise onto the world stage to a policy of aggression. Both the criticism of His Holiness and the criticism of China by Western leaders must end. It not only fuels antagonisms inside Tibet, it has caused a deep anger among Chinese leaders and their people, hurt by denunciations of China and the Olympic games that were inspired by His Holiness. This form of criticism is pushing the Chinese to their limit, and we cannot afford to turn a generation of Chinese, who are working toward greater openness and integration with the world, away from this path.

We must not allow His Holiness to further box China into a corner over the Tibet issue. This strategy, compounded with criticism by Western leaders, can only lead to further alienation from--and strained relations with--China. There is an urgent need to move away from the mentality of the Cold War, where the CIA supports His Holiness to gain a strategic advantage. Certainly, questions of human rights, transparency and the protection of the environment remain, but I can guarantee that the Chinese are willing to talk about these issues.

The recent decision by the German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier not to meet with His Holiness during his recent trip to Germany can be seen as a positive sign that some Western leaders are starting to become aware of the delicacy of the Tibet issue. We must urge many other Western leaders to follow. If a similar demand-- de jure independence for 25% of a nation's territory--were issued to a Western nation, it would be met with severe resistance.

In speaking with Chinese officials, I have been told on numerous occasions how much they regret the Cultural Revolution. This attempt to distance themselves from this period is apparent from the amount of money spent on the preservation of Tibetan culture, as well as the support and promotion of culture throughout the rest of China.

To help with this effort of cultural preservation of Tibet and of China's many cultures, our LTB Foundation will be launching an international platform with the support of the Chinese government and the TAR party. This platform has been developed with the recognition that the problems facing China and the TAR, as well as the lack of understanding and communication with the Western world, require a cultural solution. This platform will also be launched in order to address and further facilitate China's integration into the global system. We will announce this platform to draw international support, and we will also use it as an opportunity to welcome and invite His Holiness to be a part of this process.

While visiting the Norbulingka monastery, I spoke with one monk who asked me what I thought about Tibet and about Lhasa. I told him I thought it was beautiful; it had beautiful culture and beautiful scenery. He responded by saying that this was "not important." I asked him what he felt was most important. He told me it was the "people … you come to Lhasa for the people." Wise words indeed.
Investment in Health and Education by the Chinese Government in Tibet

Year                               1950              2005

Population                        1.18 mln        2.8  mln

Life Expectancy          35 y.            67 y.

Literacy Rate                     5% of pop.      94% of pop.

Ethnic Make-up of Reg.  95% Tibetan     5% Han Chinese and other

Internet Subscribers             n/a               160,000

Investment in Culture by the Chinese Government in Tibet

--Since 1980, 1.8 billion RMB (approx. $160 million) has been invested in cultural preservation projects inside of Tibet.

--$50 million has been spent over the last decade on the restoration of monasteries and cultural relics throughout the TAR.

--$10 million has been allocated by the Chinese government and the TAR Party for further restoration of monasteries and relics.

--In 1999 the TAR opened its first major museum containing many cultural relics from the monasteries and from the region, which we visited and saw.

--The TAR has three sites as part of the Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa (1994, 2000, 2001).

--The TAR government is working to preserve over 2,300 ancient religious and cultural sites throughout the region.

Louise Blouin MacBain is c hairman and CEO of the Louise Blouin Foundation and founder of the Global Creative Leadership Summit
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