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China's grip on Tibet

October 24, 2007

Boston Globe
October 23, 2007

LHASA, Tibet

THE CHINESE have never really understood why the West makes such a
fuss about Tibet. China has crushed Tibet, and brought in settlers to
swamp its culture. But by their lights they have brought modernity and
a better life to a feudal society groaning under the rule of lamas.

They call the exiled Dalai Lama a "splittist," which sounds comic to
Western ears, but carries all the deep Chinese fears that forces are
conspiring to split up the ancient domain of China which, through the
ages, has often disintegrated into warring factions, only to be
reunited again when China was strong.

Tibet has for centuries been considered a satrapy of China, although
it had virtual independence when China was weak. Tibet is not
internationally recognized as an independent country. Not even the
Dalai Lama himself insists on independence. Yet China trembles.

For although the Chinese physical grip on Tibet is unyielding, in the
battle of imagination they haven't a chance. Westerners, for hundreds
of years, have been intrigued by Tibet as the most remote place on
earth, "the roof of the world," a hidden and holy land where an
esoteric form of Buddhism was practiced, producing miracles such as
flying monks and the ability to sit naked in the snow and raise your
body temperature by powers of concentration.

"Through all ages Tibet has held a paramount position among those
regions of the world which have been popularly invested with a veil of
mystery because they are inaccessible and unknown," wrote Sir Thomas
Holdrich in 1906.

But the Chinese don't get it. Jiang Zemin, when he was in command of
China, complained that he could not understand why the West, where
"education in science and technology has developed to a very high
level . . . enjoying modern civilization," could have any truck with
backward and superstitious Tibet.

In the old days adventurers would do anything to try to sneak into
Tibet, primarily because it was forbidden. In 1904, the British forced
an army through to Lhasa. Resistance was crushed "like a man fighting
with a child," wrote a witness, Perceval Landon of the Times of
London. Tibetan resistance never had a chance "under the appalling
punishment of lead."

That imbalance of firepower was repeated in the 1950s when the Chinese
came to stamp out whatever was left of Tibetan de facto independence
and isolation. Except for the stunning Potala Palace, religious
buildings, and devoted pilgrims, Lhasa is unexceptional now. Airplanes
render it accessible. I have arrived on the new train - an engineering
marvel to be sure - but nonetheless a train. If Tibet is to be remote
you shouldn't be able to take the 5:15 to Lhasa.

Yet, the power of Tibet in the imagination lives on. As Orville Schell
wrote, it was the dream of Shangri-La itself that was at stake: "For
many Westerners who had allowed themselves to dream the dream of
Tibet, Chinese rule represented a paradise lost." Schell's book,
"Virtual Tibet," traces the power of the Tibetan myth, the books, the
movies, the Hollywood stars that have taken up the Tibetan cause.

Since Shangri-La was invented by novelist James Hilton in "Lost
Horizon" 70 years ago, the name has graced an American aircraft
carrier, a hotel chain, Franklin Roosevelt's presidential retreat,
but, above all, it is a generic term for a heaven on earth.

The Tibet mystique lies at the confluence of two powerful rivers of
Western emotion - a search for spirituality that modern society seems
unable to fulfill, and the human rights movement stimulated by Chinese
brutality and cultural imperialism. A tributary is the assumed
spirituality of mountains: Mount Olympus to the ancients, "I will lift
up mine eyes unto the hills" for the biblically inclined. Tibet
wouldn't have been Tibet had it existed in the lowlands.

Although things are better now, one senses here some of the same
feeling of an occupied people that one feels on the West Bank.

The Dalai Lama, now in his 14th reincarnation, perpetuates the image
of Tibet by a careful combination of essential sweetness,
spirituality, and political acumen. He keeps the dream alive. And the
more the Chinese denounce him, the more it chastises countries, such
as Germany and America, for honoring him the more they empower him.

When he dies it is highly unlikely Beijing will allow monks to freely
find a 15th incarnation in some humble household on the Tibetan
plateau with a young boy who fits the mysteries. China will want to
pick the next one.

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