The repression, surveillance, and propaganda are Orwellian. Chinese money, immigrants, and tourists are pouring in. The fight to control religion is heating up. John Demont reports that China’s longterm campaign to assimilate Tibet has entered a critical new stage.
There was understandable skepticism last March when Chinese state broadcaster CCTV declared Lhasa “the happiest city in China.” In 2008, after all, an estimated 140 people had died in protests in the Tibetan capital on the forty-ninth anniversary of the revolt against the Chinese takeover. Since then, 148 monks, nuns, and lay Tibetans—as well as eight Tibetans in exile—have set themselves aflame to protest Chinese rule over their homeland.
The cheery poll also contrasted sharply with the news that Freedom House, in its annual “Freedom in the World” report, ranked Tibet the second-worst place in the world for political rights and civil liberties. Number one was Syria.
As propaganda goes, the government-sanctioned poll seemed woefully transparent. Yet, it said something telling about Beijing’s current strategy for expanding its mastery over Tibetan life.
“Their approach has become more sophisticated,” concedes Penpa Tsering, the North American representative of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Even if China’s ultimate aim remains the same: “To assimilate or exterminate the Tibetans, as a geopolitical necessity,” says Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and President of Tibet House U.S.
It’s an objective that hasn’t really changed since 1951, when Mao Tse-Tung’s armies invaded Tibet. China had long claimed sovereignty over Tibet; now the Communists added the additional rationale of liberating it from its old, semi-feudal ways.
Today, Tibet is a vital part of the Chinese empire, geopolitically and economically. It serves as a buffer zone between China on one side and India, Nepal, and Bangladesh on the other. It is a crucial source of fresh water for China’s billions. The riches beneath the Tibetan plateau—minerals such as copper, gold, iron, mercury, uranium, and zinc, along with oil, natural gas, and coal—power China’s cities, factories, and exploding economy.
China’s grip over Tibet has tightened, loosened, and tightened again over the decades. Today, Tibet suffers a level of oppression “unprecedented since the Cultural Revolution,” says Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia.
In addition to the traditional tools of Chinese suppression—soldiers routinely unleashed on peaceful protestors, unprovoked arrests and detentions, nightmarish re-education camps—Tibetans today face an even greater military presence and an increasingly Orwellian level of security and surveillance.
The upshot, according to Human Rights Watch, is “diminishing tolerance by authorities for forms of expression and assembly… (which) has led authorities to expand the range of activities and issues targeted for repression in Tibetan areas, particularly in the countryside.” There, as in the cities, the Chinese authorities hope to nip opposition in the bud.
Examples of this approach, which Barnett calls a sophisticated “management” of dissent, abound. By targeting their families for persecution, China has curtailed the activities of activists and dissenters. Threats of severe punishment for families of Tibetans who light themselves on fire have slowed the number of self-immolations.
Three years ago, China instituted a “Grid Management” surveillance system, installing hundreds of police booths on residential streets. The system is designed to manage Tibetan society “without gaps, without blind spots, without blanks,” in the words of state media.
In the same period, reports Human Rights Watch, some 21,000 government officials have been transferred to villages and monasteries throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Thousands of additional police have been deployed in Tibetan communities, where the “double-linked households system” requires that party personnel befriend and guide families to adopt Chinese Communist Party orthodoxy and better themselves economically.
Consequently, there has been a surge in the creation of local Communist Party organizations, government offices, police posts, security patrols, and political organizations, all designed to keep a watchful eye on the Tibetan population. The impact has been dramatic: in the past, most political prisoners were Buddhist nuns and monks. Now, the persecuted are as likely to be local community leaders, environmental activists, artists, or just ordinary villagers going about their lives.
“Surveillance is at an all-time high,” says Tencho Gyatso, director of Tibetan Empowerment & Chinese Engagement Programs at the International Campaign for Tibet.
This is hardly what the Dalai Lama has in mind when he proposes a “middle way” to secure his people’s freedom—autonomy within China that protects Tibetans culture, religion, and national identity. The reality today is the opposite: cultural and religious self-expression is increasingly suppressed in a society where government cameras and plain-clothes police watch over monasteries and public squares, and where scrutiny of Internet and mobile phone use is widespread.
Escaping the Chinese government’s unrelenting propaganda campaign is equally difficult. “Tibet,” says Burnett, “is a propaganda state with a heavy military garrison as its backup.”
“Old Tibet,” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wrote in a 2015 white paper, was “savage, cruel, and backward, like the dark society of medieval Europe” before the communists embarked on a “peaceful liberation” of the region. Now the CCP wants the world to believe that its rule has propelled Tibet from the darkness into the light.
Mostly, the propaganda campaign focuses on China’s expansive plan to develop the economy and purportedly improve the standard of living for Tibetans. Since Tibet’s annexation, the Chinese government has spent an estimated $100 billion in the region, mostly on roads, train lines, bridges, airports, and other infrastructure.
Along with the money have come people. The Chinese authorities claim that Tibet’s Han population numbers some 245,000, a figure that critics call laughably understated. Han Chinese, both tourists and residents, have been pouring into Tibet since the first high-speed train line to Lhasa opened in 2006. The numbers are expected to soar in the future as new high-speed rail lines come on stream.
As it is, the official Chinese media has reported that 21 million tourists, almost all of them from China, visited Tibet in the first three quarters of 2016, compared to fewer than three million indigenous Tibetans. The government’s tourism strategy emphasizes secular elements in Tibetan culture and “red tourism”—the marketing of sites with revolutionary significance for the Chinese Communist Party.
Critics say that little of this spending is making it into the pockets of ordinary Tibetans. The nascent tourism industry and most of the services in the fast-growing cities are controlled by Han Chinese. Most construction material is imported from China. Overall, most of the new jobs go to Chinese immigrants, who now make up 22 percent of the population of Lhasa.
“It’s all a show, a facade, a house of cards,” says Tencho Gyatso about the economic development plan. “It is not there to sustain what is important to Tibetans.”
Instead, she and others argue that the influx of money and Han Chinese immigrants is marginalizing Tibetans in their own country—and making Chinese assimilation harder to resist. Forced resettlement and natural migration patterns are uprooting hundreds of thousands of rural Tibetans and moving them into the growing cities, which will soon be dominated by ethnic Chinese, according to the Tibet Policy Institute.
“In another 40 or 50 years,” concludes Penpa Tsering, “we could have a Tibet with a Han majority population.”
The drive for economic development is also damaging Tibet’s fragile environment. The urbanization push means rural pastureland is disappearing. Tibet’s rivers—a critical resource for more than 1.3 billion people in the world’s ten most densely populated nations—are being dammed.
The Tibetan plateau is heating up three times as fast as the global average, and as a result, glaciers are melting at a rate of seven percent annually, causing massive landslides. At this speed, according to Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of Tibet’s government-in-exile, two-thirds of the 46,000 glaciers on the Tibetan plateau—the largest concentration of ice on the planet after the North and South poles—will be gone by 2050, leading to a release of carbon that will have a catastrophic impact on global climate change.
Tibet’s culture is no less under attack. In one glaring example, China has sharply scaled back the teaching of the Tibetan language as part of its push to encourage the assimilation of Tibetans into the dominant Han culture.
The assault on Tibetan Buddhism, which the Dalai Lama characterizes as “cultural genocide,” is far broader. The famed Potala Palace in Lhasa, traditional seat of the Dalai Lamas, has been turned into a tourist museum with secular guards. Buddhist monasteries are strictly controlled. Thousands of buildings have been demolished and monastics displaced at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, two of the largest and most important centers of Buddhist learning in Tibet over which China has now assumed control.
The campaign to demonize the Dalai Lama personally is equally relentless. His Holiness, who fled Tibet after the abortive uprising in 1959, is derided by Chinese officials as a “wolf in monk’s robes” and a “splitist” intent on separating Tibet from its Chinese motherland. His followers are belittled as the “Dalai Lama clique.”
Foreign leaders who meet with the Dalai Lama earn Beijing’s scorn, a worrisome prospect given China’s economic power. Many decline to meet with him at all, or hold only private meetings. The repercussions of supporting the Dalai Lama are many times greater inside Tibet, where merely possessing his image is punishable by years in jail. Earlier this year, Chinese authorities barred Tibetans—who in 2016 received only a fraction of the foreign travel visas they were once granted—from travelling to the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra teachings in India.
A central instrument in China’s strategy to curb the Dalai Lama’s global clout is the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, who is being groomed by the government as an alternative to His Holiness, who turns 83 this summer.
In 1995, the Dalai Lama had named a six-year-old Tibetan boy living in Tibet as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important religious figure. Three days later, the boy and his family were kidnapped by Chinese authorities and have never been seen or heard from again. In his place, the government installed the son of a pair of Communist Party members, who this year called on Tibetan Buddhist monks to love the Communist party.
“The appointment of the fake Panchen Lama as a political tool is not working,” says Penpa Tsering of the government-in-exile. But China’s biggest power play is surely ahead.
The officially atheist government in Beijing has declared that it will find its own reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, which would help the CCP further solidify control over Tibet. In response, His Holiness has said that he will not be reincarnated in Chinese-controlled territory—“Reincarnation is not the business of the Communists,” he has said—and for that matter, may not be reincarnated at all, if that is the will of the Tibetan people.
Whoever follows may never enjoy the geopolitical stature of Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who is venerated as both a secular and spiritual leader and has personally brought his people’s tragedy into the global consciousness. But there are other reasons why the “middle way” goal of cultural and religious autonomy for Tibet within China remains, in the eyes of many, as distant as ever.
Tsering says that it is hard for the government-in-exile to move toward a diplomatic solution with a Chinese government that refuses to recognize, let along negotiate with, the democratically-elected administration. For other Tibet-watchers, the government-in-exile has erred strategically by focusing more on winning over the West than on trying to make headway with China. Even within the Tibetan diaspora, there is disagreement on the best way to advance the Tibetan cause, with some Tibetan exiles backing His Holiness’ notion of autonomy while others still call for rangzen, or full-blown independence.
Robert Thurman, though, remains hopeful. The reason, perhaps surprisingly, is Xi Jinping, the man who runs China, in the view of the New York Times, “with a firmer hand than any leader since Mao Zedong.” The political pragmatist seems to have something of a fondness for Buddhism—at least compared to his predecessors.
When the Dalai Lama was a young man, he spent months in Beijing studying Chinese and Marxism. At the end of his studies, His Holiness presented a watch to one of the Chinese officials he’d spent time with— Xi Zhongxun, father of the current leader—who wore the gift for many years afterwards. Xi Jinping’s mother, a practicing Buddhist, was buried with full Tibetan Buddhist rites. His wife, a popular folk singer, is also a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism in a country where interest in the faith is increasing.
“Family tradition” and “karma,” says Thurman, may sway Xi Jinping’s attitude toward Tibet. But geopolitical realities, more than anything, could be what push China towards a more accommodating approach. In the long run, China’s iron hand in Tibet will damage the giant’s ability to utilize its “soft power.”
“Xi Jinping is the first Chinese president who can feel the pulse of the world and realize that China has everything to gain by being a respected, powerful international player in a harmonious international system,” says Thurman.
So far, there have been few signs that Xi is willing to challenge the hard-line CCP leadership on the “Tibet question.” But Thurman thinks that an opening exists for Xi to adopt a “loose reins policy” regarding Tibet as the Chinese leader consolidates power in the coming years.
The question is, how long can Tibet wait? At the last Kalachakra teaching, the Dalai Lama said, perhaps jokingly, that he could live another thirty years.
“His Holiness is convinced that his approach will work in the long run,” says Thurman. “He is just sick and tired of it being such a long, long run.”