Tibetans, Han ignore politics to build uneasy ties

Ben Blanchard (Reuters), Tongren, China - Tibet's troubled politics may have grabbed headlines for decades, but the relationship between Tibetans and the dominant Han Chinese is far more complex and multifaceted than the bitter public arguments suggest.

The two peoples share a long historical attachment to Buddhism which years of Communist rule has never managed to kill. China's economic boom has also opened previously hard-to-reach Tibetan areas to Han visitors, leading to a mingling of cultures.

Tibetans in at least one area with looser political restrictions than Tibet proper say their beef with the government in Beijing does not extend to all Chinese, and that some controversial policies may even help bring Tibetans together.

All this belies the tense ties between Beijing and exiled Tibetans, and the harsh stance of supporters of both sides which have been in the news after last week's meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama.

The deeply religious Tibetans revere their exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as a living Buddha. Yet so do some Han, despite Beijing's frequent lambasting of him as a separatist who espouses violence, charges he strongly denies.

These Han do not see that as a contradiction, especially those who visit Tongren, a heavily Tibetan region in the arid, mountainous northwestern province of Qinghai, where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935.

"He is the holiest of them all. My heart jumps a beat whenever I see his picture. He is the most important of all the living Buddhas," said Xiao Li, a Han from the wealthy eastern province of Jiangsu and a fervent Buddhist.

"Of course, even living Buddhas make mistakes," she said, when asked about the Dalai Lama's frequent overseas trips, the ones the Chinese government gets so angry about. "We are all human, and it does not change my respect for him."

Some of Tongren's Tibetans are equally able to separate their bitterness about official religious policies, which they feel trample on their freedom to follow their chosen leader and spiritual path, and their feelings about Han Chinese.

"I do not think that the views of the Chinese government necessarily represent those of all the Han race. I don't think that all of them are bad people. Some are very good," said monk Tedan, who like many Tibetans goes only by one name.

Buddhism is an ancient faith in China, dating back more than 1,000 years. The religion was introduced to both China and Tibet from India.

Though there are no hard and fast figures, some Chinese surveys put the number of practicing Buddhists in the country today at around 100 million, including Tibetans, Han, Mongolians and a few other ethnic minorities such as the Dai.

There are perhaps as many Muslims and Christians, though some Christians worship in underground churches not recognized by the state.


The Communist Party has had an uneasy relationship with religion, despite a constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, fanatical Red Guards smashed up temples, churches and mosques.

Those policies have mellowed considerably in recent years, with the Party seeing religion as an important force for social stability, even if it continues to exercise control over the appointment of senior religious figures.

One monk who has faced repeated police questioning for illegally traveling to India to study at a religious college run under the auspices of the Dalai Lama, said he counted many Han from Beijing and Shanghai among his students of Buddhism.

"They are looking for meaning in their lives and find that we as Tibetan Buddhists can give it to them," said the monk, who asked for anonymity because he feared repercussions for discussing a politically sensitive topic with a foreign reporter.

"We help them understand the scriptures," he added, waving a book of the Dalai Lama's teachings printed in the Sanskrit-based Tibetan script.

Qinghai's Tibetans say they are given far more leeway to practice their religion than those living what is formally called the Tibet Autonomous Region. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are openly displayed at major temples in a way unthinkable in Tibet.

At lunar new year celebrations last week, monks at one monastery freely carried out a complex ceremony complete with ornate, embroidered silk costumes that culminated in the unfurling of a giant image of the Buddha on a nearby hillside.

It attracted a small, though fascinated, crowd of Han Chinese tourists, who marveled at the religious devotion shown in a country run by a staunchly atheist Communist Party.

"They have far more complex emotions than we do," said Fan Liqing from the southern province of Guangdong, watching a procession of vermillion-clad monks.

"I think we can learn a lot from our Tibetan compatriots. They must be doing something right," she added.


Signs of official mistrust of Tongren's Tibetans are never far away, even if the security forces have so far this year kept a low profile.

A large army barracks sits on the outskirts of Tongren's county seat, not far from one of the main temples, ready to respond to any trouble, as they did when serious anti-Chinese violence erupted across Tibetan areas in March 2008.

Such obvious reminders of who is really in control naturally sit uncomfortably with Tongren's residents.

Beijing says its rule over the Tibetans has brought development -- from roads and hospitals to schools and economic opportunity -- to an area once racked by poverty, and still far less developed than China's rich coastal regions.

Its critics counter that Han are the main beneficiaries of the government investment, and that change is coming at the cost of traditional culture and language.

But even some of the most proudly Tibetan citizens in Tongren grudgingly admit Beijing's efforts have improved some aspects of everyday life. In some cases they have also helped unite a people fragmented by the harsh terrain.

One man who travels widely in his job as a tour guide and who also asked not to be named, said the promotion of Mandarin in education had actually brought some Tibetans closer.

"We have three different dialects in Tibetan, and they are not easily mutually comprehensible," he said.

"We Tibetans have lived so spread out from each other we knew little of each other's existence, and could not talk even when we did meet. I now speak Chinese to Tibetans who don't understand my dialect, and it's been a real unifier."

(Editing by Megan Goldin)


Can China's Model of Authoritarian Growth Survive?

Yang Yao, Director of the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University, reports in a Foreign Affairs article that Beijing's ongoing efforts to promote growth are infringing on people's economic and political rights. In order to survive, the Chinese government will have to start allowing ordinary citizens to take part in the political process.

"The reforms carried out over the last 30 years have mostly been responses to imminent crises. Popular resistance and economic imbalances are now moving China toward another major crisis. Strong and privileged interest groups and commercialized local governments are blocking equal distribution of the benefits of economic growth throughout society, thereby rendering futile the CCP's strategy of trading economic growth for people's consent to its absolute rule. ... ultimately, there is no alternative to greater democratization if the CCP wishes to encourage economic growth and maintain social stability."

Read the full article here.


Why Tibet Matters So Much

In a Huffington Post article, Committee of 100 for Tibet member, Robert Thurman, Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at Columbia University and co-founder and President of Tibet House US, explains, on the eve of President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, why Tibet matters so much.

"Against the feelings and warnings of many of his countrymen, the Dalai Lama wants Tibet to be a fully contributing part of China, achieving economic success and enjoying the genuine autonomy promised to all "minority nationalities" under the Chinese constitution -- but the Chinese insist against all evidence to the contrary that he wants to split Tibet away from them! The Dalai Lama wants to use his legendary reconciliatory skills to help China achieve the "harmonious society" they yearn for -- and the Chinese Communist party officials call him a dangerous reactionary, even a wolf in monk's clothing! The Dalai Lama wants not only to preserve and restore Tibetans' spiritually satisfying Buddhist culture, he wants to help re-kindle the spiritual contentment of the hundreds of millions of traditionally Buddhist Chinese people, helping them to be more patient with the inevitable shortcomings of governments and bureaucracies, and giving them the inner peace that guarantees a better level of social peace. Yet the Chinese openly admit they fear his calming influence over the hearts of his own people and millions of religious Chinese people as well!

The Dalai Lama wants to see Tibet's environment restored, brought back from the brink of devastation due to extinguished wildlife, de-forested valleys, desertified grassland, overpopulated towns, and swiftly melting glaciers that 60 years of Chinese military occupation, extractive industrialization, and unregulated colonization have caused, according to China's own environmental scientists."

Read the rest of the article here.


Statement of Dalai Lama Envoy to China

Envoy Kelsang Gyaltsen and I [Special Envoy Kasur Lodi Gyari, delegation head], accompanied by two members of our Task Force, Tenzin P. Atisha and Bhuchung K. Tsering, and Jigmey Passang from the Task Force Secretariat, visited China from January 26 to 31, 2010, for the ninth round of discussions with representatives of the Chinese leadership. This round was held after a gap of 15 months. We returned to Dharamsala on February 1, 2010 and have formally reported today to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche, as well as the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.

In Beijing, we had a session with Mr. Du Qinglin, Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference as well as Minister of the Central United Front Work Department, on January 30. We had a day-long discussion with Executive Vice Minister Zhu Weiqun and Vice Minister Sithar on January 31, 2010. Mr. Nyima Tsering, a Vice Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Congress, also participated in these meetings.

We first arrived in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, on January 26, 2010. Before beginning our programmes there, we formally presented to the Central United Front Work Department, a Note relating to the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for All Tibetans that we had given during the previous eighth round of dialogue in November 2008. The Note contained seven points that addressed the fundamental issues raised by the Chinese leadership during the eighth round and some constructive suggestions for a way forward in the dialogue process. The seven points include respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of the PRC, respecting the Constitution of the PRC, respecting the “Three Adherences,” respecting the hierarchy and authority of the Chinese Central Government, Concerns raised by the Central Government on specific competencies referred to the Memorandum, recognising the core issue, and offering His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s cooperation for a mutually beneficial solution.

The Note made clear that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other members of the exiled leadership have no personal demands to make. His Holiness’ concern is with the rights and welfare of the Tibetan people. Therefore, the fundamental issue that needs to be resolved is the faithful implementation of genuine autonomy that will enable the Tibetan people to govern themselves in accordance with their own genius and needs.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks on behalf of the Tibetan people, with whom he has a deep and historical relationship and one based on full trust. It cannot be disputed that His Holiness legitimately represents the Tibetan people, and he is certainly viewed as their true representative and spokesperson by them. It is indeed only by means of dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama that the Tibetan issue can be resolved. The recognition of this reality is important.

We emphasised the point that His Holiness’ engagement for the cause of Tibet is not for the purpose of claiming certain personal rights or political position for himself, nor attempting to stake claims for the Tibetan Administration in Exile.

We called upon the Chinese side to stop the baseless accusations against His Holiness and labeling him a separatist. Instead, we urge the Chinese leadership to work with him to find a mutually acceptable solution to the Tibetan problem based on the Memorandum. This will ensure stability, unity and the development of a harmonious society.

The Chinese side laid out “Four Not to Indulge In” points to outline their position. They also provided us with a detailed briefing on recent developments relating to Tibet, particularly on the important Fifth Tibet Work Forum. They said the Forum decided to further improve the livelihood of Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region and all Tibetan areas, specifically in public services, such as education, medical services, and environmental protection. Based on the initial reports that we had of the Forum, we welcomed the issues it has taken up to improve the lives of the Tibetan people specially in rural areas. We welcome the fact that the Fifth Tibet Work Forum has looked into the issues of development in all Tibetan areas – The Tibet Autonomous Region as well as other Tibetan areas. It is our strong belief that all the Tibetan areas must be under a uniform policy and a single administration. If we take away the political slogans, many of the issues that have been prioritised by the Forum are similar to the basic needs of the Tibetan people outlined in our Memorandum.

A major difference between the two sides is the conflicting perspectives on the current situation inside Tibet. So, in order to have a common understanding of the real situation, we suggested a common effort to study the actual reality on the ground, in the spirit of seeking truth from facts. This will help both the sides to move beyond each others’ contentions.

In the coming days we will be studying the issues raised by our counterparts, including the proceedings of the Fifth Tibet Work Forum and the “Four Not to Indulge In” points. As we had urged during our meeting, it is my sincere hope that the Chinese leadership will also seriously reflect on the issues raised by us. Since His Holiness the Dalai Lama has consistently made his position clear on the future of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China, given political will on the Chinese leadership’s side we do not see any reason why we cannot find a common ground on these issues. We would like to reiterate His Holiness’s continued willingness to work with the Chinese Central Government in this so that the Tibetan people can regain their pride and dignity and the People’s Republic of China’s stability and unity are ensured.

We thank our hosts, the Hunan United Front, Beijing United Front, and the Central United Front Work Department, for their hospitality during this visit.

February 2, 2010

Tenzin D. Sewo (Mr)
Special Assistant

Envoy of H. H. the Dalai Lama
P.O. Box
CH-8036 Zurich
T +41 79 349 24 48
F +41 43 536 29 09