News From the Roof: A Recent View of Tibet

By Nicholas Ribush
Boston, MA USA 1994

Written for the newsletter of the Australia Tibet Council at the editor’s request following my fourth trip to Tibet. Boston, 1994

It's official: the Dalai Lama is an enemy of the people. Since Bill Clinton reneged on all his promises to care about Tibet, renewed MFN for China, and de-linked future trade considerations from human rights abuses, a brave new policy towards Tibet seems to have emerged.

We are now witnessing the fourth Chinese view of Tibet's true leader. At first, His Holiness had been kidnapped by rightist imperialists and smuggled to India. Next, while he might not have been kidnapped, he was under the influence of the rightist clique. More recently, there was nothing wrong with him, if only he'd renounce all thoughts of independence for Tibet. Since the big July meeting on Tibet, he's all bad. Even his picture.

Last year, photographs of His Holiness were for sale all around the Barkor—dime a dozen. Now they are nowhere to be seen. Moreover, Tibetan members of the Communist party or those simply employed by the Chinese are not allowed to display pictures of the Dalai Lama in their homes. Worse, they are not even allowed to maintain a Buddhist altar. Furthermore, those who have sent their children to India, which is the only place they can get a decent Tibetan education, have to bring them back to Tibet soon, or they will never be allowed to return.

The picture edict actually came down in September. Tibetans were offered three ways of deciding that getting rid of Dalai Lama pictures was the right thing to do. First, by reflecting deeply, they could come to their own conclusion that His Holiness was indeed an enemy of the people, and take their pictures down. If that didn't work, groups would be organized for the slightly recalcitrant, and through discussion with others, they would be helped make the right decision. Finally, if even group discussion didn't work, officials would "help" them realize the truth. Freedom of thought, Chinese style.

Why the big deal about pictures of the Dalai Lama? Ask anyone who has been to Tibet. About the only thing Tibetans ask foreign tourists for are pictures of His Holiness. And if you go to Tibet, they are the best thing you can bring. To Tibetans in Tibet, pictures of the Dalai Lama are the Dalai Lama, and the thing Tibetans want more than anything else is for His Holiness to return to Tibet. Unfortunately, pictures are the best we can do at the moment.

I have recently returned from my fourth trip to Tibet. One day, on the roof of a small Lhasa monastery, I met a nun in her fifties. She started crying and, pointing to her graying hair, explained that she was upset because she knew she would die before having the chance to meet His Holiness. She would have loved to go to India to see him, but was too ill to make the journey. All I could do was tape a message from her to His Holiness, and send it to him when I got out.

Another Tibetan wanted to talk to me in my hotel room. On the appointed day, he was waiting for me in the lobby. When I came through the front door, without a second glance, he started off ahead of me down the corridor towards my room, so that nobody would suspect we were meeting. As we approached the room, without looking back, he muttered just loudly enough for me to hear, "Ridiculous! Running like a thief." Once inside, we had to turn up the TV before he would speak. Walls have ears. Freedom of expression, Chinese style.

Outside, other Tibetans would be glad to chat, but when any even slightly controversial topic came up, they would look around nervously and say that they really couldn't comment on that. For example, the monstrous new buildings that the Chinese are putting up everywhere. Look at pictures of Lhasa in the fifties and compare them with what you see now (such as the wonderful spread in the International Campaign for Tibet's Tibet Transformed). Ugly square, cheap, concrete constructions—in most cases, police and army barracks or shops to be run by imported, subsidized Chinese immigrants—are constricting the heart of Lhasa. Even in the old town around the Barkor, historic homes are being torn down and replaced by modern versions. Ask Tibetans what they feel about all this—many will be afraid to comment. One of my companions likened Tibet today to Stalin's Russia or Nazi Germany; analogies most apt. The Tibetan people's lack of freedom in their own country is an obscenity of which the entire world should be ashamed.

My perspicacious friend also pointed out that historically, China's claim on Tibet is about as logical as India's claiming Australia based on the fact that they had both once belonged to the British Commonwealth.

Another day, the bus on which I was returning to my hotel was stopped by a parade of trucks, cars, and police cycles with lights flashing and sirens wailing. In the back of the trucks: recently arrested criminals and political prisoners, on show to the public at large—a warning. A few months ago a similar parade carried three Tibetan prisoners to their execution, at a place just west of the city, near the big army camp that is mainly Chinese military intelligence (pardon the oxymoron). The public was expected to watch the execution as well as the parade.

Another Chinese atrocity in the continuing rape of Tibet is the upcoming Han plan to institute sixty-two new industrial projects by the year 2,000, all altruistically designed to benefit the Tibetan people; part of the on-going peaceful liberation. Many of these are slated to be located west of Drepung Monastery, and will come to occupy most of the land between there and Tölung. Within five years, little Lhasa may stretch out west more than twenty miles. The Tibetan farmers currently resident in this area will have their land forcibly appropriated while they are forcibly relocated. Prominent amongst these new projects will be light industries and sweat shops aimed at making "high-quality" souvenirs for tourists.

And speaking of forced relocation, the ancient village of Shöl, at the foot of the Potala, is supposed to be razed in favor of a people's park and plaza, while the residents will be moved to some high rise apartments being built about a mile north of the Dekyi Shar Lam, the main road that runs in front of the Potala up to the Jokhang. Apparently UNESCO are wondering whether or not to include Shöl as part of the Potala while they consider declaring the Potala a national monument. Unless they hurry, it will be too late.

Another project making rapid headway is a new five-star hotel/marina on Tha-yä Do Island, in the Kyichu River. They are blocking off the arm of the river proximate to Lhasa for the boating pleasure of future visitors, who'll be able to gaze out of their rooms across the water at the Potala (which as part of its recent refurbishment has been furnished with video surveillance cameras—so don't plot the overthrow of the current regime while visiting the Dalai Lama's house).

In this new land of opportunity, the opportunists are flooding in. In fact, many Tibetans fear the latest arrivals—Muslims from Xining and Chinghai in the north-west—more than the Han Chinese. While Kashmiri Muslims have co-existed peacefully in Lhasa with the Tibetans for more than four centuries, the newcomers have been buying up all the sheep, yak, cashmere goats, and wool they can. Many of the people you'll see in the fields even in Central Tibet are Muslims, although most Westerners couldn't tell by looking at them. (One of the travelers on the recent tour I led said he'd found a way to distinguish Chinese from Tibetans: Tibetans wave back.) Thus, many Tibetans have been deprived of their traditional livelihoods, being forced to sell their animals by poverty and the high prices the Muslims can pay.

Worse than that, I was told, is the Muslim trade in Tibetan antiquities and jewelry. Aggressive Huei businessmen, organized from their homelands, band together and fan out all over the countryside to buy up from nomads or Tibetans living in isolated villages whatever they can. When Tibetan businessmen try to do the same, they are intimidated by the Muslims and threatened with injury or death. Peace-loving Tibetans are no match for these fierce intruders. And since the Muslims speak Chinese, they tend to do business with the Han to the exclusion of the Tibetans. They also deal in weapons. A measure of Tibetans' fear of Muslims is that many are now afraid to buy the famous Muslim bread in case it is poisoned.

Not that the Chinese need much help in stealing from Tibet. Most readers of this journal will be aware of last August's refurbished-Potala publicity stunt. The word from the Tibetan monk caretakers is that the renovations were in large part an excuse to take the walls apart in a search for treasures rumored to be concealed within. Anyway, the authorities may have spent money on this exercise, but tourists will pay. Last year it cost about 30 RMB (A$6) to get in; this year it was 45. Next year it's supposed to go up to 100. The Tibetans who run the Potala are supposed to turn over to the Chinese 600,000 RMB a year—money collected from entrance and photography fees. Other monasteries also have their targets, and the monks get into trouble if they don't reach them. (They're allowed to keep the offerings that pilgrims make at the altars, which is what they use for restoration.) So, don't get upset, as many Westerners do, when caretaker monks ask you to pay for the photos you take. They're living under conditions that we couldn't even imagine.

One morning our group visited the Gyantse Kumbum, and the monks kindly let us take photos without paying. I happened to go back that afternoon, and found the monks in quite a state of consternation. Apparently, some of the other people who had been around when we were there earlier were Chinese spies, and they had later accused the monks of keeping for themselves the photography money we were supposed to have paid. It seems that at many monasteries the monks are watched to make sure they collect the fees they are supposed to.

Of course, the Chinese are mining all over the place. For example, if you drive to Gyantse via Yamdrok Tso (the beautiful Turquoise Lake they're draining to make electricity) and look to your right as you ascend to the Kamba La pass, you'll see this nasty gray stuff oozing down the mountain. Nobody has been able to tell me what they're doing; only military personnel work there.

In the Nagchu area, 200 km. north-east of Lhasa, the Chinese are mining for "white gold." These miners are said to have a ruthlessness all their own. Here's a story I heard. These cruel and evil people (as they were described to me) like their meat fresh, so in this fridgeless society, the way they ensure the freshness of their meat is to dig a pit, hog-tie a yak, chuck it in the pit, and then carve off what they need on a daily basis. The yaks take a couple of weeks to die. This is not an eye-witness report, but as one resident Westerner told me, even if the rumors aren't true, they at least show what people fear and are prepared to believe.

The business climate, too, is quite unfavorable for Tibetans. There are five different taxes levied on businesses. These are fixed amounts, that is, they do not depend upon how the business is doing. Since Chinese businesses are subsidized by the government, they can keep up, but Tibetans don't get such breaks. Also, Chinese immigrants' salaries keep going up, which causes inflation, and again, the Tibetans are squeezed.

A more subtle form of discrimination is exercised against young Tibetans. I had a long conversation with a young Tibetan woman who had been educated in China for seven years. The teachers there treat Tibetan children quite differently. Chinese students are not allowed to smoke or drink at all, but Tibetan children, who live apart from the Chinese, are told that for them it's OK, as long as they do it in their dorms. She felt they were almost encouraged to do so. Certainly, Tibetan girls were encouraged to wear make-up and jewelry, being told it was OK because it was their custom. In the meantime, their Chinese counterparts were not allowed to, and thus, while Tibetan girls wasted time on their appearance, the Chinese students would forge ahead in their studies.

One result of discrimination against Tibetan youth is that, according to my informant, about 50% of Tibetan men around the age of twenty are alcoholics. One friend of hers from a very good family had been an excellent student and became a dance teacher. About three years ago, because of the general lack of prospects for young Tibetans, he became discouraged and started drinking. He gradually degenerated, lost his job, began stealing in order to buy beer, and is now practically mad. There are many like him, and nobody in authority cares. She said that the government over-reacts to any tiny political disturbance, but far from helping young alcoholics or punishing thieves, they almost encourage them.

And while young Tibetan men become alcoholics and thieves, many young Tibetan girls are lured into prostitution, working in the plethora of karaoke bars that have recently sprung up all over Lhasa and are simply fronts for brothels and pornographic video arcades. Although the signs outside say people under eighteen are not admitted, inside there are children much younger than that. All in all, there appears to be an insidious policy aimed at destroying the Tibetan youth.

Why would anybody keep going back to this depressing scene? I think Westerners are the only friends Tibetans have and that seeing us does give them some hope that all is not lost. However, soon all may well be lost, and those of us who care about Tibet must keep the pressure on our governments not to sell out to the Chinese but to save Tibet. When last in Australia, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked what we could do to help. He replied that there were two things. One was to join the Australia Tibet Council. The other was to go to Tibet to see what was going on for yourself and to return to tell your friends what you had seen. I, for one, keep going and telling.

Perhaps you should, too.