Tibetans' hopes hinge on Dalai Lama
The Washington Post, Keith B. Richburg
In China, the Dalai Lama is officially a dangerous separatist and a "criminal," and his supporters are prohibited from discussing him or even displaying his picture. But here in the ethnic Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, nominally autonomous while under strict Chinese control, the exiled spiritual leader remains a ubiquitous presence, despite his long physical absence.
The Dalai Lama's beaming visage gazes down from the temple altars of Buddhist monasteries. His likeness adorns a popular artist's workshop and a small convenience store selling bottled soft drinks, beer and snacks.
One of the most hotly debated government policies, among Tibetans and outside experts, is the effort to induce herdsmen to give up their nomadic lifestyle on the grasslands and resettle in rows of brick houses in newly built towns.
Officials and some outside experts say the effort is needed to tackle poverty and to stop over-grazing of the grasslands. But most of the herdsmen are illiterate, and there are few jobs in the resettlement towns.
And everywhere, it seems, the fervent wish is that the Dalai Lama might return soon, to help save the Tibetan language and culture that many believe could soon be overwhelmed by the presence of China's ethnic Han majority. Even the Tibetans' centuries-old tradition of herding yak, cattle and sheep across the Tibetan plateau's grasslands appears threatened as Chinese officials move increasing numbers of semi-nomadic herdsmen into "resettlement towns," where jobs are scarce.
"We long for the Dalai Lama to come back, to solve the issue of religious freedom and to help Tibetan culture come back," said Gen Ga, a 24-year-old monk at a monastery in nearby Wutong village. "If we look ahead 10 or 20 years, if the Dalai Lama fails to come back, I do think Tibetan culture will die."
Asked to comment on the calls for the Dalai Lama's return, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Wang Baodong, said in an e-mail: "We've been dealing with the Dalai Lama for decades, and we know him well. His personal future depends on whether he'll abandon his separatist positions on Tibet-related issues in real earnest, as this is a matter bearing on China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Wang went on to write, "There's been the cry of 'the wolf is coming' on the dying of the Tibetan culture and religion. The undeniable fact is that the Tibetan traditions are prospering thanks to the joint effort of the Chinese government and the Tibetan people."
A three-day trip through the ethnic Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, where the Dalai Lama was born, showed that the Beijing government's efforts to vilify the revered leader have had no discernible effect. When government inspectors come, many Tibetans said, they usually get advance notice, and they simply hide or cover the Dalai Lama's photo.
The vilification efforts escalated after the Tibetan areas, including this province, exploded in rioting in March 2008, the most serious resistance to Chinese rule in decades. Thousands of monks and others were arrested, and outside groups, including Human Rights Watch, accused the government of systematically abusing detainees while looking for evidence that the Dalai Lama was responsible for the unrest.
Chinese officials have strongly denied those allegations and said authorities operated lawfully to maintain order. "The judicial rights of the defendants were fully guaranteed, as well as their ethnic customs and personal dignity," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in July in response to Human Rights Watch's allegations.
Here in Tongren, a monk in his 30s who said he participated in three protests in March 2008 said he was detained for six months after the riots, describing how he was suspended from the ceiling, beaten repeatedly and tortured with electric rods.
The monk, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the beatings ended only when he agreed to make a videotaped denunciation of the Dalai Lama.
"They made me agree to a confession saying all the things I did was because I got instructions from the Dalai Lama," the monk said. He said he believes he was singled out because of his support for a group of 13 monks who drafted a 2007 proposal calling for the preservation of Tibetan language and culture.
The monk's account accords with those by scores of others who were interviewed for the Human Rights Watch report. "When the monks were tortured in detention, it was often because they refused to denounce the Dalai Lama," said Nicholas Bequelin, the China researcher for Hong Kong-based Human Rights Watch.
"There is no doubt that many Chinese state policies are aimed at diluting or reshaping Tibetan traditional culture in a way that is innocuous to the state," Bequelin said.
The main repositories of Tibetan Buddhist culture are the monasteries - which were also the source of the 2008 uprising - and the government has since attempted to increase its control over them, setting up "management committees" to ensure that the senior monks toe the correct political line.
Chinese official media reported last month that Du Qinglin, chief of the Communist Party's United Front Work Department, which oversees Tibet policy, said monasteries must take the lead in "anti-separatist struggles."
For many Tibetans, the front line in the cultural struggle is linguistic. Some complained that even in the supposedly autonomous prefectures of Qinghai, signs in Chinese outnumber those in Tibetan. In government offices, Tibetans say, they are forced to speak Chinese. And they worry that Tibetan is not being taught in schools on an equal footing with Chinese.
Some who have been resettled have returned to the nomadic life, but often while keeping older relatives and children in the towns to be closer to medical care and schools.
"It was pretty hard to find a job there," said Gartsang Cerang, 36, who lived in the resettlement town of Dowa before returning to the grasslands three months ago. "Life in the town was pretty hard." He has to start over now - he has only half a dozen yak and two sheep and lives in a tent with his daughter Nam Turji, 17. He left two children, ages 13 and 14, in town.
Marjo Herji, 30, said many of the herdsmen on the mountainside overlooking Qinghai Lake have left to work in the tourist shops. But she said she and her husband plan to stay. "It's hard for us to do any other job. We don't have any special skills," she said, churning yak milk into butter with a hand-cranked machine.
But she left her daughter in the village so the girl can attend first grade and she hopes her daughter does not follow in the herder's life. "It's better for her to become a literate person," she said.
China is developing Qinghai Lake as a major attraction for Chinese tourists, and some Tibetans have found jobs shuttling visitors in electric golf carts, renting local costumes or letting tourists pose for photographs with rare white yaks. But they say the pay is scant and the tourist season short. Life on the grasslands is hard, too, they say, but they could sustain themselves with their herds.
It is difficult to see how even a political settlement that allowed the Dalai Lama to return could reverse some of the trends underway on the Tibetan Plateau, but according to Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, "if he were there, he could have quite a bit of influence with the central government."
Tibetans are hopeful - and waiting.
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