Tibet -- Is Chinese rule softening after 30 years?

Hardly anyone quotes Mao Tse-tung these days, even in China. But the late Chairman has found an unlikely convert in the Dalai Lama. "If we look at the quotations of Chairman Mao on human service, they are filled with the teachings of Buddha," says the Tibetan god-king who lives in exile in India and travels occasionally to attend international conferences on Buddhism.

In yet another leap toward a synthesis of atheistic communism and religion, the Tibetan leader has declared: "Marxism in its original form, without power politics or nationalism, could coexist with Buddhism."

The Dalai Lama's friendly soundings, which come two decades after his abortive revolt against Mao's China in 1959, obviously are aimed at sustaining the hopes of returning to his homeland someday. While the post-Mao Chinese leaders have little time for Marxism in its original form and even less for Mao's sayings, they, too, have been waving the olive branch at the man who is revered as the 14th reincarnation of Tibet's god-king.

If the Dalai Lama were to return to Tibet, he would complete one more painful cycle in the history of this remote land of Lamaistic Buddhism, which has been a tale of a series of alien incursions forcing the ruling Dalai Lama to flee, followed by his return from exile and the resumption of the normal religious life of the Tibetans. Superimposed on the religious destiny of this Shangri-La was the formidable military and political weight of an imperial China.

In 1979 the post-Mao Chinese leadership launched a series of liberal measures. Even religious freedom was making a gradual comeback. If the prayer wheels were to turn, could the Dalai Lama be far behind? The cycle had been set in motion as Chinese authorities through intermediaries in Hong Kong invited Tibetan exiles to visit Lhasa.

Tibet was also opened up to a few select visitors and journalists. Seeing signs of Chinese conciliation, the Dalai Lama sent a delegation in October 1979. The group was carefully conducted by the Chinese through Tibet, and it returned with none-too-negative an impression, leading to the second delegation last summer.

The few remaining temples and shrines were reopened -- more than 99 percent of the 2,300 shrines in Tibet had been destroyed during the chaotic Cultural Revolution -- and Tibetans, young and old alike, began flocking to Lhasa to offer prayers and gain merit with the Buddha.

The Chinese thought a chance to worship might soothe the feelings of the people, but the resurgence of dormant religious expression was so fervent and spontaneous that it shocked the Chinese cadres in Tibet. In traditional Tibetan culture, almost every human action has a religious significance giving it a distinct Tibetan identity, whose symbol inevitably remains the office and person of the Dalai Lama. Even the liberal Chinese measures were attributed by the Tibetans to the grace of the Dalai Lama.

Small-scale demonstrations in favor of the Dalai Lama occurred last April, and wall posters critical of the Chinese government began appearing on the streets of Lhasa. The outside world got a glimpse of such dissent in late July when visiting reporters saw a rousing demonstration in support of the second group representing the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan craving for the Dalai Lama was such that the crowds literally mobbed their god-king's delegates to snatch a lock of hair or a piece of clothing, which they could take home to worship, a practice quite common in the old days.

When the delegates went to the Gadden monastery outside Lhasa to offer prayers, Tibetan drivers commandeered more than 80 trucks, loaded their families into them, and drove off to the monastery to offer prayers in the rubble of that religious relic. The offending drivers were warned by the Chinese authorities, and four persons were arrested as ringleaders, according to Tibetan sources.

Stung by the adverse publicity over the demonstrations, the Communist Party and police network in Tibet went into action to take countermeasures. The masses were warned: "These visitors come and go, but we [the authorities] are here forever: Do remember that."

Meanwhile, a third delegation led by the Dalai Lama's sister, Jetsun Pema Gyalpo, was also touring Tibet. As a precaution, plainclothes police from outside were brought to keep an eye on the crowds. The deterrent worked to an extent, but she was greeted by thousands of people wherever she went.

After touring Tibet for three months Mrs. Pema Gyalpo told us that her delegation was "very unhappy and depressed with what we have seen." She complained of poverty in the region and said that children were taught Tibetan merely as a second language.

It was too early to comment on the newfound freedom of religion, she added. "We will wait for some years and see." She commented on China's sincerity over the new policies. Since then she has recommended to her brother that he not return to Tibet anytime soon.

The Dalai Lama's return hinges on what role he can play in Tibet. After 30 years of communism, both he and the Chinese know that anything resembling the old theocratic order is out of the question. The Chinese want him to assume the role of the religious leader again, but when it comes to temporal authority in the region, the question is answered vaguely at best.

Yin Fatang, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Tibet, repeatedly has welcomed the Dalai Lama's return, but regarding a governmental position he would say only, "He had a state position before and our central leaders can work out an appropriate role for him in the future."

Between 1950 and 1959, the Tibetan pontiff had a mere ceremonial role in the Chinese administration. The Panchen Lama, the former second-ranking leader in Tibetan religious hierarchy who has spent the last two decades in Peking, also has a figurehead position in the National People's Congress. But his credibility in Tibetan eyes is nil.

Mr. Yin is known to be a hard-liner among the Chinese leaders in Tibet. Tibetan sources in exile maintain that he is not the person best suited to smooth the Dalai Lama's way into Lhasa.

Although Mr. Yin and other Chinese and Tibetan communist leaders wax friendly in welcoming the Dalai Lama, the lower-level Chinese cadres have little time for the god-king. Foreign visitors including tourists persistently query the Chinese over the possibility of the Dalai Lama's return. After the stock answers of welcome, the Chinese quickly lose patience. Their common refrain is: "The Dalai can only come back as private citizen and no more."

Another important dilemma on the roof of the world is the mutual distrust between the Chinese and the Tibetans.

The gulf between the Chinese and Tibetan cultures is so wide that historically Peking has merely tolerated Tibet as an inferior appendage to the Chinese empire. The Communist Chinese approach to Tibet has been one of mainly domestic law and order and external security. For over 30 years the Chinese Communist cadres have made it their mission to bring socialism and to "civilize" a backward, feudal, and superstitious people, with scant regard to traditional Tibetan culture.

On its part, Tibet has for centuries tolerated and sometimes actively sought Chinese protection. In today's world of nation-states, Peking's security umbrella over Tibet is something that is not likely to disappear. But for the past three decades Tibetans have resented Chinese incursions into the religious sphere and the dominance of Han Chinese socialism over Tibetan ethnic identity.

The Chinese are groping to bridge this gulf of distrust. Even if the Chinese avowal of religious and ethnic tolerance are genuine, it will be a long time before a basis of mutual confidence is established between the Chinese and the Tibetans. Until then the Dalai Lama may have to wait patiently in his Indian exile. Next: Tibetan dissidents

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