Hu Yaobang, the general secretary of the Chinese Communisty Party, asked a visiting delegation in Peking this past August, "Well, what do you think? Is there any hope after all for Tibet?"
Along with Vice-Premier Wan Li, Mr. Hu had led a high-level delegation to Tibet to make an on-the-spot study, after which several measures to loosen the Chinese grip were announced. These measures have attracted mixed reactions from the Tibetans and the Chinese cadres in Lhasa.
When one thinks of the future of this isolated "roof of the world," several faces come to mind. The faces in themselves are neither important nor exceptional; they could be found in many parts of China, especially in the minority regions. But they are symbolic in that they represent the forces which either govern Tibet or are going to shape events to come.
First, Yin Fatang, the diminutive, softspoken Chinese party chief in Lhasa, who is known as a tough, no-nonsense hard-line party man. The role of Yin and his Han Chinese lieutenants in Lhasa is crucial in that they interpret and implement Peking's directives, with considerable autonomy.
Second, Losang Qicheng, the vice-chairman of the Tibetan regional government. Mr. Losang, like other Tibetans in the top rung of the region's administration, is a longtime Communist who has survived and thrived through the three decades of direct Chinese Communist rule. Although his say in the regime may not amount to much, he and others of his kind are the bridge between the Chinese in Lhasa and the Tibetan people.
Third, the Dalai Lama, the Exiled Tibetan god-king, whose name still inspires hope and confidence among his people.
Fourth, young Tibetans who hold skilled jobs in government offices and factories. Typically in their thirties, educated in Chinese schools, they have little experience of the pre-liberation theocratic regime. They dress like the Chinese, but are Tibetan at heart and are aware of the problems and the prospects of their homeland.
Fifth, and probably the most important, are the stern officers of the People's Liberation Army. Foreign analysts say one in every seven persons living in Tibet could be a Chinese Army man, and in a crunch it is the Army's word that counts in Tibet.
It is the central leaders in Peking who should count most, given the nature of the Chinese government. But Tibet is so far removed from the mainstream of China that with its population forming barely 2 percent of the whole country, Peking has long neglected Tibet, except in matters of national security.
General Secretary Hu Yaobang remarked during his visit to Lhasa in May 1980 that the center had been quite misinformed about the real situation in the region.
Now that the central leadership has begun showing some interest in Tibet, what kind of a future lies ahead? Ironically enough, if we ignore the extreme dissident fringe among Tibetan exiles abroad, what young Tibetans want differs little from what the Chinese government has officially promised them in their new measures. But the question remains whether these reforms will be faithfully implemented.
"The issue is one of substance and not that of mere window dressing," said a group of young Tibetans in Lhasa to this reporter.
In a closed door encounter in the old quarter of Lhasa, these young dissidents who spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese showed great awareness not only of Tibet but also of China, and the rest of the world, all of which they had learned from the domestic Chinese reference news.
They welcomed the policy of the Tibetanization of the region's administration. Some 85 percent of the 35,000 Han Chinese cadres are going to be replaced in the next three years. But they doubted if the scheme will be really implemented. If the remaining 15 percent of the Chinese make all the decisions, what use is the new policy, they asked. "Even now the few Tibetans who have high positions do not wield much power," they added.
They told this reporter that most of the Tibetan officials our group had met had no real power. "They are mere figureheads." When asked if these figureheads could start asserting their positions in the new liberal climate, one of the dissidents responded, "These people have been Chinese handmaidens for so long that only if Yin Fatang tells them to will they assert their powers.
"We will see how sincere the Chinese, not the central leaders but the men like Yin, are for the next five years before being convinced," they commented.
Another view was that even if civilian cadres are removed, the Chinese could bring inmore PLA. They reported recent reinforcements of Chinese garrisons, although no independent confirmation was available. "If the PLA tells the party to clamp down, the party will have to do it."
Little is known of the Army-party ties in Tibet, but even Chinese sources concede that the PLa is more powerful in Tibet than elsewhere.
On the recent freedom of religious practices and the opening and restoration of temples, the dissidents were skeptical, too. "Visitors are taken to the big temples, but that is not religious freedom."
Dwelling on the neglect of Tibetan language in Lhasa's schools, they said, "We need to do a lot of research in our past which has been lost to us."
They were aware that such a Tibetan resurgence could in the minds of Chinese raise fears of Tibetan independence. But they were realistic enough. "History teaches us that China has always wielded a role here. They are 1 billion people and a strong state against our 1.6 million people. Independence is not feasible , but real autonomy is what we want."
The Chinese say autonomy is what they are going to give Tibet.
The dissidents respond, "Autonomy was promised in 1950, which did not succeed and the Dalai Lama had to flee. It was promised again in 1965 and along came the Cultural Revolution. How can we be sure that the promise of 1980 is genuine?"