Tibetan Culture Lives On, Despite China's Hard Line


IN a weekly ritual reenacted in temples and monasteries across Tibet, maroon-and-yellow-robed monks sit cross-legged in a circle and intone a special mantra. "Tibet has never been independent in the past, Tibet is not now independent, and Tibet will never be independent," they chant.

This political reeducation session, overseen by a Chinese Communist official, is among the weapons in China's attack on Tibetan nationalism. Recent protests against Chinese control have led to a renewed campaign of arrests, surveillance, and ideological remolding aimed at crushing separatist sentiment, according to Western and Tibetan sources in Lhasa.

"The government has warned us that any calls for independence will be immediately suppressed," says a young monk, firing an imaginary machine gun.

Yet the new wave of repression, while successful in preventing all but sporadic demonstrations, has deepened tensions between Tibetans and China's communist rulers, say the sources, who refused to be identified for fear of government reprisals.

The latest round of antigovernment outbursts in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa erupted on May 24, when more than 1,000 peasants, students, and monks took to the streets to demand an end to exorbitant price increases and indiscriminate taxes. The protesters were angry over the lifting of price controls on grain and electricity, rampant official corruption, and a growing income gap between Tibetan residents and Chinese settlers, one participant says.

Although largely peaceful, the protest was the biggest staged in Tibet since three days of rioting in March 1989 when up to 200 protesters were killed and martial law was imposed for more than a year.

According to Tibetan intellectuals and Western scholars in the region, economic reforms have created a growing class of prosperous Chinese officials and traders who are reaping the benefits of Tibet's development. Left behind are impoverished Tibetan peasants, laborers, and unemployed suffering from the price hikes and food shortages that accompanied heavy Chinese migration into Tibet.

Many Tibetans resented the arrests of roughly 100 activists before a May fact-finding tour by European Community diplomats, Lhasa residents say.

Witnesses say the protesters stoned government offices and Chinese-run businesses and surrounded a public security building near the central Barkhor Square. But in contrast to the past when troops fired on peaceful demonstrators, paramilitary units were mainly restrained in dispersing crowds, although some protesters were beaten.

Since then, Communist Party officials have ordered a clampdown using more sophisticated methods of suppression. Troops are positioned on rooftops in central Lhasa and a surveillance camera pans the entrance to Jokhang Temple, the epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism.

"The police are now using tapes from the camera to identify and arrest protesters from the May demonstrations," a Tibetan activist says. "One by one, they are being taken away in the middle of the night."

"Undercover police now disguise themselves as monks or pilgrims to enter the temples and keep watch over us," says a monk from a monastery near Lhasa. "A sense of fear and mistrust has invaded all of the temples and monasteries."

"Sometimes," another monk adds, "security officials search the monastery or our living quarters for pro-independence literature and newspapers or tapes containing information about the Dalai Lama."

The Dalai Lama, a god-king to many Tibetans, attempted to mediate the harshness of the Communist takeover in 1950 but fled to India in 1959 after a wave of executions of Buddhist leaders.

Over the next two decades, thousands of monasteries were pillaged and destroyed. Monks and nuns were jailed or sent to forced labor camps. Historical records and Buddhist scriptures were publicly burned. And much of Tibet's grain output was sent to alleviate food shortages elsewhere in China. The Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama estimates that 1 million Tibetans have died in purges or mass starvation caused by the grain seizures.

In June, President Clinton made improved human rights in Tibet a condition for extending China's most-favored-nation trade privileges next year.

Today, possessing a picture or the teachings of the Dalai Lama is no longer grounds for arrest and torture. Recognizing that Chinese rule of Tibet can only be legitimized by the Dalai Lama's return, Beijing reopened talks in mid-July with the exiled leader's brother, the Tibet information network reported.

"The Dalai Lama is the heart of Tibet," says a student in Lhasa, where beggars routinely ask foreign tourists for photos of the deposed leader. "Only when its heart returns can Tibet live again."

But China also fears the Dalai Lama and the hope he stirs of a free Tibet. Worried about separatist movements in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia and haunted by the chaos that has followed the communist collapse in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Beijing is determined to maintain its grip on Tibet.

According to Western visitors, three police checkpoints have been set up on the major highway connecting Lhasa with a nearby airport. Legions of workers and soldiers are expanding a huge military complex west of the capital.

In the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa, a continuous stream of pilgrims makes a clockwise circuit around the Jokhang Temple. Moving counterclockwise, police and military jeeps patrol the worshippers.

But the crackdown has not wiped out Tibetan nationalism. A few weeks after the May demonstration, independence advocates continued to stage small protests, which were quickly broken up, according to Tibetans living nearby.

"Of course we know we'll be shot or imprisoned if we demonstrate. But we must keep the spirit of hope for a free Tibet alive," says a young monk who joined this spring's protests. "It's our only chance for survival."

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