Večernji list, October 2004

Tourist agencies throughout the world, including those in Croatia that offer programs for exotic journeys to remote regions of the world, invite clients to take an unforgettable trip to Tibet, the ultimate adventure in the last spiritual corner of the world. The basis for promotion of this idea is in intact, wild nature on the ‘roof of the world’, amazingly hospitable and friendly people, spiritually rich Buddhist culture, and in the exotic architecture of these Tibetan villages. Those who are lucky to afford at least $3 000 for a twenty day tourist package can get disappointed right on the spot, because these slogans describe Tibet before the Chinese had arrived, Tibet half a century ago. And contemporary Tibet offers a completely different picture!

During the ‘liberation’ of Tibet (ironically, that was the term the Chinese used for their occupation) and ‘cultural revolution’ that happened after that, the Chinese slaughtered more than a million people, destroyed most of the 6000 temples and monasteries, forced people to renounce their beliefs, since they are ‘opium for the masses’, forced monks to publicly demonstrate renouncement of celibacy by having sexual intercourse with nuns in the temples, ravaged the little fertile land there was, cut the little forests and killed all the wild animals that had peacefully inhabited endless plains of the highest country in the world.

Today’s picture of Tibet is a reflection of those events. Spotting a gazelle in the countryside is a true rarity. It is even harder to find a village with no Chinese, where old and expressive architecture was not replaced with soulless socialistic ones. It is more and more difficult to see stone houses with piles of firewood on their flat roofs. The Chinese style is of grim cube buildings covered with outer walls of white and blue tiles.

If you rent a horse and ride for days as far from the road as possible, you may come across friendly nomads. All others, no matter what caste they belong to or how wealthy they are, will ask you for money with a serious face, as soon as they see the telltale sign that you are a foreigner, your white skin. One tourist in the remote village of western Tibet was infuriated by that. She became violent, shoved the middle-aged woman, and yelled, “Everywhere in the world people beg if they are sick and poor! Stop asking me for money, for God’s sake, you own a hotel!”

Just the name Tibet is associated with the mystical, with spiritual wealth and pious people.  However, even more than in Western religions, people here worship idols. After two months in Tibet, when I still had not found a monk with whom I could converse properly about the philosophy of Buddhism, I started a conversation with a high lama of the Sakya Monastery. “Before his death, Buddha Sakyamuni told his pupils not to build statues that resemble him, because he won’t be inside them.” I said, and lama listened to me. “For the first 300 years, his followers respected Buddha’s demand, then they started worshiping his grave, then the places he had visited, and then eventually, they started building statues. Each Tibetan temple is full of statues of Buddha and other holy people. Buddha said that there was no God, that suffering in the world is the product of such illusions we need to free ourselves from!” Lama affirmatively nodded. “So why then does everybody here worship Buddha’s statues and him as a God?” The answer I had been waiting for a long time, finally came. “Because Buddha is higher than God! He is the beginning and the end; he is the almighty master of the Universe…” So much for the spirituality of Tibet and the twisted perception about it that we cherish in the West.

Even though a tourist might get disappointed by the true picture of modern Tibet, it is still a fact that these people have suffered greatly in their country under Chinese occupation, and they certainly did not deserve to have their human rights violated. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, has been fighting for his country while in exile for the past forty five years. His passive and nonviolent struggle is one of the best examples of idealism. The world recognized this, and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. But what comfort is that, when nobody wants to stand on the side of Tibet, against the powerful giant of China.

China did, however, change its tactics in the seventies. It started giving back religious freedom to Tibetans, and it started renovating monasteries that had been destroyed, and assimilating Tibetans into their own culture. Soldiers that had murdered Tibetans, then married Tibetan women and formed a new generation of inhabitants of Tibet. The number of Chinese settlers kept on growing and recently exceeded the number of indigenous people. Two thirds of Tibet was annexed to China, and even in the present-day ‘Autonomous Tibetan Republic’, the local population is a minority.

“Many Tibetans ran away to neighboring India, where they got educated,” Tashi Purbu, who had also done this, told me. “The case of Tanzing Nyime is very famous: After returning from India, he went to the main square of Lhasa, he took down the Chinese flag and raised the Tibetan one. Chinese soldiers beat him, imprisoned him, and proclaimed India as the ‘country of reactionary agitators’. Consequently, they banned Tibetans from traveling abroad. Where ever a Tibetan wants to travel, even within his own country, he has to get special permission that is extremely hard to obtain.”

Tashi is an ambitious man that owns his own tourist agency, restaurant, and a club for billiards, the sport in which he is the national champion. He pointed out the numerous problems in the life of Tibetans.

“The biggest problem in Tibet is the great amount of censorship. The truth is twisted in the media. If Chinese men find a picture of the Dalai Lama in your possession, you definitely go to prison. It even happened to me that tourists I had taken on sightseeing tours get expelled from the country because they tried to talk about politics with me.” We also talked about politics, but hidden in the back room of his restaurant. Tashi convinced me that we could speak about whatever topic we wanted. “Chinese are people like us. Their government has bad politics, but they can’t influence it. They like money a lot. If you have money, you can negotiate everything!”

Tashi has money, and he is not the only one. Tibetans have always been traders and know how to earn for their bread.

“My daughter goes to a Tibetan school where she learns the Tibetan language and culture, but for example, the more recent history is completely omitted. Most of the children prefer Chinese schools. Education and earning money have become the primary goal of the new generation. Freedom and independence for Tibet don’t interest them. China, though, does not behave badly towards us. If a Tibetan goes to the University of Beijing, he would have better living conditions there than some Chinese that was born there!”

He continued speaking about censorship, and said that even popular music is affected. “Each song may have at most one minute of singing in the Tibetan language; the rest of it has to be in Chinese. If you want to buy a CD burner, you have to obtain special permission. Otherwise you could easily distribute Tibetan music recorded in Nepal or India.

Newspapers and television are the strongest forms of manipulation of the masses via the media. I tried to hear the Chinese’ side of the story, but most of them didn’t know other languages, and those who did, did not want to be interviewed. Only once, when I saw an older Chinese man that seemed like an intellectual reading the foreign politics page of the newspapers, I heard a sparse comment. I asked him weather he knew that most of the facts in their media are twisted and invented. “Yes, and so what? You whites think your system is right. Freedom and democracy! Get out of here. How would you fit the Iraq story into that?”

Ever since the government started giving back some limited forms of freedom to Tibetans, public demonstrations have begun taking place. Once, monks went to the streets and shouted slogans such as “Independence for Tibet!” and “Long live the Dalai Lama!” Their attempts were ended with violence; they were beaten and thrown into jail.

Protests continued happening nevertheless, and the number of participants was growing. In the meantime, the Chinese opened Tibet for tourists, so photos of human rights violations traveled the world. No one paid much attention to, or even attempted to confront that great power in the East. Some tourists were even injured in the street violence. The Chinese became bored with beating back, so they returned to using radical methods.

“The last demonstrations in Lhasa were held in 1998,” Tashi told me. He watched them from the window of his apartment. “The Chinese went on killing demonstrators. They defended themselves by throwing rocks, but eventually most of them died. On the television, only the Chinese victims were shown, but I saw it all. Other silent witnesses spoke about the horror that happened, soon all of Tibet knew about it and nobody dared to rebel anymore.”

When China occupied Tibet in 1950, the world heard stories of how the Tibetans are the toughest nation in the world, that would never allow themselves to be assimilated. And actually, the Tibetan culture had not changed at all in the past 1500 years. They didn’t even implement the wheel, once they discovered it. But it seems like this time, they did change. Tashi admits:

“People like modern achievements. They want to get rich and catch up with the world. The central power sometimes treats us badly, but there are good things as well. China is a socialistic country and everybody has some basic needs covered. Even the poorest beggar on the street can get a house and financial help from the state, only if he asks for it!”

The picture of Lhasa is the best description of new Tibet. Around picturesque monasteries and old houses that survived the destruction, new skyscrapers were built. Ever present rush of the business world fills the atmosphere of every street. Besides the old pilgrims with prayer wheels in their hands, young Tibetans in modern costumes pass by. In front of the fast food restaurants there are long lines of people. The city is clean, which reminds me more on the cities like Hong Kong or Singapore, rather than the typical Asia. After the work week, Chinese and Tibetans mix in night clubs, relax with alcohol, and dance to Chinese music. Potala, the striking throne of the Dalai Lama, rises high and dominates the Tibetan sky. It can be seen from every corner of Lhasa, and from everywhere it seems abandoned and forever empty.

At the beginning of the twenty first century, Tibet is an inevitable reminder of Orwell’s 1984. And when most of the elements of Tibet reconciled the idea of love towards Big Brother (Mao Zedong) and Mother Earth (the communist name for China), some elements like the Dalai Lama remain the last fighters against meaninglessness, against slavery. But the Dalai Lama could learn from his people that accepted Chinese because they brought them roads, airports, big shopping malls, cellular phones, and the money mentality. Big Brother fought for ‘liberation’ of the most hardcore element in Big China: the unchangeable Tibetans! First he had to prove to them his determination by force and destroy half of Tibet, to make them feel scared and inferior. “Religion is opium for the masses,” he had told the Dalai Lama before he destroyed most of the monasteries. Being far-sighted, he spared only those monasteries and temples that would fill the country treasury with tourist money. After he conquered the people, ravaged the holy sites, and set Chinese domination, he returned gods and rituals to the Tibetans. “Let them be allured! Little by little, that illness will be cured as well!”

Younger generations build their future based on a twisted and adjusted education, and on greedy dreams of wealth and pleasure. Pilgrims come to Lhasa from remote corners of Tibet, visit the holy sites of Potala, Jokhang, Sera, and Drepung, and then get lost in the wide boulevards, in the labyrinths of shelves in shopping centers, and indulge in the achievements of modern man. Religious rituals, lighting of candles in front of saints’ relics, prostration in front of temples, circulating around the temples, spinning of prayer wheels, and the sending of chants downwind, are matters of well-practiced habits. Topics discussed over and over again in tents of the nomads, far in the mountains of Tibet, are fast cars, stereos, big screen televisions, cell phones, and expensive clothing. Younger generations will listen to those stories near the fire fueled by dried yaks’ feces, and dream about moving to the city. Years after, one by one, just like the generations before them, they will blend into the new system. Maybe at times, while passing by Potala, they would look thoughtfully toward the huge buildings, and remember the legend of free Tibet. But soon after that, fast food chains would satisfy the hunger that was always present in the hard nomadic times of the past. And the man whose needs are satisfied does not think much about imaginary ideas. Even without thinking about it, he subconsciously knows that he likes that comfort and luxury, that security and ease of living. And even deeper in his subconsciousness, he knows who he has to be grateful for. Not to the spiritual leader in exile that fights for something he cannot have, but to Big Brother that stands near him, whose eyes are everywhere. Like Winston at the end of Orwell’s masterpiece, the same thoughts would come to his mind:

“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother“