Honors for the Dalai Lama Cannot Stem a Losing Tide

It has been a year of diplomatic triumph for the Dalai Lama, who will by the end of October have met the heads of five major western countries. US President George W. Bush is scheduled to meet the exiled Tibetan leader in Washington, the day before he is awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States, to recognize his advocacy of religious harmony and human rights, as well as his campaign for a peaceful solution to the Tibet issue.

This unprecedented level of diplomatic recognition has enraged Beijing, whose protests have been ignored not only by Washington but also by the governments of Australia, Austria, Germany and Canada. In revenge, it has cancelled three bilateral meetings it had scheduled with Germany, including the third annual human rights dialogue that was to have been held in Beijing in December.

While the Dalai Lama may have won the diplomatic skirmish this year, he is losing the war to save his homeland from becoming Chinese. Ruling dynasties in China for a thousand years have attempted to subjugate Tibet. In 1911, an army of the last dynasty, the Qing, captured eastern Tibet and occupied Lhasa, forcing the then Dalai Lama to flee to India. But, for the next 40 years, China’s governments were too preoccupied with invasion and civil war to have more than notional control over Tibet.

It was only with the invasion by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950 and 1951 that China began a long-term and well-funded strategy to turn Tibet into a region like any other. After more than five decades, it still remains the most un-Chinese part of China.

This strategy has been at enormous cost. Thousands of Chinese were killed in Tibetan rebellions in the 1950s that culminated in the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 and many more have died because of their inability to adapt to the high altitude and extreme climate.

According to official Chinese figures, since 1950 Beijing has provided 95 per cent of Tibet’s budget, currently 88 billion yuan, with an additional 10 billion yuan provided this year by cities and provinces across China. It has built roads, irrigation systems, schools, hospitals, factories and telecommunications networks – the basis of a modern state in what was a feudal theocracy.

The most spectacular example of this investment came in July 2006, with the opening of the Golmud-Lhasa railway, the first railroad into Tibet and the highest in the world, covering 1,956 kilometers and costing US$3.68 billion.

The most unprofitable railway in the world, it marks a critical step. Han Chinese do not want to live in Tibet because of its climate, diet, culture, insecurity and distance from the country’s heartland. Since 1949, the Han have been sent by the military and other government institutions to work for a set period, with economic incentives. Largely they do not settle, send their children to study elsewhere and leave when they complete their assignment, although they dominate commerce.

Beijing wants to persuade more Han to settle there, following the model it has used successfully in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang to absorb Tibet into China, in somewhat the same American settlers came to displace the Indians of the United States. So it has to develop a Tibet with sufficient growth and cultural similarity to attract settlers to stay permanently. Certainly, the railway is greatly improving the economy by accelerating the movement of goods and people in and out of the region.

It is closest to achieving this in the capital, Lhasa, which has a Han majority and many of the institutions Chinese find elsewhere — schools, universities, food, banks, Internet cafes, restaurants, nightclubs and a critical mass of population – 260,000, excluding the military garrison –that makes business profitable.

A trip to the monasteries that ring Lhasa on the surrounding mountains is disheartening. Below, the city spreads out along broad streets in neat squares. At the edges, in ragged array, are what from the heights look like hovels. They are peopled by Tibetans who no longer live in the center of their own city.

The Jokhang, temple, the city’s second-most venerated temple after the forbidding Potala that dominates the landscape, is surrounded with rundown taverns filled with poverty-stricken Tibetans. Beggars, all of them Tibetan, throng the streets, literally throwing themselves at tourists.

Although they account for a minority of Tibet’s population of 2.8 million, the Han dominate the region’s economy, with access to skills, capital and technology Tibetans do not have. The business activity of every town, no matter how small, is dominated by the Han Chinese.

A key element in Sinicization is the use of Mandarin. While schools in Tibetan are available, any parent with aspirations for his child outside a monastery or a farm will want him or her to have written and spoken fluency in Mandarin, the language of higher education, government and business.

So Tibet is following Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and other areas of Han settlement, in which Mandarin has become the dominant language and minority languages are marginalized and finally die out.

The government also enforces its religious policy in Tibet – monks and nuns can operate only within the confines of their temples and cannot run schools, hospitals, radio stations or publishing houses, anything that would allow them to reach the wider community. So the decision to become a monk means a life of seclusion. In virtually all the temples, including the Potala itself, hundreds of statues bear new heads – they were decapitated during the ravages of the Cultural Revolution and various other forays. The monks are government-authorized. But when there are no Chinese about, they flash huge smiles to any tourist carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama.

It is against this background that Beijing refuses to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, even though he does not demand independence, but a status similar to that of Hong Kong or Macau, with Beijing responsible for defense and military affairs, a decision that recognizes Chinese sovereignty.

Beijing believes that time is on its side. It is waiting for the Dalai Lama, 72, to die and it will then pick his successor, just as it did the successor to the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. This will give it direct control over the two most important figures.

It is also counting on the fact that the tens of thousands of Tibetans born abroad – 120,000 in India – will not wish to return home after living for two generations in another country.

The Dalai Lama himself looks with admiration at the Jews, who regained their homeland after two millennia and retained enough of their culture and tradition during that time to make a Jewish state again. He does not know if the Tibetans will have the chance.