Tibet: revolt with memories

Gabriel Lafitte
18 March 2008

The Tibetan revolt of March 2008, like those of 1959 and 1987, will be crushed by the overwhelming might of the Chinese military. No match could be more unequal: maroon-clad nuns and monks versus the machinery of oppression of the global rising power. In recent months, fast-response mobile tactical squads whose sole purpose is to quell the people have been overtly rehearsing on the streets of Tibetan towns for just what they are now doing.

What is the point of revolt if it is almost certainly suicidal?

This uprising has many uniquely Tibetan characteristics. At street level, a favourite item seized from Chinese shops was toilet-rolls - hardly the usual target of looters. Not that Tibetans, over millennia, have felt much need for the paper rolls, or even for the basics of the Chinese cuisine such as soy sauce. What the Tibetans did with the loo paper was to hurl it over power lines, instantly making Lhasa, and other Tibetan towns, Tibetan again. Right across the 25% of China that is ethnically and culturally Tibetan, the unrolled toilet paper looks like wind horses, the white silken khadag [or kata] scarf with which Tibetans greet and bless each other. As all Tibetans know, they carry their messageon the wind: victory to the gods!

Gabriel Lafitte is a development policy consultant to the environment & development desk of the Tibetan government- in-exile, based in India. This article was first published in the online journal NewMatilda.

That is what this revolt is about: making Tibet Tibetan once more. The white scarves also protected Tibetan shopkeepers from attack as the streets filled, for a short and costly moment of freedom, with Tibetans smashing the businesses of immigrant Chinese traders.

Even in the most intoxicating moment of reclaiming the streets no Tibetan could have forgotten the ever-present security cameras, and the network of informers penetrating deeply into urban Tibetans’ private lives. No Tibetan could have been unmindful that the full repressive power of a modernised, high-tech tyranny would hunt them down, and show no mercy. All Tibetans know of former friends who, on release from prison and torture, now shun old acquaintances because they are under such intense pressure by their torturers to regularly name names of those who privately voice thoughts that do not conform to the party line. These informers live in fear of being hauled in again, for further torture, and of betraying their friends.

That is what makes this revolt uniquely Tibetan. It is no accident that from the outset the protests were led by those who have already renounced all ties to kin, dedicating their lives to serve all of humanity, unconditionally. The nuns and monks of Tibet have taken vows to work for the liberation of all sentient beings from all sources of suffering - in the mind and in the external world. From the Dalai Lama through to the newest novice, they train in meditation to cut attachment to existence, to the existence of me ahead of all others.

They know they will die, and are ready for it. Just as in the great Tibetan revolts of two and five decades ago, many will die in secret prison cells, after torture. When the world is no longer watching, or able to see, Tibetans who risked all so as to focus the world - in this Olympic year - on China's shame, will die.

Tibet’s bedrock

What do Tibetans find so objectionable about today's China? Why is it that Tibetans and Chinese, neighbours for thousands of years, cannot get on?

Media coverage focuses on immediate causes, but there is a deeper story. The experience of working with Tibetans for thirty years, and of seeing Chinese development projects in Tibet for myself (as well as of having been briefly imprisoned for it), I can share what my Tibetan friends tell me. Contemporary Chinese capitalist modernity is as problematic for Tibetans as past state violence and repression. China today pours money - overwhelmingly state money - into Tibet: into railways, highways, tourist infrastructure and a top-heavy administrative elite. Glass towers, shopping-malls, enormous brothels masquerading as discos, towering offices, now dominate urban Tibetan skylines which only twenty years ago were a sacred landscape of prayer flags, temples and meditation.

On the face of it, that's progress. If Lhasa now looks like any Chinese boomtown, that's just the price of modernity - or so many outsiders say. But Tibetans find themselves excluded from the material benefits of modernity, watching powerlessly as gangs of non-Tibetan immigrants take over even the unskilled jobs on construction sites and in driving taxis. Tibetans remain poor, socially excluded, on the margins of a state-funded construction boom that reduces them to a minority meant to smile for the tourist cameras as they try to focus on their spiritual pilgrimage. The holy city of Lhasa, and all the big monasteries where the protests began, have been swamped by mass Chinese tourism, poking lenses into the most private devotions of those on the path to enlightenment.

The new railway to Lhasa, less than two years in operation, accelerated the tourism boom, the brothels and discos, and the marginalisation of Tibetans. Most Tibetans live in a countryside as big as western Europe, with their herds of yak, sheep and goats, eking an existence on land rigidly allocated decades ago by Chinese bureaucrats who refuse to re-divide land as families grow and new families form. Poverty among Tibetans is endemic, even as statistics averaged for entire provinces, bundling urban boom and rural neglect, proclaim rising standards of living.

Also on Tibet, China and the Olympics in openDemocracy:

Ugen, “Tibet’s postal protest” (4 November 2005)

Jamyang Norbu, “Tibetan tales: old myths, new realities” (13 June 2005)

Tenzin Tzundue,
Tibet vs China: a human-rights showdown” (15 August 2006)

Li Datong, “Beijing’s Olympics, China’s politics” (22 August 2007)

Kerry Brown, “Beijing’s political tightrope-walk” (13 March 2008)

The latest threat to Tibetan ways of life comes wrapped in an ideology of environmentalism. In the name of protecting the Tibetan upper reaches of China's great rivers - both the Yangtze and the Yellow - thousands of Tibetan nomads are being forced off their land, and resettled in miserable new towns in the middle of nowhere. Instantly, their livelihoods and intimate knowledge of the land and sustainable management, are useless - but they are seldom given training in new skills or even compensation beyond a grain survival ration.

Now the nomads, in a huge and rapidly expanding area, are ecological refugees, on the mistaken assumption that they are ignorantly and carelessly to blame for degradation of a vast grassland second in size only to Australia's pastoral inland. The nomads, compulsorily voiceless, not allowed to form any NGOs of their own, have no opportunity to show how deeply they care for the land, having sustained its productivity and its wildlife over millennia. China's urban-based party elite regards nomads as stupid, uneducated, unscientific, greedy and destructive - everything China is trying to get away from. There is no partnership between authority and those on the land, because they are utterly different in national community, background, experience and worldview.

This is the bedrock of the revolt. The Chinese authorities hold rural Tibetans in contempt, while urban educated Tibetans are viewed with suspicion, their exclusive loyalty to China and the party forever tested by extreme "patriotic education" campaigns that make it compulsory to denounce the most revered lamas.

China’s time-warp

To be a Tibetan in Tibet can be compared with being black in Mississippi in the 1950s. Travel within Tibet, migration from country to city, number of livestock permitted, number of children permitted - all are rigidly and oppressively controlled by an invasive bureaucracy. Meanwhile healthcare and education, strictly on a capitalist user-pays basis, are concentrated in urban areas. Only if you have the money upfront, and connections, do you even get in the door of a hospital.

The monks and nuns, who devote their lives to clarifying and purifying the mind, draw inspiration from the example of their teachers, and the teachers of their teachers, the highest of all being the Dalai Lama. China's party leaders - including Hu Jintao (elected president for a further five-year term on 15 March), who imposed martial law the last time Tibet revolted - never seem to learn that insisting on monks trampling or spitting on an image of the Dalai Lama is only going to deepen Tibetan alienation.

The China the world glimpses briefly today is a China that has not, in Tibet, changed as much as everyone would hope. Tibet under Chinese rule is stuck in a time-warp - of Marxist anti-religion propaganda, mass campaigns of denunciation and thought reform. China's policies in Tibet are deeply contradictory and self-defeating. China wants Tibetans to embrace and love the motherland and the party, but the punitive insistence on stability always undermines the uneven, often exclusionary, progress towards development.

China needs to be told by its friends that an empire cannot be made into a nation by force. (Australia, as a close friend and now with a prime minister fluent in Chinese, is uniquely placed to remind the isolated and fearful party leaders that they can gain much by listening to the message of the rioters: give us a break. Australia could also teach China much about land management and care, about rural communities and government working as partners to repair long-term damage, and about discovering the hard way how to respect and reconcile with indigenous peoples.)

As the Dalai Lama has always said: Tibetans and Chinese have had good relations in the past, and can have again - but only if there is mutual respect for fellow human beings who differ in their sources of happiness.

Tibetan monks and nuns are now dying, usually with equanimity and no hatred, in order to maintain that difference.

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