TRAVEL: What Lhasa youth really want

Message from Lhasa’s streets

Young Tibetans want to be part of the modern world but they insist Buddhism be respected
April 12, 2008


Western leaders, who have gained leverage by a policy of engagement, now have a chance to affect change in China.

To understand China’s problems, they should consider the voices of Tibetans and Chinese I met during a two-week holiday that ended with China’s largest uprising in 20 years. 

Due to state propaganda and restrictions on foreign media, the Lhasa riots were misunderstood as being mainly anti-Chinese and pro-independence.

But in a broader sense, they were a defence of Buddhist monks and culture, and an expression of frustration shared by many across China who want more justice and personal freedom to go along with their cellphone lifestyles.

“Lhasa is not a free place like Beijing,” said “Tenzin,” a young Tibetan tourism worker who began to open up after knowing me for a week. “It is a police state. Spies are following you everywhere here, on the street, on the phone, on the Internet. They can take you away and nobody knows when you’ll come back. Sometimes people come back after 10 years. They can’t even talk or think any more.”

Tenzin, like many Tibetans, speaks Mandarin, works for a Beijing boss and enjoys Chinese music, fashions and discos in Lhasa. Instead of independence, he wants the Beijing government to protect his Buddhist culture and develop the local economy. He also wants China to control the flow of migrant workers who have poured into Lhasa since the world’s highest railway opened in 2006. “It’s too easy. Anybody can come to Tibet now,” he says. “We like the Chinese tourists, but not the migrant workers. They are poor, uneducated people. They were having troubles at home, so they run away and come to Tibet, and bring their problems with them.”

One solution, he says, would be a “one China, two systems” autonomy like Hong Kong. “We want the government to restrict the kind of people who come to Tibet, like Hong Kong does. This way we can integrate into China, while preserving our culture.”

“Lhasa is too much about business now,” says a Han Chinese artist from eastern China, hiding a Tibetan flag and an amulet of the Dalai Lama in his clothing. “There are too many Chinese here in the summer. You have to buy tickets for Potala Palace on the black market.”

Both men worry that Chinese sugar daddies are corrupting local women. “Women here are better than in Beijing,” says Tenzin. “When I go out to a club in Beijing, the girls are after money. The Tibetan women want love and friendship. They are very honest. Their heart is pure and true.” Many women in Lhasa resemble rugged Albertan cowgirls in leather boots and pants; they ride horses and sport braided ponytails down to their hips. Others in baggy jeans and sneakers, such as “Thubten,” seem more like Brooklyn hip-hoppers.

The generation gap between Thubten and her parents spans centuries. While they murmur mantras and make Buddhist kora pilgrimages around Jokhang temple, Thubten spends hours online with her friends, or in cafés listening to Nepali rap and Lhasa rock, featuring guitar solos and the Buddhist mantra “om mani padme om.” Thanks to lower infant mortality rates and a doubled life expectancy, members of Thubten’s generation are as healthy and ambitious as young people anywhere else in China. They have Chinese-style schools, hospitals and a new TV network. Yet Thubten and others identify themselves, first and foremost, as Buddhists. If practised in Canada, their devotion would seem fanatical.

The Tibetan uprising may not have happened if not for the arrest of monks on Monday, March 10, and then a larger crackdown on monks and residents the following night in north Lhasa near Sera monastery. Anarchy finally erupted on Friday, March 14, when Tibetans reacted against police harassment of Buddhist monks. Seen as China’s Achilles heel, the mistreatment of minorities stems from a cultural gap between modernizing Communist party members, who value industry and consumerism, and Buddhist Tibetans, Islamic Uighurs and Falun Gong members who favour spiritual advancement over godless economic growth.

Like the junta in Myanmar, Chinese leaders have failed to grasp that in Tibetan Buddhist society, monks are regarded as members of an untouchable elite at the highest level of incarnation. People cannot touch monks’ heads or point their feet at them, let alone train guns on them. Worshippers will risk death and jail terms to defend them.

At elevations from 3,800 to 5,000 metres, Tibetans live on the highest spiritual plateau in Asia. Monks fulfill the roles of academics, writers, painters, doctors and celebrities. Like pop idols, monks grace wall portraits and “monk cards” like hockey cards. With scriptures on their laps, they chant mantras that preserve the language and stories of their culture. Their monasteries also serve as national libraries and art galleries. For locals, seeing Chinese forces surround temples and haul away monks in headlocks would be like Canadians watching Mounties raiding Maple Leaf Gardens and detaining Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.

While speaking out against these rights abuses, Canadians should also keep in mind that the Chinese are dealing with rising food prices, plummeting share values on the Shanghai stock exchange and fears of their economic bubble bursting à la Japan in 1991 and Southeast Asia in 1997. Foreign activists might spark an anti-foreign backlash in Beijing by demanding ideological changes such as multi-party democracy and independence for Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. They should be careful not to undermine the position of foreign-friendly Chinese leaders such as Premier Wen Jiabao, who famously went jogging in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park in order to meet ordinary Japanese.

They should instead focus on working with liberal-minded Chinese officials and business leaders to solve issues that plague all of China, not only Tibet, such as the pollution of rivers and air; the loss of farmland to climate change; the wanton destruction of ancient neighbourhoods by corrupt developers; and the Great Firewall of China that blocks access to Internet sites and deters young Chinese from innovation and global leadership.

Foreigners can gain greater leverage by showing solidarity with Chinese who, like Tibetans, also suffer from the brutality of hard-liners. Many Han and Hui (Muslim) Chinese, who were beaten or pelted with stones during the Lhasa riots, were sympathetic to Tibetan causes. They also are angry at the state for having failed to protect them and their businesses.

Without provoking a humiliating loss of face, world leaders should tell Chinese leaders in private what many Chinese and Tibetans would like to say publicly: that China can avoid future embarrassment by leaving monks alone, and giving them the freedom to practise their religion in their language, and even surf the Internet, if they want to. That would be good for business, and the Olympics.


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