Tashi Delek—it’s Tibetan New Year! Today, everyone would normally put on brand new clothes, replace last year’s sun-bleached prayer flags with freshly printed ones, and eat and drink to their heart’s content for at least three days, though the festival usually lasts fifteen.
Alas, this year the Dalai Lama’s asked Tibetans worldwide not to celebrate, as a mark of solidarity with the Tibetans who still actually live in Tibet or, as the Chinese call it, China. They are now a racial minority in what had been their own country since the seventh-century reign of King Songtsän Gampo. The Red Army invaded (they say liberated) Tibet in 1950/51 and since then has ruthlessly suppressed Tibetan culture and religion in the name of ‘progress’—a term which the rest of the world is now beginning to view with mixed feelings. True, traditional Tibetan life was rife with superstition, poor hygiene and a questionable judicial/penal system; it was also managed by a theocratic superclass based not on merit but on monastic hierarchy, medieval intrigue and subterfuge. However, the prevalent belief system was Mahayana Buddhism, which values compassion above all, so it was far from completely dysfunctional; still, neither was it what we expect from a modern state. Even the Dalai Lama admitted that the Chinese did him a favour in ejecting him from the gilded cage of the Potala.
Does anyone really believe the Chinese government is modernizing Tibet from the goodness of its neighbourly heart? After all, it started back in those mad early days of the Cultural Revolution. Tibet is China’s lebensraum—growing space for an overflowing population. It’s also a strategic eagle’s nest and home to the largest lithium deposits in the world.
Although the Dalai Lama—to the dismay of many young Tibetans-in-exile—long ago abandoned any hope of Tibet independence and has announced that he’d settle for mere ’cultural autonomy,’ China still paints him as an unrepentant ‘splittist.’ Chinese official Zhang Qingli last year called him, “a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast.”
A what? The rest of the world is puzzled over this depiction, to say the least. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a familiar, warm-hearted personality on the world stage, usually seen preaching universal kindness and peace. Now he’s preparing to meet the US president in Washington DC, and the Chinese have threatened a diplomatic storm—perhaps more. Why? What’s their problem? As their star rises you’d think their insecurities would take a back seat and they’d be trumpeting a strong, self-assured image. Why does this self-effacing man and his tiny diaspora raise such fury in this giant powerhouse of a nation? They’ve got their Tibetan real-estate; the Dalai Lama knows that’ll never change; even if every Tibetan on the planet took to the streets of Lhasa, they’d be crushed in mere days.
Barack Obama isn’t going to back down, and the Chinese will vilify the USA in their own press in order to keep their own people on board—but are they? This isn’t good for business. Isn’t that sufficient motivation? Perhaps the Chinese are threatened by the enormously disproportionate influence of the Tibetans as Buddhism grows in the West, not simply as a religion than but especially as a system of practices and perspectives that might restore balance to a world in danger of industrial destruction.
What do you think?