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ibetans and Chinese Divided by Wide, Bitter Gulf of Misunderstanding

January 7, 1990


Published on the Los Angeles Times on January 07, 1990
LHASA, Tibet — Before the brother of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, returned to Lhasa as a guest of the Chinese government after years in exile, officials met local people and urged them not to spit or hurl stones at their former “slave master.”

The guests duly arrived–but far from being abused they found themselves greeted by thousands of weeping and prostrating Tibetans anxious to touch them.

In scenes at once embarrassing and shocking for Chinese authorities, some Tibetans even chanted pro-independence slogans and wished the absent Dalai Lama eternal life.

That was 10 years ago, and a Tibetan intellectual who recounted the scene said a gulf of misunderstanding between the Chinese who rule the Himalayan region and its 2 million people continues.

Frustration and long-held grievances burst into the open again in 1987 when Buddhist monks began nationalist protests.

Unable to control the simmering ethnic conflict with police alone, the central government last March called in the army and imposed martial law in Lhasa.

Since then, state-run newspapers and television have shown smiling Tibetans offering food and drink to grateful soldiers. Tibetans are told they welcome martial law.

“Martial law meets people’s aspirations. All events reflect that people are at peace in their hearts. Their livelihoods and social order are guaranteed,” Col. Feng Lanqun said in a recent interview.

“The overwhelming majority of people support martial law. Lots of Tibetans took food to the soldiers . . . I am very optimistic about the future,” said trade official Li Shiping, who has lived in Tibet for 17 years and, like most ethnic Han Chinese officials there, does not speak Tibetan.

However, as the Tibetan intellectual tried to explain, looking over a shoulder for fear of being overheard by police, unrest in Tibet has ancient roots and will not be so easily resolved.

“Of course, many people want the troops to go home and the leaders know this. Monks give apples and tea to the soldiers–but out of their Buddhist principles of compassion, not because they support martial law,” he said.

In October with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, the gap between rulers and ruled appeared as wide as ever. China denounced the prize and Tibetans celebrated.

Two small groups of nuns tried to demonstrate in Lhasa but were quickly arrested and sent to labor camps for up to three years, residents and relatives said.

Tensions between Tibetans and the ethnic Han Chinese are evident. Visiting a monastery accompanied by an official guide, a foreign reporter stopped to chat with an old monk and finally asked him how he saw the state of relations.

“Hard to say,” he answered and walked off to the evident distress of the official. In tea houses, some young Tibetans speak in a much more radical terms. They talk of taking up arms and fighting for freedom.

Ethnic Han Chinese usually do not wander alone around the narrow streets and markets of Lhasa’s Tibetan quarter, especially at night. But on the edge of town, amid utilitarian modern buildings, young Tibetans dance at the same disco with Chinese–many of them police and soldiers in uniform.

“Yes, there are Tibetans and Hans here,” said a young Han working in the Lhasa Hotel, dancing under the strobe lights. “But mostly Tibetans dance with Tibetans and Hans with Hans.”

To win the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, China said it is pouring money into the region at the rate of $190 million to $220 million a year.

Schools that were forced to use Chinese for instruction during China’s radical 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution have revived the Tibetan language.

The region’s only university has 1,005 students, 730 of them Tibetan. Only 20% of courses are now taught in Tibetan but the proportion is rising.

“We are raising bilingual workers . . . We are recovering Tibetan language and culture,” said University President Ciwang Junmei.

Officials say Peking is giving $9 million toward restoration of the vast Potala Palace–the Dalai Lama’s former winter residence, which dominates Lhasa and is in danger of collapsing on crowds of pilgrims worshipping there.

Monasteries that were among several thousand destroyed during the Cultural Revolution are being repaired and some monks have returned, although their numbers are limited by the state.

Living standards have risen considerably since the late 1970s, thanks largely to the economic freedoms secured under capitalist-style reforms. But average annual incomes are less than $110, among the lowest in China.

Tibetans argue that government subsidies often go toward housing and imported Japanese vehicles for officials and big projects, such as a vast government guest house in Lhasa.

“China may give millions of yuan a year in subsidies to Tibet but little of it reaches the people,” said one Tibetan.

“They are so ungrateful. We give them so much money,” said a young Han Chinese worker, one of many sent to the region from neighboring provinces.

“I don’t like Lhasa. I don’t like Tibetans. No, I don’t have Tibetan friends,” the woman said, adding that she misses the child she had to leave behind in Sichuan province.

Even most educated Chinese sensitive to Tibet’s cultural identity uphold the official line that the region has been part of China since the Mongolian Yuan dynasty 700 years ago and that independence is out of the question.

Officials say China’s key to ensuring peace in Tibet lies in boosting living standards and reviving Tibetan culture.

“The Dalai Lama’s influence in the economy, culture and politics is getting smaller and smaller,” said regional government spokesman Gong Liefu.

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