Sunday, September 28, 2008
Tibet and the Fantasies of Democracy
WELCOME TO TIBET, a land synonymous with avid mountain climbers, California-born Bodhis, dreadlocked caucasians and the occasional Wall Street banker in search of salvation and somewhere to squander his oil bonds. For years, moonbeams of all flavours have been making the pilgrimage to the Tibetan highlands, dieting on banana lassies and free-range yak kebabs, breathing in the crisp mountain air (incensed with said yak) and meditating on the petit-bourgeois proclivities of inner-peace and transcendental self-discovery.
But on March 14, four days after the 49th anniversary of the Lama’s relocation to the Hollywood Hills, the capital Lhasa exploded in riots, as the predominantly ethnic Tibetans took a torch to the ruling Han Chinese. The government went into lockdown, banishing all foreign tourists, journalists, expatriates and Californian yoga instructors – save for a handful of aid workers and covert Christian missionaries – and thus closing the boarder indefinitely to all foreign neophytes and press badge wearing lackeys.
And so once again, the world’s eyes fell upon the mountain mystery of one of the most talked about yet least understood regions on Earth. For four months, the disgruntled accredited press salivated around the Beijing bar streets, rehearsing and reasoning – in between beers and blowjobs – their schlock Hollywood appeal for Tibetan independence and blind zeal against Chinese interventionism.
The blind fanaticism of the ‘Free Tibet’ camp has raged ever since journeymen such as James Hilton, who penned Lost Horizon in 1933, depicted the mythical Himalayan utopia of Shangri-la. Tibet since has been the object of a fantastical Western ideologue bathed in ancient mysticism and religious idealism. And so for the Western hemp wearing neophyte, the capture of Tibet by the Maoists in 1950, was the desolation of an idyll whose antithesis was the decadence and corruption of 20th century modernism, socialist or otherwise. However, the seemingly idyllic picture masked a medieval backwater steeped in serfdom, polygamy, child slavery, infanticide and religious violence, and ruled by an autocratic elite group of monks, a world away from today’s democratic catcalls of the Sharon Stone clique.
WHEN I ARRIVED in early July, Lhasa was a ghost town, vacant of any foreigner – four months scratched from the five million expected in 2008. With the boarders having recently opened, I expected a flood of curious tourists, covert journalists and newly indoctrinated vegans covering their ‘Free Tibet’ tees with Olympic ‘Nothing is Impossible’ tracksuits. Yet in a place usually festering with whiteness, Wally (or Waldo) simply wasn’t there.
The foreigners had been substituted for members of the People’s Liberation Army, a nubile mixture of seasoned soldiers and dumbfounded cadets. In double-file they paraded the junctions and alleys that run between the empty hotels and odious piles of yak cheese in the Barkhor marketplace. In the Muslim quarter, a square flanked by skinned yak carcasses and Halal butcheries, they guarded the Grand Mosque. And just about all over the eastern partition – the Tibetan partition – they stood post every 50 feet, eyeballing anyone with a camera or a paler complexion.
Tibet is split between east and west – east for the Tibetans, west for the Chinese. In the east, the Barkhor Circumambulation Route takes centre stage and is a circular bazaar selling everything from Tibetan prayer wheels to tourist shirts emblazoned with ‘Yak Yak Yak Yak Yak!’ At the core of the Barkhor’s circular track is the 7th Century Jokhang Temple, the holiest site for the majority Tibetan Buddhist population and the end goal of a once-in-a-lifetime three year prostration journey, whereby a pilgrim virtually bellyflops the whole way from his village – scraping up mountains and over highways – to Lhasa.
At any given time there is at least one veteran flopping his way in or out of the Jokhang, marking the end of an excruciatingly tedious three years of belly flopping. It’s common courtesy to give them donations as they prostrate along and by the end of it all they’re allowed to catch the bus home.
Since the 1959 expulsion of Tibet’s theocratic regime to India, Tibet’s economic development has boosted the ethnic Tibetan population of Lhasa from 37,000 to 520,000 and turned a once remote mountain village into a sprawling suburb, providing housing, work and education for a previously nomadic and uneducated people. Today, Tibet has four universities and over 110 secondary schools. Still the worst literacy rate in China (67.5% in 2000), before Chinese intervention, Tibet had virtually no formal education system, with monks having to learn scriptures from oral memory as opposed to written word.
However, today Tibet anxiously shares her developing status with roughly 100,000 newly migrated Han Chinese in the western partition. As Lhasa grew west, so did the hotels, shops and karaoke bars, contrasting the ancient Tibetan mud-brick architecture of the east with the modern outdoor toilet-tile of the west – the toilet-tile that befits so many Chinese cities. It is this massive influx that the majority of Tibetans complain about; that Mandarin is becoming the mainstay over Tibetan and that Tibetan shopkeepers are being pushed out by Chinese economies-of-scale.
Bridging this ethnic wake, and sitting majestically above the skyline, is the Pagoda Palace, the traditional seat of power for the Tibetan Government and the home in life and death to every Dalai Lama, bah number 14. Today, the lights are on, but nobody’s home.
I HAPHAZARDLY MET Roberto, a young Basque gentleman, one night at one of the few remaining bars in Lhasa, a small hole-in-the-wall chipped off the old Tibetan mud block, which proudly owns an oddball collection of donated CDs from a dozen years of music piracy (ungodly amounts of Leonard Cohen) and tech-savvy spiritualists.
Roberto sat in the corner with his Italian fiancé Katrina, drinking Scottish whiskey on a work night. The two are Yin and Yin: both garrulous, both alcoholics and both despised by one another’s company. (Their love affair began when they were sent to some remote outpost of Tibet for three months with nothing better to do but sleep, drink and fuck.)
Together they form the main contingency of aid workers in Tibet, and since the riots, had been forbidden access to the outer-regions, where their particular work is needed most. According to Katrina the government officials are good intentioned, investing heavily in the region, building schools and infrastructure, treating water supplies and aiding village doctors. However they are paranoid to hell of their public image, which often leads to heavy handed and irrational protocols.
Once, when the Olympic torch came through Lhasa on June 21st, the cadre phoned Roberto to tell him not to go to work that day (Saturday). When he said that he was already there, they bafflingly suggested, then don’t look out the window.
Another time when his mother had heard a faint cough emanating over the wires from her baby boy halfway across the globe, he explained, “No mum, I’m not sick. It’s just the 20 Chinese listening in.” On top of that, a simple email can take two to four days to arrive, as the Communist Party raises an army of People’s Linguists to translate a single Italian Christmas card.
As for the riots, Roberto’s positive it was the Dalai Clique’s organisation, that they had planned it long in advance, in order to gain international attention before the Olympics. All the while the Dalai Lama, grinning and posing, had said that he supported, on the one hand, the Beijing Olympics, and on the other, the protests in Lhasa. This was an odd manoeuvre, seeing that the protests were a massive violent abreaction and not a candlelight vigil.
Roberto’s not muddled as to who was doing what. He was there and saw Tibetans, including Buddhist monks (yes monks have as much propensity as being assholes as anyone else), hunting Han Chinese, burning shops and smashing windows. Even his favourite French restaurant was ransacked. The Chinese “crackdown” (a hasty word) was like any other crackdown in the West. He compares it to the 2005 Paris Race Riots. Yes there are issues, but how else do you diffuse a violent mob?
OUTSIDE LHASA, on a five-hour journey to Namtso (Sky Lake) – the highest body of saltwater in the world – the road is desolate. Along the way, piles upon piles of Tibetan prayer flags whip in the castrating wind. Nomads collect under the flags; their lives spent begging and bartering the shards of rock around their necks. Their faces have been hardened by the ferocious winds. Life out here is short and brutish. It takes little wonder to understand the attraction of religion and the compulsion that pushes someone to the desperation of a three-year-long prostration.
The lucky (or unlucky) nomads are given permanent housing and stipends from the government, so that the mother and children can at least remain under one roof whilst the father toils the valleys. However the pro-separatists complain that this is destroying the traditional nomadic culture, breaking apart communities and forcing Tibetans into unwanted work. It’s difficult to argue with this, but at the same time worrying to suggest that a lifestyle that condones education and social progress is worse than one that doesn’t.
WITH HIS LANKY STATURE, flattened face and monotone voice, Dogda, my personal guide, has the air of a garrulous sun-tanned Lurch (Addams). His views are surprisingly well informed from the Internet as well as books his clients would leave for him. Dogda is pragmatic, saying, “If China didn’t rule Tibet, somebody else would: India, Britain, America.” Independence to him is merely an ideal as immaterial as the mystical kingdom of Shambhala, Tibetan Buddhist nirvana.
It’s difficult to get a sense of the bigger picture. The Tibetan mysticism and Chinese bureaucracy cloud too much. Centuries of backwardness, feudalism, serfdom and polygamy were brought to a halt in 1959 when the Chinese Communist Party expelled the Dalai from the Pagoda Palace to live out the rest of his natural life giving speeches, attending cocktail parties and having star-studded birthday bashes along the Californian coast. To cynics, he’s known as “the monk in Gucci shoes,” and when the likes of Sharon Stone lament, “my good friend,” whilst mouthing-off karmic retribution for the Sichuan earthquake victims, you can’t help but imagine the two on Rodeo Drive shopping for Bally leather sandals together.
Thanks to his Hollywood status and 49 years of the type of PR money can’t buy, the Lama languishes in the same regard that slightly dishevelled dark-haired Parisian girls have for Jim Morrison. For many he is the only voice that one need be concerned with when it comes to all things Tibet, never mind he hasn’t been there in five decades or even that the real powerbrokers refuse to have a conversation with him until of recent.
Even Dogda, a Tibetan Buddhist himself, says schools, hospitals and infrastructure has all been built thanks to the Chinese. Tourism (most of the time) is flourishing. Life expectancy has increased and infant mortality has dropped from 430 per 1000 in 1951 to 91.8 per 1000 in 1990. The Chinese built the roads, ironed-out the Qinghai-Tibet railway, and increased trade between Tibet and the other regions. The Chinese President, Hu Jintao, as the only member in the politburo to have served in Tibet, is by far the most sympathetic yet to energising the poverty stricken region.
This is not to suggest, however, that Dogda and most other Tibetans don’t have grievances with the Chinese government: the rumours of police brutality, the monks routinely being forced to publically condemn the Dalai, the red-washing of Tibetan culture, the massive Han Chinese immigration, the urbanisation of pastoral lands, the insurrection of villages, as well as the proposed mining of Tibet’s natural resources. These are all issues at hand.
But with the blind and perpetual affection the West throws upon the leader of an essentially autocratic, theocratic and power-starved group of monks, Beijing is nothing but frustrated when some French moonbeam with a beansprout-a-day diet tries to blowout the Olympic torch with a fire extinguisher whilst screaming “Libérez Tibet!” Not the best methodology for political progress when you’re up against tomorrow’s most powerful economy.
The whole process takes delicate and careful consideration, not to mention allowances on both sides. The whole mess isn’t going to be solved by a screaming Björk, or an unfurled banner by some prissy Briton looking to gain college credit along with the affection of the hemp-mafia. Until there is serious debate, all one hears is, “Yak Yak Yak Yak Yak Yak!”
[Published in Arena UK November Issue]