Mar 12, 2021 | OPINION | By Reed Schaefer | Photo by Patil Khakhamian
“We are a small, religious, and independent nation.” – The 13th Dalai Lama, 1913
Just the other day, Freedom House, a nonprofit that surveys and compares political rights and civil liberties throughout the world, released its 2020 rankings. Tibet took the top spot (or bottom spot) with the least freedoms in the world, scoring a dismal -2/40 on political rights and 3/60 on civil liberties and scoring lower than, if not the same, as Syria, which is having a civil war right now.
While this is no surprise to those familiar with the Free Tibet movement, there is never an inappropriate time to discuss the atrocities that China has committed on the Tibetan people and culture.
What happened in Tibet? Where do we stand now?
Tibet is a small mountainous country, lodged between China and India. Before 1950, Tibet remained virtually untouched by the outside world due to its natural isolation and inaccessibility.
Tibet’s culture was vibrant and thriving despite its lack of economic excess: with a rich Indigenous culture and religion, mixed with Buddhism by way of Bengal and India, as well as art and ritual that intersected every aspect of daily life and society.
Tibet had no standing army because of the Buddhist doctrine of nonviolence, and the Tibetan monks reciting their ritual low chants acted as the primary defense for the Tibetan nation.
This all changed when Tibet’s 6,200 monasteries and approximately 200,000 monks (and a 4,000-person unit nonprofessional army) were unable to stop the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops who forcefully entered eastern Tibet on Oct. 7, 1950 in order to “liberate” the “backward” nation.
Upon invasion in 1950, China declared that the Tibetan state was and always had been a permanent part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Quickly, the PRC installed PLA troops at the Tibet-India border and took possession of Tibet’s rich natural resources.
Over 200,000 troops from the PLA were stationed in Tibet by 1954. In addition, the Tibetan government, headed by the then 15-year-old fourteenth Dalai Lama, was forced to recognize China as its rightful ruler in return for political sovereignty and religious freedom.
While the Chinese did develop much of Tibet’s infrastructure (roads, schools, and hospitals), many Chinese customs and habits were also forced on the Tibetan people. A feudal tax system was imposed on Tibet that directed taxes back to the Chinese government, causing food shortages and increased costs-of-living for Tibetans. In 1959, amidst rising violence and deaths, and a Tibetan popular uprising, the situation in Tibet reached a boiling-point. On March 10, 1959, the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India to escape the threat of the Chinese military.
A period of decline followed, as the PRC began to assert a comprehensive agenda aimed at profound reconfigurations of Tibetan society. The Chinese slowly undermined Tibetan political authority and looted and destroyed Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.
In addition, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) portrayed the Buddhist clergy as oppressive and pushed for a strong agenda of modernization. This increased violence and destruction forced hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns out of monasteries, and high-ranking lamas were killed publicly. The Tibetans called for international help, but no nations, including the U.S., were willing to recognize Tibet’s independence from PRC.
Not only does the PRC illegally occupy the nation of Tibet, but they also have been conducting a cultural genocide of the Tibetan people since their occupation beginning in 1951. The Tibetan flag and national anthem were banned. Teachers, writers, artists, and any others who speak out publicly against Chinese rule or celebrate Tibetan culture are jailed. The Chinese language was imposed as the primary language of Tibet, used for business and increasingly in schools.
China’s former ruler, Mao, remarked to the Dalai Lama that “religion is poison.” Accordingly, he attempted to “liberate” the Tibetan people from the Buddhist monasteries that were intertwined with and integral to everyday life and from the Dalai Lama and the aristocracy that formed the sovereign power in their country.
Tibetans are not allowed to display images of their Dalai Lama or any symbol or ritual that corresponds to Buddhism or any religion, facing threats of imprisonment and torture. Chinese officials monitor and control activity in the monasteries and nunneries, and it is estimated that less than 200 of the 6,200 monasteries from before 1950 remain standing. Larung Gar, the largest Buddhist institute in Tibet, was subject to major assaults, evictions, and demolition. The CCP plans to appoint its own Dalai Lama to rule over Tibet.
Tibetans also have been stripped of their political freedoms. Tibet is governed directly by the CCP in Beijing, and no Tibetan has ever been appointed Party Secretary, the most senior government post in Tibet.
In their daily lives, Tibetans face close surveillance — complete with police checkpoints and widespread public security cameras. In addition, party officials constantly monitor the activity of Tibetans. Tibetans risk severe reactionary violence if they dare to protest. If a protestor is caught, they are imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes even shot.
The United Nations has reported that the Chinese have repeatedly violated international torture statutes. Many are in jail in Tibet merely for expressing a yearning for freedom, or other mundane actions like waving a Tibetan flag, mailing a letter to the outside world or simply unspecified charges. Jailed Tibetans are often not, if ever, given proper legal representation in trial procedures that are reportedly unfair, nor are their families typically informed. Tibetans charged with “separatism” (acts intended to divide or damage the Chinese state) are subject to the death penalty. Worse yet, children are subject to the same standards as adults.
This comprehensive cultural genocide also includes social and economic aspects. Reportedly, over 500,000 Tibetans have been coerced into forced labor programs. Thousands of individuals (and counting) have been evicted and have had their homes demolished.
China has forced the removal of over two million nomads who live in generations-old settlements, forcing them into urban life they are not prepared for. This is coupled with encouraged Chinese migration into Tibet, causing Tibetans to become a minority in their own land.
Tourism and construction of infrastructure are extremely profitable enterprises, but these jobs are primarily given to those of Chinese ethnicity. Conversely, Tibetans have no automatic right to Chinese passports, so it is nearly impossible to leave the country. Domestic travel is also restricted for Tibetans by way of monitoring and permits.
As a cherry on top, Chinese industrialism wreaks environmental destruction on Tibet. Tibet has a wealth of natural resources, including copper, gold and water, which China has continually exploited. This destruction and the rapidly increasing industry and urbanization neglect the health of the nearby communities, destroy the environment and pollute the region. This has had adverse effects on the environment and local Tibetans. All this has been done under the guise of “progress.”
The situation in Tibet is appalling and it is hard to have any hope that any benefit for the Tibetans will come from Chinese abuse of their nation. Further, if freedom were to come for the Tibetans, many fear that too much of authentic Tibetan culture has been lost already. The Tibetan people, however, remain a strong and honorable community. In fact, we can learn a lot from how the Tibetans are handling their precarious situation.
Despite the threats of violence from the PRC, the Tibetan people refuse to give up their fight for freedom. Free Tibet has been an unrelenting voice in the fight for Tibetan freedom. While it started in Tibet, support for the Free Tibet movement has spread throughout the world! Not only does Free Tibet advocate for the freedom and rights of Tibetans, but the Free Tibet movement has also been instrumental in monitoring and holding the PRC accountable.
Not only are personal freedoms at stake. The Tibetan culture, one of the most unique and colorful in the world, risks extinction altogether — akin to the African civilizations that were all too conveniently left out of the history books.
The CCP’s Chinese exceptionalism views its violent actions as “liberating” the Tibetans from a culture that is behind and inferior to theirs. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Essential elements of Tibetan life are the intermixture of Indigenous (Bon) culture, Mahayana Buddhism that mixed with Bengali tantra, and vibrant art and ritual that are celebrated as integral to life itself.
I am fortunate to have read the books “The Way of the White Clouds” and “Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism,” both by Lama Anagarika Govinda. In “The Way of the White Clouds”, Govinda describes the setting and scenery of Tibet in the 1930s and 1940s while Tibet was still in what he calls its “renaissance” and before the Chinese invaded.
Govinda tracks his pilgrimage around the nation and shows how intertwined Buddhism and Buddhist monasteries are with everyday life. The laypeople and monks alike participate in the same rituals, just with differing understandings of the underlying meanings. Art, similarly, is integral to Tibetan Buddhism and to daily life itself.
The ritual practices that the whole community participates in are intertwined with dancing and the making and celebrating of art. Bon, the Indigenous religion and culture, is thoroughly mixed with popular artwork, Buddhism and rituals, and provides additional vibrance and a symbology that is even more expansive and transformational. Tibetan Buddhist monks, unlike elsewhere in the world, are encouraged to dance, make music and express their Buddha-nature.
Govinda was a high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist monk who fled Tibet, and later fled to the U.S., after the Chinese invaded to preserve and spread knowledge of the Tibetan culture in its authenticity. While Tibetan mysticism and the culture, which is largely shaped by Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism (a synthesis and unique form of Buddhism), was kept a secret from the outside world before this time, Govinda, along with many other Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, vowed to make public the knowledge of the depths of insights that their culture offers.
The Tibetans remain nonviolent, and the Dalai Lama stresses the importance of reaching a nonviolent solution to the crisis. However, this position should not be viewed as complete passivity. Latent within this Buddhist precept of nonviolence is an understanding of both passivity and activity; there is an understanding that a certain balance must be reached between both and that the two are completely intertwined and inseparable. Thus, we should not be too quick to conclude that Tibetans do not actually care for their freedom because they are not physically fighting for it.
The real fight is one which cannot and should not be won through a war. It is a fight to expand our own awareness and the awareness of others, and to come to a greater unity. This awareness, like nonviolence, is doable.
First, we must become aware of the atrocities that the CCP has committed in Tibet and in other parts of Asia. The CCP has successfully manipulated nationalist and essentialist sentiments and has been asserting a systematic crackdown on dissent.
The CCP also continues to assert an imperialist agenda in the South China Sea and in other parts of the world. Groups of people that the CCP deems as “backward” and “inferior” to their “modern” agenda are deemed as invisible and assimilated into the larger Chinese nation. Namely, the Uyghur, Tibetan, and Hong Kong people face constant surveillance and threat of violence and extinction.
Additionally, we must equally become aware of our own atrocities and disharmonies. The U.S. remains silent on the matter of Tibetan independence. It is about time that we recognize Tibet as an independent nation — it is a no brainer.
China does not have a right to Tibet; Tibet was an empire of its own that, until 1950, remained undefeated, even by the Mongols from China who attacked Tibet in the thirteenth century. We must press our representatives and president to affirm Tibet’s sovereignty in the face of China’s push for unification.
On a more general level, we must continue to investigate and hold China accountable. Just this year, a BBC investigation reported that the Uyghur people were forced into cotton-picking slave labor camps in rural China. It is appalling that it takes a BBC investigation from the outside to bring these issues up. It would be a mistake to turn our attention away right now.
Further, drawing from the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, we must become aware of our own inner disharmonies. It is through the wisdom gained through introspection, combined and balanced with our boundless compassion, that we are able to most effectively govern our own lives and most effectively extend our hand to help.
Think of all the wrong that has been done by those who thought they were doing a good thing. In order to achieve peace in the outside world, we must find our own peace within, alongside our fight for peace in society.
The Free Tibet movement has started the fight and we must take it in our own hands to continue it. However, we must do this in a way that elevates and preserves the silenced voices of the Tibetans, rather than rewriting the script for them and with our own standards.
OM MANI PADME HUM! Freedom for Tibet will come through our introspection (passivity) and action (activity) both as an individual and as a society. It always speaks more to lead by example. The Tibetan people are an example from whom we can all learn something valuable.