Bohdi Blues – Lhasa Enflamed: Of Riots, Earthquakes and Olympic Torches
What would the Buddha Do? The Debate Continues…
I met N at a hostel during the summer of 2005 when I was in Lhasa for a Tibetan language program. The rooms were simple, but more comfy than any hostel or dorm I ever experienced in India. My shower didn’t work, and the food was so oily you could drown in it. But other than that, I was pretty content. Except for the surveillance and paranoia, which ran high.
We all knew that the government was almost certainly reading our emails. We knew that we were being watched closely, and we knew that we could only have political conversations at the risk of seriously hurting our Tibetan friends’ safety and security.
N was a little maniacal, actually – I remember his need for speed, the fibs and the nonstop scatological humor. I didn’t know him very well, but during the riots in Lhasa earlier this year, I saw a photo on an online news group and was 100% sure one of the people in it was him. And I was scared for him.
The photo showed a group of Tibetans overturning a car. And there was N, seemingly helping to flip the thing over – a car owned by a Chinese person, no doubt. The city was in flames and the photo was a still from a Chinese government surveillance video. They would certainly have him by now I thought, that is, if it really was him. Either way, I was advised to alter his name for this piece, use an initial and tweak his details. And I have, because from my experience that level of paranoia is absolutely appropriate.
During my time in Tibet, I heard the same sentiments over and over again, be it on a walk through the Barkor, the inner pilgrimage circuit around the sacred Jokhang temple, on a picnic in the countryside, in the privacy of a crowd, in the tiny ramshackle little tea stall in the back of the very back room at some monastery or another. The Tibetans all said the same thing, but they said it quietly: We are not free; we are prisoners in our own country. We are not free, and it’s not just. We are living our lives as best we can, but we are still very angry.
They wanted to be free to worship the Dalai Lama, to protest the treatment of political prisoners. They wanted to raise their whispers to a loud and clear voice of public dissent. They wanted the Chinese to leave, or at least, to leave them alone to do what they wished.
The Chinese have not won the hearts and minds of Tibetans, but their control and surveillance seem to keep overt resistance in check. A model of Foucaultian “discipline and punish,” the Chinese government had the whole of inner Tibet, the whole TAR, the Tibetan Autonomous Region, on a short leash. Tibetans working for government institutions, even the university, were forbidden to celebrate certain religious holidays or complete certain pilgrimages. The police were everywhere, and the cameras, ah, the cameras were as ubiquitous as the prostitutes and beggars.
We were being watched all the time. We wondered if our bedrooms had bugs inside. Chinese taxi drivers wouldn’t learn or speak Tibetan. Economically disadvantaged Chinese were thrown into the more Tibetan side of town, and it was here that the whorehouses, the “shimmy khangs” (cat houses), flourished unabashedly, despite, or perhaps because of, the army and police stations located close by.
Little old Tibetan women from the rural heartland would grab at your sleeves asking for money, “kuchi kuchi,” pleaseeeee. Lhasa was uncomfortable from beginning to end: amazing, startling, sad, lovely, and extremely uncomfortable. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and that was after I got used to the thin air at 3,600 meters/12,000 feet.
The Lhasa that I experienced was an uneven place, a strangely manicured and tightly controlled space that allowed for maximum separation, and little social interaction between Tibetans and most Chinese. During a sweep of the countryside, we came across an overturned vehicle with people still inside. N looked them over as he drove straight past.
“Chinese,” he said, explaining that if they’d been Tibetan, he would have stopped to help. He flipped over the audiotape in his car – it was Tibetan music, songs separated from each other by the sound of hoots and whistles, or by the whinny of horses.
Late that summer, I crossed the border from the TAR into a part of ethno-cultural Tibet that had been absorbed by the Chinese province of Sichuan. In that first town across the border, the intense TAR surveillance evaporated, or at least noticeably receded. I felt like I had broken the surface to take in a breath of real air.
The difference was palpable in so many ways, including the degree to which Tibetans and Chinese move comfortably amongst one another. There were clearly better relations on this side of the border, and there were people willing to talk about politics openly without fear of reprisals. I saw my first photos of the Dalai Lama in almost three months. This wasn’t so bad – I wished that the TAR Tibetans I knew could experience the relaxed grip just across the border. This wasn’t freedom either, but it was the difference between maximum and minimum-security prisons.
Though no mass demonstrations took place while I was in Tibet, I felt pervasive resentment seething beneath the surface. I was in Ithaca this past spring, studying and teaching at Cornell University when, on the anniversary of the March 10 uprisings of 1959, thousands of Tibetans erupted into the streets in Lhasa to try to protect their sovereign and religious leader, the Dalai Lama, from a possible plot by the Chinese.
The repression of the TAR is strong, and it is total. But repression doesn’t buy allegiance; it breeds resentment. And it was precisely that resentment that exploded into the riots that left so many burned-out buildings, overturned cars, and that handful of collateral Chinese and Tibetan casualties. The straws that broke the camel’s back were: the sight of monks being arrested, monasteries in lockdown, the rumors of mass uprisings elsewhere, and the knowledge that with the Olympics coming up the whole world was watching China with a steadier gaze than usual.
I am not celebrating the violence, or condoning it, but I do understand it. The riots were the desperate act of people who have been repressed and silenced at every turn. An abused lion who has been caged and taunted and poked and prodded and mocked will certainty snarl and snap at his captors if he escapes. Why was China so surprised? And why were we all so surprised when the Chinese managed to get the wounded snow lion back into its cage by force? A tranquilizer dart to the flank, cattle prod to the forehead, and a baton to the back of the knees.
In Ithaca, the Tibetan community felt the energy of change, and the desperation of helplessness as the revolt was utterly crushed. There was debate about how to best support their compatriots, but most people just waved in support from a distance, honked their honks, and yelled, “Free Tibet” from their open car windows.
When a professor of anthropology, Kath March, organized the screening of Cry of the Snow Lion, a pro-Tibet film, the Chinese Student Association (CSA) wrote scathing attacks and made personal threats against her. Dr. March showed the film anyway, and received an apology from the faculty sponsor of the CSA for the uncouth behavior of his charges. The event was a moderate success, but it also showed the deep divisions between the two sides – a gulf that remains as wide as ever.
I was stunned by the whole affair, as well as by reports I’d gotten about vitriolic protests on other campuses, and by reports that Chinese students who had offered support to Tibetans were being threatened themselves. Other Chinese students were protesting that the media was abusing their country, and that the Tibetans rebelling in Lhasa were mere hoodlums, looters, or even terrorists.
As the crackdown continued in Tibet proper, the Olympic flag bound for the summer Olympics in Beijing became a symbol of Chinese repression that protestors all over the world aimed against. The torch was attacked, extinguished, and then made to play a game of cat and mouse in certain cities like San Francisco in order to avoid the throngs of pro-Tibet protestors. The pro-Chinese element came out in force during these events as well, and we heard that the Chinese embassy actually rounded up many Chinese students and paid for their transport.
One fine, sunny, spring day, I had just finished teaching a class. I was switched on, ready to rumble. I saw the Chinese flags soaring over the pedestrian traffic on Ho Plaza in the middle of the Cornell campus, and instead of gritting my teeth and walking by, I stopped and engaged. I read the posters, all of which accused the American media of lying about the crackdown in Tibet. First, one Chinese student came over, and then another, and soon I was surrounded by a dozen Chinese grad students. They tugged at my clothes, and several would speak at once. I wouldn’t be bullied – there were no cattle prods here. They took pictures of me and videotaped the conversation, tactics of surveillance and discipline that had been lifted from their own government. I talked and listened and talked, and disagreed, and looked for points that we could agree on.
Most of my interlocutors packed up their flags and posters and left, perhaps headed out to teach their own classes. The stragglers were eventually willing to agree that a better China would be one in which all people had the right to demonstrate and voice their opinions freely, as we were all doing right there at that moment. Whether they were speaking out in Tiananmen Square for democracy, or whether they were protesting in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa for autonomy, everyone should be able to say, scribble or rant their tirades from the rafters. I walked home exhausted, a little triumphant until I realized that I had done all I could, and that it really hadn’t been nearly enough.
And then, in China, the ground shook. It quaked, and buckled. The Sichuan earthquake and the aftershocks left a death toll of nearly 70,000 people. The photos streaming out of China were horrific, heart-rending, and terrifying. So many people dead, so many school children…I read every article, and clicked through reels of pictures.
The political landscape had been as shaken up as completely as the rolling hills of Sichuan province. Tibet was still off limits to the press, and suddenly so was any criticism of the Chinese government. The unofficial reports continued that Tibetans were being arrested and detained at will; monastics were being forcibly re-educated.
But the same Chinese soldiers that had beaten monks in Kham were now searching desperately for survivors under the rubble. The same army, the very same uniforms, the same commanders, but now the weapons were being used to blow up the “quake lakes” that threatened to overwhelm the survivors. It served as a very good Buddhist reminder of impermanence: the people who seemed so narrow-minded and cruel the day before, can suddenly show their humanity and courage.
The world has stopped fussing at China, and none of us can help but do anything except commiserate. But we have to figure out a way to keep pressure on the Chinese government while maintaining compassion for the Chinese people. This was underscored when roughly ten days after the earthquake the Chinese government cracked down on the bereaved and began carefully restricting media coverage of the quake zone. Grieving parents of certain deceased elementary school children, angry that the government buildings had crumbled so easily, were arrested during their protests and detained.
The Tibet issue does not stand alone. It is intricately tied to the question of democracy and free speech in China. The Lhasa riots of ’59, ’89 and ’08 (and all those that came in between), the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the repression of the Uyghurs, and the shameless arrest of grieving parents pounding the pavement for justice for their dead children – these are all interrelated events that must be recognized as symptoms of the same state sickness.
What now? The enemy is not so sinister as he once was. The Chinese Communist party is nuanced, multi-faceted, and has the ability to be compassionate sometimes, and that is good news. The only question is will the Chinese learn the lessons necessary to prevent the next Lhasa riots? Will they loosen their grip enough to allow Tibetans to breathe? Will we witness transformations, or must we brace ourselves for the next time Lhasa burns to the ground?
Jessica Falcone is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She is currently spending a year in India to conduct research for her dissertation on the changing dynamics of Buddhist pilgrimage in India. This is Jessica’s fourth trip to India.