Turning our Backs on Tibet

Tibet – the broad, high plateau between India and China – is bigger than Western Europe and the source of the great rivers of Asia: the Indus, the Yangtze, the Yarlung Tsangpol, and the Salween. Mysterious and exotic, the “Roof of the World” is the place of Tantric Buddhism, seers, and mystics capable of levitation and astral travel – at least to those who do not understand a civilization where tradition and religion are living forces and whose peoples radiate a serenity and gentleness long extinct in modern society.

I landed at Tibet’s Gonggar Airport in July 2001. The emotionless faces and starched uniforms of the Chinese military officials who supervised my arrival were the first reminder of Tibet’s political oppression. Outside, Communist Party tour guides awaited their assignments. My official Communist guide, “Will,” worked for the government-run tourist agency. Bilingual banners, on which Chinese ideograms dwarfed elegant Tibetan script, proclaimed Tibet as part of the rapidly advancing Chinese “Motherland.”

Americans are always anxious to tour sites in exotic places, but never ready for the shock of traveling under the shadow of an oppressive regime. My guide’s goal was to indoctrinate me into the Communist view of Tibet. As a mayor of an American town, they assumed I could assert influence on public opinion. The public opinion promoted by the Chinese propagandists is an unflattering picture of the Tibetan people.

Since the Red Army invasion of Tibet in 1949, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans had been exterminated and thousands of ancient Buddhist temples destroyed. “Religion is poison,” Chairman Mao told the Dali Llama in 1954, just before the Dali Llama and more than 150,000 followers fled to permanent exile in India. After the invasion, China began a policy of ruthless repopulation, moving millions of Chinese into Tibet.

“Will” slandered the Tibetan people from the moment we climbed into the Land Rover until I left the country. The Dalai Lama, Will claimed, was responsible for having the airport placed sixty “dangerous” miles from Lhasa, the world’s highest capital city at 15,000 feet, saying the religious leader proclaimed airplanes should not be flying over the heads of Buddhists. He sneered that now the Dalai Lama flies in first class seating, collecting huge speaking fees while living in luxury hotels.

After destroying thousands of ancient sites and artifacts, the Chinese government reluctantly admitted to the excesses of the destruction of the “Great Leap Forward” and began restoring and packaging Tibet for tourism purposes. Not withstanding, they have continued repopulation.

Will continued a carefully rehearsed diatribe about the evils of the Dalai Lama and described their heinous methods of torturing enemies – not surprisingly there was no discussion of the message of peace that is the center of the Buddhist faith. Simple observation shows Tibetans are small, smiling frequently. They flock to monasteries on pilgrimages to pray and offer gifts and incense.

As we headed cross country over rugged terrain, at points the dirt roads stopped altogether. Will pointed to the side of a mountain to what he said was a road and said, “Beijing is building a modern road system that the Tibetan’s could never build. They need us here.” I asked him why we were not driving on the modern roads (there were no modern roads the entire trip). He told me they were still under construction. “The Chinese have been here for fifty years. How long does it take them to build roads?” I asked. He ignored my question.

High in Tibet is a town called Shigatse, the site of a military installation. To visualize what the country is like at this height imagine being on Mars – rugged, sparse vegetation, and no air. Across the narrow street from our simple hotel was an establishment where very young girls in far too glamorous dresses sat and stood under a sign that read “Massage Service.”

China is attempting to develop and modernize Tibet, taking it into a “Glorious Future.” There was no getting away from this message, which was prominently advertised on the welcome arches and billboards along every road. But the youth of the prostitutes was proof that while the future might be “Glorious,” the present is hopelessly miserable for many. I was curious why Beijing would need a military base in the middle of nowhere. Will told me it was for defense. What defense, I asked? Was the Chinese government afraid of the Tibetans seeking independence? He ignored the question. The installation had little military importance. It stood to keep the Tibetans oppressed and to filter more Chinese into the country.

My personal propaganda machine, courtesy of Beijing, continued attacking Tibetan family structure, accusing them of polygamy, polyandry, wife swapping amongst brothers, and husband swapping amongst sisters. He proclaimed his horror over Tibetan funeral rituals, accusing them of mutilating bodies in broad daylight. He claimed Buddhist monks would ask for sexual favors from women of their choice. If these women failed to submit, the monk could point a finger, declaring her a “ghost.” The townspeople would believe the woman to be an evil spirit and she would spend the rest of her life shunned from society.

Against the backdrop of a civilization being methodically eradicated, these stories had one goal – to demolish Tibetan society.

As peaceful as the Tibetan people are, they still desire to be free. But because they are isolated from the rest of the world, it has been easy to ignore their tragic plight. Media is tightly controlled and access is difficult. Expanded trade with China leaves world leaders reluctant to complain about the violations of human rights. However, with the Olympics upon us, the world will get a closer look at Tibetan suffering.

It is a sad reflection on humanity if Tibet slips into oblivion once the Olympics end. Tibet will not survive another fifty years of repopulation and persecution. The culture and the people will be lost, mowed down by the Red Chinese propaganda machine.

Steve Lonegan was Mayor of Bogota, NJ, and is Executive Director of Americans for Prosperity – New Jersey. Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFP Foundation) are committed to educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process. He is a prolific writer, having been published in newspapers and blogs. He just published a book, Putting Taxpayers First: A Blueprint for Victory in the Garden State, that discusses the impact of the Trenton government on the well being of the taxpayers of the state. He offers solid and workable solutions. Learn more at lonegan.com.

Turning our Backs on Tibet