Sino-Tibetan Relations

by Touring Mama on July 11, 2010

Maybe the prayer flags are there because somebody prayed that the Chinese would leave (or at least get off the roof tops)

I am anything but an authority on this subject, but we did witness some curious things while we were in Tibet and China that are worth sharing.  Even before we arrived in Tibet we were able to see the Chinese propaganda machine at work.  The World Expo was taking place in Shanghai and the kids and I visited the Tibet pavilion there.  The main item in the display was a video showcasing the development of Tibet.  Even in Chinese, the message was clear: China is helping the poor province of Tibet modernize and build a better life.  While the central government has spent millions on infrastructure and you can get a China Mobile signal in the furthest reaches of Tibet many Tibetans would not agree that this constitutes a better life.  The other thing we noticed in Shanghai was that news coverage of a recent earthquake in Qinghai (a historical part of Tibet, though not part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region) clearly distinguished between events effecting ethnic Han Chinese people and ethnic Tibetan minorities.  Somehow it was good news that 10 Tibetans had been found alive under the rubble, but it was fantastic news that one Han woman had been saved from her collapsed home.  In Beijing I encountered a Chinese man wearing a shirt stating in English, “Tibet was is and always will be part of China.”

Upon arrival, the first thing you notice in the city of Lhasa is the omnipresent Chinese army.  With groups of soldiers on nearly every street corner in downtown and groups marching through the narrow allies it is difficult to not feel intimidated.  When you look closer you begin to notice the snipers on the rooftops.  None of the soldiers are Tibetan, they are sent in from other parts of China.

A special permit is required too go to Tibet.  Part of the requirements of this permit are that you must be with an organized tour group with a guide and driver (though that group can be as small as one person).  Your guide and driver do not need to be with you in Lhasa, but you are supposed to have them to leave the city or even visit major attractions in the city.  When wandering around Lhasa without our guide we met a few Tibetans who shared their stories with us.  We met several people who had been sent to boarding school in India.  People feel the Indian schools will teach a “true” history of Tibet and certainly provide more religious education than the local schools.   It doesn’t hurt that they teach English also.  Sending your kids across the border to school is illegal and the families had to figure out what to tell the authorities when their children suddenly disappeared.  The most common answer was that the children were staying with other family in the countryside.  If the authorities found out that they had been in India they may have their citizenship revoked which would make it difficult for them to live normally when they returned.  One of the people we met ended up on a government list since a friend had let slip that he had been in India.  During the 2008 riots he got a call on his cell phone asking where he was.  Luckily he was not in Lhasa at the time so the police could not detain him.

We also met an Indian nun who had previously spent three years in jail for wearing a picture of the Dali Lama.  At the end of her sentence she had been deported but had now returned on another pilgrimage still carrying a picture of the Dali Lama.  I asked if she was scared of being jailed again and she said that she was not.  I can’t decide if this is brave or just stupid.  When we talked with our guide the next day about this conversation we were warned against expressing direct support for the nun.  She said that if we were overheard expressing support for the Dali Lama by the wrong people we could be thrown in jail ourselves. Actually meeting somebody who has been in jail for something I would not consider a crime really brings home the freedoms we take for granted.

I hope the kids understand, just a tiny bit, how lucky they are to be American.  Our guide would sometimes jokingly ask the kids to stay in Tibet with her.  The refused but invited her back to America with us.  When she said she couldn’t come, Andrew said she could just get a passport and fly home with us.  After all, it had been quite painless for him to travel to far flung corners of the globe by simply popping into the post office and filling out a piece of paper so a passport would arrive in a few weeks.  I think he has some inkling of the differences in money and lifestyle, but the freedoms of movement and speech and even thought he doesn’t realize are special.

Read about all our adventures in Tibet here.

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