Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


On March 10, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama announced his decision to divest himself of political leadership of his nation.  He did this perhaps hoping that the Chinese government might be more open to someone else.  Certainly the Chinese have treated him as a pariah and been severe with anyone supporting his quest for a culturally autonomous Tibet, howbeit, under the Chinese umbrella.  Unfortunately, the Chinese government is unlikely to reciprocate.  After all, they have been long at work eroding the ancient Tibetan culture through a policy of massive Han immigration and suppression of Tibetan culture.  Lhasa, the former “Forbidden City,” now has an overwhelming Han presence.

We can already harbinger Tibet’s future by looking at Inner Mongolia.  In 1949, Mongolians outnumbered Hans 5 to 1.  In 2000, there were 4.6 Hans for every Mongol.  Presently, only 17% of the population is Mongol.

A similar situation exists in Xinjiang, where Muslim Uighurs have been severely repressed.  In 1949, only 7 percent of the population was Han.  Today, they are 42%.

I am enamored with history and have always been troubled by accounts of genocide, or deliberate attempts to exterminate a race, ethnic or religious group.  The pre-Revoluton Russians practiced it often in several infamous pogroms against Jews, foreshadowing the colossal violence of he Nazi regime.  And of course there has been the ignominious genocide in Rwanda that took the lives of more than 800,000 Tutsi, many macheted, by the majority Hutu in 1994.

The Chinese are more subtle.  Denigrate a people and their culture over a period of time via massive influx of its vast Han population, now abetted by a technology of  national highways and high speed trains.  It’s not genocide.  And its not assimilation; nevertheless, the consequences are the same.  Some regimes in ancient times employed similar strategies, the Assyrians removing much of the populace of the northern Kingdom of Israel  and colonizing the former nation; the Babylonians, similarly transporting thousands of Judah’s citizenry to Babylon.  In modern times, the Soviets reinvoked such methods in the context of World War II, resulting in the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania) and the Ukraine with a large Russian presence.

My fascination with Tibet began when I was a child and devoured Out of This World (1950), jointly written by famed  broadcaster Lowell Thomas and his son who had been invited to Tibet in 1949 by the then 15-year Dalai Lama in a desperate attempt to publicize Tibet’s plight as it faced Communist Chinese invasion.  This work, now a collector’s item and the genesis of a later movie, gives a riveting picture of the then virtually inaccessible land with its red and yellow robed monks, yaks, and holy city of Lhasa  dominated by its Potala (lamasery).  The Thomases would spend 400-days there.  In 1950, the Chinese communists invaded, crushing the ill-matched Tibetan defense in just several weeks.

Today there are Tibetans who never heard of the Dalai Lama.  Meanwhile, up to 1.8 million herdsmen and nomads are being forced off their grasslands into semi-urban housing.  In Tim Johnson’s just published Tragedy in Crimson, How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China, we get a sobering look at today’s Tibet, where at least 445 monks and nuns are held in prison on political charges, commerce is largely conducted by migrants, and there exists widespread prostitution.  In Lhasa, Tibetans are now a minority.

The Dalai Lama is 75.  In Tibetan tradition, he is to pick his successor by identifying a reincarnation.  Alas, the Chinese have already tipped their hand.  In 1989 when the Tenth Panchen Lama died, the most revered figure next to the Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama designated his incarnation a boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, he was kidnapped along with his family and replaced by a Communist designee as the Eleventh Panchen.

To paraphrase Shelley’s great elegy on Keats (Adonais), we might say of Tibet, “Dream not that [time] will yet restore [Tibet] to the vital air....He will awake no more.”