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OPINION: What we don't hear about Tibet

February 13, 2009

While the world moralises over China's occupation, feudalism and abuse
in Tibetan culture has been conveniently forgotten
o Sorrel Neuss, guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 11 February 2009 22.00 GMT

(Sorrel Neuss is a freelance British journalist who trained at City
University in 2006. She has previously worked for the China Daily in
Beijing and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Kyrgyzstan,
travelling extensively throughout Central Asia, Afghanistan and Tibet)

(China Daily is an official publication of the Communist Party of China
and the government of PRC. – WTN)

Sexual abuse in monasteries and oppressive feudalism in traditional
Tibetan society has been factored out of the argument against China's
occupation, oversimplifying it.

Han Chinese guards deliberately obstruct the pilgrim route through Lhasa
to the holy Jokhang temple by sipping tea at strategically placed tables
in the middle of the road. In front of the Potala, the Dalai Lama's
former seat of power, an imposing guarded concrete square glorifies
China's occupation.

Tibet seems like as a celestial paradise held in chains, but the west's
tendency to romanticise the country's Buddhist culture has distorted our
view. Popular belief is that under the Dalai Lama, Tibetans lived
contentedly in a spiritual non-violent culture, uncorrupted by lust or
greed: but in reality society was far more brutal than that vision.

Last December, Ye Xiaowen, head of China's administration for religious
affairs, published a piece in the state-run China Daily newspaper that,
although propaganda, rings true. "History clearly reveals that the old
Tibet was not the Shangri-La that many imagine", he wrote "but a society
under a system of feudal serfdom."

Until 1959, when China cracked down on Tibetan rebels and the Dalai Lama
fled to northern India, around 98% of the population was enslaved in
serfdom. Drepung monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, was one of the
world's largest landowners with 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 pastures,
and 16,000 herdsmen. High-ranking lamas and secular landowners imposed
crippling taxes, forced boys into monastic slavery and pilfered most of
the country's wealth – torturing disobedient serfs by gouging out their
eyes or severing their hamstrings.

Tashi Tsering, now an English professor at Lhasa University is
representative of Tibetans that do not see China's occupation as worse
tyranny. He was taken from his family near Drepung at 13 and forced into
the Dalai Lama's personal dance troupe. Beaten by his teachers, Tsering
put up with rape by a well-connected monk in exchange for protection. In
his autobiography, The Struggle for Modern Tibet, Tsering writes that
China brought long-awaited hope when is laid claim to Tibet in 1950.

After studying at the University of Washington, Tsering returned to
Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1964, convinced that the country could
modernise effectively by cooperating with the Chinese. Denounced during
the Cultural Revolution, arrested in 1967 to spend six years in prison
and labour camps, he still maintains that Mao Tse-Tung liberated his people.

Caught between a system reminiscent of medieval Europe and a colonial
force that brought forced collectivisation and similar human rights
abuses, Tibet moved from one oppressive regime to another.

During the 1990s, Tibetans suspected of harbouring nationalist
tendencies were arrested and imprisoned and in 2006, Romanian climbers
witnessed Chinese guards shooting a group of refugees headed for the
Nepalese border. China's abhorrent treatment of "political subversives"
has rightly spurned a global Free Tibet movement, diminishing the
benefits that it did bring to society.

After 1959, it abolished slavery, serfdom and unfair taxes. Creating
thousands of jobs through new infrastructure projects, it built Tibet's
first hospitals and opened schools in every major village, bringing
education to the masses. Clean water was pumped into the main towns and
villages and the average life expectancy has almost doubled since 1950,
to 60.

Even so, in 2001 the Dalai Lama said: "Tibet, materially, is very, very
backward. Spiritually it is quite rich. But spirituality can't fill our
stomachs."

Freedom for Tibet is not simply a case of liberation from China and the
reinstatement of traditional values. Around 70 per cent of the
population lives below the poverty line and enhanced spirituality alone
will not improve economic conditions. Poverty is not quaint no matter
how colourful the culture and the Tibet question is one that should be
addressed from a rational, rather than an idealised viewpoint.

Nearby Bhutan, which has a similar Buddhist culture that it tried to
preserve by banning television until 1999 and limiting foreign visitors,
only held its first democratic elections in 2007. The Dalai Lama now
promotes democracy, but Tibet may well have looked worse than it does
today if the old order had been left to its own devices.

Comments:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/10/tibet-china-feudalism?commentpage=1
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