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Tibetans, Han ignore politics to build uneasy ties

February 28, 2010

By Ben Blanchard
Reuters
February 26, 2010

TONGREN (Amdo Rebkong) -- Tibet's troubled
politics may have grabbed headlines for decades,
but the relationship between Tibetans and the
dominant Han Chinese is far more complex and
multifaceted than the bitter public arguments suggest.

The two peoples share a long historical
attachment to Buddhism which years of Communist
rule has never managed to kill. China's economic
boom has also opened previously hard-to-reach
Tibetan areas to Han visitors, leading to a mingling of cultures.

Tibetans in at least one area with looser
political restrictions than Tibet proper say
their beef with the government in Beijing does
not extend to all Chinese, and that some
controversial policies may even help bring Tibetans together.

All this belies the tense ties between Beijing
and exiled Tibetans, and the harsh stance of
supporters of both sides which have been in the
news after last week's meeting between U.S.
President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama.

The deeply religious Tibetans revere their exiled
spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as a living
Buddha. Yet so do some Han, despite Beijing's
frequent lambasting of him as a separatist who
espouses violence, charges he strongly denies.

These Han do not see that as a contradiction,
especially those who visit Tongren, a heavily
Tibetan region in the arid, mountainous
northwestern province of Qinghai, where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935.

"He is the holiest of them all. My heart jumps a
beat whenever I see his picture. He is the most
important of all the living Buddhas," said Xiao
Li, a Han from the wealthy eastern province of Jiangsu and a fervent Buddhist.

"Of course, even living Buddhas make mistakes,"
she said, when asked about the Dalai Lama's
frequent overseas trips, the ones the Chinese
government gets so angry about. "We are all
human, and it does not change my respect for him."

Some of Tongren's Tibetans are equally able to
separate their bitterness about official
religious policies, which they feel trample on
their freedom to follow their chosen leader and
spiritual path, and their feelings about Han Chinese.

"I do not think that the views of the Chinese
government necessarily represent those of all the
Han race. I don't think that all of them are bad
people. Some are very good," said monk Tedan, who
like many Tibetans goes only by one name.

Buddhism is an ancient faith in China, dating
back more than 1,000 years. The religion was
introduced to both China and Tibet from India.

Though there are no hard and fast figures, some
Chinese surveys put the number of practicing
Buddhists in the country today at around 100
million, including Tibetans, Han, Mongolians and
a few other ethnic minorities such as the Dai.

There are perhaps as many Muslims and Christians,
though some Christians worship in underground
churches not recognized by the state.

FASCINATION OF RELIGION

The Communist Party has had an uneasy
relationship with religion, despite a
constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship.
During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution,
fanatical Red Guards smashed up temples, churches and mosques.

Those policies have mellowed considerably in
recent years, with the Party seeing religion as
an important force for social stability, even if
it continues to exercise control over the
appointment of senior religious figures.

One monk who has faced repeated police
questioning for illegally traveling to India to
study at a religious college run under the
auspices of the Dalai Lama, said he counted many
Han from Beijing and Shanghai among his students of Buddhism.

"They are looking for meaning in their lives and
find that we as Tibetan Buddhists can give it to
them," said the monk, who asked for anonymity
because he feared repercussions for discussing a
politically sensitive topic with a foreign reporter.

"We help them understand the scriptures," he
added, waving a book of the Dalai Lama's
teachings printed in the Sanskrit-based Tibetan script.

Qinghai's Tibetans say they are given far more
leeway to practice their religion than those
living what is formally called the Tibet
Autonomous Region. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are
openly displayed at major temples in a way unthinkable in Tibet.

At lunar new year celebrations last week, monks
at one monastery freely carried out a complex
ceremony complete with ornate, embroidered silk
costumes that culminated in the unfurling of a
giant image of the Buddha on a nearby hillside.

It attracted a small, though fascinated, crowd of
Han Chinese tourists, who marveled at the
religious devotion shown in a country run by a
staunchly atheist Communist Party.

"They have far more complex emotions than we do,"
said Fan Liqing from the southern province of
Guangdong, watching a procession of vermillion-clad monks.

"I think we can learn a lot from our Tibetan
compatriots. They must be doing something right," she added.

BENEFITS OF CHINA

Signs of official mistrust of Tongren's Tibetans
are never far away, even if the security forces
have so far this year kept a low profile.

A large army barracks sits on the outskirts of
Tongren's county seat, not far from one of the
main temples, ready to respond to any trouble, as
they did when serious anti-Chinese violence
erupted across Tibetan areas in March 2008.

Such obvious reminders of who is really in
control naturally sit uncomfortably with Tongren's residents.

Beijing says its rule over the Tibetans has
brought development -- from roads and hospitals
to schools and economic opportunity -- to an area
once racked by poverty, and still far less
developed than China's rich coastal regions.

Its critics counter that Han are the main
beneficiaries of the government investment, and
that change is coming at the cost of traditional culture and language.

But even some of the most proudly Tibetan
citizens in Tongren grudgingly admit Beijing's
efforts have improved some aspects of everyday
life. In some cases they have also helped unite a
people fragmented by the harsh terrain.

One man who travels widely in his job as a tour
guide and who also asked not to be named, said
the promotion of Mandarin in education had
actually brought some Tibetans closer.

"We have three different dialects in Tibetan, and
they are not easily mutually comprehensible," he said.

"We Tibetans have lived so spread out from each
other we knew little of each other's existence,
and could not talk even when we did meet. I now
speak Chinese to Tibetans who don't understand my
dialect, and it's been a real unifier."

(Editing by Megan Goldin)
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