The current unrest in Hong Kong where students and young people are clamoring for democracy, take me back to images of other demonstrations that called out to Free Tibet. When we see the images, what can we learn about the Chinese regime? An authoritarian regime that doesn’t allow dissent, doesn’t allow free speech, and uses violence to stay in control.
I had the above image of the Chinese regime when I set out for Tibet this summer. As a foreigner you cannot freely travel around in Tibet. To visit you have to join a tour, so that the authorities can control and monitor your movement and your exposure to what Tibet is. The regime likes to watch everyone’s whereabouts. Considering the size of the country and the wide open spaces in Tibet, it would be easy for an adventurous person to disappear in the Hinterland and do some research about life in China. I didn’t have that opportunity; I had to learn about Tibet from a touring van with pre-arranged stops and visiting sites. 15 Days to get an impression and see the famous sites: Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Drepung monastery, Sera monastery.
While we visited the religious sites in rapid succession I learned about the three Tibetan Buddhist sects, the three Buddhas of the past, present and future, the three ways one can be buried in Tibet depending on your religious or non-religious status. I learned that those scary looking devils are actually protecting you from evil, that the black horseman Buddha protects children when a monk puts a black smudge on their forehead. I learned that Tibetans have many ways to prepare for a better next life: walking or doing prostrations around a holy site (which keeps everyone very limber), doing innumerable prostrations in a temple, the more the better; “paying” respect to favored lamas and teachers, by leaving money and/or donating butter to the many butter lamps in the monasteries. Like buying your way into heaven which catholics promoted by coercing donations to erase sins, Tibetans buy and exercise their way to a better next life. The monks in the monasteries were busy putting on the Tibetan art of debate shows, dressing for celebratory religious dancing, or chanting traditional chants in the lavishly decorated halls of the monasteries. Religious tradition, yes, but spirituality?
When the Chinese entered Tibet, they did horrendous damage to age-old cultural and religious sites. It seems the Chinese authorities have had a change of mind and instead of trying to stamp out religion they’ve embraced the cultural icons, rebuild the monasteries and taken control of initiating monks and appointing the religious leaders. The Dalai Lama escaped, and he is still a most revered leader among practicing Tibetan Buddhists. What you can’t have you idolize. And so a movement to Free Tibet was born. What would a free Tibet do on the world stage at this point? Join the many underdeveloped countries in holding up their hand for donations from the West? Have a religious leader direct their economic growth, develop mining of their raw materials?
In 1959 Tibet and its inhabitants were living in the middle ages. Poverty, superstition, violence and religious dominance reigned. Now 60 years later the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) or Xizang Autonomous Region (XAR) is a prosperous, modern, wired, part of China. Poverty is almost eradicated. Even the nomads have houses, jeeps and cellphones. The monasteries are doing a brisk business with tourists (many Chinese) and Tibetan pilgrims. The regime has rebuilt the important monasteries, the monks are on salary and the next generation is getting free education. China is a secular regime and I believe that the regime counts on the power of education, which will in time eradicate traditional religion. And so the monks rake or sweep the constant flow of bills left by pilgrims and devoted Tibetans around the holy statues. The believers are paying to keep the monasteries intact. Resistance has been stymied by controlling the people’s wishes.
Is this all bad? Or is it a good thing that an authoritarian regime moved a large population out of poverty, educating the people with modern ideas and advanced science, providing housing and infrastructure and stability? The people at the bottom enjoy getting their basic needs met, they enjoy running a small business, have enough food and a warm place to sleep at night. As long as they put a Red Flag on their roof and are loyal to the regime, they can have these basics.
The totalitarian regime works great for moving a society along toward prosperity. The trouble begins when bellies are full and people want to have their say in how things are run. Hong Kong has been affluent long enough that the people don’t want to bow to the regime. Will the Chinese regime bend and respond to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs)
The Chinese gave the Tibetans their monasteries back. They have shown flexibility in allowing capitalistic socialism on their way to the goal of total Communism. Does the Chinese regime know that rigidity will break them? Just as the monks exchanged spiritual practice for religious commerce and a steady income, will the Chinese regime lose its ideals and fall for the allure of property and ownership? Judging from events in Hong Kong, and observing the throng of wealthy, well- dressed Chinese and Tibetans driving a BMW, the people are making their choices.