7. SHANGRI-LA or “HELL ON EARTH”?
TSERING SHAKYA, author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows -- “Before 1950, Tibet was not a “land of happy contented people, but a kind of ‘hell on earth ravaged by feudal exploitation.’ ”
LOWELL THOMAS, CBS Broadcaster & Journalist (1949) - “Two world wars have brought startling change to most of the globe, but not to Tibet. It remains a feudal theocracy, ruled with an iron hand by two hundred thousand all-powerful Buddhist monks who have fiercely resisted nearly every attempt by unwelcome intruders to invade their solitude.”
A reading of early Western visitors’ description of Lhasa typically describes a city of contrasts: of the Potala Palace’s gleaming roofs of gold and yet of streets of piled garbage, open sewers, and mangy street dogs. Here are the two main contradictory views of Tibet's historical situation:
21st CENTURY TIBET: SHANGRI-LA OR HELL?
THE DALAI LAMA'S 2009 PRONOUCEMENT ON TIBET AS" HELL ON EARTH" - “... the Chinese government’s rule of Tibet thrust Tibetans into such depths of suffering and hardship that they literally experienced hell on earth.’ ”
NY Times, March 10, 2009 - On the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.
The Dalai Lama’s 2009 statement puzzled me then and still does. I first traveled to Tibet in October of 2008 to see with my eyes, to hear with my own ears, and just to experience - and by no stretch of the imagination can Tibet be described as a “...living hell on earth...” I have seen hells on earth - in the barrios of Lima, Peru and Caracas, Venezuela; the favelas of Rio De Janeiro and Sao Paolo, Brazil; and the main road through Rufisque, Senegal, for example.
From videos, photos, and descriptions of parts of India and conflict nations in Africa, we all have a keen visual sense of what hells on earth might look like.
Since that first visit, I have returned to Tibet four times, including a summer teaching in Lhasa in 2010. Tibet from 2009 to today, is not a hell on earth. Lhasa is a clean, well-managed, modern town, no longer the hellish dump described by Tsering Shakya and the earliest western visitors. Tibet has good roads, bustling towns with new buildings, ongoing construction, and a rural population that stays busy working and selling and working the robust Fall harvest, as I've witnessed. There are few beggars on the streets and roads of Tibet. Homelessness is really, a rarity, in contrast with my wealthy hometown, San Francisco with its institutionalized floating “homeless” population.
This is what I saw and concluded - and which you can see on the videos on the next few pages, from my times in Tibet in 2008, 2010, 2014, and 2016.
1. Overall, Tibetans look healthy and happy.
2. They own and operate businesses.
3. They speak Tibetan and dress in Tibetan garb.
4. They worship Buddhism openly and often. I have even met committed Christian Tibetans.
5. There are little signs of extreme poverty and no slums in the many cities, towns, and villages I've
passed through over hours of highway travel. I do not see the homelessness or begging as in American cities.
I must, of course, clearly state that there are Tibetans unhappy about the political reality of China over Tibet, even with economic opportunities and modern comforts. But Tibetans are not oppressed, as say Blacks were under apartheid in South Africa or even as Blacks were under Jim Crow in the Southern United States. Despite that hyperbole of the Dalai Dalai Lama, Tibet is not a physical hell on earth.
I must further clarify, that if a Tibetan monk, nun, or political dissident is in a Chinese prison, then certainly, yes, that person and numerous other Tibetans so imprisoned are in a “living hell on earth.” Prisons are not nice places anywhere in the world. In fact, following the March 2010 incident in Lhasa, many Tibetan supporters of the Dalai Lama and hundreds of rioters (if not thousands) were arrested and imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and many likely died in custody under "hellish" conditions.
But that has not struck me as the general situation of daily life in Tibet. The general population does not live in fear of mass arrest or that they will be treated like Blacks in South Africa or in the Jim Crow South of America. As a professor, I know that the general population has educational opportunities including affirmative action prep-schools linked to University admissions, and apprenticeship programs. Keeping in touch with my students and as a visitor, there are many opportunities of paid work, small and medium business opportunities, and the right to speak their language, practice their religion, and enjoy their culture.
As diplomatically as I can say it, the Dalai Lama misrepresented the daily situation as it exists today in the TAR. It is not "...hell one earth..."
I have come to see that in his political role as the Head of the Tibetan Exile Community, he is subject to pressures to espouse political/PR assertions that he may be free of and silent upon if left to purely to act in his spiritual role as the Dalai Lama or to speak in his own right as a private person.
His Holiness himself recently proposed that the next Dalai Lama should be responsible for spiritual affairs solely, and the traditional political oversight should now be relinquished completely to the Free Tibet Government-in-Exile.
He, if anyone, has probably suffered the most from the conflicting pressures of administering both leadership roles - of the profane as well as the profound.
"Can we talk?..."
an investigation into how we know what we know;
of distinguishing truth & fact
from deep seated beliefs and reflexive opinion.
HISTORIC TIBET - A SHANGRI-LA
The Free Tibet movement asserts that despite their unquestioned, historical destitutution under Theocratic feudalism, Tibetans were a happy people, primarily because of their spirituality as Tibetan Buddhists.
China should have just left well-enough alone and allow Tibetansto live their lives in Shangri-La like isolation and spiritual bliss.
Moreover, since 1951, the Chinese government has committed mass genocide against the Tibetan people in the range of 1.2+ million lives, including thousands of monks and nuns.
In the process, especially during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Chinese destroyed hundreds, if not thousands, of functioning monastery-communities. Monks were even forced to renounce their vows and move back into society against their will.
HISTORIC TIBET - HELL FOR COMMONERS
China’s counter-position is that the Tibetan Buddhist theocracy with the landed aristocrats exploited the people for centuries, cruelly and with impunity. Feudal Tibet included hereditary slavery (the estate based corvee labor system), serfdom (feudalism), and family debt and interest burdening future generations.
China asserts that it has provided Tibetans options to the ignorance of religion and the poverty of feudalism: mandatory public schools, thousands of university graduates; ownership of their own businesses, large and small; and modern infrastucture.
China states it actively funds, preserves, and promotes Tibetan culture, language and religion. Moreover, China spends vast sums to repair monasteries destroyed during its Cultural Revolution.
China denies the 1.2 million genocide figure as false.