At the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on Tuesday, eight Tibetans climbed over a gate and tied themselves to trees in the courtyard while their friends on the street shouted slogans. Before they were all dragged off by the Delhi police they managed to unfurl a large banner that delivered their message: "Stop patriotic re-education in monasteries in Tibet."
This didn't much impress the Chinese and made the papers only in Delhi. Still, it was essential, like countless other Tibetan protests. They remind us that Tibet remains a captive state and remind China that it hasn't solved its Tibetan problem.
Since 1951, when China annexed Tibet, it's been a source of international embarrassment and political annoyance. Tibetan nationalists believe they live under colonial rule but Beijing now calls their country the Tibet Autonomous Region. Naturally, it's neither Tibetan nor autonomous. Beijing appoints the government and does what it can to discourage Tibetan culture; secondary schools teach in Chinese, not Tibetan. Beijing wants to transform its occupation into stable government, and to that end has tried both brutality and persuasion. Nevertheless, Tibetans remain intransigent.
So now Beijing deploys the "patriotic re-education" mentioned on the banner in Delhi. Since monasteries are the main source of Tibetan nationalism, the government sends in teams of teachers to instruct the monks. They administer this policy capriciously; sometimes they seem to abandon it, then they abruptly revive it. Since September it's been reactivated. The dreaded teaching brigades are on the march again.
They practise a grotesque parody of education. First they issue textbooks, including a helpful little volume called Handbook on Crushing the Separatists. Later the teachers return to examine the monks. A passing grade depends on rejecting the Dalai Lama's leadership and agreeing that Tibet is part of China. Monks who fail are considered poor students and often evicted from their monasteries, which are controlled by the government. Five monks at one monastery were arrested for giving the wrong answers and hundreds of others protested by sitting silently in the monastery courtyard. The People's Armed Police arrived and began beating them.
For a tiny nation, Tibet attracts great attention. There may be about six million Tibetans back home (the Chinese government gives a much lower number) and no more than 150,000 living abroad, the majority in Dharmsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives and the government-in-exile operates. Canada has between 4,000 and 5,000, most of them in the Parkdale district of Toronto.
At the moment, anti-government Tibetans worry about the 1,142-kilometre railway the Chinese are building across the Tibetan plateau. In Canada they have lobbied against supporting Bombardier, Power Corp. and Nortel, three Canadian corporations involved in the railroad. Tibetans are afraid it will bring more Chinese immigrants and further dilute Tibetan identity. Already Chinese hold most government positions in Tibet. They also seem to have all the railroad-construction jobs.
Tibetans abroad depend heavily on the moral authority of the Dalai Lama, a compelling figure who exhibits a wonderful mixture of qualities. He grew up in an isolated feudal nation and as a child was chosen (or "identified," as his followers would say) by a form of magic. Tibetans consider him the reincarnation of all previous holders of his position, back to the 15th century.
Attractive, modest and articulate, he's a perfect symbol of his country: He convinces people around the world that there must be something remarkable about the civilization that produced him. His views are rarely predictable. In his new book, The Universe in a Single Atom, he makes it clear that science deserves as much respect as spiritual teaching. In fact, "If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims."
He's now 70, and Beijing believes his death will simplify the Tibetan problem. But it could make a solution more difficult. He's tried for many years to persuade Beijing that Tibet should have special status within China and recognition for its culture and religion. His successor might go back to the old demand for a stand-alone state.
In Toronto this morning at nine o'clock, Tibetans will be demonstrating outside the Chinese consulate on St. George Street. Elsewhere in the world, others will be holding similar vigils to reassert Tibet's unique existence. They choose this date because it's International Human Rights Day. For those of us whose rights aren't in jeopardy, that's an event barely noticed. For Tibetans, and many others, it's a day of sorrow and yearning.