issue 211 - September 1990
The Dalai Lama and the Playwright
What's happening in Tibet? Who knows? Who cares?
Eastern Europeans do, as Catriona Bass discovers.
The pages of the world's press were smeared with screaming faces, wounded bodies, fists raised in defiance. The Chinese security police had opened fire on unarmed demonstrators.
I am not referring to the massacre in Tiananmen Square but to an event that took place two years earlier - and not in China but in Tibet. On 1 October 1987 Tibetans saw the biggest nationalist demonstrations for 20 years against the Chinese who occupied their country in 1959. Western governments were temporarily forced to take notice. They found it easy to forget again.
Tibetans did not. Dissent has spread throughout society. The authorities have had to resort to the draconian methods of Mao to maintain stability and control. Hundreds of protesters are being held without trial. Those released report the use of torture to obtain confessions. There are other reports of summary executions. And in March last year more unarmed demonstrators were shot.
In spite of glaring evidence of human-rights abuses in Tibet - and events in China itself - Western governments have reopened dialogue and trade channels with Beijing. Brent Scowcroft, one of President Bush's top advisers, described China's leaders as 'friends' with whom 'our important dialogue' must be resumed. Britain's Margaret Thatcher refuses to meet Tibet's leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama (who holds the Nobel Peace Prize) because, she says, 'the interests of Hong Kong have to be taken into account'. This habit of treating China as if it were a world apart suits the West - and it suits China's leaders, clinging to power as tyrannies crumble around them.
The moral vigour of Eastern Europe's new democrats makes for a striking contrast. One of the most unexpected developments of their own revolutions is that they have taken the lead in raising international concern over Tibet.
The idealism of the East
The Dalai Lama was one of the first foreign dignitaries to be invited to Czechoslovakia after Vaclav Havel became its President. Leaders in Hungary were quick to follow suit and now the Poles and Bulgarians have extended invitations to the Tibetan leader for the autumn. The foreign minister of Tibet's government-in-exile, Lodi Gyari, visited Estonia and Lithuania. Talks with Lithuania's President Vytautas Landsbergis resulted in an agreement to help each other as 'the position of Tibet and Baltic states was the same'.
The boldness of Vaclav Havel and the Hungarian leaders stems, perhaps, from their own hard-won freedom. The fate of Tibet has a special resonance for them. According to Lodi Gyari: 'People in the West don't know what democracy is because they never lost it. But in Eastern Europe they understand our language. They know what it is when we talk persecution. People in the West are wrong to believe that the East Europeans were just fighting for more consumer goods. They are more idealistic than Westerners.
For people in Eastern Europe, so long subjected to the violent politics of totalitarian regimes, the Dalai Lama's unswerving adherence to a campaign of nonviolence has enormous appeal.
But the interest in Tibet among intellectuals in Eastern Europe predates the new politics. Last July, I had supper with some Romanian friends in Bucharest. We whispered about Tibetan Buddhism beneath the noise of Mahler's Fifth Symphony which we played to confuse the secret police bugs. I was the only one who hadn't read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an esoteric text on the period between life and rebirth.
Tibet now finds itself the unexpected beneficiary of these intellectual quests made by Europe's new leaders. In Prague the Dalai Lama led a meditation session for Vaclav Havel and his ministers. Sasha Neumann, one of the President's closest aides, revealed that he had been a follower of Tibetan Buddhism for many years.
The Dalai Lama is clearly encouraged by this recognition. Speaking at the European Parliament in April - his first official invitation to speak to a parliament in Europe - he made his optimism clear. 'In the early 1960s when we carried the freedom struggle through nonviolence many people thought we were too idealistic. Now I have found more comrades who have a policy of nonviolence. This is a great inspiration for us.'
But what about Tibetans inside Tibet? At the beginning of May, after more than a year. the authorities lifted martial law in Lhasa. But there is little sign as yet of life improving. Soldiers have disappeared from the streets only to be replaced by units of armed police. On 24 May two men were executed for attempting to escape from prison; demonstrators who protested against this were warned that they would be punished 'with the iron fist of the people's democratic dictatorship'.
It remains to be seen whether recognition of the Dalai Lama by Eastern Europe can be more than a symbolic gesture. More important for Tibetans inside Tibet is how China might be affected by events in Eastern Europe.
It was Romania's revolution that hit China hardest. The fall of Ceausescu sent China's geriatric leaders into a frenzied building of defences. Only weeks earlier, during a visit by Romania's dictator, China's media had presented the two countries as the last bastions of socialism in a traitorous world.
On 21 December, as pro-democracy demonstrators went onto the streets of Bucharest, Jiang Zemin, the General Secretary of China's Communist Party, went on Beijing Radio. 'China is very different from Eastern Europe.' he declared. But behind the rhetoric the army was being put on first-category alert - the highest state of military preparedness.
The Chinese leaders tried to draw attention away from events in Europe by talking of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' and reviving the works of Confucius and Mao. But on the streets of Beijing citizens let off fireworks in celebration of the death of Ceausescu.
In February China's leaders, fearful of wavering loyalties in its two armed forces, increased political control. Taking a lesson from the Romanian Revolution - during which the Army and the Securitate had fought each other - the Chinese Government brought together the Army and the People's Armed Police under a single leadership.
It is difficult to know how much ordinary people in China and Tibet knew of Eastern Europe's revolutions; but it was enough, it seems, to have made the leaders tremble. When it was believed that Ceausescu was heading for China, a poster went up at Beijing University describing the dictator as 'a lost dog coming to join China's four dogs'.
There are also signs that the events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have affected ethnic minorities within China. The Uighur people of north-west China are now demonstrating for the independence of what they call East Turkestan. And the authorities are becoming increasingly agitated, as China's Mongolians look northwards and see the growing democracy enjoyed by their kinsfolk in the Mongolian People's Republic and the USSR.
But the events of the past year have shown that Tibetans and Uighurs - and even China's pro-democracy students - present a minimal threat to the might of the People's Liberation Army.
The Chinese people's faith in their Communist Party may have been shattered by its brutality - its central tenet ('the Chinese Communist Party represents the fundamental interests of the Chinese people') was crushed by the tanks on Tiananmen Square. But it will certainly take longer for Chinese people to question the treatment of ethnic minorities: the Party has for too long inculcated in them the superiority of Chinese culture.
Change will come when Deng Xiaoping dies, but it will not necessarily lead to democracy. Even if it does, this will not yet mean independence for Tibet, according to the Paris-based Federation For a Democratic China.
But with questions of national self-determination being debated throughout the world, young Chinese exiles are at least becoming aware of the issue. It's a start.
Catriona Bass is a Tibetan specialist. She lived in Lhasa from 1985 to 1986. Her account of this period, Inside the Treasure House, has just been published by Victor Gollancz.
AUSTRALIA - The Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA), GPO Box 1562. Canberra 2601 Tel (062) 47 4822. Represents NGOs and is an effective lobbyist for promoting Third World focus and increase of aid.
CANADA - The Canadian Council for International Co-operation, ODA Campaign, 1 Nicholas St., Ste 300, Ottawa KIN 7B7. Tel (613) 236 4547
UNITED KINGDOM - The World Development Movement (WOM) at 25 Beehive Place, London 5W9 7QR. Tel (071) 737 6215. Have produced a set of excellent papers: Beyond 1992 by Ed Mayo, June 1989. Real security - East, West, North, South by Geoff Tansey, July 1990, and The Second and Third World - the effect of changes in Eastern Europe on the Third World. by Ed Mayo, September 1990. All available from WDM at £1.50 each.
UNITED STATES - The Development Group for Alternative Policies (Development GAP), 1400 1 Street NW., Suite 520, Washington DC 20005. Tel: (202) 898 1566.