The Last of the Tibetans

NEW YORK -- Are the Tibetans doomed to go the way of the American Indians? Will they be reduced to nothing more than a tourist attraction, peddling cheap mementos of what a once-great culture? That sad fate is looking more and more likely, and the Olympic year already has been soured by the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress resistance to it.

The Chinese have much to answer for, but the fate of Tibet is not just a matter of semi-colonial oppression. It is often forgotten that many Tibetans, especially educated people in the larger towns, were so keen to modernize their society in the mid-twentieth century that they saw the Chinese Communists as allies against rule by holy monks and serf-owning landlords. In the early 1950’s, the young Dalai Lama himself was impressed by Chinese reforms and wrote poems praising Chairman Mao.

Alas, instead of reforming Tibetan society and culture, the Chinese Communists ended up wrecking it. Religion was crushed in the name of official Marxist atheism. Monasteries and temples were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (often with the help of Tibetan Red Guards). Nomads were forced to live in ugly concrete settlements. Tibetan arts were frozen into folkloric emblems of an officially promoted “minority culture.” And the Dalai Lama and his entourage were forced to flee to India.

None of this was peculiar to Tibet. The wrecking of tradition and forced cultural regimentation took place everywhere in China. In some respects, the Tibetans were treated less ruthlessly than the majority of Chinese. Nor was the challenge to Tibetan uniqueness typical of the Communists. General Chiang Kai-shek declared in 1946 that the Tibetans were Chinese, and he certainly would not have granted them independence if his Nationalists had won the civil war.