The last of the Tibetans

Their culture may survive only outside of China's sweeping modernization.

ARE THE TIBETANS doomed to go the way of the American Indians? Will they be reduced to being little more than a tourist attraction, peddling cheap mementos of what was once a great culture? In Tibet

itself, that sad fate is looking more and more likely. And the Olympic year is already soured by the way the Chinese government is trying to suppress resistance to just that fate.


The Chinese have much to answer for, but the end 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-20th century that they saw the Chinese communists as allies against rule by monks and serf-owning landlords. The Dalai Lama himself, in the early 1950s, was impressed by Chinese reforms and wrote poems praising Chairman Mao.

Alas, instead of reforming Tibetan society and culture, the Chinese communists wrecked it. Religion was crushed in the name of Marxist secularism. Monasteries and temples were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (often with the help of Tibetan Red Guards). Nomads were forced into 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.

Such destruction was not 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 only typical of the communists. Gen. 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.

If Tibetan Buddhism has been severely damaged, Chinese communism has barely survived the ravages of the 20th century. But capitalist development in China has been even more devastating to Tibetan tradition. Like many modern imperialist powers, China claims legitimacy for its policies by pointing to the material benefits. After decades of destruction and neglect, Tibet has benefited from enormous amounts of Chinese money and energy to modernize the country. The Tibetans cannot complain that they have been left behind in China's transformation from a Third World wreck to a marvel of supercharged urban development.

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