August 22, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Claude Arpi

China is full of dichotomies.

One would think that as a Marxist country, China would propagate atheism and not have much knowledge or interest in religious and spiritual affairs. Wrong! On July 31, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji officially received the child recognized by the Communist Party as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama in Beijing.

Does this mean that Beijing now believes in reincarnation? Perhaps! The politburo may still find it difficult to explain ideologically how the party is proceeding to accept that the spirit of a defunct Lama has entered a new born. Who could imagine in India Jyoti Basu or Harkishan Singh Surjeet searching for the reincarnation of a spiritual seer?

But in China today, ideology is more flexible that it was during the Cultural Revolution and even Deng Xiaoping taught the masses that it did not matter if a cat was black or white (or red) as long as it could catch mice.

In this case, the mouse to be caught is the Dalai Lama who had 'discovered' through traditional rituals and prayers the true incarnation of the Panchen Lama. At the beginning of the process, the Dalai Lama was in touch with Chatrel Rinpoche, a Communist Party member and official head of the search party as abbot of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery, the late Panchen Lama's monastery in Tibet. For months, the Dalai Lama offered to collaborate with the Chinese government, but Beijing rejected this proposal saying there was no need for 'outside interference.'

Finally, in 1995, the Dalai Lama announced he had recognized Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a six-year-old boy from Nagchu in Tibet, as the true reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama.

Two days later, the Xinhua news agency attacked the Dalai Lama for his illegal action and for 'disregarding fixed historical convention, undermining religious rituals.'

Soon after, Chatrel Rinpoche and the young Panchen Lama were put under house arrest. Since then nobody has seen the 'youngest political prisoner in the world.'

Having lost face, the party had to find a solution. After six months of hesitation, it anointed its candidate Gyaltsen Norbu, also a six-year-old lad. A month later, when the candidate chosen by Beijing visited Tashi Lhunpo, he had to be protected by more than 500 paramilitary troops, so deep was the anger of the monks.

When the Chinese Panchen Lama met Zhu, the boy, now 13, profusely thanked the Communist Party's Central Committee and State Council for its concern and support.

Zhu said the Central Committee and State Council had always showed great concern for and paid much attention to his growth and development.

The previous (10th) Panchen Lama died mysteriously in January 1989 after having stated in a speech at the Tashi Lhunpo monastery that 40 years of Communist presence had brought more misery than good things for Tibet. However, the young Chinese Panchen Lama told Zhu he would definitely learn from the 10th Panchen Lama's glorious past. What he will learn is not clear!

'History and reality had shown that the Communist Party of China had adopted correct ethnic and religious policies and had also succeeded in handling ethnic and religious issues,' Zhu declared.

For Zhu and his colleagues, religion is still a poison, but a subversive poison that has to be handled carefully.

Zhu's statement sounds ironic, when one knows about the treatment reserved for followers of the the Falung Gong or even the monks in the monasteries of Tibet who constantly need to be 'rectified' by the party during 'patriotic education sessions.'

The publicity given to Zhu's gesture towards China's Panchen Lama shows the nervousness of the Beijing regime that has not been able to assure its so-called minorities the barest minimum protection and freedom as provided for in the Chinese constitution.

Another dichotomy can be seen in their tourism policy. On one hand, the central and provincial governments are trying to develop tourism and make it a great source of revenue. On August 5, Xinhua advertised a place called the 'Diqing Tibet Autonomous Prefecture' on the Marches of Tibet in Yunnan province, as the real 'Shangri-La.' It is described thus: 'The resort area has an average height of 3,380 metres above the sea level, with snow-covered peaks, quiet lakes, torrential rivers, divine temples as well as traditional customs of over 10 Chinese ethnic groups [who] inhabit there. Recently Diqing [has] developed greatly tourism, attracting over one million tourists every year.'

But when it comes to Central Tibet, things are different. First, though the Chinese always claim their motherland to be one country, the visa obtained by foreigners to visit China is not enough for Tibet. It has to be supplemented by a special permit issued through a government-controlled travel agency. Furthermore, only groups of six or more are entitled for a permit. A government statement explains the rationale: ''In consideration of the infrastructure, the reception ability of transportation and tourism of Lhasa, the national cultural tradition of the Tibetan nationality, the culture relics, the natural environment and so on, the government encourages the development of group travel.'

But the truth is different. A foreigner visiting Tibet was told by an official in the Tibet Autonomous Government: ''We are not able to make money from individual travellers. An individual will hire a bike and run all over Lhasa. Some will find hostels, which cost only 3 or 5 yuan (less than $1) a night. Also, we are worried about infiltration. Some visitors do inappropriate things, such as supporting independence for Tibet or spreading rumours in support of the Dalai Lama.'

The dilemma for Beijing is that tourists, especially foreign bring a lot of money. It is estimated that each foreign tourist spends an average of $142 a day through arranged tours. It is not a paltry income for the state as more than 110,000 headed for Tibet in 2001 despite the September 11 events.

The dilemma of Beijing is even more pronounced with domestic tourists in Tibet, particularly pilgrims. Recently, the Tibet Information Network, an independent agency reporting from London on Tibet matters, quoted interviews of Lhasa workers who had been trying to visit Mount Kailas on the occasion of the Saka Dawa festival, the Indian equivalent of Buddha Poornima. Year 2002, the year of the Horse, was a particularly auspicious year to undertake this pilgrimage and many Tibetans wanted to circumambulate the holy mountain and have a darshan of Lake Manasarovar. But if you believe that to go to the sacred mountain is like going to Tirupati or Vaishno Devi, where you can browse the Internet to book your accommodation or reserve a train ticket to Andhra Pradesh or Jammu and just go, you are wrong.

Though the Chinese government outwardly promotes tourism to Kailas, the aspirant pilgrim has to go through a cumbersome and lengthy bureaucratic process. A truck driver told the Tibet Information Network, 'Pilgrims from my area first have to obtain confirmation of their address and a registration form from the local township administration, which then has to be taken to the county Public Security Bureau for approval, and then to the regional PSB office. Final travel authorization has to be obtained from the Ngari region military headquarters.'

What a long ordeal for the poor pilgrim!

In fact, the government makes it so difficult for the people of Central Tibet that most pilgrims who finally make it are from the Amdo and Kham provinces of eastern Tibet. More recently, Tibetan government workers in Lhasa were told by officials and by their neighbourhood committees that they would lose their pensions and possibly their jobs if they travelled to Mount Kailas during Saka Dawa.

However, it is not that the Chinese authorities are not interested to have tourists around Mount Kailas, which was a prime tourist destination for 2002. On December 31, 2001, Xinhua reported: 'Ngari prefecture [district] is to host a year of tourism in 2002 when tens of thousands of pilgrims come to worship the holy mountain and sacred lake in the region. ...The authorities in the prefecture have decided to better serve the pilgrims by offering special transport in between the prefecture capital and the mountain and lake and by providing better accommodation and food services along the pilgrimage route.'

Despite the 'correct ethnic et religious policies' professed by Zhu Rongji and the tourist policy announced by his government, Beijing cannot let go its fears. Unlike democratic India, totalitarian China lives in fear of the masses. Though the preamble of the Chinese constitution speaks of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat,' the only dictatorship in China is the one of a few in the party, who like during Mao's days, are living behind the high walls of a forbidden city in Beijing.

They fear the spiritual aspiration of the people will one day be so strong that the old dogmas will no longer be accepted and the masses will rebel against the 'Son of Heaven.' Recurrent rebellions have has been for millennia an old tradition in China and the present emperor fears even more since his replacement is due for October. Indeed, we may have an interesting month of October, with 'selective' elections prepared by Musharraf in Pakistan, a change of guard in Beijing, and the Jammu and Kashmir ballots that India's neighbour and its proxies have decided to disturb.

In India, everyone likes to complain about the rot of the political system, the caricature of democracy or greediness of politicians for petrol bunks, still Indians should not forget that they have something unknown in China and Pakistan, they are free to visit the places of pilgrimage of their choice. On the other side of the Himalayas, the abode of Lord Shiva and other places of faith are fully 'controlled' and 'managed.'

China, like Pakistan, realizes that freedom is very subversive. It was not surprising to read that a few days back a Japanese expert on international relations cautioned India against China which, according to him, 'wants an Indo-Pak war, possibly a nuclear conflict, to weaken India.'

In fact, more than to weaken India, modern China, like Pakistan, has never accepted that freedom and diversity of thought are a basic principle of civilisation. In Kashmir and elsewhere, India's fight is a fight for this diversity to continue to exist.

PS: The prospects of opening Mount Kailas to Indian pilgrims through the Ladakh road that I had mentioned in an earlier article, seems quite far away as long as China as a nation is not able to overcome its inner contradictions.

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