Tibet Through Chinese Eyes

Many Chinese working in Tibet regard themselves as idealistic missionaries of progress, rejecting the Western idea of them as agents of cultural imperialism. In truth, they are inescapably both
The Two Sides of Support

Regardless of China's motivations, and regardless of its failures in Tibet, the drive to develop the region has been expensive. According to Beijing, more than 200,000 Han workers have served in Tibet since the 1950s. Taxes in Tibet are virtually nonexistent; Tibetan farmers, unlike those in the interior, receive tax-free leases of land, and a preferential tax code has been established to encourage business. Low-interest loans are available, and business imports from Nepal are duty-free. Despite the dearth of local revenues, government investment is steadily developing a modern infrastructure. From 1952 to 1994 the central government invested $4.2 billion in the region, and in 1994 Beijing initiated sixty-two major infrastructure projects for which the eventual investment is expected to be more than $480 million. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of Tibet's government revenue comes from outside the region.

This investment of both human and financial capital complicates the issue of Tibet in ways that few outsiders realize. Foreign reports often refer to the exploitation of Tibetan resources as a classic colonial situation, which is misleading. Although Beijing is certainly doing what it can with Tibet's timber and mineral reserves, China spends an enormous amount of money in the region, and if self-sufficiency ever comes, it will not come soon. Tibet does have significant military value: the Chinese do not want to see it under the influence of a foreign power such as India, but not even this would seem to merit the enormous investment. In 1996 China spent some $600 million in Tibet. One foreign observer who has studied the region puts this in perspective: "For that same year the United States gave a total of eight hundred million dollars in aid to all of Africa. That's all of Africa—we're talking about hundreds of millions of people. In Tibet there are only two and a half million. So if they become independent, who's going to be giving them that kind of money?"

"Unless you're a complete Luddite," Orville Schell says, "and don't believe in roads, telephones, hospitals, and things like that, then I think China must be credited with a substantial contribution to the modern infrastructure of Tibet. In this sense Tibet needs China. But that's not to diminish the hideous savageness with which China has treated Tibet."

Almost every aspect of Chinese support has two sides, and education illustrates the point well. I met a number of young Han teachers like Mei Zhiyuan, who were imbued with a sense of service: they were conscientious, well-trained teachers, and they were working in places with a real need for instructors. One volunteer was teaching English at a middle school where the shortage was so acute that many students had to delay the start of their English studies until the following year, when additional Han teachers were expected to arrive. I visited one district in which out of 230 secondary-school teachers, sixty were Han, and many of the Tibetan instructors had been trained in the interior at the Chinese government's expense. Such links with the interior seem inevitable, given that the Chinese have built Tibet's public education system from scratch. Before they arrived, in 1951, there were no public schools in Tibet, whereas now there are more than 4,000.

Likewise the schools I saw were impressive facilities with low student fees. In one town I toured the three local middle schools; two of them were newly built, with far better campuses than I was accustomed to seeing in China. The third school, whose grounds featured massive construction cranes fluttering with prayer flags, was being refurbished with the help of a $720,000 investment from the interior. Unlike students at most Chinese schools, those at the local No. 1 Middle School paid no tuition, and even high school students, who generally pay substantial amounts in China, had paid at most $70 a semester, including board. Everything possible was being done to encourage students to stay in school: a student's tuition and boarding charge were cut in half if only one parent worked, and transportation to and from the remote nomad areas was often free.

In a poor country such policies are impressively generous; essentially, Tibetan schools are better funded than Chinese schools. And this funding is sorely needed: the adult illiteracy rate in Tibet is still 52 percent. Only 78 percent of the children start elementary school, and of those only 35 percent enter middle school. But Chinese assistance must be considered in the context of what's being taught in the schools—a critical issue for Tibetans.

One morning I visited an elementary school on a spacious, beautiful campus, with new buildings and a grass playground that stretched westward under the shadow of a 14,000-foot mountain. Most of the school's 900 students were Tibetan. I paused at the central information board, where announcements were written in Chinese.

The board detailed a $487,800 investment that had been made by a provincial government in the interior, and displayed a short biography of Zu Chongzhi, a fifth-century Chinese mathematician. Next to this was a notice telling students to "remember the great goals." They were urged to work on doubling China's GNP from its 1980 level, and they were reminded that by 2050 China needed to achieve a GNP and a per capita income ranking in the middle of developed countries. Beside these goals was a long political section that read, in part,

We must achieve the goal of modern socialist construction, and we must persevere in building the economy. We must carry out domestic reform and the policy of opening to the outside world.... We must oppose the freedom of the capitalist class, and we must be vigilant against the conspiracy to make a peaceful evolution toward imperialism.

It was heavy stuff for elementary school students (and indeed, if I were a Chinese propagandist, I would think twice before exhorting Tibetan children to resist imperialism), and it indicates how politicized the climate of a Chinese school is. Despite all the recent economic changes in China, the education system is still tied to the past. This conservatism imbues every aspect of education, starting with language. Two of the schools I visited were mixed Han and Tibetan, and classes were segregated by ethnicity. The reasons here are linguistic: most Tibetan children don't start learning Mandarin until elementary school, and even many Tibetan high school students, as the Han teachers complained, don't understand Chinese well. This segregation leads to different curricula—for example, Tibetan students have daily Tibetan-language classes, whereas Han students use that time for extra English instruction. To the Chinese, this system seems fair, especially since Tibetan students have the right to join the Han classes.

But Tibetans feel that there is an overemphasis on Chinese, especially at the higher levels, which threatens their language and culture. All the classes taught by Han teachers are in Chinese or English, and most of the Tibetan teachers in the middle and high schools are supposed to use Mandarin (although the ones I spoke with said they often used Tibetan, because otherwise their students wouldn't understand). In any case, important qualifying exams emphasize Chinese, and this reflects a society in which fluency is critical to success, especially when it comes to any sort of government job. Another, more basic issue is that Tibetan students are overwhelmed. One Han teacher told me that his students came primarily from nomad areas, where their families lived in tents; yet during the course of an average day they might have classes in Tibetan, Chinese, and English, three languages with almost nothing in common.

Political and religious issues are paramount. In Lhasa I met a twenty-one-year-old Tibet University student who was angered by his school's anti-religious stance, which is standard for schools in Tibet. "They tell us we can't believe in religion," he said, "because we're supposed to be building socialism, and you can't believe in both socialism and religion. But of course most of the students still believe in religion—I'd say that eighty to ninety percent of us are devout." One of his classmates, a member of the Communist Party, complained about the history courses. "The history we study is all Chinese history [of Tibet]," he said. "Most of it I don't believe." These students also adamantly opposed existing programs that send exceptional Tibetan middle and high school students to study in the interior, where there is nothing to offset the Chinese view of Tibet.

Such complaints reflect the results of recent education reforms. A series of them made in 1994, characteristically, represent both the good and the bad aspects of Chinese support. On the one hand, the government stepped up its campaign against illiteracy, and on the other, it resolved to control the political content of education more carefully, in hopes of pacifying the region. There has certainly been some success with this approach: I met a number of educated Tibetans who identified closely with China. Tashi, Mei Zhiyuan's roommate, seemed completely comfortable being both Tibetan and Chinese: he had studied in Sichuan, he had a good job, and he had the government's support to thank. When I asked him what was the biggest problem in Tibet, he mentioned language—but not in the way many Tibetans did. "So many [Tibetan] students can't speak Chinese," he said, "and if you can't speak Chinese, it's hard to find a good job. They need to study harder."

Most Tibetans seemed less likely to accept Chinese support at face value. But it was clear that politically they were being pulled in a number of directions at once, and my conversations with educated young Tibetans were dizzying experiences. Their questions ranged from odd ("Which do you think is going to win, capitalism or socialism?") to bizarre ("Is it true that in America when you go to your brother's or sister's house for dinner, they charge you money?"), and the surroundings were often equally unsettling. One Monday morning I watched the flag-raising ceremony at a middle school, where students and staff members lined up to listen to the national anthem, after which, in unison, they pledged allegiance to the Communist Party, love for the motherland, and dedication to studying and working hard. With the Tibetan mountains towering above, it was a surreal scene—and it became all the more so when the school's political adviser, a Tibetan in his early thirties with silver teeth, walked over and asked me where I was from. After I told him, he said, "Here in Tibet we already have a lot of influence from your Western countries—like Pepsi, Coke, movies, things like that. My opinion is that there are good and bad things coming from the West. For example, things regarding sex. In America, if you're married and you decide that you want another lover, what do you do? You get a divorce, regardless of how it affects your wife and child. But the people here are very religious, and we don't like those kinds of ideas."

I heard a number of comments like this, and undoubtedly the education system included a great deal of anti-America propaganda. I felt that here the Chinese were almost doing the Tibetans a service; nothing depressed me more than my conversations with less-educated Tibetans, who invariably had great faith in American support and believed that President Clinton, who was then in China on last year's state visit, had come in order to save Tibet. Considering that China's interest in Tibet is largely a reaction to foreign imperialism, it's no surprise that nothing makes the Chinese angrier and more stubborn than the sight of the Dalai Lama and other exiled leaders seeking—and winning—support in America and elsewhere. And yet Tibetan faith in America seems naive given America's treatment of its own indigenous people, and because historically U.S. policy in Tibet has been hypocritical and counterproductive. For example, the CIA trained and armed Tibetan guerrillas in the 1950s, during a critical period of mostly peaceful (if tenuous) cooperation between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese. The peace ended when Tibetan uprisings, in which these guerrillas played a part, resulted in brutal Chinese repression and the Dalai Lama's flight to India.

America also represents modernity, and a further complication, beyond the Chinese political agenda, is that the long-isolated Tibetan society must come to grips with the modern world. One college student said, "The more money we Tibetans have, the higher our living standard is, the more we forget our own culture. And with or without the Chinese, I think that would be happening."

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