Tibet’s troubled politics may have grabbed headlines for decades, but the relationship between Tibetans and the dominant Han Chinese is far more complex and multifaceted than the bitter public arguments suggest.
The two peoples share a long historical attachment to Buddhism, which years of Communist rule has never managed to kill. China’s economic boom has also opened previously hard-to-reach Tibetan areas to Han visitors, leading to a mingling of cultures.
Tibetans in at least one area with looser political restrictions than Tibet proper say their beef with the government in Beijing does not extend to all Chinese, and that some controversial policies may even help bring Tibetans together.
All this belies the tense ties between Beijing and exiled Tibetans, and the harsh stance of supporters of both sides, which have been in the news after last week’s meeting between US President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama.
The deeply religious Tibetans revere their exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as a living Buddha. Yet so do some Han, despite Beijing’s frequent lambasting of him as a separatist who espouses violence, charges he strongly denies.
These Han do not see that as a contradiction, especially those who visit Tongren, a heavily Tibetan region in the arid, mountainous northwestern province of Qinghai, where the Dalai Lama was born in 1935.
“He is the holiest of them all. My heart jumps a beat whenever I see his picture. He is the most important of all the living Buddhas,” said Xiao Li, a Han from the wealthy eastern province of Jiangsu and a fervent Buddhist.
“Of course, even living Buddhas make mistakes,” she said, when asked about the Dalai Lama’s frequent overseas trips, the ones the Chinese government gets so angry about. “We are all human, and it does not change my respect for him.”
Some of Tongren’s Tibetans are equally able to separate their bitterness about official religious policies, which they feel trample on their freedom to follow their chosen leader and spiritual path, and their feelings about Han Chinese.
“I do not think that the views of the Chinese government necessarily represent those of all the Han race. I don’t think that all of them are bad people. Some are very good,” said monk Tedan, who like many Tibetans goes only by one name.
Buddhism is an ancient faith in China, dating back more than 1,000 years. The religion was introduced to both China and Tibet from India.
Though there are no hard and fast figures, some Chinese surveys put the number of practicing Buddhists in the country today at around 100 million, including Tibetans, Han, Mongolians and a few other ethnic minorities such as the Dai.
There are perhaps as many Muslims and Christians, though some Christians worship in underground churches not recognized by the state.
FASCINATION OF RELIGION
The Communist Party has had an uneasy relationship with religion, despite a constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, fanatical Red Guards smashed up temples, churches and mosques.
Those policies have mellowed considerably in recent years, with the Party seeing religion as an important force for social stability, even if it continues to exercise control over the appointment of senior religious figures.
One monk who has faced repeated police questioning for illegally traveling to India to study at a religious college run under the auspices of the Dalai Lama, said he counted many Han from Beijing and Shanghai among his students of Buddhism.