The Chinese overlords of Tibet aren't without good intentions. It is mostly due to them that many Tibetans enjoy better education and health care. But the majority of Tibetans are still peasants and nomads, and even the educated people I spoke to seemed discontented with Chinese rule. Like all traditional people faced with modernization, their choices are drastically limited. To embrace the glittering new world of China is to become as ruthlessly materialistic and secular as the post-Communist Chinese. It is to lose what is still precious to them: their religious and cultural identity.
The fear of sinicization seemed to weigh most heavily on the Tibetan refugees I met in Dharmsala after returning from Tibet. They were convinced that Han Chinese settlers would overwhelm Tibetans with their alien ways and that soon, with the new rail connection to China, Tibetan society and culture would cease to exist.
The younger refugees stressed the need for immediate and extreme action; they complained that the Buddhist methods of dialogue and negotiation advocated by the Dalai Lama had proved futile. They pointed to the world attention given to the radical Islamists in Palestine and elsewhere after their spectacular acts of violence.
I knew that such views were popular with many of the refugees—part of their westernized general outlook. But I didn't argue with them; I didn't feel that I had earned the right to do so. My own views were as timid and mixed as those of any traveler to a beautiful country under a despotic regime.
When I thought of Tibet after coming home, I first remembered that morning on the Tsangpo: the austere landscape where small things—the water slapping against the boat, the bare hills brown against a blue sky, a man in a trilby hat twirling his prayer wheel—possessed the power to bestow happiness.
I remembered watching snow blow off the rocky summit of Mount Everest, one chilly evening on the half-collapsed mud roof of Rongbuk monastery. I remembered the peasant women in Lhasa, that garish symbol of Chinese capitalism, slowly circumambulating the Potala, measuring the miles of concrete in a series of energetic prostrations—lying on their bellies on the ground one moment, and then rising up, their bangled arms outstretched before them, ready to plunge again onto the hard ground.
These images were commonplace in the books I had read before visiting Tibet: the Tibetan landscape and people always appeared in them with a religious aura. I liked to think that I was immune to these stereotypes, which often manage to hide Tibet's harsh political reality. I didn't believe that all Tibetans were epitomes of loving-kindness and nonviolence. But it was hard not to feel that I had traveled to the heart of a unique civilization, one whose achievement lay not in imposing monuments or museums but in the refined personal culture—the humility and warmth—of its men and women.
I had become aware, too, of the great dignity and inner strength with which Tibetans have protected their traditions and identity while living amid the physical rubble of their civilization—the rubble of destroyed monasteries and temples over which a profit-driven, and still repressive, Chinese regime is building a Disneyland of Tibetan culture.
After having suffered totalitarian Communism, Tibetans now confront a dissolute capitalism, one that seeks arrogantly, and often violently, to turn all of the world's diverse humanity into middle-class consumers. But it seems wrong to think of them, as many outsiders do, as helpless victims of large, impersonal forces. It has been Tibet's fate to be the laboratory of the cruelest experiments humanity has performed upon itself in the modern era. Yet the Tibetans have survived well the shocks and pain of history that have led people elsewhere in the world into nihilistic rage and violence. This is at least partly due to their Buddhistic belief in the primacy of empathy and compassion. And, faced with an aggressively secular materialism, they may still prove, almost alone in the world, how religion, usually dismissed, and not just by Mao, as "poison," can be a source of cultural identity and moral values.