Life Under Surveillance
Tibet possesses a rich culture and profound history, and it is a place where religion -- Buddhism -- holds a privileged position. To be born in a small village surrounded by endless snow-capped mountains is delightful. However, it has been devastating to have our once-peaceful home, Tibet, occupied; to see our long-conserved natural resources depleted; to have our religious faith dispelled; and to be confined since the Chinese invasion in 1959, when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, was exiled to India along with thousands of Tibetans.
Despite that, those moments playing with runny-nosed children, chasing one another around the boundless grassland until my tummy started growling with hunger, were some of the happiest of my life. I was too naive to pay close attention to the reality of the lives of people in my home community, until I witnessed an intervention by the Chinese government in my own family.
Some years ago, the Chinese government compelled people in my community to remove their dignified religious artifacts and photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from their family shrines. According to a Buddhist perspective, it is very important to have religious artifacts in the family shrine. It is both traditionally valued and culturally treasured. Moreover, Tibetans are generally very religious and have a great deal of faith in His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has devoted his life to religion and his people. So, it is truly unacceptable for Tibetans to remove his images from their family shrines. This not only caused anxiety throughout my whole community, it also created apprehension within my family. I have come to believe that it is unethical for the government to invade people’s lives with unsolicited intervention or regulation, especially when it comes to spiritual beliefs. My family was directly affected by such intervention.
One harsh winter afternoon, as the sun began to sink behind the majestic mountains, I hurriedly got off a small white bus and ran toward my cozy home. I had been away for a month. When I was already halfway home, the driver called me to retrieve my school bag, which I had left behind. I could not believe I had forgotten to take my bag in my excitement in coming home from boarding school in Karze County, 30 kilometers from my home. Approaching my house, I thought it strange that my mom and dad were not waiting for me in front of our family gate as usual. It was strange and quiet, but still I happily entered the gate, which had been left partially ajar.
Suddenly, “How dare you take down all of those precious images of my Holiness?” I heard my mother rave loudly upstairs. I was rooted still, listening.
“Don’t pretend to be brave in this circumstance, Zhuo Ma. We have to comply with this unjustified regulation for the moment,” said my father, Daji. I tightened my school bag again on my back and listened carefully.
“I would feel empty without these images in our shrine, Daji. No matter what happens, I cannot take them down,” my mom insisted.
“Don’t be so silly. Genga” -- our village leader -- “just warned us during the meeting that local policemen will come to check every household to see whether any family has violated their order. So, I think the most important thing right now is to calm down; all factors are out of our control. Taking his images down doesn’t mean we lose any faith in him. Trust me, nobody can snatch away our faith in him and our deep conviction in religion,” my dad added.
As my parents argued in the shrine, I was totally bewildered, not sure exactly what was happening upstairs, and I was scared, too. I slowly went upstairs and entered the shrine. My parents seemed surprised by my abrupt appearance. Both of them stared at me. I was shocked to see a number of His Holiness’ pictures taken down and set on the table. My parents looked depressed and powerless. They could not explain anything, but my mom cried and my dad became speechless. I did not know what to say, except to stare without blinking at the perfectly designed frames of His Holiness’ images on the table. I could not comfort my mom, nor could I talk to my dad. My heart sank in the bottom of the silence.
I returned to school the following day when the sun rose to its zenith in the blue sky. It was a new day, but I still could not recover from the suspicion and injustice I felt deep in my heart. As soon as I got into town, I saw hordes of armed soldiers marching in Karze Street, back and forth, as if they were going to attack some wild gorillas. My heart pounded as it did whenever I happened to see soldiers, because my mom used to tell me when I was a child that soldiers would take people away from their homes if they saw anyone disobeying. I carefully dragged myself along to pavement, listening to the steps of the well-uniformed soldiers. They paced, wrapping their fingers around triggers -- if anyone were to stand up against the injustice, they would likely silence him or her by firing right away on the spot. I was left breathless on the edge of the pavement, gazing back, full of questions.
Even today, hundreds of trucks of well-armed soldiers are stationed in Tibetan communities, and people are living under constant surveillance and control.
The People’s Republic of China has always justified its policy in Tibet by painting the darkest picture of traditional Tibetan society -- what they call “feudal serfdom and slavery.” Therefore, the military invasion and occupation of Tibet by China has been termed a liberation. The Chinese government claims that the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 brought hope to the deeply distressed Tibetans. It claims that the society of old Tibet under feudal serfdom was even more dark and backward. The estate-owning officials, nobles and highest-ranking monks in the monasteries -- less than five percent of Tibet’s total population -- owned all the farmland, pastures, forests, and the majority of livestock. Therefore, modernization, elimination of the feudal system, and the liberation of Tibet by the PRC is claimed to be fundamentally important. According to the Chinese government, the peaceful liberation of Tibet, which was part of the Chinese national democratic revolution, enabled Tibet to drive for common progress and development. In actuality, it invaded, colonized, and killed many innocent people.
As a matter of fact, Tibet had been remote from the rest of the world, with a dispersed population of nomads, farmers, monks, nuns and traders. Tibet was a mysterious place with rich culture, history, its own national flag, currency, and a distinct religion. Traditional Tibetan society was not perfect, and indeed it was in great need of positive change. The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders have admitted as much. According to the Tibetan government-in-exile, this was the reason why the Dalai Lama initiated far-reaching administrative and land reforms in Tibet when he was chosen as Dalai Lama. In reality, the Chinese occupation of Tibet has entirely changed the lives and lifestyles of Tibetans for the worse. During the invasion, the Chinese army imprisoned hundreds of Tibetans for their political and religious activities.
In fact, if China sincerely wanted to transform old Tibetan society into a more civilized, modern society, the current Tibet would be more autonomous -- but it remains under Chinese sovereignty and surveillance. Had Chinese “liberation” brought improvements to Tibet, today Tibet would have more political self-determination. If Chinese modernization had shaped the lives of Tibetans for the better, today economic development would genuinely benefit Tibetans, rather than only Han Chinese immigrants in Tibet. If Chinese so-called development of infrastructure in Tibet were implemented honestly, Tibetans would have a better trade system and direct connection with the outside world, instead of having thousands of immigrants occupy the land of the Tibetans, the environment abused and natural resources extracted. Most importantly, Tibetans are no longer happy, and that is why today more than 100 people have died from self-immolation as a form of protest against Chinese government oppression. This unprecedented occurrence illustrates the human dimension of this tragedy and proves just how oppressive the Chinese government has been in Tibet.
The interference of the Chinese government shook my family’s peaceful life in that instant. It would make anyone cry aloud, feeling empty and guilty, unable to practice one’s own religion. It prompted me to question why mere images of our people’s Holiness worried the Chinese government so much. They did accuse His Holiness the Dalai Lama of inciting self-government or separatism from the Chinese -- was that their reason to censor his pictures from families’ shrines? Back then, I kept wondering how it could be a reasonable motivation for a government to bother innocent people silently practicing their religion and decorating their family shrines with a respectable religious figure. It is painful to be a bystander of injustice and uninvited intervention.
Now, in retrospect, I think it is important for those authoritarians who want to infringe on people’s freedom to know that all humans were born to have basic rights to adjust to this world. So it deserves people’s attention when anyone, anywhere, is struggling with infringement of freedom, especially freedom of religion. What would happen to the Chinese government if it fairly allowed Tibetans to practice their own religion? I think that people can live in harmony if they are allowed to live in accordance with their own particular interests and are free to make their own life choices. One of the first steps in bringing about reconciliation between Tibet and China is to have negotiations. I think there is always room in the conflict for negotiation, and the conflict remains only because there is no sense of understanding from either side. The Chinese government has to accept that Tibet has rich natural resources, history, special culture and religion, and it deserves its own rights and practices.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.