By Kevin Platt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
The world seems to be watching every step taken by China's new, hand-picked rulers in Hong Kong to gauge whether Beijing plans to live up to its guarantees of freedom and autonomy for the enclave.
But an earlier generation of Chinese communist rulers made eerily similar promises when Tibet was "peacefully liberated" nearly 50 years ago.
Beijing pledged during its takeover of Tibet in 1950, and again in Hong Kong earlier this month, that both regions would be largely self-ruled by local elites, with entrenched customs, social systems, and religious rights preserved. The "Tibet Autonomous Region" of China, created after Chinese troops crossed into the remote Himalayan region in 1950, was initially ruled by a curious coalition of Communist Party, Army, and Tibetan Buddhist officials. Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders said they were committed to protecting Tibet's unique Buddhist culture while reforming its feudal, serf-based economy. To back that policy, they chose the teenaged Dalai Lama, the head of Tibet's Buddhist theocracy, to lead the experiment in joint rule. Tibet's religious foundations have since been subject to constant attack, first by Communist troops and now by party controls on monasteries. The Dalai Lama, who was forced to flee into exile during a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule, has been branded a secessionist and the Communist Party is trying to wipe out his influence in Tibet. Yet few expect Hong Kong to follow in the steps of Tibet's decline. The meshing of a common Confucian culture, language, and ethnicity is likely to help smooth Hong Kong's integration with China, say Chinese and American scholars. Chinese nationalism is propelling Beijing's peaceful annexation of Hong Kong. But the same trend is sharpening the cultural fault lines that divide ethnic Chinese and Tibetans, says Dru Gladney, a China scholar at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Chinese Communist rule in Buddhist Tibet has been marked by an unending clash of civilizations, says Bhuchang Tsering, a spokesman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet. Tibet's religion, language, and traditions were isolated from Chinese influence for centuries by the world's highest mountains, and Indian Buddhism rather than Chinese Confucianism helped build the foundations of Tibetan society. In the decades following its armed conquest of the region, China tried to impose Chinese culture in the vast Tibetan plateau "through military occupation and the destruction of monasteries and monks," Mr. Tsering says. Yet religion still pervades nearly every aspect of daily life in Tibet. Every Tibetan makes a pilgrimage, sometimes on hands and knees, to Lhasa, which means "the place of the gods." The Dalai Lama is considered the center of Tibet's spiritual universe and decades after his departure is still fervently revered. Armed attacks on Tibet have in the last decade been replaced by a much less visible invasion of Tibet's remaining temples: the silent replacement of leading monks loyal to the Dalai Lama with pro-Beijing figures, Tsering adds. The Chinese leadership is attempting to strengthen its political control by "destroying Tibet's religion and civilization from within," Tsering says. …