Magazine article Newsweek

Why Tibet Matters

Magazine article Newsweek

Why Tibet Matters

Article excerpt

AS THE HOLLYWOOD establishment spearheads a broad new campaign against China's iron-handed rule, an inside look at the mountain kingdom turns up some surprising results: widespread freedom of worship, resurgent Tibetan traditions and continued fierce loyalty to the exiled Dalai Lama.

IN A HIGH VALLEY FIVE HOURS BY truck from the nearest paved road, rural Tibetans live much as they did centuries ago, beyond the reach of Chinese power. The 80 monks of the Mgartse Monastery constitute, in effect, the local government. They run the school and manage everything rise, from festivals to street-sweeping, and they collect taxes, in the form of donations, to pay for it all. When a visitor passes through the village, young Lamas stop picking up trash to mug for his camera. A gruff "police monk" barks them back to work. The monastery's abbot, who is thought to be the eighth reincarnation of a local holy man, presides over marriages and divorces and steps in to thwart elan feuds. During an interview in his chamber, a herdsman bursts in to warn that two groups of nomads are quarreling over grassland. "We're all Buddhists, and we're all Tibetans," he says, "so we decided to consult you rather than brawl." The abbot agrees to mediate.

China's iron grip on Tibet is a source of growing consternation in the West. Last August, on a visit to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia found what he described as "unspeakably brutal conditions," including systematic torture and overt efforts by the Chinese to destroy Tibetan culture. Beijing has managed to extinguish much of Tibet's old theocratic order in the cities and along key highways. But out in the countryside, where perhaps 70 percent of the population lives, Tibetan traditions are regaining their old strength, and most of the Buddhist faithful can worship unfettered. Last month NEWSWEEK's George Wehrfritz traveled without a government escort through Amdo, a mountainous Tibetan region of China (map), and found the population still overwhelmingly loyal to the Dalai Lama, the ruler and spiritual leader who fled into exile in 1959, when the Chinese completed their takeover. Said a typical monk: "He is our sun."

Tibet's leader and his cause are about to receive some powerful public support halfway around the world. This week brings the opening of "Seven Years in Tibet," a lushly evocative movie starring Brad Pitt as a real-life Austrian mountain climber who became friends with the young Dalai Lama (review). The film reflects a rising tide of sympathy for Tibet in the Hollywood establishment. Stars like Pitt, Harrison Ford, Oliver Stone, Steven Seagal and Coldie Hawn have made Tibet chic. On the night Pitt's film opens, a candlelight vigil will be held outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington, and grass-roots demonstrations of support for Tibet are planned in 34 states and four Canadian provinces. "We'll reach millions and millions of people, which we weren't able to do even in 1989, when His Holiness won the Nobel Peace Prize," says John Ackerly, director of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), which is helping to organize the activities.

The initial target of all the fuss is Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who is scheduled to visit the United States at the end of this month for a summit with Bill Clinton and a seven-city tour. Jiang expects to be treated with all the deference due a Great Leader, U.S. officials say; apparently it hasn't yet dawned on him that he's going to be tarred and leathered, metaphorically, by an enraged mob of movie stars. When that happens, relations between Washington and Beijing--already strained over human fights, arms sales and other difficult issues--could take another serious hit. Richard Gere, one more prominent Hollywood friend of the Dalai Lama, plans to take on the Chinese with another new movie, "Red Corner." With Gere playing an American lawyer caught in a frame-up, it portrays the Chinese as brutal and corrupt. …

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