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. …