China's oppression of Tibet reveals a country of intolerance

"The sun was warm but the wind was chill.

You know how it is with an April day." - Robert Frost

Even in Tibet, I knew how it was with an April day. It was sunny and breezy, cold and warm, with clear dry thin air at 12,000 feet in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet in April 2005. It felt like home.

I visited Tibet during a three week tour of China and Tibet with friends from Carson City. The recent riots in Tibet combined with Carson City's blossoming April weather bring back memories of our adventure into the world of Tibet.

From our government-owned hotel in Lhasa, we could see mountains fringing the city, looking enough like Nevada to be familiar. They weren't the towering jagged peaks of National Geographic specials, but were still mountains - steep, snowcapped, fireplace ash gray, and treeless.

We spent the first morning at the Jokhang Temple where Tibetan Buddhists journey on foot from across the land to worship the Buddha once before they die. They prostrate themselves along the way - every few paces - so it takes from four months to four years to reach the sacred temple. The pungent smell of burning yak-tallow candles, similar to the unctuous taste of the national drink - yak butter tea - pervades the dark temple and permeates our clothes. Visiting the temple, we were swept with the pilgrims along worn stone paths through sooty passageways to gaze at gold statues of the Buddha.

The brilliant colors of the temple echo in pilgrims' clothing, a geranium red hatband or sinew of aqua woven into a poncho, and in the saffron-lined red robes of monks who fashion colorful yak-butter sculptures, an odiferous reminder of the transience of life and butter.

The temple's courtyard walls celebrate bright red, orange, yellow, blue and green, the colors of ubiquitous prayer flags. Like decorated harpoons, the strings of prayer flags festoon doorways and rooftops wherever people make their homes. Banners flap in the strong spring breeze, and murmuring pilgrims spin prayer wheels in their ritual of circumambulating the sacred temple. For Tibetans, Buddhism is the fabric of their lives.

It is this distinct, colorful, primitive, religious culture that China is trying to suppress and obliterate. The Chinese government has relocated workers and businesses to transform Tibet from the distinct religious-based culture and country to become Chinese.

What does it mean to become Chinese? On our tour in 2005 we visited Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Chengdu, Chongqing and we journeyed down the Yangtze River. Other than Tibet and the river trip, we spent most of our time in cities inhabited by millions of people rather than in the countryside. Along the river, we glided past abandoned cities and towns, evidence of the one million people that were relocated to cities from the banks of the flood-prone Yangtze to make way for the giant Three Gorges Dam project. We learned from our tour guide that urban people in China want what Americans have: TV, washing machine, car.

It seemed to me that China was becoming a capitalistic society, very much in the image of the United States, but unable or unwilling to avoid our mistakes. For example, they used to have universal health care, but now they don't. (What's the point of having a communist government that doesn't provide health care?) The demand for cars, given the population, is a formula for transportation and air quality disaster. And the lack of environmental regulation in China is spawning unprecedented uncontrolled pollution. The Chinese appeared to be fervently materialistic. Our guide said "making money" is their religion.

The riots and oppression in Tibet this spring are reminiscent of the spring of 1989 when the Chinese government suppressed political demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The lone Chinese man who defied the government tank became an inspiring symbol of freedom in the face of tyranny. While the demonstrations in Tibet are not of the scale of the 1989 uprising, rebellion in the Tibet Autonomous Region has put an international spotlight on China's Tibet policies just months before China hosts the Olympic Games in Beijing.

By trying to eradicate the beliefs and culture of Tibet, China has drawn attention to its oppressive policies, and the degree to which it will not tolerate cultural or religious differences. Allowing Tibet to thrive as an autonomous state will not detract from China's primary economic and governmental priorities. Instead, it will demonstrate China's ability to prosper and succeed despite the anomaly of Tibet, and will free China to pursue its ambitions as a respected world power.

• Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.


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