Lhasa, Tibet – China’s secret police are just terrible at keeping themselves secret.
The detective, dressed in her business suit and pumps appropriate to urban Lhasa, did not expect to be trailing my wife and me up the steep hillside to a monastery 15,000 feet up an ice-crusted ridge. Even at 200 yards behind us, I could see her shivering in the thin, frozen air, trying, absurdly, to look like just another hiker on the barren slope.
But then, she really wasn’t trying to hide. Her presence was meant to send a message of fear and intimidation.
I got the point earlier when a photographer we’d helped sneak into Tibet was arrested, her film of protesting Tibetans seized and her camera smashed as she was hustled onto the first plane leaving the country.
When my police shadow looked away, I snapped a photo of the long boxes below me, roofs of the prison complex. It housed more Buddhist monks than any monastery.
At a hermitage carved into the summit rock I found my host sitting cross-legged under an ancient tapestry depicting a monster ready to devour quiet souls.
The holy man had questions for us:
Does Christianity have a god? (Answer: “Sometimes.”)
What is a President‘?
It was 1993. I told the monk the new President,
Bill Clinton, had met the Dalai Lama
This Clinton must be a very holy and very good man, yes? (“Sometimes.”)
It’s not that the priest avoided worldly newspapers, but he’d just gotten out of prison after 27 years and he didn’t get much news there. Not that you could get any real news in Tibet. No journalists are allowed there. (Not to be impolite to their Chinese minders – or lose their lucrative Olympics deals – The New York Times and NBC cover Tibet from Beijing and Delhi. Just check the by-lines.)
I assured him that Clinton, though not quite holy, would, at the least, help Tibetans.
That seemed easy enough as they didn’t want very much, these mountain folk. They didn’t demand independence from China but, ironically, just the opposite: an opportunity to become Chinese, that is, have full access to schooling, university positions afforded their ethnic Han comrades; and to have a share of the jobs and wealth created by the uranium and other resources of their plateau nation.
And maybe something a little un-Chinese: freedom of expression, of movement, of culture, of religion. I assured the monk that this new President would help them obtain just a bit of autonomy in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” as China calls it.
The lama smiled. It was not cynicism but a friendly disbelief in change happening in this coming year. He measured change in lifetimes.
He asked a student monk to pull down a small painted statue of the Buddha – which the elder man then chopped apart with a knife. He then gestured to his acolyte to give us each a piece of the icon – to eat.
Swallowing the body of his Lord was not meant to make us holy but to solve a more immediate problem – lunch. The painted god, I discovered with relief, was made out of barley, beer, rancid butter and honey.
I could see that my Tibetan translator was chomping at the bit to show the old man messages we’d brought from the Dalai Lama’s Secretariat in India. But that would have been suicide. The young translator’s brother (I certainly won’t use their names), a cook at a nearby temple, joined a demonstration of monks against Chinese rule and was shot dead. I admonished our translator that his mother couldn’t afford to lose her last remaining child.
Instead, we gave the lama a postcard printed with the image of the multi-armed god Chenrezig. The priest would know, but the Chinese wouldn’t, that Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, is a reincarnation of this god.
“Ta la’i bla ma tshur log pa,” I said in my ridiculous Tibetan. The Dalai Lama will return.
We all return, he indicated, though not necessarily in this body.
The shivering “tourist” policewoman waited for us to leave before she entered the sanctuary. I can only imagine the questions she’d asked.
Ta la’i bla ma tshur log pa. The point of our heading deep into Tibet’s wastelands was to spread the word that the Dalai Lama hadn’t abandoned his people as the Chinese propagandists told them on radio, on loudspeakers, and through their local quislings. (My favorite notice was a warning by Chinese authorities that they must “approve all re-incarnations.” That was meant to avoid the Dalai Lama locating the new child containing the soul of the Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama’s missing, and obviously murdered, number two man.)
On to another monastery with the postcard and the message. The old nuns would put the postcard over their eyes and forehead and turn to bow into the sun’s rays, the symbol of Free Tibet.
One monastery was quiet. In a land where you see the clouds below you, not above, sunlight is brutally harsh. Every image stands out in painful, unforgettable clarity. This emptied place had been smashed into ruins by the Red Guards. They’d arrested all the monks they hadn’t gunned down, some of the 200,000 Tibetans killed by the Chinese in their ethnic “re-education” campaign.
But the troops had left standing a wall of painted Buddhas, dozens and dozens of them. The Chinese cadres were certain the magic powers of these religious images were bunkum. Nevertheless, just in case, they’d put a bullet hole in each Buddha’s forehead.
Back down in the city, another plainclothesman, a grinning Chinese man, greeted me in the parking lot of the Lhasa Sheraton – in English, “Glad to see you again!”
“Oh, don’t you remember me? I was standing outside the Dalai Lama’s in Delhi.”
“Um, I was there to, you know, get some maps and, uh, some postcards.”
O.K. This is my warning. Say something, Palast. I tried this:
“That’s nice!” He stepped closer and grinned harder. “I have some books for you about Tibet” – some propaganda about Tibetans as cannibals (really). He paused, grinned even harder, then added, “I left them in your room.”
In my room? Another warning.
I wasn’t worried about the bed search. The envelope the Dalai Lama’s Secretariat had given us had already been delivered to persons whose identities we made certain not to know.
In his fleeting moment as President, Bill Clinton didn’t have time to remember Tibet. More pressing to him was free trade – with Mexico via NAFTA – and free trade with China, to which he granted Most Favored Nation status.
That May, we left just as the streets were filling with Tibetans demonstrating for freedom. They would never be seen on US TV. Not then, not now. NBC will interrupt the Beijing Summer Olympics only to broadcast its millionth ad for McDonald’s.
George Bush is there; says he was thrilled that the Chinese dictator, Hu Jintao, invited him and Laura and the kids to lunch. I doubt if they dined on a barley Buddha.
In the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin, Americans knew that the competition was as much over our national souls as our physical prowess. When Jesse Owens, a Black man, left Hitler’s Aryan runners eating his dust, America jumped to its feet and cheered – not just for what he did, but for who we are: for liberty and justice for all.
Now, our Olympic Committee cravenly demands our athletes remain silent about Tibet. But they shouldn’t bother: Bush has already won the gold medal in the Cowardly Silence competition.
On the way to the Lhasa airport, leaving those occupied territories, I thought I could see, looking into the harsh glare, the Buddhist hermitage just below the Himalayan crest. I asked my guide if he’d heard from the old monk. I was told that, days after our visit, he raised the Tibetan sun-flag and was arrested.
The foolish Chinese undoubtedly would have sentenced him to only one life in prison.
He would return.
Greg Palast’s investigative reports can be seen on BBC Television Newsnight. Palast, author of the New York Times bestsellers Armed Madhouse and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, is a Nation Institute/Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow for investigative reporting. All photos including home page image copyright Greg Palast and Linda Levy. See more of Greg and Linda’s photos here.
Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Billionaires & Ballot Bandits, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Armed Madhouse and Vultures’ Picnic , a BBC Television Book of the Year.
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Lhasa, Tibet – China’s secret police are just terrible at keeping themselves secret.