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The current unrest in Hong Kong where students and young people are clamoring for democracy, take me back to images of other demonstrations that called out to Free Tibet. When we see the images, what can we learn about the Chinese regime? An authoritarian regime that doesn’t allow dissent, doesn’t allow free speech, and uses violence to stay in control.
I had this image of the Chinese regime when I set out for Tibet this summer. As a foreigner you cannot freely travel around in Tibet. To visit you have to join a tour, so that the authorities can control and monitor your movement and your exposure to what Tibet is. The regime likes to keep track of everyone’s whereabouts. Considering the size of the country and the wide open spaces in Tibet, it would be easy for an adventurous person to disappear in the Hinterland and do some research about life in China. I didn’t have that opportunity; I had to learn about Tibet from a touring van with pre-arranged stops and visiting sites. 15 Days to get an impression and see the famous sites: Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Drepung monastery, Sera monastery.
While we visited the religious sites in rapid succession I learned about the three Tibetan Buddhist sects, the three Buddhas of the past, present and future, the three ways one can be buried in Tibet depending on your religious or non-religious status. I learned that those scary looking devils are actually protecting you from evil, that the black horseman Buddha protects children when a monk puts a black smudge on their forehead. I learned that Tibetans have many ways to prepare for a better next life: walking or doing prostrations around a holy site (which keeps everyone very limber), doing innumerable prostrations in a temple, the more the better; “paying” respect to favored lamas and teachers, by leaving money and/or donating butter to the many butter lamps in the monasteries. (see images below) Like buying your way into heaven which Catholics promoted by coercing donations to erase sins, Tibetans buy and exercise their way to a better next life.
The monks in the monasteries were busy putting on the Tibetan art of debate shows, dressing for celebratory religious dancing, or chanting traditional chants in the lavishly decorated halls of the monasteries. Religious tradition, yes, but spirituality?
When the Chinese entered Tibet, they did horrendous damage to age-old cultural and religious sites. It seems the Chinese authorities have had a change of mind and instead of trying to stamp out religion they’ve embraced the cultural icons, rebuild the monasteries and taken control of initiating monks and appointing the religious leaders. The Dalai Lama escaped, and he is still a most revered leader among practicing Tibetan Buddhists. What you can’t have you idolize. And so a movement to Free Tibet was born. What would a free Tibet do on the world stage at this point? Join the many underdeveloped countries in holding up their hand for donations from the West? Have a religious leader direct economic growth, develop mining of Tibet's raw materials?
In 1959 Tibet and its inhabitants were living in the middle ages, poverty, superstition, violence and religious dominance reigned. Now 60 years later the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) or Xizang Autonomous Region (XAR) is a prosperous, modern, wired, part of China. Poverty is almost eradicated. Even the nomads have houses, jeeps and cellphones. The monasteries are doing a brisk business with tourists (many Chinese) and Tibetan pilgrims. The regime has rebuilt the important monasteries, the monks are on salary and the next generation is getting free education. China is a secular regime and I believe that the regime counts on the power of education, which will in time eradicate traditional religion. And so the monks rake or sweep the constant flow of bills left by pilgrims and devoted Tibetans around the holy statues. The believers are paying to keep the monasteries intact. Resistance has been stymied by controlling the people’s wishes.
Is this all bad? Or is it a good thing that an authoritarian regime moved a large population out of poverty, by educating the people with modern ideas and advanced science, and providing housing, infrastructure and stability? The people at the bottom enjoy getting their basic needs met; they enjoy running a small business, have enough food and a warm place to sleep at night. As long as they put a Red Flag on their roof and are loyal to the regime, they can have these basics.
The totalitarian regime works great for moving a society along toward prosperity. The trouble begins when bellies are full and educated people want to have their say in how things are run. Hong Kong has been affluent long enough that the people don’t want to bow to the regime.
Will the Chinese regime bend and respond to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? (for a refresher on what this is, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs). The Chinese gave the Tibetans their monasteries back. They have shown flexibility in allowing Capitalistic Socialism on their way to the goal of total Communism. Does the Chinese regime know that rigidity will break them? Just as the monks exchanged spiritual practice for religious commerce and a steady inncome, will the Chinese regime lose its ideals and fall for the allure of property and ownership? Judging from events in Hong Kong, and observing the throng of wealthy, well- dressed Chinese and Tibetans driving a BMW, the people are making their choices.
What if you were born to be poor? Your status in life was predetermined by cast?
I've just left Ladakh, a predominant Buddhist part of India, where there are many poor people. My trekking guide came from such a poor family. He was handed over to a monastery at age eight so he'd get fed and educated. He left the monastery at age 34, married and developed a business. He's no longer poor; his children have a university education, his wife has a steady job at a hospital. In Ladakh you can work your way out of poverty - religion and societal status don't keep you poor.
In Nepal I'm staying at a B&B in a small merchant town, populated by Newaris. The Newaris are traders from way back, the little town was a trading center on the route from India to Kathmandu. As the Prithvi highway eliminated their trading monopoly, the Newaris turned from goods to tourists and created an old-world ambiance with modern amenities to attract their clientele. The Newaris do well for themselves; it's obvious in the wellfed happy children walking to school and the chubby men and women running their small businesses.
But there is another side to this story: the B&B has partnered with a Scottish Rotary club and uses the profits of the business to help children of a nearby village to get an education. The Bhujel who live here are of a lower cast, most likely Dalit, untouchables. The men drink, the women make bamboo products for sale; not enough to make a living. Living in a fertile, land rich area the Bhujels miss the skills to be farmers and most likely were never allowed to own land. They live in predetermined poverty.
Our young guide Roshan tells us that at the end of the civil war in 2005 between rebel Maoists and Nepali royalists, the cast system was abolished as a condition for a constitutional Nepali government. "Everyone now has the same opportunities, we can marry across cast", he says, confident that the change is real. When a group of Nepali tourists introduce themselves to me that night as Brahmin (the superior cast), I'm not so sure I can share his optimism. Just as with the abolishment of slavery in the US, the attitudes and prejudice do not get stamped out with the passing of a law.
The Newaris in Bandipur exude confidence; they know they can avoid poverty if they work hard. The Brahmins draw their confidence from privilege; what we call 'white privilege' in the US.
Roshan worked in Qatar for a few years. The money sent home from Qatar is 20% of Nepal's GDP. Many of the Nepali migrant workers are the new slaves of the modern world as they work in construction for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They are indentured servants; often don't get paid for months and owe a debilitating recruitment sum. Roshan was lucky, he's not a Dalit; he could get back to the shelter of family with improved English language skills and have a new start in the tourism industry.
Will western thinking and secularisation change the cycle of poverty? Probably, slowly, it will. Maybe, just maybe, my travel and presence here shifts the balance a bit more to opportunity for all. I tell a young Newari woman, named Jun-ko after the first Japanese woman to summit Mt Everest, to go climb a mountain. I tell her that I'm going to Mt Everest next. She looks at me and asks my age. I tell her, "I'm 72". I can see the glimmer of possibility in her eye. She thinks, if you can, I can too! Dream Jun-ko, you live in a country of magical mountains. Go make 'em your own.