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In and around Lhasa, division, mutual contempt — and sometimes violence — are a way of life, no matter the date.
In monasteries such as Ganden, built into a hillside about 30 miles outside Lhasa, armed soldiers now outnumber monks. When I visited, uniformed men smoked cigarettes on the roof of a barracks adjacent to the monastery. Police arrested and defrocked two-thirds of the monks at Ganden after last year’s protests and today about 500 soldiers and 300 monks live at the complex, said one 38-year-old monk. As of March 2008, new monks are banned from joining all monasteries in Tibet. The Chinese government also handpicks Tibet’s leaders, including the Panchen Lama, the second-highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has called such control of religious practices a ''cultural genocide.''
When I passed through Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city, its main monastery Tashilhunpo was closed in anticipation for a visit by the Panchen Lama. In a region dominated by religious devotion, only about 100 people, mostly Chinese tourists, showed up to see him. When his white SUV drove up, His Holiness, the 19-year-old son of a communist party member, motioned a slight wave through his cracked window. The real Panchen Lama, chosen by Tibetan monks according to Buddhist tradition, was arrested in 1995 — when he was 6 — and remains missing.
Several Tibetan tour guides added that some monasteries are now populated almost entirely by Chinese-appointed monks. “They listen to what I tell tourists,” one guide said, adding that they report to authorities when guides acknowledge events like the destruction of monasteries during the Cultural Revolution that began in the 1960s. In Beijing’s version of history, retold at the history museum in Lhasa — one of the only tourist sites in the city with no entrance fee — China liberated Tibetans from their enslavement by the ruling lamas. When Tibetans this year marked the 50th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule that killed more than 80,000 Tibetans, China officially named the event “Serf Emancipation Day” and commemorated it with a ceremony in front of Potala Palace, Tibet’s holiest monastery and the Dalai Lama’s former home.
Today Chinese and Tibetans in Lhasa are required to hang red banners outside their homes with slogans praising the People’s Republic. On the Oct. 1 anniversary, authorities will stage another ceremony in front of Potala with a handpicked number of Tibetan attendees. All other Tibetans will be required to stay home, even small business owners, to prevent spontaneous gatherings, said the shopkeeper. Chinese residents can carry on as they please, he added.
Many Tibetans criticize the chasm between their rights and those of their Chinese neighbors. Tibetans have many stereotypes for the Chinese, accusing them of being clever, greedy and “naughty.” Only Chinese can own large businesses in Lhasa, widening the wealth gap between the city’s two main ethnicities, complained one Tibetan artist who ran a small portrait gallery in an old building with low ceilings. Tibetan tour guides joke that they prefer Western tourists and fight over who has to lead the demanding and noisy Chinese groups.
One Chinese tourist, a Canadian originally from Hong Kong, said she didn’t personally experience any animosity from Tibetans during her eight-day tour through the province. She said she thinks Tibet should be free, then recanted, saying: “But they are poor — I don’t know if they could support themselves.”
The shopkeeper says the Chinese look down on Tibetans and, in turn, Tibetans look down right back. “They look at us like we smell, but they smell just as bad.”
Despite his contempt, the shopkeeper said he hopes the anniversary passes without incident and believes most Tibetans feel the same.
Summoning the composure of a Buddhist, he said: “On Oct. 1, we will go to the temple and pray for peace in all the world, not just in Tibet.”