In 1994, Orville Schell,well-known China expert travelled to Tibet as a tourist and reported on the country's troubled relationship with China for FRONTLINE's documentary, "Red Flag Over Tibet."



q:  ... What made you go to Tibet in 1994?

schell:  Well I had been to Tibet before., I wanted to go back in 1994 to really try and see if I could understand what it was that was so blocking any kind of a discourse and any kind of a resolution between China and Tibet. I mean, why was this problem so intractable? What did Tibetans think about China and the Chinese? And what did the Chinese think about Tibet and Tibetans?

q:  And how many Chinese there did you encounter and what did they think about Tibet?

a:  Well speaking Chinese, I had more contact with the Chinese in Tibet than Tibetans, except for the Tibetans who spoke Chinese. I think the Chinese view of Tibet, by and large, has been - 'this place is cold, the air is thin, the Tibetans are dirty, it's mysterious and strange, but not particularly interesting...I'd rather be home.' This has changed somewhat now because Tibet has begun to present, in a curious way, economic opportunity for the Chinese. Tibet had no economy to speak of so China, and the Chinese, much as they've done in South East Asia have created an economy. You know there're roads, there's restaurants, there's trading networks, there's discotheques, karaoke bars -- most of these are Chinese.

q:  The Chinese you met, what did they think of Tibet?

a:  The Chinese I met, they're a little bit like soldiers, you know, who're posted abroad and who have a job to do and talk about when they're going to get to go home again. No Chinese was particularly thrilled to be up there, but they were there because they could make money, and that was the long and short of it.

I think they view Tibetans as not particularly interesting, and Tibetan Buddhism was not a religion to most Chinese - it was a superstition. A lot of hocus-pocus of going nowhere and, besides - 'the Tibetans don't take baths, you know, they speak a funny language, they're dark-skinned, they're primitive'.... This gets back to a very early notion of China as the center - as being part of not only civilization, but the civilization of the world and everything else around it, whether it's the Tibetans, the Muslims, the Mongolians and other minorities, being lesser people beyond the pale of the civilized world. So to be exiled to one of these places was always considered to be bad news.

Until 10 years ago, most of the Chinese in Tibet were members of the People's Liberation Army or officials, and they would get hardship pay. And it was a tough post. But in the last ten years, because of the economic reforms in China, tens of thousands of Chinese have begun to surge up onto the Tibetan plateau, not just to Lhasa but to other smaller outposts to make money. And Tibet is beginning to be a corridor to Nepal and India for substantial amount of trade. So Tibet now has a new siren song, and that is economic opportunity for Chinese.

q:  What surprised you most about your trip and the things you found there?

a:  I think one can't help but feel in Tibet the stark difference between the Chinese and Chinese culture and the Tibetans and Tibetan culture. I mean, it's very much reminiscent of the kind of situation you found in colonial countries where the West would occupy Vietnam, Indonesia and African countries, and there would be separate and distinct cultures. And there would be a few people from the Tibetan side or the native side who would sort of kneel to the colonial administration. And one can't help feeling that for China, even though it's a Communist country, an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist regime, there's something gratifying about having a colony just like the big boys. You know, China has its noblesse oblige, its manifest destiny, it has its lesser people to govern and bring civilization, the way the West imagined it had that role in its colonies.

Q; What made the biggest impression on you while you were there?

a:  Tibet's a starkly beautiful place. On one level it's utterly inhospitable and not exactly, you know, palm trees, blue lagoon kind of resort community. But, there is some haunting, spare beauty to it - its openness, its utter solitude and of course, the mountains, which is a particularly interesting thing to westerners. Wasn't always so. And Chinese don't have the same fascination for landscapes and mountains and so this doesn't appeal to them in the same way that it does to people from the West.

q:  What about the monasteries you saw?

a:  A undeniable fact about Tibetan-Chinese relations is that China destroyed most of Tibet's many thousand monasteries which were the center, not only of religious life but of all life because Tibet is a nomadic society, and so these monasteries were the centers of commercial life, social life, learning. It's where the festivals were, it's where people came to trade. So this was an enormously devastating blow, not just to religion but to every aspect of Tibet's social organization.

.... I mean one had the sense of this desecration of a whole thousand-year tradition and the repositories of Tibetan Buddhism, which were of course, the monasteries.

q:  What were your impressions of Lhasa?

a:  I think everybody imagines Lhasa as this mysterious -- as a holy city, which it is, to Tibetans. And, as you come in, of course, you see the Potala on top of this extraordinary mountain that sits in the middle. But, on second impression, when you actually get there, you realize that it's rapidly turning into a kind of tawdry Chinese provincial city with these ugly concrete buildings lined up like tombstones.

And one of the first things you see as you come into the city is this huge sculpture of two golden yaks that was given to Tibet to celebrate the liberation by the Chinese. I mean, this sort of very cryptic kind of a memorial highlights the way in which China sees Tibet, and its relation to Tibet, so differently from the way that Tibet sees its relationship to China. China imagines - at least did imagine itself - as the liberator. It had the experience in China of overturning a landlord-tenant situation, of overturning a corrupt government. It came up to Tibet and saw a feudal society - a state owned and run by monasteries, serfs that were exploited by the theocracy and it thought, 'well, we're going to liberate them.' Tibet didn't see it that way. They saw China as an intruder, an oppressor, a destroyer of its religious institutions and an unwelcomed liberator.

[In the center of Lhasa lies the Jhokang, the holiest place in all Tibet, the ultimate destination for all pilgrims.]

q:  Describe where you went and what you saw and what you found on your trip.

a:  Well, in a certain sense, the most famous monasteries have been Potemkinized, in the sense that the government has supported a certain amount of restoration. There are a number of monks allowed to be in residence to conduct religious ceremonies. There are some young initiates who're allowed to come in, but they're carefully controlled by what's called "democratic committees." This is because the monasteries are viewed with great suspicion by the Chinese because as the centers of Buddhism, they're all the centers of nationalism and the centers of independence organization and agitation. So these are to be handled with great care as far as the Chinese are concerned.

Many monasteries have large parts of them that are still unrestored; they are very heavily monitored. There's great resentment, and one has the feeling that there is a limit beyond which the Chinese are not willing to see the Potemkinization go.

q:  What is Tashilhunpo and what did you find there?

a:  ... Tashilhunpo Monastery is one of the largest, and one that suffered the least destruction because it is the site of the second most important reincarnation, the Panchen Lama after the Dalai Lama. And, since for a period of time, he in effect defected to the Chinese side and was considered favorably by the Chinese, the monastery suffered much less destruction.

It's a very beautiful monastery and it is one where one can really see what these enormous institutions at one time had. I think Tashilhunpo had several thousand monks. And in Tibet, in the old days, one out of every four men or boys in Tibet would go into monastic life. And so Tashilhunpo is ... it's beautiful and it's still revered and people from all over Tibet flock to these monasteries to do their circumambulations , to make their obeisances to the Buddha in the monasteries. And one can see even today, just the enormous power that these religious sites have in terms of attracting Tibetan Buddhist sympathy, loyalty and reverence.

q:  What's happened to some of these monasteries? What have the Chinese turned them into?

a:  Many of the main monasteries have been restored to some degree and they do have some degree of religious life going on. They're also used as tourist destinations. I mean, this is what Tibet has to offer and the tourist industry is burgeoning. There are a number of other lesser monasteries in outlying regions where actually life is much freer and where there is a degree of real restoration of normal Buddhist ceremonial life. These are a little less heavily monitored than the ones in central Tibet and Lhasa and Shigatse in the main, sort of urban centers.

q:  But when you were in some of the main monasteries -- I would think [they] had a kind of magical impact Was there a sense of sadness or tragedy you felt just standing there, being in what has turned into a tourist attraction?

a:  I was thinking how extraordinary it would be to have seen them fifty years ago when it wasn't tourists flocking around and a few monks struggling to restore what once was a robust and living tradition ... when these monasteries were alive and when Tibetan Buddhism was unfettered and was the coin of the realm.

In the old days -- the monasteries were Tibet's factories. They were Tibet's industry. This is what Tibet did...was... it created this sort of spiritual GNP. I mean, in 1949, I think there was still no vehicle in Lhasa. This is extraordinary.

Now a certain amount of this is just nostalgia to be sure. But it speaks of a basic human urge, a human kind of a yearning for a time when things were not all hooked up, when the commercial world had not invaded every corner of the globe.

Paradoxically, I think the Chinese occupation of Tibet which really began in the early 50s and was completed in 1959 -- it helped keep the Tibet mystery alive because you couldn't go there from 1950 to really -- the end of the 70s. And the fact that we couldn't go there, as westerners, made us have to live it in our imaginations. And we imagined it as it used to be, according to all of these wonderful books that we read that are now coming out, emerging into movies.

q:  Did you sense when you were there that the Tibetan culture could just quickly evaporate?

a:  Well I think you know there are two kinds of culture. There's sort of high culture in the monasteries, the religious traditions, you know, the enormous amount of learning that goes into creating doctors of theology in Tibetan Buddhism. And then there's low culture of the nomads and their folk traditions and what not. I mean obviously a society will keep a certain amount of the latter. The question is what about the former? It was a little like the way the Catholic Church used to rule in Europe united Christendom. And it took hundreds of years for that to diminish . But in Tibet -- Tibetan Buddhism sort of hit a fall in a decade or so because of the Chinese occupation.

q:  Can you explain more about the Panchen Lama - who is he?

a:  Each monastery in Tibet is centered around a high lama who is a reincarnation of the spiritual essence of an earlier lama. Tashilhunpo Monasteryis centered around the Panchen Lama, the second most important reincarnated lama in Tibet. He died in 1987. His search was conducted recently by the abbot and a search committee at the monastery. After a six-year old child was chosen and sanctioned by the Dalai Lama in exile, Beijing became extremely exorcised because it looked like the Dalai Lama was playing an important role in choosing this successor. And they in effect cancelled that child. Not only that, they grabbed him, took him to Beijing, locked him up, under house arrest, making him the youngest political prisoner in the world. And then they chose a child of their own. So we now have a spiritual leader, the second most important spiritual leader in Tibet, chosen by the Communist Party - a great anomaly for a Communist Party which views religion as the opium of the masses and, as Mao Tse Tung said, "poison."

q:  What is Ganden and what's happened to it?

A: Ganden is about an hour outside of Lhasa, one of the monasteries that was most well-known - it is where the Dalai Lama got his final theological degree before fleeing. And it was a monastery completely destroyed. And you look at it and most of it still today--it's just sort of bombed-out ruins, walls standing, no roofs and there was a dust up there and one person was killed and the Chinese have subsequently put the monastery off limits.

And it is precisely this kind of incident which I think we may see more of if this problem isn't somehow solved. Because the animosity levels between Tibetans and the Chinese are rising each time an incident such as this happens. And although the Chinese keep very tight control on the situation, ultimately this kind of sentiment has a way of exploding and this is the fear that without a solution, Tibet and China will end up in another very explosive impasse.


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