We have now left Lhasa, Tibet, and we discovered that this was quite an interesting time to be here, politically speaking.
The True Readers China Tour group in front of Lhasa’s Potala Palace:
Our guide here was a native Tibetan, and a Buddhist, and was very knowledgeable about the history of Tibet, the history of Buddhism, and more. He talked quite a bit of the history of the Dalai Lamas — up to Number 13; he never spoke of the 14th, the current Dalai Lama, and either ignored questions about him or refused to answer them.
There is a simple reason, of course: China put down an uprising in Tibet in 1959, and does not recognize the Dalai Lama, who escaped to exile when the uprising failed. (I don’t think I need to go into that here; if you want to know more, Wikipedia has extensive information.)
This is Tibet’s flag, introduced by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1912. We didn’t see any of these in Tibet: it’s been declared illegal by the Chinese government.
And what timing that we should be in Tibet this week: the Dalai Lama is in Washington D.C. this week to meet privately with President Bush and to receive a Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian honor given in the U.S.
“We solemnly demand that the U.S. cancel the extremely wrong arrangements,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi hours before the meeting. “It seriously violates the norm of international relations and seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people and interfered with China’s internal affairs.”
“We in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel that we are poking a stick in their eye,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who insisted that the meeting and medal were simply to honor “a great spiritual leader” and promote greater religious freedom in Tibet.
Yet the timing hardly looks like a coincidence: also this week is the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, a significant meeting that determines political leadership for the following five years. Understandably, the Chinese government is thus quite upset with the U.S.
There was an obvious heavy police presence in Lhasa, apparently more than usual, but we didn’t feel hassled by them — not even by the black-clad “undercover” secret police who followed us around at the market.
They were watching us, a guide told us in a whisper, because they were afraid westerners were in town to drop off and pick up “messages” to disrupt the National Congress and further embarrass the government. Once we put two and two together, we were a tad nervous at the timing of our presence there, feeling like we were at “ground zero” as two superpower countries sparred with each other.
Last: It was interesting trying to research this entry — finding the right link to the Wikipedia article, even getting news articles about the Dalai Lama — many of the pages I tried to go to were blocked. I am, after all, in the middle of mainland China, connected through Chinese-based Internet access….
This entry was updated after my return to the U.S. to add detail I couldn’t get from China.