On July 6, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, celebrated his 83rd birthday in Ladakh, the Himalayan region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. On the other side of the world’s highest mountain range sits Lhasa, the Tibetan capital that he fled in 1959 during the Tibetan Uprising. The Dalai Lama has never been allowed to return. His has been a life lived in exile. But even Lhasa, home to the Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace, was a world away from the place where Tenzin Gyato was born.
Takster is a small village in the far northeast of the Tibetan plateau, in the region of Amdo (these days, it’s part of the Chinese province of Qinghai). In his biography, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama writes of Takster:
It was a small and poor settlement which stood on a hill overlooking a broad valley. Its pastures had not been settled or farmed for long, only grazed by nomads. The reason for this was the unpredictability of the weather in that area. During my early childhood, my family was one of twenty or so making a precarious living from the land there.
When Thupten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, died in 1933 a search party was appointed to find his reincarnation; they first reached Takster just before Tenzin Gyatso’s third birthday. Shortly thereafter, they sent word to the Regent in Lhasa that they’d found the new Dalai Lama; they then waited several months to receive official confirmation.
At the time, control of China was divided among former military cliques. Ma Bufang, the Hui Muslim warload who ruled over Qinghai, “began to make trouble,” in the words of the Dalai Lama; thus, the boy destined to become the religious and political leader of Tibet was taken with his family to Kumbum monastery, “several hours away by horse.” Two years of diplomatic toing and froing followed and eventually, with the payment of a ransom, Ma Bufang allowed the party to leave Kumbum monastery and travel onwards to Lhasa.
Takster is a footnote in the long history of Tibet; it would be all but unremarkable if it were not the birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama.
Today, it’s still a small, isolated village. For tourists visiting China – taking in the sights of Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu, etc. – this side of the country’s extraordinary rise often remains invisible: away from the big cities, there is still widespread impoverishment. In places like Takster it’s clear that China’s growth has disproportionately benefitted wealthy urbanities; today’s reality is the very opposite of the peasant-led revolution Mao Zedong hoped would remake China.
But Takster also tells another story of modern China, with its resurgent Han nationalism and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities.
It’s seven kilometers from Takster to the next closest village. The roads leading up the mountain from Ping’an are all relatively new up until the final village, after which they’re pot-holed and often unsealed. The villages scattered up the mountain, where the majority of people are Hui Muslims, are fairly typical of the region: there’s a small middle school, and stores where shopkeepers stare at their phones while waiting for customers. I spot a large government building with the requisite Chinese Communist Party (CCP) insignia and men work in a small square, laying pavers and planting trees.
Takster is somehow different, though. At first sight, it looks like the other villages. Vegetation is sparse, there are old cars and decrepit motorcycles parked haphazardly, and all the homes are small, one-story dwellings with large courtyards. But all the gates are closed and locked, which is unusual in a village where everyone knows one another and many people are related. It’s around 10:30 a.m. when we arrive, but there is no one around. Even the police are nowhere to be seen. We park in front of a requisitioned school desk with two police shields leaning against it, but the comically small chairs are empty.
The Dalai Lama’s former home isn’t exactly inconspicuous; the CCP have “renovated” it and you can see the gold roof as you drive toward Takster. But that’s the best view we get; the house is behind a four-meter high grey brick wall and, on the day we’re there, the wooden gate, draped in Tibetan khatags, is locked.
In lieu of people, the house is watched over by a lone security camera, aimed at the entrance. One hundred meters down the road a dog emerges from a house, then the sound of someone hammering metal begins to ring out over the village. As we make our way toward the only sign of life we’ve seen or heard since arriving, a Chinese-speaking Tibetan man emerges from a dwelling attached the former home of the Dalai Lama. Looking at me, he asks: “Where are you from?” But before I can answer he turns to my driver and, more alarmed, asks, “Are you Tibetan?” When the driver answers in the affirmative, the villager – with an obvious sense of urgency – tells us to leave quickly because the place is heavily surveilled. His voice is foreboding and his jerky, hurried gestures make it clear that this isn’t a place to loiter.
My now visibly anxious driver and I hurry back to the car, hoping that the makeshift police checkpoint is still unoccupied. Although few words are spoken in our brief encounter with the local villager, much is conveyed: Tibetans understand the reach, power, and unjustness of the CCP. They’ve spent their whole lives being persecuted because they’re Tibetans.
Beijing obviously doesn’t want Takster becoming a pilgrimage site for Tibetans; the Dalai Lama represents a challenge not to Chinese power per se, but to its national(ist) narrative. Martin Jacques, author and scholar of modern China, has argued that China is different from other nation states and is better understood as a “civilization-state.” The CCP’s claims to legitimacy are closely linked to its ability to foster an image of itself as the guardian of China’s 6,000 year old civilization. The claim, therefore, that Tibet is culturally, linguistically, and geographically distinct from China and its civilization undermines the CCP’s claims to legitimacy.
Yet, if, as Beijing claims, Tibet is an intrinsic part of China and if the emerging superpower is, as it claims, a benign force (unlike Western imperial powers), then it doesn’t make sense to ban people from visiting sites like Takster. If Takster is part of China in the same way that, say, Shanghai is, then all Chinese people (including Tibetans) should be free to go there. But, of course, Takster is not the same as Shanghai, nor are Tibetans, in the eyes of the CCP, the same as Han Chinese. There is a tension, in other words, between the myth-making that passes for official Chinese history, the national narrative that’s the basis for so much state propaganda, and the lived reality for China’s minorities.
China today is unrecognizable as the socialist utopia envisioned by Mao. Since his death in 1976, the CCP has shown itself to be flexible on matters that were once ideological imperatives. Thus, the once nominally atheist state has, in recent years, seen a resurgence in religiosity amongst its citizens. The CCP has allowed this – even encouraged it in some instances – to the extent that it remains apolitical. But if religious belief is accompanied by or becomes the basis for calls for independence or autonomy or greater freedom, then it’s ruthlessly repressed.
With each passing year, as the Dalai Lama grows older, there are whispers about what will happen when he dies: it’s unthinkable that Beijing would allow a Tibetan search party to carry out the task of finding his reincarnation unimpeded. The Dalai Lama has made some vague comments that he may be the last reincarnation or that his reincarnation may be found outside Tibet in, say, India or Nepal. But until he passes and Beijing reveals its hand, this all remains hypothetical.
When we are a few kilometers out of Takster, my driver relaxes a bit, puts on some Tibetan rap music and we resume the conversation we’d been having earlier. “What do you think will happen,” I ask, “when the Dalai Lama dies?”
“Maybe I will have a bit more freedom,” he replies unconvincingly. He qualifies it with, “But I don’t really know, though.” He thinks it’s inevitable that the CCP will try to install their own pliant “Dalai Lama” (like it did when the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking lama in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, died in 1989); a figurehead the CCP can point to as evidence of its acceptance and respect for minorities, but someone who’s just an extension of its authority.
A few weeks later I am in Dharamshala, India with a Tibetan friend who’s spent most of his life in exile. When I tell him about my visit to the Dalai Lama’s birthplace and relate the conversation I had with my driver, he is dismissive of that prediction. It is impossible, he says, that Tibetans living in Chinese-occupied Tibet would stand for such an affront to their faith. If the CCP interferes with the search for the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, he warns, it could be the fire that sparks a revolution.
These two responses are not necessarily reflective of the views of the majority living in occupied-Tibet and those in exile, but they are emblematic of the gulf between the lived experiences of the two communities. Both suffer because of China’s occupation, but they suffer in very different ways and this shapes their hopes, aspirations and expectations.
All Tibetans share a culture and history, but China, in addition to occupying Tibetan land, has driven a wedge between its people. Many of those living in Chinese-administered territory can’t leave, while many of those living in exile have never set foot in Tibet.
The on-going Chinese-Tibetan conflict is not generally treated as an urgent matter by the international community. Beijing restricts access to Tibet, so the flow of information is tightly controlled, and China is an increasingly powerful force in the world. But the longer China is allowed to remain unaccountable for its occupation of Tibet and the oppression of its people, the harder it will be to bridge the divide between a people whose lived experience of isolation, occupation, and exclusion have been so different.
(This was originally published in The Diplomat on 7th August, 2018.)