Tibet or not Tibet?

International | Broadening the alliance--But is coalition-building to advance the cause of persecuted Christians diluting distinctives? Pushing moral equivalence?

Issue: "Federal Testing," Sept. 13, 1997

Congressman Frank Wolf chose the "roof of the world" to take the lid off still another category of Chinese persecution, what he calls the "boot-heel subjugation" of Tibetan Buddhists. The August trip to the Himalayas by Mr. Wolf and a Washington aide made front-page news because of its clandestine style. Mr. Wolf traveled on a tourist visa and notified neither the U.S. embassy nor Chinese officials of his plans. He was the first American lawmaker to visit the region without an official Chinese escort since its communist takeover in 1959.

What Mr. Wolf attempted was an on-the-ground sortie to document how China's communist regime has attempted systematically to wipe out Tibetan culture since it forced Tibet's political and religious leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile more than three decades ago. Dodging government sanction and donning "traditional tourist garb," Mr. Wolf was able to see life in the capital, Lhasa, and in the surrounding countryside, unfiltered by Chinese censors. He found people on the street eager to seek out a Westerner and tell their stories, even as they risked imprisonment to do so.

Mr. Wolf quotes one Tibetan as telling him: "The Chinese say we have freedom of religion but it is a lie. Despite the Chinese saying that Tibetans have freedom, there are no freedoms-not even one. Everything is controlled by the Chinese and we are repressed. We listen to Voice of America say that the West supports Tibet, yet they continue doing business with China. That doesn't help. Tibet feels left out and ignored."

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The Virginia congressman said others told of Buddhist monks and nuns imprisoned and tortured with electric cattle prods. They said Tibetan children are routinely sent to China for education, and Chinese are forcibly resettled in Tibet, taking away businesses and taking over cultural life.

Buddhist monasteries, Mr. Wolf observed, always have Chinese overseers. Many have been burned or otherwise destroyed, he was told. He also saw that there are no newspapers to buy, no radio news (save the Voice of America), and very little television.

"Stores, hotels, bazaars, businesses, and tradesmen are largely Chinese," reported Mr. Wolf upon his return. "Storefront signs bear large Chinese writing beneath much smaller Tibetan inscriptions." Reliable estimates, according to Mr. Wolf, say there are now 160,000 Chinese in Lhasa and only 100,000 Tibetans. "China,"

he concluded, "is swallowing Tibet."

Mr. Wolf has made headlines from his travels before (see WORLD, June 28/July 5). He visited the Soviet gulag and Romania in the 1980s before the fall of communism; he has been to a Chinese labor camp and made three trips to Sudan, where the Muslim north is waging war against the predominantly Christian southern Sudan. This is the first time, however, his journey has taken him to the heart of a religious tradition in conflict with his own Christianity.

Tibet has long resisted the Christian message, according to Overseas Missionary Fellowship. In a report published last year, OMF noted that the high point for missions work there came in 1726, when a Catholic church was built. Today there is reportedly one house church with 20 Christian believers meeting in Lhasa. There are unconfirmed reports that another house church exists in Lhasa, and that several have begun in other Tibetan cities. Those fellowships are supported by house churches in China who meet without government approval. Those who attend are Chinese with just a few ethnic Tibetans.

For the Tibetans there may be a double danger to Christian worship: They face opposition from both communist officials and Buddhist lamas, or high priests, according to OMF. The Tibet Information Network, a pro-Dalai Lama information service based in London, actually tracks for Buddhists the work of Christian missions in Tibet.

According to an aide to Mr. Wolf, the congressman did not inquire about house churches in Tibet or look into the conditions for Christians there. "We don't want that to take away from what this trip is all about," said the aide, Bridget Bustillos. In a prepared statement after his trip, Mr. Wolf said, "My interest in Tibet and the driving force behind my visit centers on work to help in stopping religious persecution and protecting basic human rights."

The persecution of the Buddhist sect known as Lamaism in Tibet is well known. The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988. On speaking tours he has engaged conservative audiences hosted by Jesse Helms as well as liberal gatherings attended by Vice President Gore. The saffron-robed lifestyle may seem remote to many Americans, but Buddhist notions of reincarnation and the earning of merit with sutras and mantras figure prevalently into most New Age philosophies.


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