Asked whether China has made progress in respecting human rights, Tibetan refugee Niyma Tsering points at his groin.
For two days last summer, he says, he was detained by Chinese state security agents in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, after taking part in a demonstration against rising prices. The agents fastened his hands behind his back by clamping his thumbs together with a “thumb cuff,” then beat and kicked him in the stomach three times a day.
The lanky former shop employee touches the nape of his neck, then the trousers around his groin. “They shocked me here and there with electric cattle prods,” Tsering, 25, says matter-of-factly, drawing on his cigarette.
He fled Lhasa by truck for southern Tibet in November, then walked for 14 days and nights through the snow-clad Himalayas to reach Nepal.
“The Tibetan people live in extreme fear,” Tsering said. “Their lives depend on the whims of top Chinese officials. If tomorrow they are told to shoot 1,000 Tibetans, they will carry out the order blindly.”
By June 3, President Clinton must decide whether to extend most-favored-nation status for China. In granting China those trade benefits last year, Clinton conditioned renewal on progress by the Beijing government in several areas of human rights, including preservation of Tibet’s unique religious and cultural heritage.
In this north Indian city that has served since 1960 as the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Tibetan officials, including the Dalai Lama himself, say that despite Clinton’s requirements, the situation for Tibetans on the whole has worsened, not improved. A people’s very survival is at stake, they say.
“Time is running out,” said the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans who fled to India 35 years ago after China crushed an abortive national uprising. The Beijing government’s intent, he asserted in an interview, “is to suppress (Tibetans) completely and in the meantime to increase the Chinese population so that in a few years’ time, the Tibetans become insignificant in their own land.”
“Some of my friends call this the ‘Final Solution’ of the Tibet issue,” the Dalai Lama said.
In recent days, high-ranking Indian government officials say, China has been moving more troops into Tibet, including detachments that took part in the bloody suppression of the Tian An Men Square pro-democracy movement five years ago.
The cause, the Indians suggest, may be fears of widespread trouble on the May 23 anniversary of the 1951 accord signed by the Tibetans under duress that legalized the “liberation” of their land by the invading Chinese Communist military.
“There has been a massive influx of Chinese population,” reports Pema Thinley, head of the human rights desk in the exile government’s Department of Information and International Relations. “The immigrants are taking away economic opportunities, and the local population is getting marginalized. I think the population influx is the most serious human rights issue.”
In a troubling new trend, Tibetan exile officials say, Chinese have been moving for the first time out of the cities to the countryside, where they are allegedly confiscating land from Tibetan peasants to start vegetable farms.
Tibetans say occupation of their harsh, mountainous land has led over the years to the deaths of 1.2 million Tibetans--a sixth of the population--as well as the destruction of more than 6,200 monasteries and wide-scale plundering of Tibet’s cultural and natural treasures.
Recent visitors and refugees who have reached Dharamsala tell of continuing brutal repression and torture. In 1993, 253 Tibetans were reportedly arrested for political offenses, in addition to about 400 already known to monitor groups, Thinley said. Countless other Tibetans are said to be imprisoned or in detention awaiting trial, including at Situ northeast of Lhasa.
Most political offenders are reportedly held in Block No. 5 of Tibet Autonomous Region Prison No. 1 in Lhasa. Jigme Sangpo, an outspoken nationalist, has been in prison since 1964, Tibetan exiles say. In the past year, there has reportedly been a crackdown on nuns and monks, key figures in Tibet’s traditionally Buddhist society.
In October, 14 nuns already confined in Prison No. 1 received additional prison terms for composing a patriotic song and smuggling a cassette recording of it out of jail, exile officials say. One nun had nine more years tacked on to her existing eight-year prison term.
Torture is said to be routine, an accusation repeated Thursday in a report by Amnesty International.
One escaped Chinese Communist Party official from eastern Tibet told Dharamsala exiles that 33 types of torture are still in use, including no fewer than four types of electric cattle prods. Prisoners have been held in cells whose metal floors have been flooded and jolts of electricity then passed through them.
Education is one way of simultaneously eradicating Tibetan culture and ensuring Chinese dominance. “In order to get a job, you must know Chinese,” Thinley said. “In schools, after primary level, everything is taught in Chinese. To get a higher education, you have to know Chinese. All modern subjects are taught in Chinese, so the Chinese have taken away all the jobs.”
Heavy government restrictions on religion, the second field in Tibet singled out for monitoring by Clinton, remain, despite some improvements since the Chinese instituted a policy of “liberalization” in 1979. Boards set up by the Chinese function in the monasteries themselves, running their finances, watching the monks’ doings and ensuring that Communist Party doctrines on religion are implemented.
Dasang, a 19-year-old Buddhist monk who fled Tibet in January, scoffed when asked if the Chinese respect official guarantees of freedom of worship.
“The Chinese say there’s religious freedom inside Tibet. But it’s not true,” he said. “In the monasteries, there is no one to struggle for freedom. There are no teachers to instruct. There are no elder monks left. . . . They have fixed the number of monks for each monastery. So much for their religious freedom!”
Tibetan refugees in India describe the situation in their homeland in universally bleak terms. But a recent four-week journey in Tibet by two American journalists, one of whom has made several trips to the area in recent years, presented a more complex picture, in some cases supporting the Chinese government position.
Not all Tibetans, for example, appeared to be suffering under Chinese rule. A minority of younger Tibetans, born after the Chinese occupation, appeared to be prospering. Western-dressed Tibetans drive up to discotheques in imported Land Cruisers. When asked, many contend that they and their families are much better off financially than they were only a few years ago.
The reporters also saw examples of unemployment and alcoholism among Tibetan youth. Signs of the increasing Han Chinese dominance over the indigenous Tibetan culture were pervasive, especially in Lhasa.
But compared with recent years, the reporters saw more open religious activity. True to Beijing’s claims, many temples and monasteries are being rebuilt and restored. Pilgrims worship openly. Photographs of the Dalai Lama, once rare contraband, are now sold openly.
Tibetan exiles, like U.S. policy-makers, seem torn over what action is most likely to compel China to modify its human rights policies.
But the Dalai Lama, who won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to nonviolence, appears to want to test whether stepping up global pressure will work.
“He is now saying that increased international pressure may help,” said Bhuchung K. Tsering, editor of the Tibetan Bulletin, published by the exile government, and no relation to the Lhasa refugee. “And he has said that he is willing to wait for one or two years to see if pressure will bring results.”
In the Dalai Lama’s opinion, what is crucial is that whatever Clinton’s decision, it satisfy forces inside China that are still struggling for democracy. A published suggestion by physicist Fang Lizhi that U.S. trade privileges be maintained for private Chinese businesses but be revoked for state- and military-run enterprises is an approach that has caught his eye.
“It is very important to take a decision according to the wishes of the Chinese--those Chinese who are carrying out the struggle for . . . freedom,” the Dalai Lama said.