Tibet`s Turmoil—The Immigration Dimension


News reports of ethnic hostilities around the world inundate us daily—Kenya, Kosovo, Iraq. Tibet in particular is in turmoil.

In a recent Associated Press report, Tibet protests spread to other provinces, (March 17th) Cara Anna and Tini Tran quoted the Dalai Lama: “Whether intentionally or unintentionally, some kind of cultural genocide is taking place.”

Just what is genocide? One dictionary states, in part, that genocide is

“the use of deliberate systematic measures . . .calculated to bring about the extermination of a racial, political or cultural group or to destroy the language, religion or culture of a group.

Is genocide occurring in Tibet? I personally believe that the destruction of the culture, language and religion of Tibet is driven by the Chinese desire to overwhelm Tibet for economic gain rather than a desire to exterminate the Tibetans as a people. But whatever the motivation, the result is the same. Unless something happens, Tibet is doomed.

Ten months ago, my husband and I returned to China and took a 5,300 mile, train journey from Shanghai to Lanzhou to Lhasa to Hami to Urumqi and then flew back to Beijing. On the Lanzhou-Lhasa leg of the journey, we rode the Qinghai-Tibet line over the highest railway pass in the world. At Tangula, the altitude reading aboard the train read 5072 meters or 16,640 feet. This new line, which opened in June of 2006, cost the Chinese over $4 billion.

The Chinese say that they constructed the line to modernize Tibet and to connect it with the rest of the country. And connect Tibet to China it does. One can ride the train from Beijing to Tibet directly at high speeds in sleek modern equipment (Photo) [All photos courtesy of Rich Thom] over some of the most desolate terrain in the world. (Photo) I believe the Chinese built the line, not to help Tibet, but rather to exploit Tibet’s rich mineral wealth, to increase her tourist potential and to convince the world that China is a First-World country.

My husband and I have taken trains over what are, since the Qinghai-Tibet line’s opening, the second and third highest rail passes in the world, in Bolivia and Peru. We have ridden trains around India, Central and South America and Europe. We have ridden the Patagonia Express, the Orient Express and the Apple Express in South Africa. We have crossed America and Canada on trains. We have “trained” through the Chunnel.

So I can state with authority that China’s Qinghai-Tibet line is an incredible ride and an astonishing engineering accomplishment.

But with Chinese character. The sleeping accommodations are decidedly Chinese—mostly hard class with three bunks each side of the compartment and no door. The soft class compartments contain four, soft bunks and a door. All cars have oxygen-enriched environments with additional oxygen available for those who suffer from the altitude.

Our tour group of Brits with some Colonials—Aussies, Yanks and Canadians—booked “soft class” sleepers months in advance. When we reached China, we were told that our places had been commandeered by Chinese politicians to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of the line. No apologies, no explanations, nothing.

When we scrambled aboard, squatters occupied our compartment. They refused to move. Rail authorities were called. Much shouting ensured. They still refused to move. Six of us were moved to the staff, “hard class” sleeper car.

The European-style toilet was locked. The alternative was an Asian-hole-in-the-floor toilet. We had to beg the Dragon Lady attendant to “Open, Sesame!” For those who have traveled extensively in China, rigid Chinese customs and rules can be very frustrating. One learns, however, that the Chinese respond rapidly and impolitely to those who do not comply with said customs—by, for example, locking European-style toilets.

The Chinese certainly believe the line is an astonishing accomplishment as does much of the world media which touted its 2006 opening. But for the Buddhist, pastoral Tibetans, the line is a curse. It merely brings in more ethnic Han Chinese workers and tourists. They are overwhelming Tibet. (See Years of grievances erupt into rage,, By Barbara Demick, LA Times March 18, 2008)

The train we rode had a capacity for 885 passengers and was about 85 percent full. The Chinese run eight trains in and eight trains out of Tibet daily which means that 12,000 riders come and go each day. My husband and I guessed, by observation of all cars, that our train carried about 90 percent Han Chinese, perhaps 5 percent “long-noses” (Europeans) and the remainder Tibetans. (Photo )

In Lhasa, we and our companions stayed in a stylish hotel with all that one would expect from a world-class facility. By appearance, the personnel were entirely Han.

Our city tour guide was Han. Our bus drivers were Han. The people on the streets of Lhasa seemed to be 75 percent Han (Photo ) except inside the Jokhang Temple (Photo) and in a small, two-block-long, open air market near the Temple. In the circuit around the Temple (Photo ), Chinese run all the high-end shops and almost all the outside trinket stalls. A neon Budweiser sign adorns one store front.

Potala Palace sited above the city (Photo ) ranks as among the most beautiful sites in the world—right up there with the Taj Mahal and Notre Dame Cathedral.

But once inside the Palace, tourists cannot help but be very saddened by its dilapidated condition. And even the exterior area is modern, with busy streets, parking lots and bus stops. Across the main traffic thoroughfare from the Palace sits a park with a huge, contemporary fountain worthy of Disneyland. (Photo)

Can one blame Tibetans for objecting to these changes? When America built the trans-continental railway, native peoples did not celebrate the incursion of white settlers. In Iraq, the smaller Sunni population objects to losing power to the more numerous Shiites. In Kosovo, Serbs objected to being outnumbered by the prolific, Muslim, ethnic Albanians—and they are still objecting in the northern part of that now-seceded province. In Turkey and Iraq, Kurds continue to press for autonomy if not independence.

In America, millions of immigrants with different cultures continue to pour into our country. In many parts of California, one cannot hear English spoken. When addressed in English, the Spanish-speakers revert to perfect, unaccented English. Many are Americans by citizenship but “other” by culture.

Many citizens of the Golden State still do not know that 48 percent of K-12 school children are Hispanic. Asian/Pacific Islanders account for 11 percent of students. African-Americans make up only 8 percent of enrollment. Whites are a mere 29 percent of the total 6.3 million students.  

But increasingly Californians are noticing the changes in their schools and in their neighborhoods. Many are moving out of the state—and taking their income-tax dollars with them.

Indeed, all over the country, Americans are on the move. They are moving from changed neighborhoods to places where they are the majority and where they feel comfortable.

Blacks are moving back to the South. Blacks are also migrating out of Los Angeles where they are being overwhelmed and attacked by Hispanics. Many Asian immigrants are moving to ethnic neighborhoods populated by “their own” people.

Thankfully, Americans are not rioting in the streets. But what will happen if and when an ethnic minority becomes the majority and declares independence? Will a future President declare the separatist state an independent country—a precedent our President Bush accepted when he extended diplomatic recognition to Kosovo after it declared its independence from Serbia?

Impossible? Human beings are human beings. They have been separating themselves and fighting among themselves for thousands of years. Americans are human beings. Americans are no more special than the Romans who were overcome by barbarians. Americans are no more special than indigenous peoples in North and South America who were overwhelmed by European settlers.

We must shut the door—and help those who reside here to assimilate.

Otherwise, our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences.

Linda Thom [email her] is a retiree and refugee from California. She formerly worked as an officer for a major bank and as a budget analyst for the County Administrator of Santa Barbara.