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How to Kill a Story

China versus the Tibetans.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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And that struggle, which has now taken the form of self-destruction, has galvanized the Tibetan exile community at a time when it was dividing into rival camps. The Dalai Lama has been promoting his “middle way”—autonomy inside the People’s Republic of China—while other exiles demand rangzen, independence. The dispute has, in recent years, become bitter, and some have openly criticized the Dalai Lama for trying to work out an accommodation with Beijing. Yet the horrific suicides have reminded exiles they have a common responsibility to those facing unrelenting repression in Tibet. The challenge for the scattered Tibetans going forward is preserving their sense of community. 

That is why Lobsang Sangay, who heads the Tibetan government-in-exile, is his own education minister. He is insistent on teaching Tibetan identity and raising learning standards. His favorite story is that of a woman who fled Tibet but later returned to care for her family. She had attended Indian schools while in exile, so she was not permitted to attend college in Tibet. For six years, she returned to India every year, trekking over the mountains, to take exams and pick up course materials she smuggled back into Tibet. Eventually, she earned her Indian college degree and, after finally leaving Tibet, a Ph.D.

Education is the focus of the struggle between Tibetans and Beijing. Inside Tibet, Tibetans cannot build private schools, and monasteries are being closed or tightly monitored. Public education is all about spreading Chinese language and influence. Outside, in India and Nepal, few children are reaching freedom, and consequently schools lack new students. For the Tibetans to prevail, they have to pass on their culture and religion to the next generation. 

At the moment, it looks like Beijing has all the advantages. Tsundue talks about the necessity of “decolonizing” education in Tibet, but that cannot happen as long as the Chinese rule—and occupy—his homeland. Yet as powerful as China may seem these days, there is no final victory over those who refuse to submit. Tsundue proudly speaks of his people’s “irrational resistance.” 

Lukar Sham resisted reeducation, surviving five years in a Chinese jail in Tibet. He now runs the Gu-Chu-Sum halfway house in Dharamsala for ex-political prisoners who, like him, were able to escape after release. The upper floor of the house is devoted to an exhibit of photographs of the victims of Chinese violence in Tibet, a graphic education for Tibetans who grew up in exile and so know only the peace and serenity of this Indian hill city.

Surrounded by a dozen friends in a damp kitchen at the end of last year, Sham tells me his people will outlast the occupier. “We failed when we fought the Chinese,” he said with a smile, “and we failed when we negotiated with them, but we will not fail to sustain our community.”

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China (Random House). 

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