Originally published in Asia Times Online on April 10, 2008


BEIJING - Over the past three decades, the Chinese leadership has proven
remarkably responsive to changing circumstances. The ruling Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) has displayed a pragmatism and flexibility that
has allowed it to retain power, even as the Iron Curtain of the former
Soviet Union was torn down along large parts of China's borders.

Yet while the CCP has shown itself to be adept at identifying and
addressing a range of problems - from the need to pursue vigorous
economic reforms to the need to ensure balanced growth between rural and
urban areas - Tibet remains its Achilles' heel.

After almost 20 years of a relatively quiescent Tibet, the recent
protests across the Tibetan parts of China have caught Beijing
off-guard. Following the riots of the 1980s, the CCP's strategy towards
Tibet has been one of dealing with dissent harshly while simultaneously
developing the region economically. The hope is that rising prosperity
will bind the restive region closer to the center and convince Tibetans
that it is the party, rather than the Dalai Lama, that can ensure a
better life for them.

The opening of the Beijing-Lhasa railway is but one high-profile example
of this approach. The railway is also evidence of the confidence Beijing
felt for the success of its measures. Gradually, the Tibet Autonomous
Region has been opened up to tourism, and temples that were once hotbeds
of dissident have been allowed to resume activity.

The events of the past few weeks, however, demonstrate that Chinese
authorities have failed to read the pulse of the Tibetan people
accurately. This failure boils down to an inability to grasp a society
in which the spiritual is prioritized over the material.

No matter how much the Dalai Lama is projected domestically as a
sinister "splittist", the average Tibetan still believes the spiritual
leader is a living Buddha; a belief which cannot be bought off by
subsidies and trains. The Tibet issue is therefore not one of
"independence", as it is commonly framed, but of the freedom to believe
and worship. In Tibet such freedom is equivalent to worshipping the
Dalai Lama.

There is a visceral religiosity in Tibet, evidenced by the fluttering
prayer flags attached to every conceivable grounded object, the smell of
incense and yak butter lamps in the air and the crush of prayer
wheel-whirling pilgrims who circle Lhasa's temples at any given time of
the day. Moreover, this religiosity sets Tibet apart from the rest of
startlingly secular China.

Even before the communist accession of 1949, after which religious
worship was attacked as a feudal superstition, religion in Han China was
of a different texture than that in Tibet. Confucianism and legalist
philosophies shaped the dominant modes of Chinese thinking and these
were rarely concerned with the metaphysical or divine, being firmly
grounded in matters of the here and now.

Buddhism, which was introduced to China from India around the first
century AD, was the exception to this traditional Chinese emphasis on
the practical rather than spiritual but was never able to achieve clear
supremacy of place within the Chinese belief structure.

In any event, China's multi-layered philosophical and religious history
was abruptly rent apart during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when,
following Mao Zedong's diktats, temples and places of worship across the
country were attacked, and monks publicly paraded in the street and
flogged. It was communist ideology rather than religion that people were
taught and expected to believe in.

In the post-reform period much has changed. In many ways the new
religion worships in banks and ATM machines. But while money-worship may
have replaced ideological fervor for the most part, a genuine religious
renaissance is also taking place and with the consent of the CCP.
Although officially atheist itself, the party has transformed from a
revolutionary to a status-quo power and sees the usefulness of
traditional philosophies like Confucianism and Buddhism with their
emphasis on harmony and order.

Although religious freedoms in China are growing, Beijing continues to
set strict parameters within which this "freedom" can be practiced.
Heads of temples, mosques and churches are handpicked by the CCP. All
places of worship must be registered with the government. Moreover,
freedom of religion is allowed only as long as the believers continue to
accept the politburo rather than a religious leader as their supreme

Catholics, for whom the pope elicits a devotion that is beyond the
control of the leadership, are subject to tight controls and ties
between Beijing and the Vatican had been severed since 1951. "House
church" Protestantism which involves informal gatherings by believers in
private homes or other places outside authorized churches is vulnerable
to crackdowns.

Followers of religions other than the five which are officially
recognized - Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Protestantism and Chinese
Catholicism - are viewed with suspicion.

"I find it difficult to tell even my friends that I'm a vegetarian
because in their eyes that would make me unorthodox and therefore
suspect," said one Chinese member of the Radha-Saomi spiritual group in
north India.

In the CCP's refusal to allow religious devotion unless it remains
subservient to the party lies the real nature of the Tibet issue and the
undiminished belief of Tibetans in the Dalai Lama.

In the summer of 2006, I visited Lhasa as part of a journalistic
contingent aboard the first Beijing-Lhasa train. Everywhere I went in
the city ripples of excitement seemed to spread simply by virtue of my
Indian nationality. Roadside sellers of bric-a-brac, monks in the Potala
Palace, itinerant city guides, aged pilgrims: what this motley
assortment of Lhasa residents had in common was the desire to talk to me
about the Dalai Lama.

Eyes brimming with curiosity, they asked, "Had I been to Dharamsala?",
where the Dalai Lama's government in exile is based in India. "Had I met
his holiness?" Many showed me pictures they carried of the exiled
leader, even though possession of such icons is banned by Beijing.

What became clear was that religious freedom in Tibet, in the absence of
the freedom to believe in the Dalai Lama, is meaningless. For the
hundreds of monks in Tibet denouncing the Dalai Lama, their living
Buddha, is a compulsory daily routine. The CCP has inserted itself into
Tibetan religious rituals in other ways as well. Beijing recently
announced that the party has the sole authority to approve
reincarnations - the divine process by which a "living Buddha" is chosen
in boyhood. In a speech last year, Zhang Qingli, the party secretary of
the Tibetan Autonomous Region, went so far as to say that "The central
party committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans".

The fierce anger that such blasphemy is bound to evoke in the heart of
believers does not seem to be grasped by Beijing.

In India, the mere slaughter of a cow has been known to provoke riots
where hundreds have been left dead. The publication of a few cartoons
depicting the Prophet Mohammed has caused violent protests around the
world. Many feel the constant vilification and forced criticisms of the
spiritual leader of the Tibetans should be seen in this context.

Beijing's strategy for dealing with the Tibet "issue" is to wait for the
Dalai Lama's passing in the belief that in his absence Tibetans will be
more inclined to focus on the material prosperity Chinese rule promises
and less concerned with devotion to a god-king who can offer them little
in tangible returns.

There is little to indicate that this will be the case. "We [Tibetans] will never be bought. Our souls are not for sale," says one Tibetan
resident of Beijing.

The manner in which Tibetans have reacted to Beijing's overtures over
the past three decades suggests that a recognition of Tibetan
spirituality is needed, rather than Beijing's attempts to change or
suppress it.