Over the last 20 years, China has made important strides in economic and social progress. But looking at China's occupation of Tibet, it's impossible not to feel frustration and despair. In the past year, the Chinese government's "strike hard" policy has intensified. Not content to deprive adults of all religious and civil freedom, the authorities are even cracking down on children in a new wave of repression--a policy aimed at further undermining Tibetans' identity and culture.Last year, a 9-year-old was imprisoned for four months in eastern Tibet for having said at school that he was Tibetan, not Chinese. In May, three children were imprisoned for writing "Free Tibet" on their textbooks. In June, a group of 50 youngsters, ages 9 to 15, were returning to their families in Tibet after studying in Tibetan schools in India. They were arrested at the border, detained, and beaten for weeks before being sent to build roads in remote areas. And these are just a few examples.

Of all the Chinese activity in Tibet, the most serious threat to the survival of Tibetan culture is population transfer. According to a report leaked in October, the Chinese government is planning to send 15 to 20 million Chinese into Tibet by 2020--this in addition to the 7 million Chinese who have already settled there. Moreover, spontaneous immigration of Chinese Muslims into Amdo and Golok (now part of Quinhai and Szechuan provinces)continues to swell the non-Tibetan population.

Immigrants now own practically all the shops, restaurants, and small workshops in villages and along main roads. Tens of thousands of Chinese Muslims are also searching for gold in the many rivers of these areas and living in the new government-built cities where they monopolize the local economies and relate poorly with local people. Giant infrastructure and road projects are literally paving the way for a growing influx of Chinese.

The population-transfer strategy in Tibet resembles Chinese policy in Inner Mongolia after Beijing invaded. In 1959, Mongolia's population included only 10% Han Chinese. Today, there are between 18 to 20 million Han Chinese and only 2 to 3 million Mongols, whose hopes of cultural survival have vanished.

In addition to the population question, the ecological situation is catastrophic. Before the arrival of the Chinese, more wild animals--antelope, gazelles, and wild asses--roamed the expanses of Tibet than people. Now, large wild animals are almost never seen. On the northern plains of Tibet, poachers hunt a few thousand remaining antelopes for high-priced shahtoosh shawls, which fetch thousands of dollars each in the West. Over 40% of Tibetan forests have been cut since 1960. The Chinese authorities have recently put a ban on logging, following catastrophic floods that affected China (the Yangtze and Yellow rivers both come down from Tibet). Yet the ban only applies where there are hardly any trees left, and logging continues unabated in parts of Tibet where the last forests are still standing.

Language and education are two more fronts in the campaign to destroy the culture of Tibet. The literacy rate in Tibet is only 30%, compared with 95% in other areas of China. Textbooks are written in the cold style of ideological "education" and contain a distorted history of Tibet. Tibetan language is used less and less in schools, deemed an annoying element of a backward culture. If someone seeking employment brings a document written in Tibetan to a local government agency, it is rejected outright, and the bearer is told to "bring something written in Chinese." Even letters with addresses written in Tibetan are not delivered by the post office.

The repression of religious freedom that has been a mainstay of the Chinese government's policy toward Tibet continues. Nowadays, civilians are not allowed to pursue any religious activities at all. This includes a prohibition against keeping Buddhist images in their homes, not to mention the well-known ban on photographs of the Dalai Lama in public places, which has been extended to people's homes. Inspections are carried out any time of the day or night, and a telephone hotline has been set up by the authorities to encourage people to inform on others. Teachers have been directed to step up "atheism education."

The extensive human rights violations, well documented over the 50 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet, continue at an appalling level. News recently surfaced of five Tibetan nuns who hanged themselves in jail because they could no longer endure the torture. Inmates of Drapchi Prison near Lhasa who refused to sing patriotic songs as the Chinese flag was raised, but shouted pro-independence slogans instead, have been submitted to severe beatings, electric shock, and rape. A Tibet Information Network report put the present number of prisoners in central Tibet at 500. Of those, 80% of the women are believed to be Buddhist nuns and 66% of the men monks.

With so much abuse and suffering, is there any hope for the Tibetan people?

The European Parliament hopes so. This past July, it adopted a resolution on the future of Tibet, calling on its member states to help ensure that the People's Republic of China and the Dalai Lama negotiate a new status for Tibet. This new status would guarantee full autonomy for the Tibetan people (in all spheres other than defense and foreign policy). The resolution calls on member-state governments to consider "recognizing the Tibet government-in-exile as the legitimate representative of the Tibetan people" if the Chinese and the Tibetan government-in-exile have not reached agreement in three years.

China, for its part, is insistent that the Dalai Lama must declare that Tibet has always been part of China before negotiations can proceed. Beyond that, all the Chinese seem ready to discuss is "the status of the Dalai Lama"--that is, whether or not the Dalai Lama will be allowed to return to Tibet.

But for the last 15 years, the Dalai Lama has made it clear that his return is not the point. The real issue, he maintains, is the fate of the Tibetan people. He has stated over and over again that his government-in-exile is not seeking independence but a genuine autonomy within China--which would allow Tibetans and their culture to survive.

The Dalai Lama has also officially declared that, in the event of his return to Tibet, he would hand over all his secular powers to democratically elected local authorities. "Whether the very institution of the Dalai Lama should even continue," he has often said, "is entirely up to the Tibetan people to decide."

Signs of dissent against Beijing's Tibet policy often come from intellectuals in China. Wang Lixiong, a prominent Beijing-based writer, recently defied the official line on China's policy toward Tibet and has called for the Communist Party to sit down at the negotiating table with the Dalai Lama. It also seems that the removal of Chen Kuiyuan, a party hard-liner, from the top leadership post in Tibet has reinvigorated debates over the direction of China's Tibet policy.

The fact that Wang Lixiong, a well-known and respected writer, publicly took an unorthodox stand on an issue as volatile as Tibet--without being immediately thrown in jail--is a startling development. But will this new wrinkle in China's engagement with Tibet become an influential view within Communist leadership circles? The clock is ticking for Tibet. And the time has come for China to hear, and respect, her voice.

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