Another Chinese blunder has grabbed Americans' attention lately: Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have been tortured in prison, executed, killed in fighting or starved under Chinese rule. China claims -- disingenuously, I believe -- that it simply freed ethnic Tibetans from feudal serfdom. Most Tibetans disagree and see the Chinese as occupiers. Without question, the situation in Tibet is complex.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ast year my friend Dean and I visited Tibet and went on a five-hour double date with two native Tibetan women. They walked us around the Potala Palace -- former home of the Dalai Lama -- directed us to the famous prayer wheels and took us to a traditional hole-in-the-wall Tibetan chai teahouse. They didn't mask their disdain for what they see as Chinese occupation of their country. In fact, we met them at our hostel's Internet lounge when Dean noticed that one of the girls Googled "Free Tibet." Remember, this is a place where you can be imprisoned for having a picture of the Dalai Lama. Content counter to party dogma is typically inaccessible, as are Websites such as Wikipedia. Still, she successfully managed, at least in that moment, to navigate adroitly through the 30,000 government information screeners who are employed to restrict outside information.
We also spoke casually but frankly about the Dalai Lama and China with monks in the Potala Palace, several small business owners on the street and a young Tibetan healer-in-training. All wanted independence, and each was convinced it will happen.
The anti-Chinese sentiment was palpable in the thin Tibetan air. I wrote an e-mail home and told my family, "I think Tibet is a William Wallace away from independence." (Wallace was a leader in Scotland's fight to separate from England in the early 1300s.) If the Dalai Lama (referred to as the Dalai clique by Chinese media) made a clandestine entrance into the Potala Palace, I wrote, and appeared before Tibetans to call for independence or unyielding passive resistance, the whole province would rise in revolt. I also think that a move like this would probably result in the Chinese killing tens of thousands of Tibetans to preserve what they believe is historically Chinese territory.
But I also believe that Tibet's chances for independence are fading like old jeans. The Han (native Chinese, which make up 91 percent of the Chinese population) are encouraging tourism to Tibet, an aim made easier by the recently completed transcontinental railroad connecting Beijing to Lhasa. This commendable engineering feat didn't simply link Tibet to the 'mainland,' with the objective of encouraging tourism; it's my opinion that the Chinese are encouraging emigration and interbreeding, while restricting childbirth in Tibet -- not simply to improve the economy, as they argue, but to dilute the native Tibetan population. This of course makes attempts at independence more difficult. And in Lhasa, the province's capital, it's working: While ethnic Tibetans make up about 95 percent of Tibet's population, that percentage is closer to 50 percent in Lhasa, and falling quickly.
To be fair, Tibetans have benefited or will likely benefit in some respects from their relationship with Beijing. First, they have received large amounts of capital for roads, rails, buildings and infrastructure. Second, they likely will continue to benefit from the economic boom in China. They'll benefit from increased domestic and international tourism.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ould Tibet be better off independent from China? It probably depends on how one defines what's best. There would be costs. If Tibet were independent, 1.3 billion prospective Chinese tourists with money to spend would likely be banned and Tibet would be isolated from a large influx of visitors who will visit China in the coming years. Its economy would be weaker, and the standard of living would be lower. But these things alone don't determine overall quality of life. Benefits would include the fundamental right of a people to worship as they wish and not fear imprisonment for possessing a picture of their spiritual leader. If you focus on this prospective benefit and what we, as a representative republic, regard as a fundamental right of self-determination and self-government -- for better or worse -- then the answer to the question of Tibetan independence should be simple.
But because I believe the Chinese would kill every ethnic Tibetan if necessary to dissuade secession, I think that in the long term, Tibet is best off not as an independent country. Instead, it would be best served fighting for full provincial autonomy, with nearly plenary rights of self-government. I believe this -- yet I catch myself quixotically hoping in my heart for independence.