On 26 August 1999 Tashi Tsering from Lhoka prefecture lowered the Chinese national flag in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. He attempted to commit suicide imeddiately thereafter but the explosives strapped on his body failed to ignite. Tashi was arested and beaten so severely by security officials that he could barely walk by the time he was taken into custody. In March 2000, he was reported to have committed suicide in his cell.
I haven’t had a chance to meet Tashi Tsering.
Old Lhasa main street
But I have met another Tashi Tsering (this is common Tibetan name). His biography is so twisted even a book was written about him.
Born in 1929 in a Tibetan village, Tsering at the age of 13 become member of the Dalai Lama's personal dance troupe. There he was frequently whipped or beaten by teachers for minor infractions, and sexually abused by a well-connected monk. After studying at the University of Washington, he returned to Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1964, convinced that Tibet could become a modernized society based on socialist, egalitarian principles only through cooperation with the Chinese. During Mao's Cultural Revolution joined Red Guards, but soon was denounced as an American spy. Arrested in 1967, spent six years in prison or doing forced labor. Officially exonerated in 1978, became a professor of English at Tibet University in Lhasa.
But he is known of something else: Tashi Tsering strongly engaged in raising funds to build schools in Tibet's villages, and so far managed to built over 60 of them. He and his American friends give money, local governments grant building materials, local people provide land and work force.
All this in a country where illiteracy among Tibetans aged 15 or above is estimated at 54.8% (UNDP data). The schools built by Tashi Tsering lecture in Tibetan language and have Tibetan teachers – this is critically important, since throughout its occupation of Tibet, Chinese government policy has been aimed at the forced assimilation of the Tibetan people into the “motherland”. Believe or not, I met Tibetans herdsmen in Tibet not speaking Tibetan language, only Chinese (picture below).
I meet professor Tashi Tsering in a tiny Lhasa chang (beer) bar, managed by his illiterate wife. This vigorous women in traditional striped apron fills our cups up with white, muddy liquid as soon as a single drop lands in our mouths.
- The situation with education is good. Everyone can learn – claims prof. Tsering, contrary to what I heard before from other Tibetans. – The biggest problem is that less and less Tibetans want to learn Tibetan language, they don’t find it useful.
I ask him where would be Tibet today without Chinese invasion.
- At the same place where 60 years ago. In feudal, backward, dirty pit – he says, and sets about exalting Chinese for building roads and airports.
Why the situation in Tibet is so tense?
- Well, the situation is normal, Tibet is developing fast... – I do not find irony in his voice.
But no doubt Tashi Tsering feels uncomfortable: stretching his limbs, rubbing glasses, looking around. He doesn’t want to tell me to go away, because I came with a recommendation of a person he esteems. At the same time doesn’t want to show that he is avoiding sensitive subjects – why would he? Tibet is free and he is local VIP.
- We, Tibetans – he says – have no other choice but to accept the Chinese rule and try to save all we can from our culture.
Sounds familiar... It means, I say, you support the “middle way” of Dalai Lama, who wants cultural autonomy for Tibet within China?
- Yes, yes. Excuse me, but I am expecting someone – professor Tashi gets up and it’s time to leave.
Which Tashi Tsering’s attitude is right? First one is a hero, but his brave protest changed nothing, except taking his own life. Second is a hypocrite and collaborator, but his actions help Tibetans.
And which one, I wonder, paid more for his choices?