Through some magnificent quirk of fate I am in Lhasa, and it is National Day in the PRC. On this cool autumn morning, I stood on the long stone steps of the Potala Palace, watching phalanxes of People’s Liberation Army troops pour out in succession — their chests thrust forward, expansive, the sounds of their military songs beating sharply off of the white and red walls of the palace — onto the main square on Beijing Road. Under the shadow of the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, they stood in perfect formation near an equally large cluster of middle school students standing under the insistent mountain sun. Later, a small crowd gathered on the north side of the street to watch this probably made-for-TV spectacle, and trucks arrived to disgorge yet more PLA.
I watched this last event unfold from the Dalai Lama’s former living quarters, leaning over a golden cushion along with two young and almost laconic Han Chinese security officers. “They haven’t started yet,” said one to the other as we all stared out the Dalai Lama’s window, the shutters open to admit a comfortable breeze and the sounds of canned mainland patriotic pop. I asked one my students to take a picture, and then moved on, blending in as I could with a line of Tibetan pilgrims from the Amdo region, who alternately spread butter into burning candle bowls or fed little rice crackers to their children who themselves might be reincarnations of one of the greats buried in the vaults of this building of accumulation.
I spend an afternoon at the home of Tashi Tsering. He says, nearing the end of a two-hour conversation in which so much good praise is levied upon all manner of good works (including Chinese), he says “The soldiers on my roof. They are there since Olympic Games. Why? I do not own a weapon.” Mainland pop songs play in an endless loop into his window from the Dico’s next door.
History is jumbled. Tibetans frequently refer to the “peaceful liberation of Tibet” as if it happened in 1959. No one seems to miss the British. Back home, French bureaucrats assert that China stays in Tibet mainly to control the water of South Asia, or report that Tibet Airlines will begin business in 2011, or lay out one of the more in-depth articles you will see on the subject of succession politics surrounding the current Dalai Lama.
China’s wave of foreign investment is skirting India, the Dalai Lama visits friendly territory in Catholic Bavaria, and the intrepid Liberation reporter Philippe Grangereau sends in a report on quiet Dalai Lama worship in Gansu province.
Chengdu feels like a million miles away.