Tibet was to become a highly polemical issue, about which Beijing remains sensitive to the point of neuralgia. In the propaganda war, the exiles, led by the Dalai Lama, have retained the moral authority, while losing the material battles. But Tibet's role as an international issue and cause has obscured the reality lived by the Tibetans themselves. The voices of Westerners talking about Tibet are loud; the voices of Tibetans, especially of those in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, are curiously mute. There are many reasons for this. Beijing discourages serious investigation in Tibet by outsiders, and journalists and scholars who try to gain access must choose between the equally unattractive options of trying to sneak past official scrutiny or making a kind of Faustian pact with Beijing. Besides, the study of Tibet is still a minority pursuit, and the analysis of today's Tibet--as opposed to the favored Western preoccupations of religious Tibet or dreamland Tibet--is rarer.
For all these reasons, the appearance of two new, very different books on Tibet can only be welcomed. The exiled Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya has published in The Dragon in the Land of Snows, (Random House, 592 pages) the first scholarly history of Tibet under Chinese occupation. It is a book that will undoubtedly become the standard for its topic. Steve Lehman's The Tibetans: A Struggle to Survive (Umbrage, 200 pages), is a personal photo-history, informed by Lehman's decade of covering Tibet and enhanced by personal testimonies from people the photographer has encountered.
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China has now abandoned the creed of Mao, in whose name so much of traditional Tibet was destroyed. But it has not relaxed efforts to make Tibet conform to market socialism, Beijing's latest ideological adventure. In 1997, Chen Kuiyuan, Party leader in Tibet, proclaimed the theory that Buddhism, which has been rooted in the culture for nearly 1,000 years, was foreign to Tibet. How long does it have to be around before we are sure it's not just passing through?
Chen's eye-catching analysis was directed, of course, against the Dalai Lama, whose position as a symbol of Tibetan culture and autonomy remains so powerful inside Tibet that it still has to be attacked. Having failed to replace the Buddha with Karl Marx or Chairman Mao, the Party has opted for the diversions of the global marketplace--Michael Jackson, disco dancing, karaoke. But as China tries to eliminate Tibetan identity, its repression is only helping to forge the new generations of activists Lehman documents. As Robbie Barnett, founder of the Tibet Information Network, writes in a thoughtful essay in the book, it seems to be their determination to be so that makes them Tibetan. If that's so, the story isn't over yet.
Isabel Hilton is a London journalist whose book, The Search for the Panchen Lama, will be published by Viking in September