China: Trouble In Shangri-La

The weary Tibetan monks were panhandling a long way from home. In desolate Qinghai province several weeks ago, they sadly displayed ID cards and photographs from the Buddhist community at Sertar in Sichuan province, a 35-hour bus ride away. They had fled the enclave in mid-July following a crackdown in which Chinese authorities demolished more than 1,000 dwellings in a bid to drive devotees away. "We have no school, no homes and no money. I don't know what we're going to do," one tired-looking monk dressed in ragged maroon robes told NEWSWEEK.

When George W. Bush visits China next month, he'll be a long way from Sertar, too. But events there will be on the minds of some U.S. officials traveling with the president; Washington hopes to raise the issue at bilateral human-rights discussions that may resume later this month. Chinese authorities are expected to continue demolition until October, and in early August, NEWSWEEK has learned, a bomb exploded outside local government offices in the town of Kangding. Local Tibetans attribute the blast to Tibetan separatists angered by, among other things, the Sertar crackdown. With the world's attention focused on China during Bush's visit, any further unrest could well echo far beyond Sichuan.

Before the crackdown, the religious complex at Sertar had been something of a model of tolerance. More than 7,000 monks and nuns lived in the hillside community in Sichuan's Ganzi prefecture--the largest concentration of Tibetan clergy anywhere in the area of ancient Tibet. (In Tibet proper, the number of monks in each monastery is now strictly regulated by Beijing.) The area had become a powerful center of learning: more than 100 Tibetan Buddhist geshes, the equivalent of Western Ph.D.s, have been educated there, and many of them now teach in communities as distant as southern India. Previously Beijing could point to Sertar as proof that serious Tibetan Buddhist education took place in China, not only in exile. For that reason "the crackdown is perplexing," says John Ackerly of the Washington, D.C.-based International Campaign for Tibet. The religious community also included nearly 1,000 ethnic-Chinese monks--testimony to the kind of harmonious interracial mingling that Beijing often claims but rarely achieves.

Its very strengths, however, may have proved Sertar's downfall. A visionary Tibetan monk, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog, founded the community in 1980 as a mountain hermitage known as Larung Gar. (Gar means "encampment"; it is not technically a monastery.) At first he had just 100 followers, who lived in crude stone huts and cooked over yak-dung stoves. But their numbers mushroomed as word of Khenpo Jigme's sophisticated Buddhist teachings--and his charismatic personality--spread.

That kind of popularity is deeply worrying to Chinese authorities, who have a particular fear of populist religious leaders like Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi. In 1999 they began pressuring Khenpo Jigme to restrict the number of monks and nuns to 1,400. The official attitude stiffened in June, when authorities arrived at Sertar with armed police and laborers who began tearing down living quarters. According to witnesses, the migrant workers were paid the equivalent of $16 for each hut they destroyed; they were allowed to keep any personal belongings found inside. Before being expelled, many Buddhists were told to sign statements denouncing the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans in western Sichuan are most saddened by the fact that as many as 3,000 Buddhist nuns were forced out of Sertar. "Some of them had fled unhappy marriages or family problems and now have no means of support," says one prominent monk in Ganzi prefecture. "For many nuns, Sertar was their only home," confirms Kate Saunders of the London-based Tibet Information Network, which has monitored the crackdown closely.

Moreover, the clampdown has extinguished one of the few points of light in the otherwise grim reality of Tibetan communities under ethnic-Chinese rule. Traditionally, Tibetans in western Sichuan have enjoyed relaxed relations with officialdom compared with the rest of the Tibetan plateau, which includes today's Tibet Autonomous Region plus communities in Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces. The Tibetan capital Lhasa has suffered violent protests and bomb blasts since the mid-1980s. In contrast, western Sichuan had been relatively calm--so much so that local authorities recently launched a tourism campaign touting Ganzi prefecture as the model for Shangri-La, the mythical utopia in James Hilton's best-selling 1933 novel "Lost Horizon."

But Beijing obviously felt that Sertar was not isolated enough. Khenpo Jigme had met the exiled Dalai Lama in India. He had also founded an independent press at Sertar, whose publications were distributed far beyond the borders of Sichuan. One monk who assisted the publishing house--a Beijing computer programmer who left his job in 1994--says authorities were clearly worried about Sertar's growing influence. "The government took over our monastery by saying they were there to improve sanitation conditions, but we knew better," he says.

The bomb blast, though, indicates that all authorities may have done is bring the troubles of Tibet into Sichuan itself. They have ordered that Buddhist followers at Sertar be limited to residents of the local prefecture. If enforced, the decree spells the end to a vibrant cultural experiment. It may also signal the start of further trouble in Shangri-La.