Approximately one week before our departure date to China, the Chinese government advised People to People Ambassador Program that they had withdrawn permission for us to meet with lawyers in Tibet. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government also withdrew permission for our delegation to formally meet with lawyers in all of China.
Thus began the journey of this most amazing delegation. The story that will forever be etched in the minds of the 26 delegates is not only that of meeting and adventures in Beijing, Lhasa and Chengdu, but also of the delegates themselves. The delegation was truly unique. Everyone was positive, flexible, accepting of daily schedule changes, and eager to help us accomplish our ultimate goal. This delegation will long be remembered for its team approach.
In our travels, every day seemed to be more thrilling and more adventurous than the last. Perhaps the Great Monk Debate can best exemplify the trip. In the afternoon of our seventh day in Lhasa, Tibet, we were to observe a traditional monk debate. The debate, which the delegation was greatly looking forward to, ended at 5 p.m. Our afternoon schedule had us visiting a temple, a local family, and the Lhasa Railroad Station. Upon completion, our bus driver was driving through Lhasa “rush hour” traffic to get us to the debate grounds. When we arrived, to our disappointment we saw that the debate had just ended. Shortly thereafter we asked our travel guide if she would ask the station monk to speak to our delegation. She misunderstood and instead asked him if he would have the monks continue with the debate. To our surprise, he agreed and had the remaining monks debate an additional 15 minutes. Thus, we received a personal and private showing. What was at first a great disappointment turned into one of the highlights of the trip. This brief story typified our adventures throughout the trip.
From that day forward I publicly referred to this group as the “Never Say Die Delegation.
The China of today is light years removed from that of the past. The Chinese people we spoke to who lived through the Cultural Revolution are looking forward to the future, but they cannot forget the past. It is estimated that two million people died during the Cultural Revolution and many others were unjustly imprisoned. The people have not forgotten people like Zhai Xin, an activist, who was sentenced to death for speaking the truth. The Cultural Revolution was known for smashing the old world and creating a new one, or rather as some Chinese feel, a new nightmare. But that was the past.
The present China is a society that is racing at 100 miles an hour toward modernization, while at the same time having a large segment of its society stuck in the rudimentary lifestyle of old China. China is an enchanting country with great potential; in many respects it is leapfrogging the world in modern advances. Yet at the same time, it is a country that is saddled with lack of free speech and disregard for the rule of law. Also on a collision course is China’s new market economy with the intolerance of criticism of the government and the lack of a respected criminal justice system. Indeed, America must recognize China for what it is: a formidable power with huge potential.
One of the crown jewels of China is Tibet, with its magnificent monasteries, high altitudes, bright blue sky, and spiritual people. The Tibetan people are peaceful in nature and practice non-violent Buddhism. We were truly fortunate to have traveled to Tibet and we witnessed first hand this precious culture, which is eroding daily by modernization and Chinese infringement. In fact, a train route over the Himalayas linking Beijing and Lhasa opened days before our arrival. We could not help but learn a new sense of priorities from the peaceful, gentle Tibetan people. Although our stay in Tibet was brief, we each left a little bit of our heart in that noble land.
By: Richard Pena