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China Up Close
By Gregg - 4 May, 2000

Page 3 of 5

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One Saturday afternoon in Xiahe, we dropped into a Tibetan tea room. Eight or so monks sat on a long, L-shaped couch, their eyes glued to a TV in the corner of the room. VCD - video discs - rule in China these days and this was a typically violent B-grade flick. Our presence drew the monks' attention away from the tube¡ªbut not for long.

As we sipped our tea an older monk came in. This guy was more interested in talking with Evelyn and I than in watching the movie. He spoke willingly about conditions at Labrang. The monks there are free to practice and study. But undercover agents of the government are known to infiltrate and inspectors occassionally attend prayer sessions. Freedom of religion exists today in China but religious groups are well-advised to steer clear of poilitical acivities (witness the Falun Gong).

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In addition, there are tight limits on the size of the monastery. Prior to 1958 Labrang had some 4000 monks in attendance. In 1958, in keeping with Maoist anti-religion doctrine, the monastery was shut down and many of its buildings detroyed. It didn't open again until 1980¡ªwith 300 monks. Today there are about 1300 monks but only ten or eleven new monks are allowed each year.

We asked about going to India. The monk answered that it wasn't possible¡ªexcept to sneak out. He pointed to one of the other monks on the couch saying, "he went". This man had successfully snuck out but was caught returning to China and put in prison for two months. Our conversation turned to be with this second monk.

He had a friend, he told us, living in America. A lama, also from Labrang, who he'd been with in India. From India, the lama migrated to the States. He pulled out a business card with the lama's name and address and handed it to us. He'd lost touch with him and wondered if perhaps we might help. He'd tried the address and even the phone number but no avail.

We looked at the card. The lama was affiliated with a Tibetan-American friendship organization. The card listed a web address. Did the monk know about the Internet, we asked. He didn't.

We finished up our tea and took him down the road to the one Internet cafe in town. The connection may have been slow but it sure seemed to impress the monk. His eyes lit up as the Dalai Lama's picture appeared on the screen. We were searching for contact information for the friendship organization after finding that their website was blocked by China's censorship.

A limited number of websites are blocked from within China but plenty of information is readily available on any given topic. Although on this occassion we couldn't get to the specific website we were looking for, we have, while in China, accessed information on sensitive topics relating to Tibetan affairs.

How would the Chinese authorities feel about our Tibetan friend visiting the Internet cafe? What if he started going regularly? There is a fairly visible campaign underway to promote Internet use n China. But would a double-standard be held when it came to a Tibetan monk?



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