BEIJING — Dominating the inner shrine of Lhasa's Jokhang Temple, Tibet's holiest religious site and the focal point of recent anti-Chinese rioting, is a gold Buddha brought to Tibet by a Chinese princess 1,350 years ago.
The imposing jewel-encrusted image was part of the dowry of the Tang Dynasty princess Wen Cheng, who was sent to marry Songtsen Gampo, the warrior king who first unified Tibet.
Wen Cheng and her Buddha, having once played a major role in the development of Tibetan culture, now help China to justify its rule of Tibet.
To the protesters who have staged three demonstrations since Sept. 27--including one on Oct. 1 that touched off rioting in which at least six people died--the Chinese are arrogant colonizers who seek to destroy Tibetan religion and culture.
Dream of Independence
The demonstrators dream of making Tibet independent again, as it was from the 1911 overthrow of China's Qing Dynasty until Communist Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950.
But virtually all ethnic Chinese look on Tibet as an integral part of China. They contend that cultural ties date from Wen Cheng's 7th-Century marriage and that political unity was established with the 13th-Century Mongol conquest of both China and Tibet.
After the decline of the Mongols and a long period of Tibetan independence, the Qing Dynasty reconquered Tibet in 1720, laying the modern basis for China's claim to sovereignty over the region. With the exception of Outer Mongolia (which was part of the Qing empire but is now an independent country--Mongolia--closely aligned with the Soviet Union), China's current boundaries closely approximate those of that period.
Viewed as Traitors
The Chinese, by their actions in Tibet, see themselves as defending the unity and security of their nation and helping free the Tibetan people from poverty and superstition. In this view, which is shared by ordinary Chinese and top leaders, advocates of Tibetan independence are traitors.
The feelings of ethnic Chinese are amplified by a decades-old fear that an independent Tibet might allow India or the Soviet Union to station troops on its territory, which could bring enemy soldiers to the heights above central China.
These two self-righteously opposing views of Tibet's history and its place in the modern world add much bitterness to the continuing confrontation in Lhasa.
Chinese authorities have expelled foreign journalists from Tibet, restricted entry of foreign tourists to those who are on package tours and ordered all those who participated in the bloody Oct. 1 riot to turn themselves in to the police by today.
Leniency was promised for those who met the deadline, with the prospect of harsh punishment for those who do not.
These steps, according to Tibetans who spoke with Western reporters last week, have led to widespread fears in Lhasa that an even more severe crackdown may come soon.
At least three factors apparently combined to spark the recent protests: a visit to Washington last month by Tibet's exiled theocratic ruler, the Dalai Lama; a mass rally in Lhasa at which two Tibetans were ordered executed and others were given long prison terms, and the occurrence of what monks considered supernatural omens, including an earthquake and a rainbow.
The Dalai Lama spoke Sept. 21 to the U.S. Congress' Human Rights Caucus, outlining a five-point proposal for Tibet's future. His proposal called for a halt in the movement of ethnic Chinese into Tibet, respect for human rights and the freedoms of Tibetans, a stop to what he said is the production of nuclear weapons in Tibet, the establishment of Tibet as a demilitarized zone of "peace and nonviolence" and negotiations on Tibet's future status.
News of the Dalai Lama's statement quickly circulated among monks in Tibet.
Then on Sept. 24, according to an official Chinese radio report, a mass rally attended by 15,000 people was held in Lhasa, at which death sentences were pronounced against two Tibetans who the Chinese said were murderers. At least one of the men was executed immediately.
The rally audience, according to some reports out of Tibet, was told that "certain elements" were trying to split the unity of the motherland and would be punished.
Spokesmen for the Dalai Lama in the United States said the two men given death sentences were political prisoners.
China responded with indignation to that charge.
But one of the other Tibetans sentenced at the rally, identified as Longga, was described in the Chinese radio broadcast as a "traitor." The report said he had committed manslaughter and was sentenced to an indefinite prison term.
Later, after the Oct. 1 incident, Western tourists coming from Lhasa told reporters in Katmandu, Nepal, that rumors of torture and impending executions had fanned the anger of rioters.