11/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tibet's Secret Weapon: An Opinion
Why is China afraid of 27-year-old
Tibetan nun, Tsering Tsomo?

Tibet has slipped away from the world's headlines. But even though no foreign journalists are allowed into the region to report on it, Tibetans have continued to protest China's repressive policies in ways that boggle the mind and perplex the authorities. The Dalai Lama has described violent resistance in Tibet as "suicide" for good reason. Tibetans can never hope to go toe-to-toe with China's military machine. But they have something else.

When a Tibetan nun named Ani Pachen was placed in solitary confinement for a nine-month stretch during her 21-year imprisonment, she decided to use the time to perform a Buddhist retreat. When the guards opened the door to her tiny, filthy cell to let her out, she requested them to close it, explaining that she hadn't finished her retreat. I would have paid good money to see the looks on their faces. "If they can't break the spirit of one old woman," she told me, "how can they break the spirit of the Tibetan people?"

It is this spirit that is Tibet's secret weapon. It rallies against despair, inspires extraordinary acts of defiance, values moral principle over external authority, and places inner conviction above brute force.

Ani Pachen's courage, though remarkable, is not unique. Beijing's on-going crackdown in Tibet has brought about something that China's leaders didn't expect but should have predicted--a grassroots movement of solidarity among Tibetans, and with it, a seemingly limitless number of men and women willing to risk imprisonment and even death for a single gesture of freedom.

Very few have heard of them or about what they did. Each one knew that their actions meant certain arrest, beatings and torture, and to be sentenced to a Chinese gulag by a justice system that is always stacked against them. Long after Tibet had been replaced by the hot new story, these incidents and many others like them, have continued to play out on the Tibetan plateau.

Rigden Lhamo, a 21-year-old student, walked over to her county government headquarters, unfurled the banned Tibetan flag, and shouted for freedom. A young nun, Tsering Tsomo, stood on a street corner by herself handing out leaflets calling for the return of the Dalai Lama. Police pummeled her with iron rods before hauling her off to a detention center. The same day, over two hundred nuns from her nunnery demonstrated in solidarity with Tsering, and headed towards the County headquarters demanding her release. They were intercepted by security forces who attacked them with electric cattle prods and iron rods. Ten of the nuns were seriously injured.

Four young men, Asang, Ngoesoe, Jamsang and Gadho, went to a festival that the authorities had planned as a celebration of the Olympics. Attendance by Tibetans was compulsory. In full view of local officials, the four men began to shout that this was not a time to celebrate but rather a time to mourn and pray for those who had suffered in the Spring protests. Their act inspired all the Tibetans to defy the official orders and to pack up their tents and go home.

A nineteen-year-old girl, Yoten Tso, staged a lone protest outside the county police station in Kardze, an area of Tibet under such tight control that it was described as a "war zone" by a recent visitor.

For most Chinese people, such acts are incomprehensible. What on earth is up with these Tibetans? We gave them discos and proper roads and this is how they repay us? As one bemused Chinese shopkeeper in Lhasa put it, "They're a very strange people. They don't care about material things. They only care about things of the spirit."

If Tibetans expressed their frustrations en masse with violence, then China's leaders might well be relieved. They could then happily personify all Tibetans as barbarous terrorists intent on dividing the Motherland, launch a full-scale military campaign, and further escalate the suppressive tactics in which the People's Republic of China are so well versed. This would help to distract its own people from the internal forces that are presently challenging the country's social harmony and stability--conditions that the State tout ad nauseam as being essential to its wellbeing.

But although some Tibetans have indeed resorted to violence as the last refuge of despair, most are resisting China's policies in Tibet in ways that make no sense to the officials who impose them. Tibetans seem to be willing to suffer rather than to act against their conscience, refuse to pay more than lip service to communist ideology, and love liberty more than good plumbing. Scholar John Powers sums up China's official response to this as "the beatings will continue until morale improves." But what if someone would rather be beaten than to live a life he doesn't believe in? Tibet's secret weapon is what gave Ani Pachen the strength to ask the prison guards to close her cell door--a holy alliance with the forces of truth and goodness, and the courage to put everything on the line to represent them.

Today, all over Tibet, enthusiastic communists are trying to change the way that Tibetans think; in a nutshell, to love the Party, to love the Motherland, and not to love the Dalai Lama. But even when they can get Tibetans to say it, they can't get them to mean it. In fact, recent reports from Tibet suggest that the effect of this so-called 'Patriotic Re-education' is making Tibetans feel even more loyal to the Dalai Lama and his 'clique' in exile and even less Chinese. And this is what really vexes China's leaders and raises their voices into an ear-shattering pitch.

China controls Tibet's infrastructure, resources, and economy. It has colonized its culture and religion. It has flooded neighborhoods with police and military, and built a system of surveillance and social monitoring to rival anything in Orwell's imagination. There is no question that China has Tibet. But what it wants most will always elude it -- the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people.

Rebecca Novick is a writer and Executive Producer of The Tibet Connection radio program. She is currently based in Dharamsala, India.