Wangdu went with his father to pay a courtesy call on two local officials, one Chinese, one Tibetan.
The officials had a proposition, communicated gradually over several cups of tea in a squat government block off the muddy main street. Wangdu would be given a senior position in the tourism department if he returned from exile. There were great new opportunities coming up. Tourism was booming, with the forests and lakes of northern Sichuan already attracting the adventurous new rich from cities like Chengdu. The trouble was that local people lacked knowledge of the outside world. Wangdu was an educated man. He spoke English. He knew what tourists would enjoy, and would be able to improve the town’s commercial prospects. He should return to the place of his birth, where he would be honoured as a favoured son.
Wangdu was dismayed by what he heard. He had a good clerical post in a bank in Seattle. The idea that he might abandon the life he had worked so long and hard to create in order to live in such a backwater was inconceivable. Returnees were known dismissively by the exiles as “gyal tshong pa,” or “country-sellers.” His wife, Pema, also a Tibetan although from another part of Tibet, had a job selling white goods in a department store in the suburb of Maple Leaf. Their children, one still in college, the other two just starting out on their careers, would laugh at the idea of migrating to Communist China. They knew the plight of their homeland; even the official statistics looked bad. According to a recent report from CPIRC, China’s state body on population, 60 per cent of people in the Tibet Autonomous Region were illiterate, against a national average of 16 per cent. It had the lowest rural per capita income of any province, and was the only one where life expectancy dropped below sixty years of age, against a national average of sixty-nine. Infant mortality towered at ninety-six per thousand, eleven times the rate in Beijing. Here in the ethnically mixed borderlands the situation was a little better, but the underlying privation was the same.
Wangdu tried to explain all this to the officials as politely as he could. They were not convinced. Naturally, he should bring his wife and children with him; the paperwork would be arranged. The town needed people like him. The pitch continued, and it became apparent that Wangdu’s father, a strong and resolute old man, conscious of the respect that was being shown to his son, was in favour of the plan. He told Wangdu that he should take up the post, but not join the Party. There were several young Tibetans in influential positions in the town who would look out for him; the days had long gone when Tibetan officials were mere stooges, with Chinese “secretaries” controlling their every move.
Repeating a refusal became embarrassing, so Wangdu left the meeting, saying he would think it over. He let the matter drift for a few days, hoping it would go away, despite frequent remarks from his father. He had his return air ticket. His daughter Sonam was keen to get home. I knew that he found it awkward and painful to be put under pressure in this way, and that he would never be persuaded. He was displaced, an exile; it would not be possible for him to feel a true sense of belonging in his ancestral land—or not until Tibet was free.
Wangdu’s dilemma struck me. A Tibetan was being sought for a prominent post in a Chinese province. According to the material put out by Western pro-Tibet groups, much of which I had read and some of which I had written, the authorities discriminated systematically against Tibetans. Words like apartheid, racism and genocide cropped up. Yet from what I had seen so far, the regime was far from homogeneous. Most officials in China seemed to be unsophisticated, poorly educated and badly paid, and envious of those who had made lives abroad. Local people paid fortunes to criminal gangs to smuggle them to Australia, Europe and North America. Although the top Party jobs were occupied by Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 per cent of China’s population, the middle and lower ranks of the bureaucracy in these border regions included many Tibetans, Hui and other minorities. The official newspaper the People’s Daily said that nearly three-quarters of the officials in the Tibet Autonomous Region were ethnically Tibetan.
I asked Wangdu why his father was so keen for him to move back to Amdo: Surely he understood that his future lay in America?
“I guess he doesn’t see it like that. He was in prison for eighteen years,” said Wangdu, in an offhand way, “and he wants the family to be reunited before he passes away.”