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As with other Westerners, what I anticipated finding in Tibet today was heavily conditioned by the exile government's well-organized information machinery. The exiles admit almost no progress back in their homeland, and I expected a people and culture in deep decay. Finding Norbu and others like him, therefore, came as a great surprise. They are by any standard middle class, a breed of Tibetans that barely existed historically and is all but unknown to the outside world today.

Beyond these individuals I was also surprised to find signs of the modern world spreading across Tibet: robed monks wearing sunglasses and riding motorcycles; nomads’ tents powered by solar panels; slopewalled adobe houses sprouting TV dishes. At Gonsar monastery on the eastern plateau, 20,000 people massed for a week in a sea of white tents to pay homage to a five-story-tall golden Buddha statue newly installed in a hilltop shrine.While some came on horseback, more drove in trucks, vans, SUVs, and wagons pulled by coughing tractors.

The greatest shift taking place everywhere in China is that with economic freedom now a reality, people are becoming increasingly independent minded. Tibetans are beginning to follow, but slowly and fearfully. Initiative does not come easily to Tibetans, conditioned by Buddhism to be content with their lot—overwhelmingly as impoverished serfs and nomads—and to await happiness in the next life. Added to this, Beijing's spending on agriculture, transportation, and other infrastructure has helped foster a culture of dependence.

Even given their first signs of economic initiative, Tibetans are nowhere near achieving political self-determination. Although many are loathe to accept it, the reality is that China is there to stay. Just as most Americans believe they are the legitimate owners of land once occupied by Native Americans, most Chinese say Tibet is a legitimate, historic part of the motherland. They'd no sooner return Tibet to the Tibetans than the United States would return South Dakota to the Sioux. And unlike the U.S., which had no prior claim on Indian territory, China does at least have an arguable historic claim on Tibet: Chinese emperors dominated Tibet during most of the 18th and 19th centuries. For more than 1,000 years before that, China and Tibet made war on one another repeatedly. Fortunes reversed again and again, at times leaving Tibet with the upper hand. China lost control early in the 20th century before the communists took over Tibet once and for all in 1959.

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