Living Buddha Shingtsa Tenzinchodrak, vice-chairman of the standing committee for the People's Congress of the Tibet autonomous region who headed a five-member delegation to the United States and Canada, speaks to the press and representatives from the local Chinese community during a news conference in Toronto, Canada on Mar 20, 2009. Xinhua
As she stepped from the plane and on to the tarmac at Beijing International Airport yesterday, Kelsang Drolkar allowed herself a sigh of relief.
The 47-year-old Tibetan village chief from Lhasa was glad to be back on Chinese soil after her first overseas journey. But it had been no ordinary debut.
Drolkar was one of five delegates from the autonomous region, all deputies to the National People's Congress (NPC), to complete a unique but exhausting 13-day tour of the United States and Canada to meet the leading lights of North American politics and present a very real vision of modern Tibet.
She was joined by living Buddha Shingtsa Tenzinchodrak, vice-chairman of the standing committee for the People's Congress of the Tibet autonomous region who headed the delegation; Ngawang, executive vice-commissioner of Xigaze prefecture; Karma Rinchen, executive vice-commissioner of Nagqu prefecture, and Saldron, a doctor at the No 2 People's Hospital in Lhasa.
The tour was intended to "increase the outside world's understanding of Tibet", according to the preceding official statements. But as Drolkar discovered, her personal stories, mined from more than 30 years working at grassroots level, helped achieve a lot more.
"I'm not speaking for myself, but for the people in Tibet," said the head of Tama village in suburban Lhasa, which has a population of around 1,700.
The trip has come at an important time. Tomorrow sees the 50th anniversary of the Democratic Reform of Tibet, when about 1 million serfs in the region were freed, while China has also been targeted by a fresh wave of attacks on its stance over the autonomous region by the Dalai Lama, the leader of Old Tibet and now a political exile.
This month he claimed Tibet had become a "hell on Earth" and that the Tibetan culture is "nearing extinction".
But Drolkar, through a Mandarin interpreter, countered: "As an ordinary Tibetan who was born and has spent almost half a century in Tibet, I really don't understand how there can be such an ungrounded accusation. Our lives are much better than before.
"The average annual income reached 6,800 yuan ($1,000) in my village last year, about 2,000 yuan higher than the country's average." She added that every family now had telephones and mobile phones, with some even owning computers and LCD televisions. "It's beyond imagination compared to the past," she said.
To better illustrate her cultural background for her North American audience, which included foreign affairs officials, congressmen and scholars, Drolkar traveled with her three favorite traditional robes - one bright blue, one white and one coffee-colored.
"They're my favorites. I wanted to show them off," said Drolkar, whose parents were both serfs, adding it was now common for Tibetan women to wear such robes. Before the democratic reform, they were only available for noblewomen, she said.
"My parents are illiterate and I've had only four years of education in middle school. But today all three of my sons are college students," she said with pride.
Serfs, or slaves, like Drolkar's parents were not allowed to choose their partners; marriages were arranged for them. He mother had been wed to her father at the behest of a nobleman, she explained. "They never met before the marriage. But things changed after the reform. My marriage was my own will."
In Old Tibet, women were not even permitted to look at the upper half of a man's body, she said. "Now, men and women are equal. In Tibet there are many female village officials like me."
About 38 percent of Tibet's officials today are women, according to the regional government, who also account for more than 20 percent of the legislators in the regional people's congress.
Drolkar said these are the stories she told the North American leaders and Western media during her visit. "I don't know whether they fully understood it or not, but what I said is true. Tibet is not an ornament for certain people. We need progress and development, that's our right."
Drolkar's touching stories won many fans over the 13 days, including Lanny Davis, special counsel and spokesman for former US President Bill Clinton.
"I was impressed by her," he said after a briefing at the Chinese embassy in Washington on March 17. "Anyone who was here could not doubt her credibility. She is very powerful and eloquent in her simplicity, truthfulness and feelings about the progress of her people."
Davis admitted that before the briefing he did not know that 5 percent of Tibetans used to own almost all the land, while 95 percent were serfs.
"My suggestion would be to bring over more common Tibetans who can tell their own stories," he said. "The tremendously positive stories should be told to the American people, that the Tibetans have benefited from the reforms."
Kelsang Drolkar, head of Tama village in suburban Lhasa, Tibet, talks with Western guests at a buffet in Washington with assistants to the United States Congress on Mar 16. Xinhua
Larry Seabrook, a New York city councillor, also said: "I am glad I could have the opportunity to sit here and learn a lot about Tibet that has not been told to the [US] public."
Seabrook said his past knowledge of Tibet was based on information "only from one side", adding he was very impressed by the changes in Tibetan women's social and political status, and was happy to see two women delegates in the touring group.
The visit also received a warm welcome from the overseas Chinese community, with Xie Gang, chair of a Chinese society in New York, saying that the deputies' stories were very persuasive for their vividness and truthfulness. "There should be more of these visits," he said. "It's so important to offer the Western public the other side of the story."
Fang Yan, a Chinese political commentator also based in New York, said: "The government should encourage more Tibetan youths to study overseas or organize Tibetan youth groups to visit other countries. They would learn about the outside world and would be good envoys to tell the world what today's Tibet is like."
But not everyone had such a positive attitude towards the North American tour.
During the visit, USA Today quoted Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan and senior research fellow at Harvard Law School, who argued what the delegates said is out of touch with the reality that credible journalists and scholars have reported.
"It is a kind of desperate attempt on the Chinese part to whitewash the tragic reality in Tibet," he was quoted as saying.
Some media organizations even questioned the credibility of Shingtsa Tenzinchodrak as a spiritual leader. The 59-year-old was made a living Buddha of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism in 1955 when he was 5.
Davis said there was no question that some in the Western media were biased over Tibet as they have been hearing only one side of the argument for too long.
"I think it was Confucius who said the journey of a million miles begins with a simple step [the quote is actually from Lao Tzu]. It takes time and patience to overcome bias," he said. "It's time for the Chinese government to recognize it is a uphill climb and a long road, but this has been a good start."
Some overseas Chinese also suggested China should improve its communication skills in talks about Tibet for the Western public.
"Repeating the government stance doesn't work. The story should be told in a way that can be understood by the West," said Kathy Lin, who lived in Toronto, Canada, for more than 30 years. "In this regard, the Dalai Lama does a much better job and that's why he's so deceptive."
Drolkar has a similar feeling. "I found Westerners sometimes do think differently," she said. "They like challenging others and questioning things that we take for granted."
Drolkar said following the trip that she had learnt about how to communicate with Westerners.
"Just tell them your own stories," she said. "Given the chance, I would like to visit more countries to share my stories. I want to tell them about a real Tibet."
The delegation shows a trend in which China should follow in telling the rest of the world its position on Tibet and it is the best response to those who are crazy about the Dalai Lama clique, said Lian Xiangmin, a professor at the China Tibetology Research Centre in Beijing.
What China desperately needs now is encouraging more people-to-people exchanges of views with the rest of the world on Tibet, he said.
"I hope the government could send more similar delegations abroad in the future," Lian added. "A good thing about this delegation is that it was formed by NPC deputies."
The Tibetologist said sending the delegation to North America is equal to practicing the congress' power, "a popular means of the Western world in handling relations with China".