Cultural clash in land on the roof of the world


The Dalai Lama's support remains strong in Tibet, despite Chinese attempts to airbrush him out of the picture. John Gittings visits Lhasa as one of the few western journalists allowed in there in recent years

Friday February 8, 2002

The Guardian

It is early morning outside the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, pilgrims from all over Tibet have begun the sacred circuit - and the Chinese flag is flying in the breeze. Nomads with sunburnt faces as dark as their cloaks, Khampa ex-warriors with red tassels in their hair, farmers with leggings, their wives with striped aprons, plus ordinary folk from the city, old and young, walk briskly in the grey dawn.

Many twirl their prayer wheels, some prostrate themselves on mats, and one or two even drive a sheep before them around the circuit. The lucky animal is then allowed to live to the end of its natural days. It is an advertisement of sorts for the religious freedom that China says is fully allowed in Tibet. "How can the foreign press accuse us of suppressing religion," asks an official, "when you can see it in the streets?"

The Potala receives an average of 800 pilgrims a day. It works out at about a 10th of the entire Tibetan population every year. However, the Chinese flag flying boldly - provocatively, even - in front of the Potala is a reminder that this is freedom within limits. The vast stretch of paved space behind it has been built since I was last in Lhasa. With its flagpole and ornamental lights, it is a miniature Tiananmen Square exported to Tibet.

A Chinese official confirms for the first time unofficial reports that in August 1999 the flag was targeted by a pro-independence Tibetan activist. "Of course the Dalai [Lama] clique is trying to obstruct the modernisation of Tibet," exclaims the region's planning director, Wang Dianyuan. "Didn't they try to blow up the flagpole two years ago?" The "clique" is also blamed for earlier explosions at the gate of a government headquarters in Lhasa, and outside the home of a senior pro-Beijing official.

Virtually all Tibetans in the region or abroad who call for independence accept the supreme authority of the Dalai Lama who has condemned any violence. However, there is a radical minority in favour of stronger action.

Another official admits that large numbers of Tibetans still support the Dalai Lama. "That many people believe in the Dalai Lama is well known," says Tu Deng, the Tibetan head of the religious affairs committee that enforces government policy. "Our main task is to help people understand his real character." Mr Tu describes the Dalai Lama as "a splittist and an enemy of China" whose picture is therefore banned in public places. This has created a bizarre situation in which the Chinese admit that the Dalai Lama is still the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism but have airbrushed him out of the picture.

After performing the sacred circuit, the pilgrims file through the Potala, home of successive dalai lamas since the 17th century, in the prescribed clockwise circuit. Foreigners and Chinese tourists are conducted rudely against the flow in an uneasy mix. There is a plan to segregate the two, with one group admitted in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

In front of the most holy chapel in the Potala, a nomad from the plateau hands her tiny baby wrapped in a sheepskin to an older child, and prostrates herself on the floor. A smartly dressed young lady from Lhasa lies down alongside. Both then climb a wooden ladder to touch their foreheads against the statue of Arya Lokeshvara dating from the 7th century. A party of Chinese tourists clamber up noisily behind; one of them leans against the shrine and takes a call on his mobile.

Monasteries destroyed "Some monks in the monasteries tell us this is just a performance for the tourists," says another foreigner who travelled widely without an official guide. It is generally assumed that some monks are spying for the authorities.

It is not as simple as that. On the roof of the Lhasa's Jokhang temple, Tibet's most sacred site, groups of monks are disputing theology with an enthusiasm that can hardly be feigned. Two seated monks question a third who stands before them, clapping his hands in triumphant emphasis when he concludes a point.

Nowhere else in the People's Republic of China does Beijing have to cope with a population so overwhelmingly attached to a non-communist ideology, and the monasteries are the focus for this central contradiction in Chinese rule.

Tibet's religious character has survived a decade of persecution during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when almost every monastery was destroyed by Red Guard factions among the Chinese and a much smaller number of radical Tibetans.

I am given official figures claiming that before the 1959 rebellion when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, there were 110,000 monks and nuns living in some 2,000 monasteries across the region. Now there are said to be 47,500 monks and nuns in 1,700 religious establishments which have been rebuilt with Chinese state funds and offerings by local communities.

The figures are unreliable. An earlier Chinese version puts the original figure of monasteries at 2,700. Exiles claim there were thousands more before the mass destruction which began after the 1959 rebellion and culminated in the Cultural Revolution (1966-68) when Chinese Red Guards and Tibetan radicals joined forces.

Religion was completely banned during the Cultural Revolution, when monks were sent to prison or to work in the fields. Prayer flags and other displays of faith were also prohibited. The "excesses" of that period were denounced in the early 1980s when religion was allowed a reprieve but the Chinese attitude remains equivocal.

Last December the official Tibet Daily said that it is necessary to "wipe out the negative influence of religion". The number of monks is lower now because in the past, officials explain, under the Dalai Lama's "feudal rule", families were forced to send sons to the monasteries. There is also a ban on admitting people of 15 or under to become acolytes because they should be "receiving normal education".

Despite official tolerance for everyday worship, senior officials have described Buddhism as a long-term obstacle to the transformation of Tibet.

"The centre [in Beijing] demands that we should maintain stability in Tibet and weaken the influence of religion," said Dan Zeng, the Tibetan Communist party leader, at an education conference three years ago. He added that the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, had endorsed the campaign launched in 1996 to conduct "patriotic education in the monasteries".

Mr Tu claims that the campaign has been successful, although "we cannot change people's minds in a short space of time". Like all officials interviewed, Mr Tu often speaks in set formulas as if from a manual.

"Through 'patriotic education' the monks have learned 'what is not allowed' and 'what is illegal'," he tells me.

Asked for clarification, he explains that monks teaching children is "not allowed". Monks demonstrating with pro-independence slogans is "illegal". Mr Tu dismisses stories of brutality and torture. "A person is responsible for his own law-breaking," he says calmly. "Our responsibility is to look after the great majority of [law-abiding] lamas."

The London-based Tibet Information Network says it knows of at least 210 monks and nuns still in jail for taking part in peaceful demonstrations over the past decade. Merely to shout a pro-independence slogan may earn a sentence of eight years. There are frequent stories - routinely denied by Beijing - of inmates being beaten with iron rods and electric batons. Several allegedly died during a protest at Drapchi prison in 1998.

Life seems more relaxed in Lhasa than during my last visit in 1994 when memories were fresh of pro-independence marches and the 1989 imposition of martial law. The Chinese military maintains a low profile, although Lhasa houses the massive headquarters of half a dozen different commands - from border guards to riot troops. In the square before the Jokhang temple, where monks and nuns once marched, two bored policemen sit on chairs barking through a loudspeaker at anyone who pauses for too long.

Dalai Lama's illness No one now expects the intermittent dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing since the early 1980s to produce results. A Beijing magazine this month has repeated the standard line that he can "return to the embrace of the motherland if he gives up his independence demand". But asked if the Dalai will ever return, Mr Tu replies contemptuously that "he has now sunk in the mud too deep to renounce all he has done in the past".

The Dalai Lama's nuanced proposals, made over the past 15 years, for Tibet to enjoy something short of independence are dismissed as insincere. His recent illness has also raised questions about the future in the event of his death. China would undoubtedly seek to control the choice of his next "reincarnation", as they did in 1995 after the death of the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second spiritual leader.

The new boy Panchen is now being educated in Beijing "in religious studies and science", it is said in Lhasa. He is being groomed to play a political role which could one day supplant the paramount status of the Dalai Lama.

Yet official statements have made it clear that the dominance of Buddhism in Tibet, however tightly controlled, is seen as a continuing threat to Chinese-led "stability". And that threat will only diminish if the economy of Tibet - still the poorest region of China- can finally be transformed.

A railroad to progress or just another chain to China?


After 50 years of Chinese rule, Tibetans remain sceptical of plans to end their poverty and isolation

John Gittings in Lhasa

Guardian Saturday February 9, 2002

A dust storm swirls around the squat village in the Lhasa valley, blotting out its view of the bare, high mountains. Yaks and donkeys huddle against low, whitewashed walls; prayer flags flutter from turrets above. An overloaded mini-tractor brings farmers home from the fields, muffled and masked against wind and sand. They are at least better off than a nomad family, wrapped in tattered cloaks and marching into the distance.

The village, off a road not far from Lhasa, has electricity but life is still very basic. Their fuel is yak dung, plastered in large pats on the house walls while it dries. A row of plastic jerry cans is lined up against the village's single stand-pipe. The village has a primary school but most teachers are unqualified: less than four out of 10 Tibetan children reach secondary school.

"It's true that average incomes are only half of those in the 'interior'," says Wang Dianyuan, head of Tibet's planning development committee. "Our most important goal now is to raise the standard of living."

Mr Wang describes an "exciting scheme" to transform the region. Like many official plans it goes by numbers, from one to four: "One is for the new railway now being built from the 'interior' up to Lhasa; two is for two new airfields; three is for improving three main roads; four is for building four new power stations."

This modernisation plan has been given fresh impetus by Beijing's overall scheme to "develop the west" (including Tibet) in an effort to narrow the gap between China's rich and poor, and it is being billed as Tibet's salvation. But Tibetan critics abroad argue that it serves other aims.

"Essentially it is to do with political and strategic integration," says the independent Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya, author of Dragon in the Land of Snows. "Tibet's natural economy faces westwards towards south Asia; Beijing wants to tie it in firmly eastwards with China and to encourage more migration from the [Chinese] interior."

It is no accident that the new railway comes top in Mr Wang's litany. When the Chinese are asked what they have done for Tibet, they always cite the benefits allegedly brought to the region through opening it up by road and air.

The theme is stressed in the construction now under way of a massive monument in Lhasa to celebrate the 50 years of Chinese rule. Shaped like an abstract Mount Everest, it will dominate the view from the holy Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader.

Officials say it will also commemorate the "heroism" of the Chinese soldiers and labourers who died in the 1950s and 1960s building the roads to neighbouring Sichuan and Qinghai provinces.

Beijing does not hide its hope that better communications will link Tibet closer to inland China and thus reduce the appeal of the "Dalai Lama clique". Mr Wang talks of its importance in "bringing Tibet closer to the 'interior' and promoting cultural exchange", adding that "we have been looking forward to it [the railway] for years".

In Lhasa's central post office, a glossy souvenir volume to mark the start of work last year shows a double-decker train speeding through pastures where yaks browse against a backdrop of snowy peaks. The reality may not be so idyllic. The new line, starting from Golmud in the neighbouring Qinghai province, traverses a bleak terrain with few signs of life.

From the air, the 5,000 metre-high Tanggula pass which it must scale is a deeply rutted escarpment of snow-covered rock. Badly eroded slopes threaten the route on to Lhasa with landslides. Four-fifths of the railway will be built above 4,000 metres and half its track will be laid on permafrost, posing technical problems that Chinese engineers insist they can solve. Even without any hitches, the 700-mile route will take six years to complete.

Migrant workers Last week the central post office was crowded with Chinese migrant workers sending remittances back home to their families in the "interior" before the Chinese New Year. The railway has already brought 10,000 more migrants to work on the track, leaving little employment for local Tibetans. "Most of the work units on the railway come from inland," says Mr Wang casually, "but we do employ some local people to do manual work, like digging".

The thousands of migrants already in Lhasa who mostly run small shops and restaurants or drive taxis welcome the prospect of easier access to the interior.

"Tibet is a good place to come to," says a taxi driver from Sichuan province. "There are fewer regulations, and we don't need a residence permit to live here. But the roads are often blocked in winter and planes are too expensive."

A chance meeting on the roof of the Jokhang temple with five young Tibetans gives a different perspective on the job situation. Only one is semi-employed - as a truck driver during the summer. Though their English is limited they all know the word "jobless".

"We are all learning English in a private school; there are 56 in our class," said a young man from Shigatze. "I hope it will help me get a job as a tourist guide."

It is not clear how far Beijing's development programme will help these young urban Tibetans, let alone the much greater number of rural Tibetans with virtually no education. Tibet certainly needs the kind of investment in infrastructure on which the plan focuses. Compared with the rest of China, the region is as isolated as it was 50 years ago.

The trunk roads to China and the "friendship highway" to Nepal are unpaved for most of their length. Last week Lhasa's airport - a 60-mile drive from the city - was closed for three days because of a dust storm that blotted out the runway.

Even Chinese sources acknowledge that Tibetan development has been unbalanced. "Over the past 40 years we have failed to build a diversified economy [in Tibet]," wrote the economist Shen Kaiyun. "Other Chinese minorities also depend in varying degrees on the central government, but Tibet can be said to be a model dependent economy." Mr Shen urges that future economic planning should be less "influenced by politics" than in the past.

Tourism has become Tibet's major industry but tight controls on entry requirements for foreign visitors as well as the altitude and climate limit its growth. The largest increase comes from the Chinese tourists who make the Potala Palace echo with the sound of mobile phones. In the square outside, they can sing along in a karaoke bar or shop in a new department store and ride on Lhasa's first escalators. A small, emerging Tibetan middle class may enjoy these new fruits of modernisation. Some will live in the new, semi-private housing estates on the edge of town and send their children to college in inland China. But for most of Tibet's 2.6m residents life is still largely set in an earlier age.

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