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21st century comes to Tibet

October 12, 2007

Locals wary of Chinese aid in movement to modernize

Thursday, October 4, 2007

First of two parts LHASA, Tibet — Tibet, for centuries a Himalayan
kingdom lost in time, is lost no longer.

China’s shift to a market economy and its relentless drive for
development have brought the region storming to the cusp of the 21st
century, and in some places over the edge.

Ancient Buddhist temples, primitive agriculture and herders in yak-hair
tents still are commonplace, but they exist alongside modern highways
and bridges, satellite television and gleaming electricity pylons that
march across the mountainsides.

Horse-drawn carts are outnumbered by new sport utility vehicles;
Buddhist monks surf the Internet; and yak herders tend their cattle
while on motorbikes with cell phones in their pockets.

None of this is happening by accident. While hard figures are hard to
come by, the central government in Beijing clearly is pouring billions
of dollars into modernizing Tibet’s infrastructure.

The centerpiece is the Qinghai-Tibet Railway — an engineering marvel
stretching more than 600 miles across the permafrost-bound “Roof of the
World” — which for the first time permits the easy flow of goods and
tourists in and out of Tibet.

Millions of dollars more have been spent on high-quality highways
slashed through breathtaking gorges, bringing electricity to remote
rural areas and a cell phone network that covers a remarkable 80 percent
of Tibet’s rugged landmass.

In the few substantial cities, landscaped avenues with modern traffic
signals are lined by rows of new condominiums. In the countryside,
grazing areas are fringed by sprawling “settlements” of single-family
homes for herders and subsistence farmers. In many towns, the largest
building is a new school.


Recently, work was completed on a highway that bridges the broad Lhasa
River, tunnels half a mile through a mountain and then crosses another
river. The purpose? To reduce the drive time from downtown Lhasa to the
airport ahead of an expected tourist influx after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Why is China spending so much on a region whose population of 2.8
million is barely 0.2 percent of China’s total?

Officials said they pay special attention to a region that covers
one-eighth of China’s land mass, lies near an occasionally hostile
neighbor — India — and whose fragile, high-altitude ecosystem feeds the
great rivers that sustain Chinese agriculture.

But after their sometimes brutal suppression of the separatist movement
that developed around the Dalai Lama, Beijing appears to be trying to
win the loyalty of the Tibetan people by cutting them in on China’s new

Critics see threat

“When the farmers, the herdsmen . . . feel the benefits of development,
they feel in their hearts that this kind of social system, the ruling
party, does them good,” explained Neymatsering, one of five vice
chairmen of the Tibet Autonomous Region who, like most Tibetans, uses
only one name.

Critics of China’s rule in Tibet acknowledge the large sums being spent
on infrastructure and development, but see that as a threat rather than
a boon to the region’s people.

“The current form of infrastructural, GDP-oriented ultrarapid growth is
very dangerous, probably unsustainable, likely to damage local resources
and environment, and encourages outside migration and profit
extraction,” argued the International Campaign for Tibet in a briefing
paper for a Congressional Research Service team that recently visited Tibet.

“If current patterns persist over the next decade, Tibet will be
integrated into the Chinese and global economies, but will not benefit.
By 2020, most Tibetan nomads will have been forced off their land.”

Speaking in the Washington offices of the International Campaign for
Tibet, Kate Saunders said there is “nothing wrong with economic progress
and development. The Tibetans want it.”

But, she argued, the new railway, roads and other projects are designed
mainly to make it easier to extract the region’s rich mineral and
hydrocarbon resources, with little benefit to the Tibetans.

“They are imposing a Chinese urban industrial model on a land where the
population is mainly rural,” she said. “The economic policies are not
improving people’s lives — they are causing environmental degradation
and creating an underclass of excluded Tibetans.”

That argument is frustrating to the small number of Tibetans who
comprise an emerging middle class and have benefited from the rapid
economic growth.

“It seems like these people are trying to keep us locked in the past
because they think it is quaint,” complained Shirabphuntsob, a
Lhasa-based government information officer who favors Adidas sportswear
and baseball caps and drives a new SUV.

“It is ridiculous to think that Tibet can stay the same as it was,” said
Shixiounyin, a middledoctor encountered on the railway as she returned
from enrolling her daughter in veterinary college in the central Chinese
city of Lanzhou.

Chinese tourism

The railway, which opened last year, undoubtedly will bind Tibet more
closely to China than it has ever been. Long accessible only by tortuous
mountain highways and a single airport, Lhasa now enjoys a high-speed
affordable link to central Chinese cities that has ended centuries of

The railway has opened Tibet to cheap Chinese consumer products and
enabled Tibetans to sell their products in China. It also makes the
region more accessible to tourists, who come in droves from Beijing,
Shanghai and other Chinese coastal cities.

“I have been to Thailand and Indonesia before this, and my dream is to
visit Paris,” said a Shanghai woman, part of a 10person youth group on a
package tour to Tibet. When asked what she knew about Tibetan religion
and culture, she admitted, “Not very much.”

Tour groups, more than 90 percent Chinese, crowd the entrances to
Tibet’s museums, scenic spots, temples and monasteries, where the monks
supplement their income by charging up to $8 a head for admission.

Some 360,000 tourists visited the iconic Potala Palace in central Lhasa
last year, a 30 percent increase over the previous year, according to
Qiangba Gesang, director of the administrative department at the palace.
Many spill over into nearby streets where they drive up the prices of
rugs, jewelry and swords made by traditional craftsmen.

The Tibetans seem to have a mixed view of the tourists. Mrs.
Shixiounyin, the doctor on the train, slyly related a story about a
tourist couple who broke a taboo by wading into the sacred waters of
holy Lake Namtso, then suffered a car crash on their way back to Lhasa.

But, she said, the visitors are welcome because “tourism will make
Tibetans richer.”

Culture at risk

Officials in Beijing and Lhasa seem to have come to the same conclusion,
raising some hope for the survival of one of the world’s most original

“The Tibetan government regards tourism as its main industry for
economic development, said Neymatsering, the Tibet Autonomous Region
vice chairman. “We want to attract tourists with our excellent
traditional culture, so we have to protect it.”

Large sums have been spent to preserve and restore Tibet’s temples and
monasteries, in some cases repairing damage done by rampaging Red Guards
during the Cultural Revolution. Almost $30 million has already been
spent on the Potala Palace alone, according to its administrative director.

An impressive new museum has been opened in Lhasa and is stuffed with
priceless relics, including letters from emperors and lamas dating back
hundreds of years — along with constant reminders of China’s historical
claim to Tibet.

The government also sponsors professional and amateur dance and theater
troupes — a privately owned nightclub features traditional dancing and
singing in downtown Lhasa — and set aside up to one-third of Tibet’s
total area for wildlife preserves.

At the International Campaign for Tibet, however, officials see those
efforts as an ineffective rearguard action at best.

“In all this drive for development, they are knocking down a lot of the
old Tibetan heritage,” Ms. Saunders said in Washington. “A lot of the
old craftsmen’s skills are now useless. The Tibetan cultural heritage is
being ignored.”

What is being done to protect the culture “is almost an exotic
performance-art installation” not unlike a Disneyland exhibit, she said.

She also charged that officials “have brought in Chinese tour guides and
sacked the Tibetan guides . . . so the Tibetans are not able to
interpret their own culture to the outside world.”

Dalai Lama unseen

Ms. Saunders’ group, which is helping to organize an appearance by the
exiled Dalai Lama at the U.S. Capitol later this month, is particularly
concerned that China is trying to manipulate the religious conviction
that lies at the heart of Tibetan culture.

Religion “is critical to Tibetans,” she said. “The authorities perceive
this and attempt to undermine the authority of the Dalai Lama and of
Tibetan Buddhism as a whole.”

Tibetan and Chinese officials reject the criticism, pointing
incredulously to the small Buddhist shrines that adorn every home and
the teeming crowds of pilgrims who crowd the temples, often prostrating
themselves in prayer.

Indeed, every temple, home and herder’s tent boasts a religious display,
usually supplemented with paintings or photographs of various
high-ranking priests known as lamas. But a likeness of the current Dalai
Lama, for centuries the most revered spiritual figure in Tibet, is never

The government said a survey two years ago showed 80 percent of Tibetans
regard the Dalai Lama as primarily a political figure who seeks to split
Tibet from China.

That seems unlikely, given the obvious religious devotion of the
Tibetans and the central role the office has played in their history.
But when asked about the Dalai Lama — at least in front of an official
interpreter — most Tibetans fall silent or stammer, “I don’t know about

One longtime Lhasa resident, interviewed independently, said she and her
friends simply find it safer not to talk about such matters. “I don’t
trust them,” she said, “and they don’t trust me.”

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