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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Tibet's troubled transformation

October 19, 2007

By Adrienne Mong
NBC News Producer

LHASA, Tibet - Travelling in the field as part of a TV news crew, you get used to the attention a big video camera attracts.

In China, where you're rarely on your own, people stop mid-flow and stare, open-mouthed, occasionally throwing out a question to no one in particular about what
you are doing.

In Tibet, where you're often in huge open spaces with nothing around but maybe a yak or two, the locals emerge like apparitions, drawn to the camera.

A Tibetan peasant and his granddaughter who were drawn to our TV camera on the road from Shigatse from Lhasa, Tibet.

On a drive toward Shigatse from Lhasa one morning, we stopped at a riverbank overlooking the Yarlung Tsangpo - a vast meandering river that becomes known as
the Brahmaputra once it crosses into neighboring India.

As we filmed the surrounding valley, an elderly Tibetan man and his granddaughter appeared from nowhere, looking intently at the camera.

Native curiosity

The man was wearing threadbare clothes – a dark brown blazer with holes and faded green sneakers. He didn't speak Mandarin, only Tibetan, but his 12-year-old
granddaughter was fluent and translated what he said. She told me they lived on the other side of a mountain behind the valley.

Carrying a spool of black yak wool he was using to make a blanket, the 66-year-old grandfather watched our crew with quiet and respectful fascination. Unlike the
Chinese and unlike us, he asked no questions. I peppered them with my own.

Is her grandfather retired? This provoked much mirth. "He's a peasant," came her rebuke. "They don't retire."

Where do they farm? Up the side of the mountain above us, where a herd of black cows grazed.

Does she have any brothers and sisters? A brother, he's 5. He doesn't go to school.

How many are there in their household? Five of them. Her paternal grandparents, her mother, herself, and her brother.

How old is her mother? She's 38.

Does she work? Yes, she's the main breadwinner of the family.

I wanted to ask more probing questions, but just a few feet away inside a van sat our government minder. It wasn't worth getting this family into any trouble.

Still, I wondered what their lives were like. Whether it was better than it was a decade or two ago. Whether it would have been better without the Chinese.

A better tomorrow?

That life in Tibet has improved is a common refrain among Chinese officials, who like to trot out impressive statistics. In addition to the $8 billion invested from 1994
to 2005, Beijing says they plan to funnel into Tibet an additional $10 billion over the next five years.

"The government puts the development of Tibet high on the priority list," said Yu Heping, deputy director-general at the Development and Reform Commission of
the Tibet Autonomous Region. In an interview with Yu, he made repeated references to achieving a goal of double-digit GDP growth.

The refrain comes from some Tibetans, too.

A native farmer in a village outside of Shigatse sang the praises of the Chinese government. "They've done a lot to make our lives better," said Ci Nan, who was
especially effusive about Beijing's investments in irrigation.

The young Tibetan woman assigned as our minder, De Qu, spent her teenage years in Beijing but couldn't wait to return to her native city, Lhasa, after graduating
from university. She put it to me in succinct terms: "Actually it's much easier to find things here now. What you can find anywhere in China you can find here now,

But critics of China's modernization drive in Tibet argue that the material benefits come at too high a cost – part of a grand design to retain firm control over the
region by remaking the former Himalayan kingdom wholly Chinese.

As long-time Tibet researcher, Robbie Barnett of Columbia University, put it, Tibetans "can see that they are being bought off."

Early this month, hundreds of exiles living in India led a protest over an Indian publication that praised Tibet's double-digit economic growth under the Chinese.

This was followed by a protest in early August in a predominantly Tibetan corner of China's southwestern province of Sichuan – in which protesters called for the
Dalai Lama's return and demanded greater religious freedom.  

The Tibetan people might be able to make money, said Barnett, but they're not able to make decisions about their own culture, traditions, or religion – all of which
activists say are being slowly eroded by the increased migration of ethnic Chinese to Tibet.

Tibet: Reflecting on the West's development missteps?

It's this cultural erosion that speaks to outsiders, says Barnett.

"We all live in economies which are very wealthy, where we have destroyed our cultures basically or trampled on them," he said. "China has this huge advantage in
that it can leapfrog over the West in terms of these sensitive questions of development and culture."

An interesting counterpoint came from Alexandros Yannis, a Greek diplomat with cynical views about China's role in Tibet who we encountered on the train to

"You must always strike the right balance. I don't believe you can keep the earth … a museum. You cannot keep the clock where it is," said Yannis. "Life will
change. Our challenge is to make it as less painful for all those who go through the change, and our challenge is to do it in a balanced way so that we can preserve
what we can and move on with the rest of the things that we do as humans."

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