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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Transforming Tibet

August 27, 2008

The Frontline (India)
Volume 25 - Issue 18
Aug. 30-Sep. 12, 2008

There is no evidence of "impoverished, marginalised and excluded"
Tibetans in Lhasa or in any other part of Tibet.

THE grand vista of the Tibetan plateau is on display through the
glass windows of the Qinghai-Tibet train, an engineering marvel that
cuts through 1,956 kilometres of the highest terrains of the world.

On its 24-hour journey across the roof of the world, the train
traverses a shifting kaleidoscope of natural landscapes at altitudes
that reach up to 5,708 metres (over 18,000 feet). The train
transports its excited passenger cargo through bleak and windswept
plateau terrain, past the snow-capped Kunlun mountains, through
wildlife reserves such as the Kekexili (famous for the Tibetan
antelope), and alongside still blue lakes such as Lake Cuona, which,
at 4,650 m (15,255 ft), is one of the highest in the world. Completed
in June 2006, the Qinghai-Tibet railway has boosted the
socio-economic development of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

With five lines in operation at present, the railway has to date
transported 5.56 million passengers and 4.05 million tonnes of cargo.
It has boosted tourism and consumption, lowered prices and increased
the purchasing power of people living in the TAR, and enabled travel
amongst relatively closed groups such as the Tibetan herders. More
than 75 per cent of the goods to the TAR are now transported by
train, and freight transportation by road has come down by 80 per cent.

I was part of a delegation of Indian journalists invited by the
Chinese government to visit Lhasa and a few other places in the TAR
this July. Our entry into Lhasa by the Qinghai-Tibet railway was a
fitting introduction to a region that has seen enormous change since
its integration into China in 1951, and dramatic modernisation in
almost every walk of life in the last decade.

Like almost everything else about Tibet, the Qinghai-Tibet railway
line, too, is the subject of much controversy and criticism in a
section of the international literature on Tibet. This literature has
emanated largely from Dharamsala, where the 14th Dalai Lama – the
former theocratic ruler of Tibet who fled to India in 1959 – has set
up his "government-in-exile". It also comes from an influential
section of the Western media, and supporters of the Dalai Lama,
ranging from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to Hollywood
actors, from pacifists to neo-Buddhists. Much of it has been written
by people who have not actually visited Tibet themselves. Its
leitmotif is that Tibet, once an independent country under the
benevolent rule of the Dalai Lamas, was forcibly brought under
Chinese communist rule in 1951, and the brutal suppression of the
social, economic and religious rights of the Tibetan people continues
to this day. Most foreign visitors to Tibet internalise the biases of
this viewpoint before they visit, entrenched as it is in most
published histories, commentary, and even travel-writing on Tibet.

It is night when the train pulls into the Lhasa station -- a stately
building so large that vehicles can park on the platform. The drive
to our hotel could have been through any modern town in the world,
but for the looming presence of the Potala Palace, this city's
timeless sentinel.

Lhasa, an attractive modern city with a strong Tibetan flavour, is
slowly putting the impact of the March 14 disturbances of this year
behind it, although some scars still remain. This is yet another
event that was reported differently in the two media that report on
Tibet. The pro-Dalai media sought to portray it as a mass uprising
for Tibetan independence led by monks. The Chinese media reported it
as a sectional riot that targeted innocent people and was fuelled
directly by the Dalai Lama. Chinese netizens, now a strong and vocal
presence, exposed the fabrication and doctoring of photographs of the
riots in the reportage by some sections of the Western media.

A freedom struggle the March 14 disturbances were not. The Lhasa
residents we spoke to looked back at this phase with revulsion and
dismay. Rioting monks lynched innocent citizens, burnt schools,
homes, and business establishments in an orgy of violence. Eighteen
persons (including three Tibetans) were killed by protesters, either
burnt or knifed. The direct economic loss of the riot was 320 million
yuan, according to government sources.

"We heard shouting outside the gate at about 12 p.m. and then saw
burning torches being thrown onto the roof of the school," said Deji
Joka, principal of the No.2 Middle School in the heart of Lhasa, as
she pointed to the burnt-out school building. There are 842 students
in the school, of whom 80 per cent are Tibetan. This was one of many
schools in Lhasa that were attacked by the mobsters.

The March 14 riots are seen by the Chinese government as being of a
piece with plans to disrupt the Beijing Olympics made by the Dalai
Lama's "government-in-exile". The Olympic torch relay was physically
attacked by pro-Dalai protesters in more than one Western capital.
Tibetan officials claimed that they had proof of the direct
involvement of the "Dalai Lama clique" in the Lhasa riots and would
make this public at an appropriate time.

A report brought out this year by the Dalai Lama's Dharamsala-based
"government-in-exile," entitled "Environment and Development in
Tibet: A crucial Issue", offers perhaps the most detailed recent
critique from the pro-Dalai group of China's Tibet policy. Its
credibility, however, is seriously compromised because the authors
have not visited their research area and have excluded official
sources unless they suit their purpose.

"China claims that Tibet is experiencing growth and prosperity, but
the reality is that, under the Chinese rule, Tibetans are
impoverished, marginalised and excluded; the sensitive and globally
important ecology of Tibet is deteriorating; and many plant and
animal species face extinction," the report summarises. Although this
particular report does not deal with it, the allegation that
religious freedom has been trampled upon in Tibet by the communist
state, and that cultural property has been wantonly destroyed, is
very much a part of the pro-Dalai propaganda offensive.

THE RIOTERS DID not leave schools alone. No. 2 Middle School in the
heart of Lhasa had burning torches thrown on its roof.

Hard as a visitor may look, there is no evidence of "impoverished,
marginalised and excluded" Tibetans in Lhasa or in any other part of
Tibet. Indeed, the generally high levels of health, well-being and
productive employment are a striking feature of observable social
life, and one that is captured by official statistics. The Tibetan
economy has grown at 12 per cent over the last seven years, and the
per capita income was 12,000 yuan in 2007, double the 2002 figure,
according to government sources.

The allegation of ethnic marginalisation of Tibetans through a
state-sponsored policy of Han settlement is yet another myth
propagated by supporters of the Dalai Lama. The total population of
the TAR is 2.8 million, according to official figures, of which 92
per cent is Tibetan, 2 per cent consists of other ethnic groups, and
6 per cent is Han Chinese.

Gapa village, 10 km from Lhasa, is a good example of the reasonably
high standards of rural life. It is neither a very prosperous nor a
backward village and the average landholding of its 60 households is
3.8 mu (1 mu = 0.0667 hectare). "Before 1984, the village was part of
a people commune," said Sonam Gyatsen, the head of the village, as he
entertained us in his house. "But now, after that, everyone got land
in our village depending on the family number." His parents were
serfs and he was only nine in 1951 when Tibet was formally integrated
into China.

"I did not even have a coat to wear," he recalled. Zuoga, head of a
13-member household, says her family earns 20,000 yuan a year from
her crop, rent, government subsidies and "collective work" on village
projects, which she says makes her household a "middling prosperous" one.

Health care and school education are free. Therefore, while there is
a difference in living standards between urban and rural areas, there
is no "impoverishment" or "marginalisation" in villages. A range of
special preferential policies and measures for social and economic
development apply to Tibet. Under the Constitution and the "Law on
Regional and Ethnic Autonomy", the TAR has the power and flexibility
in adopting special policies to speed up economic and cultural
development. This extends from the relaxation of the one-child rule –
Tibetans can have as many children as they want, except for Tibetan
officials who must stop with two – to a preferential taxation policy
for Tibetans. Farmers and herders are exempt from taxes and
administrative charges, they receive free medical care, and their
children get free residential schooling.

Dr. Losang Yundeng, Director of the People's County Hospital in
Linzhi prefecture, is a product of the modern education system
introduced in 1951 in Tibet. Born to very poor parents in Chamdo
prefecture, he studied in the primary school that had opened in his
village, from where he was sent by the village to train as a barefoot
doctor. The bright young boy later trained as a surgeon; the training
included a stint at the Norman Bethune Medical Academy. "My family
got land and a house after the Democratic Reform. We were made to
feel like human beings for the first time," he said. "There have been
great achievements since the open door policy in 1978 in health
care," he said. His 210-bed hospital treated about 1,10,000 patients
and performed some 1,500 surgical procedures a year, he said.

In economic development, education, ecological protection, and
cultural and religious freedoms, the reality in Tibet presents a
picture quite the opposite of that conveyed in the 2008 Dharamsala report.

Take the issue of religion and freedom of religious practice. That
Tibetan society is deeply religious is apparent, as is the freedom
people have to practise Buddhism openly. Lines of devotees prostrate
on the pavement at the bottom of the hill on which the grand Potala
Palace rises, in preparation for their climb to the venerated place
of worship. Devotees throng the Sera monastery, one of the six major
monasteries of the Gelupa sect built in the early 15th century.
Prayer flags festoon the hillsides around Lhasa. The prayer wheel is
a common religious artefact that Tibetans, particularly the older
generation, rotate in their hands even as they go about their daily routine.

The pro-Dalai group claims that religious worship has been
suppressed, monks have been persecuted and religious venues neglected
by the government. In reality, there is a perceptibly non-threatening
environment for worship. It is true, and the Chinese government
acknowledges it, that the period of the Cultural Revolution saw
extensive and incalculable destruction of religious and cultural
wealth, but that phase is over, and today freedom of religious
worship is protected by law. There are 1,700 religious venues and
46,000 monks in the TAR. These venues, which include ancient
monasteries, are a treasured heritage and their maintenance is funded
by the government.

According to official figures, in 2001 as much as 330 million yuan
was spent on the Potala Palace and Norbu Lingka and Sagya
Monasteries. In the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-2010) the
central government will invest 570 million yuan to repair the
Tashilhumpo, Jokhang and Samye Monasteries and 22 other key cultural relics.

The depth of religious penetration does not, however, imply support
for the political goals of the Dalai Lama. Indeed, there is scant
support for the Dalai Lama among the senior monks and religious heads
of the important monasteries in Tibet. "Before 1959, Buddhists
supported the Dalai Lama," Losang Champa, a Great Living Buddha and
Vice Chairman of the Tibetan Branch of the Chinese Buddhism
Association, told visiting journalists. "However, after he fled the
situation has changed. He has engaged in political activities."
Nembula, a senior monk of the Sera Monastery, put the issue of
support to the Dalai Lama in perspective: "The principle of religious
freedom is good, and to believe in someone is one's personal choice,
part of one's inner world. But politically, we must safeguard the
interests of the country."

As contentious an issue as religion is that of Tibet's environment.
The 2008 Dharamsala report alleges indiscriminate exploitation of the
region by a grasping central government. It alleges the rapid
extinction of many of Tibet's rare plant and animal species, and the
destruction of its fragile ecosystem through short-sighted
development policies.

The government of the TAR has taken demonstrable measures to
safeguard the environment. At the macro level, the government spent
more than 120 million yuan in protecting wetlands and grassland in
the 10th Five Year Plan (2001-2005). The prefecture of Linzhi is a
repository of ecological wealth in the TAR. It has 46 per cent of the
total forest area of the TAR, and according to Duo Ji Ciren,
Vice-Commissioner of the Administrative office of Linzhi prefecture,
it has made "the historical transition from poverty to a prosperous
prefecture". While tourism is a major resource earner, the
safeguarding of its ecology is critical to this, Ciren emphasised.
"Our slogan is to build Linzhi as the largest district in western
China with the best preserved ecology," he said.

The Environmental Museum in Linzhi, the only museum of its kind in
the TAR, has been set up to build awareness of the ecological wealth
of the region. Samples and models of nearly 4,000 kinds of plants
unique to the area, and 95 species of protected wild animals (30
under first grade protection) are arranged in a spectacular
recreation of the region's flora and fauna.

The progress of Tibet has many worrying aspects to it, which are
readily acknowledged in the official literature and by officials in
the TAR. A late starter in economic development, the TAR still
remains the most backward of China's provinces, a fact that the 2005
National Human Development Report for China highlights, and official
reports note with concern. "Tibet remains one of China's most
underdeveloped regions due to its harsh natural conditions and weak
economy," an official handbook on Tibet notes. "It has relied heavily
on investment. The region planned 180 projects with a total
investment of 77 billion yuan in 2007. About 93 per cent of the
investment came from the Chinese central government."

For the Chinese government, the politics and development of Tibet, an
autonomous region covering almost one-eighth of the country's area,
has been a complex issue with a troubling international dimension. An
interesting development in recent years is the growing information
flow on Tibet now available on the Net from official, unofficial and
news sources within Tibet. This offers a credible and informed
alternative to the assertions and assumptions of the pro-Dalai press.
Along with greater transparency that will result from the opening of
the region, the terms of the debate over the Tibet question will
surely become more balanced and fair.

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