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Shangri-La, or Not

November 4, 2008

The Dalai Lama and Beijing take new tacks on Tibet.
By LESLIE HOOK | From today's Wall Street Journal Asia

SHANGRI-LA, China


Tibetan envoys are in Beijing this week for the eighth round of Sino-
Tibetan dialogue -- and it could be the last such dialogue for a long 
time. "My faith and trust in the Chinese government is diminishing," 
the Dalai Lama said a few days before his envoys departed from their 
home in exile in India. "It is very difficult to deal with people who 
are not sincere." His comments amount to a stunning admission that the 
Middle Way approach, a policy of compromise and dialogue that the 
Dalai Lama has advocated for decades, has failed to achieve its goals.

Seven months after violent riots in Lhasa, both sides appear to be 
hardening their positions. Within the Tibetan exile community, many 
believe the Dalai Lama has made too many concessions without receiving 
anything in return. In Beijing, the Tibetan unrest coupled with the 
Olympics has solidified a belief among Chinese leaders that military 
crackdown and greater media restrictions are the answer to any such 
disturbances. Despite three rounds of dialogue since March, including 
the one currently under way, Beijing and the Tibetan government in 
exile have come no closer.

This impasse came about because the two sides' respective visions for 
Tibet are irreconcilable. I recently visited a Tibetan area of Yunnan 
Province known as Shangri-La as part of a journalist delegation hosted 
by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we were shown a clear picture 
of the trajectory Beijing believes will be successful in Tibet. Nearly 
all journalists remain barred from the Tibet Autonomous Region, but 
these border areas can reveal a lot about what's going on there. This 
area was dubbed Shangri-La in 2002 after the lost paradise in James 
Hilton's novel.

Since its renaming, the town has been transformed from a backwater 
into a tourist mecca. It hosted 4.8 million tourists last year and has 
seen annual economic growth of 20% for the past six years, thanks in 
part to massive government investment, such as the new airport. The 
area's population is only about 30% Tibetan, a percentage that is 
decreasing as Chinese from other provinces move there to work.

In Shangri-La, Tibetan culture and religion are neatly packaged for 
tourist consumption at every turn. But when it comes to the lives of 
citizens, the government still exerts total control. Nowhere is this 
more evident than at the local Buddhist college. This state-run 
school, opened four years ago, provides free tuition, room and board, 
and graduates of its five-year program go on to management positions 
in monasteries or in government. But the education isn't just 
spiritual -- it's also "patriotic." A framed set of rules for students 
hangs in the central prayer hall; No. 1 reads: "Love the motherland, 
love the people, love socialism, use the guidance of the Chinese 
Communist Party to strengthen the unity of the minorities and protect 
the unity of the motherland." When we visit the largest monastery, 
Songzanlin, officials from the local Bureau of Religious Affairs pry 
the head teacher, a living Buddha, out of his 45-day period of fasting 
and seclusion to greet our delegation. The very fact of his presence 
speaks volumes about the lack of religious freedom.

Officials at the Bureau of Religious Affairs shy away from criticizing 
the Dalai Lama, however. "It's your individual choice what to believe 
in," says Li Xiongyong, a Tibetan and the deputy director of the 
Songzanlin Monastery management office, when I ask whether patriotic 
education includes teaching about the Dalai Lama. "Our education 
doesn't talk about this." Meanwhile, in Lhasa, patriotic re-education 
campaigns have intensified since March and, according to human-rights 
groups, these campaigns often require monks to denounce the Dalai 
Lama. Inside Tibet, even monks' travel to other monasteries and 
gatherings for teachings are closely monitored. The degree of 
religious control is far greater than in Shangri-La.

The Tibetans I meet in Shangri-La have only positive comments, 
although I am rarely allowed to speak with anyone without our 
government minders. At the Buddhism college, our group is accompanied 
by one minder for each journalist and every time I linger behind to 
talk to a teacher or a student, one stays with me. One afternoon I 
slip away and go exploring in a nearby village. The young Tibetan 
farmers I meet there have been left out of the boom -- none works in 
the tourism sector -- but they don't complain. From what I am allowed 
to observe, economic growth is succeeding in keeping most people 
fairly content in Shangri-La.

But Tibet is not like Shangri-La, and policies that may work in Yunnan 
will not necessarily work there. For starters, the area around Shangri-
La has always been ethnically diverse, with significant populations of 
Naxi and Lisu minorities, so the recent migration of other ethnicities 
into the area is less disruptive. Because Shangri-La is outside of the 
Tibet Autonomous Region, Tibetans there have also been relatively freer.

In the realm of religion, for example, it has only been in recent 
years that Beijing has begun to pay much attention to Tibetan 
Buddhists outside Tibet. In the realm of government, the cadres who 
run Shangri-La are local officials and often ethnic minorities 
themselves. The party secretary of the region, Qi Zhala, is a Tibetan 
who speaks enthusiastically about the importance of spiritual as well 
as material health to keep people happy. A taxi driver tells me that 
during the March riots in Lhasa, Mr. Qi paid his respects to the 
living Buddha at Songzanlin monastery.

Tibet, by contrast, is ruled by Beijing appointees from outside the 
region whose mandate is to maintain public order at all costs. One 
such ruler was President Hu Jintao, who was party secretary of Tibet 
during a violent crackdown on rioters in Lhasa in 1989. Tibetans have 
seen a constant erosion of their freedoms since the People's 
Liberation Army arrived in 1951. This year has been particularly 
brutal; many monasteries remain under lockdown and arbitrary arrests 
and detentions have created an enduring atmosphere of fear.

But the Chinese government sees no such distinctions. "The root of the 
riots in March this year was not the failure of our policies," Qin 
Gang, the spokesman for the Ministry of Affairs told my group shortly 
before we left for Shangri-La. "It was the policies or attempts of 
Dalai Lama and his group, [the] Dalai Lama group, to break from 
China." Mr. Qin says the "so-called Tibet issue is not about culture, 
it's not about religion, it's not about the environment -- it's about 
sovereignty and territorial integrity of China." Beijing is fixated on 
the idea that the Tibet issue is purely one of sovereignty -- despite 
the fact that the Dalai Lama has for decades advocated autonomy, not 
independence, for Tibet.

The Dalai Lama has recently called upon Tibetan people to decide for 
themselves what would be best for the common good of Tibet, and said 
he "could no longer bear this responsibility." He has called for an 
emergency special meeting to convene in Dharmsala, India in two weeks. 
The future of the Middle Way will be on the agenda.

This week, China's negotiators are taking the Dalai Lama's envoys to 
visit a model ethnic minority outside Beijing. Their destination is 
unknown, but the message they will receive is already clear. As far as 
Beijing is concerned, it's the Shangri-La model, or nothing.

Ms. Hook is an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.
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