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Modernising Tibet masks deep contradictions
Reuters[Friday, July 09, 2010 13:25]
By Ben Blanchard

LHASA - Tibet is richer and more developed than it has ever been, its people healthier, more literate, and better dressed and fed.

Tibetan women dressed in traditional attires sing Buddhist hymns as part of a ceremony marking the 75th birthday of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, at the Tibetan Refugee Camp in Kathmandu July 6, 2010. They are holding white khata ceremonial scarves which will be draped on a portrait of the Dalai Lama as a symbol of respect. REUTERS/Deepa Shrestha
Tibetan women dressed in traditional attires sing Buddhist hymns as part of a ceremony marking the 75th birthday of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, at the Tibetan Refugee Camp in Kathmandu July 6, 2010. They are holding white khata ceremonial scarves which will be draped on a portrait of the Dalai Lama as a symbol of respect. REUTERS/Deepa Shrestha
But the bulging supermarkets, snappy new airports and gleaming restored temples of this remote and mountainous region cannot hide broad contradictions and a deep sense of unhappiness among many Tibetans that China is sweeping away their culture.

Beijing has spent freely to bring development to restless Tibet, part of a grand strategy to win over the proudly Buddhist people by improving their standard of living.

In Gaba village, a half-hour drive down a bumpy road from downtown Lhasa, Tibet's bustling capital, residents have seen incomes boom after renting out their farmland to Han Chinese businessmen who grow vegetables there for sale in city markets.

Farmer and Communist Party member Suolang Jiancan shrugs when asked if he is worried about Hans taking away land from native Tibetans, who traditionally have grown barley.

"It is hard for the local people to learn how to grow the vegetables wanted in the market. The Han can teach us these skills, and we can earn more," he said in his native Tibetan.

The influx of Hans, however, is one of the great sources of tension in Tibet. Many Tibetans resent their presence, saying they do not bother to learn the language and dominate the region's economy at the expense of the native population.

That is a familiar story to one unemployed graduate of a traditional medicine school. While fashionably dressed and able to speak the fluent Mandarin he learned at school, China's largesse in Tibet has not been enough to win him a job.

"Development is no good if I cannot get a job," the man told Reuters in Lhasa's heavily Tibetan old quarter, where patrols of armed paramilitary forces are a constant reminder of China's determination to keep a tight grip on Tibet.

"The Chinese are suspicious of Tibetans, especially since March 14," he said, referring to unrest in 2008 ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

Frustration at Chinese controls, along with the rise of Han Chinese migrants, boiled over in violent protests in 2008 in Lhasa, in which at least 19 people were killed.

The unrest sparked waves of protest across Tibetan areas, which more than two years on has failed to subside despite a heavy military and police presence and harsh punishment for those who question Beijing's authority.

The security belies China's claims to have won over Tibetans.

"To this day, two years later, they still need to use military and police forces to control the situation. Does it sound like they've won the hearts of the people?" asked prominent Tibetan blogger Woeser.


The physical scars the riot left on Lhasa in the form of burnt out markets and buildings have long ago been expunged.

Lhasa is starting to look like any other middle-tier Chinese city, with the same fast food outlets and mobile phone stores, and the same unimaginative architecture.

For China, there is no question that what they are doing in Tibet is right.

Over the past 10 years, the central government has poured a massive 310 billion yuan (30.3 billion pound) into Tibet, or nearly $15,000 (9,870 pound) per person, building infrastructure and developing mining, agriculture and tourism.

In January, President Hu Jintao said the government would seek "leap-frog" development in Tibet, raising rural incomes to national levels by 2020. The economy is already growing faster than the rest of China.

Large sums have also gone into restoring monasteries and temples, the centre of life for devoutly Buddhist Tibetans, bolstering government claims that China respects religious rights.

"If we did not have the support and embrace of the local people, we could not have dealt with March 14 so well, nor could we have made the achievements we have over the past 60 years," said Hao Peng, one of Tibet's Communist Party deputy bosses.

"We have already won the hearts and minds of the people," Hao told foreign reporters on a rare, tightly-controlled visit.

What China has failed to do is address the alienation many Tibetans feel in the face of breakneck economic progress.

"Tibet is a special country and its people are special," said one middle-aged teacher, speaking quietly in a back room behind a shop in Lhasa's old quarter, centre of the 2008 riots.

"We don't think about money like Chinese people. We believe in Buddhism, but the Chinese people believe in nothing," he added, requesting anonymity out of fear for repercussions.

Chinese officials frequently lash out at "distorted" reports in foreign media about Tibet.

Yet there is also a mismatch between the policies China has put in place in trying to modernise a poor and backward region, and Tibet's unique culture.

"It's absolutely true that Chinese policy has always been to win over the people by being generous," said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University in New York.

"They just don't seem to be able to notice that each time, they mess this up by cracking down on the culture, the history or the religion. They make people pay such a huge price."

A Chinese crackdown on dissent following the riots has spread to Tibetan intellectuals and critics see little sign of Beijing changing tack in the current climate of tension.

"They just had a big national conference on Tibet in Beijing and pretty much nothing came out of it. It's striking that there hasn't been a coherent response," said Nicholas Bequelin, of New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.


Much of the Chinese government's claim to legitimacy in Tibet rests on its self-proclaimed protection of Buddhism.

And while Tibetans appear generally free to pray at temples and make pilgrimages, religion is not encouraged for the young or Communist Party members.

"This is a socialist college, so what need do the students have of temples?" retorted Gesang Qunpei, chancellor of Tibet University, when asked if his students were free to practice their religion. "We're about science and technology here."

Religious figures who step out of line can be ruthlessly punished. Rights groups say many monks were arrested after the 2008 protests, and some were tortured in jail. Many others had to attend "re-education" classes and denounce the Dalai Lama.

Beijing also keeps a tight grip on key religious positions, saying it has a historical right to appoint top lamas.

China's selection in 1995 of its own Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, shortly after the Dalai Lama announced his own choice, has upset many.

The six-year-old boy appointed by the Dalai Lama was taken away by Chinese authorities and has disappeared from public view.

The Beijing-anointed Panchen Lama is spurned by many Tibetans as a fake, especially in Shigatse, a flyblown town several hours drive west of Lhasa that is his traditional seat.

Ask monks in Shigatse's Tashilhunpo monastery whether they believe China's Panchen Lama is the real deal and the response is neutral, despite the millions spent on temple renovations.

"I really don't know," said one monk, with a broad grim on his face and shrugging his shoulders.

Shigatse's people are less willing to mince their words.

"We don't think he is a bad person, but he's a fake," said a wiry Tibetan man selling smuggled cigarettes by the side of a street. "Nobody believes in him. We don't want him."

(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Ron Popeski)
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