Beneath the veneer of calm, Lhasa still remains a city divided despite Beijing’s grand development plans. And a silent prayer still goes out for the Dalai Lama.
uniforms, the Chinese military’s firefighters patrolled the square. Standing watch from a corner was a People’s Armed Police officer in uniform.
That tourists outnumber worshippers in the halls of the Potala today is a result of China’s grand project in Tibet: a project of remaking Tibet in Beijing’s image. China says it is investing billions to uplift one of the country’s most underdeveloped regions. This investment is indeed evident: newly paved expressways sprout from Lhasa in every direction; roads that rim all the way to the Indian border in Sikkim are in immaculate condition, enabling a
TIBET IN NUMBERS
Tibet Autonomous Region population
Han Chinese population of Tibet
Floating Han Chinese population in 2000
The Chinese government’s investment in Tibet
Self-immolation protests in Tibetan areas since 2009
600-km journey in less than half a day; and Lhasa is connected to the Chinese hinterland with a geography-defying multibillion-dollar railway that cuts through “the roof of the world”—all unthinkable two decades ago.
Yet, interviews during a recent visit to Lhasa suggest that Beijing’s development efforts have not convinced many Tibetans, with the unresolved question of the Dalai Lama continuing to cast a long shadow. While many Tibetans continue to revere the Dalai Lama as their guiding spiritual leader, Beijing, in public statements, continues to vilify him as “a splittist”, banning images of
<%> COVER STORY
a popular figure. By doing so, Beijing appears to be undermining the goodwill it may have otherwise engendered through its ambitious development plans for Tibet.
Underlining the Dalai Lama’s continued prominence, in recent days, Tibetans have defied restrictions and threats of jail to hold quiet celebrations to mark his 80th birthday, which is on July 6 (or June 21 in the Tibetan calendar), in many places in Tibet and nearby Gansu and Sichuan, as photographs made available show. As one Lhasa resident said, “For us, the Dalai Lama is most important.” Chinese officials dismiss the following for the Dalai Lama as a vestige of Tibet’s old “feudal” past. Yet in interviews, even younger Tibetans appeared just as proud of their religious and cultural history. Two young Tibetans said they planned to hold private commemorations for the birthday “even if we cannot do anything in public”.
At the Potala, there will be no commemorations on July 6, even if the 14th Dalai Lama’s presence still hangs heavily. As one Tibetan tour guide told a group of tourists one recent morning, “The greatest Dalai Lamas were the fifth, who made the Potala as it stands today, and the 13th.” What of his successor? “We think he is just as great,” the guide later said quietly with a smile, “but we cannot talk about him.” Since February 2009,141 Tibetans—young and old, students and monks—have set themselves on fire to call for the Dalai Lama’s return. The Chinese government has accused exiled Tibetans of plotting the protests.
In the seven years since riots left Lhasa burning in March 2008, China has, with a carrot-and-stick approach, obtained a firmer grip on the city. In the city’s main squares, such as at the Jokhang, which was a centre of protest in 2008 and also witnessed two immolation protests in 2012, there is still a police presence: two large black buses for security personnel are parked beside the square. But gone are the snipers that until a few years ago were a permanent presence on overlooking rooftops. As a measure of its newfound confidence, the government for the first time allowed Indian
|correspondents based in Beijing to travel to Tibet, to witness the opening of a new route for the Kailash yatra. Journalists are still not allowed to travel freely to Tibet. They can only do so on controlled government-organised groups, where opportunities to speak freely with locals are limited.|
Lhasa, the old capital, is today being transformed—from the lofty balconies of the Potala, a relentless sound of hammering and drilling fills the valley below. Outside the palace, the streets are not unlike any tier-two Chinese city. Beyond the ever-shrinking old city of Lhasa, wide avenues carry street signs written in large Mandarin Chinese characters; signage in Tibetan, written in much smaller script, hints at the government’s priorities.
“There is not much of the old city,” says Zong Kyi, a Tibetan who makes a living as a tour guide taking Han Chinese tourists around the Potala. The centre of Tibetan life in Lhasa is the Barkhor, a neighbourhood of old streets that spreads out around the Jokhang monastery that is at
A CONTINUING INFLUX
OF HAN CHINESE
WORKERS AND TOURISTS
HAS CHANGED LHASA’S
the centre of the city. The Barkhor, Tibetans say, is an ever decreasing speck in a fast-expanding Lhasa: a sprawling “new development zone” of factories is the priority project that is today being built on the city’s suburbs.
A government white paper published in April listed Tibet’s achievements: double-digit GDP growth; 99.59 per cent enrolment in primary schools; life expectancy reaching 68.2 years, doubling what it was in the early 1950s; ending illiteracy, prevalent in the 1950s, among the young and middle-aged; and providing free education and healthcare. China says since 1952—two years after the
PLA occupied Tibet—it has pumped around 544 billion yuan (close to $90 billion) into the region.
Conversations with half-a-dozen Lhasa residents suggested that beneath the veneer of calm, Lhasa still remains a city divided. While there is agreement that things have improved since the riots of 2008, there are, among Tibetan residents, deep anxieties about the nature of China’s development. A continuing influx of Han Chinese temporary workers and tourists has changed the nature of the city, residents said, with the perception that Tibetans are now a minority in Lhasa.
Zheng Wei, who, like others in this article did not want to be identified by his real name for fear of retribution by authorities, is among the growing number of migrant Chinese who have been encouraged by the government to move to Tibet to “help development”. From Sichuan province, Zheng said there was high ethnic distrust when he moved in 2009, a year after riots. “Things are better now,” he said. But that wasn’t a feeling
A CHINESE POLICEMAN STANDS GUARD IN LHASA WITH THE POTALA PALACE IN THE BACKDROP
* i i i