Inside China's Tibet: China Opens Up Its Tibet Zoo
Beijing Resorts to Selling Tibetan Culture to Make Political and Financial Capital
[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/08/25; August 25, 2001.]
(The author, a senior journalist and a Tibet watcher for three decades has just returned from a private visit to Tibet. He is the first ever Indian journalist who could visit Tibet without Chinese patronization or control)
If you are a first time visitor to Lhasa or visiting this 'Roof of the World 'after a gap of over ten years then irrespective of whatever you have read or heard about Tibet from a distance, you can not escape the psychedelic bombing that comes crashing on you with the very first visuals of the city. This bombing is far more overpowering than the splitting headache that sets on most visitors as a result of high altitude and the shortage of oxygen, a striking feature of China's most celebrated colony - Tibet.
If you have been hoping to see yaks roaming muddy streets of this Tibetan capital, then herds of swanky Pajeros, omnipresent Land Cruisers, luxurious green-top Taxis and cars supporting the best known international brands are bound to give you the shock of your life. The most overpowering sight is that of one kilometer long shopping plaza that connects Potala, the traditional seat of Dalai Lamas and Jokhang, the national cathedral and the most revered temple of Tibet. With their glittering facades and well packed modern merchandise the massive Chinese stores lining this street can put even the best shopping malls of western cities like Washington, Berlin, Paris, Zurich and London to shame.
But the worst shock lies in stock for those western tourists who have been hooked to the picture postcard images of old Tibet and have been wondering if there are still some Tibetans left in Lhasa.There are thousands to choose from in the Barkhor, the heart of Tibetan quarter of Lhasa. Walking in a hip-to-hip crowd of circumambulators along the periphery of Jokhang temple many among the crowd hail from distant villages and are distinguishable from their colourful and best traditional attires and, of course, their rosaries and hand held prayer wheel 'Mani'. The rest include the locals and Buddhists from Mainland China, Taiwan, Hongkong and Japan etc. Even if there are a few hundred video cameras watching the crowd from trees and walls of surrounding houses, don't worry, they are meant only for Tibetans.
Inside Potala and monasteries like Jokhang, Drepung, Sera and Tashi Lhumpo too, the locals offer mounds of butter, scarves and small currency notes while the foreigner leave behind heaps of dollars, Yens and Sing-D's (Singapur Dollars) to reflect the height of their faith. Each monastery has its own population of maroon robed monks. In Sera courtyard you can see about 200 of them debating religion. Their session is well synchronized with the tourist buses. As tourists are tired or taking their picutres and buses start moving out the debate session also comes to an end. How many of them are genuine monks and how many are on PSB (Public Security Bureau) duty to keep watch on the visitors and fellow monks is only a matter of guess. Previous experience shows that no sensible tourist can afford landing into trouble by engaging in a serious dialogue with them.
As in any other given situation this visual encounter with China 's Tibet too offers enough space to draw many meanings and interpretations to each interested quarter. The first ones to venture are, obviously, Beijing masters of Lhasa who present the astonishing civic progress of Lhasa as a precious 'gift' from the 'Great Motherland' to an impoverished people of Tibet. They are also quite enthusiastic in presenting the surging crowds of pilgrims at Barkhor, as a proof of religious freedom given to the Tibetans. Interestingly, these two also happen to be the major issues on which China has been facing international community's ire since it forced the Dalai Lama to flee to exile in 1959 and finally assimilated Tibet into the fold of 'great Chinese motherland'.
It is not surprising that China has, of late, adopted a new aggressive policy of saying this all by opening Tibet to international tourism and inviting the world citizens in a true Deng Xiao-Ping spirit to 'seek truth from facts'. As a result of this approach Beijing has opened its Tibetan doors even to Indian visitors who, barring a hand picked select group of 'China Friends', had been simply barred from visiting Tibet during past 50 years.
For a keen watcher of the Tibetan scene for three decades now, this opportunity to seek truth from facts was too tempting to ignore. Even if it meant travelling 750 km as an ordinary tourist in an air-tight bus and staying in 'sanitized' country hotels under the supervision of a China trained Tibetan tour guide and a government sponsored driver.
If you have a reasonable background on the subject and the right kind of eye to separate chaff from barley you cannot escape admiring the great Chinese art of creating colourful and breathtaking facades. But then if you want to see the real colours of this city then, unlike the typical Western 'Ingee' (a Tibetan synonym for the white Europeans and Americans) tourist who loves to remain within the confines of old Lhasa zone of Potala-Shol-Jokhang-Barkhor and its dingy lanes and restaurants, you will have to take a 10 Yuan taxi ride in any direction of this ultra modern city. And, as I did, just allow yourself to be lost in the streets and discover it without a guide.
One kilometer away from this 'Tibetan Quarter' in any direction will reveal what stuff the new Lhasa is made of. And, for whom! In nicely laid out modern and comfortable multistoried houses one rarely sees a Tibetan face except for in the mornings when they come in groups of twos and fours to sweep the streets and collect garbage on behalf of the local municipality. On the other hand one needs to walk only extra ten meters from the main glittering Beijing Street into the Tibetan quarter of the town to see the Tibetan contrast. It is as dramatic as stepping out of a TV soap set to the back stage in a few seconds. Small, congested houses, Tibetans and the 'Ingees' negotiating their way through ankle deep sewer water spilling out of blocked sewer lines, poor kids playing in mud or hanging around a chain of dingy shops selling cheap goodies.
Just another hundred meters in the street and it leaves no one in doubt who is the real beneficiary of all the visible economic progress in Lhasa. Barring a few Tibetan policemen who are too visible in the Barkhor zone for obvious reasons, one rarely finds a Tibetan face in the government offices or even in the tourist offices of Lhasa, Shigatse, Tingri or Lhatse. On the religious front too, real Chinese game seems to be far from what appears on the face of surging religious crowds at Barkhor or massive offerings inside Potala and big temples. Fifty years of Chinese religious record in Tibet, as presented by various UN agencies, human rights groups, media reports and first hand accounts of visiting diplomats etc. have made it clear to the Beijing leaders that they can not tackle the Tibetan problem by crushing religion and culture. Beijing's eagerness to foist a hand picked Panchen Lama on the Tibetans and its more than open role in the selection of new Karma Pa in past years only shows that Chinese leaders are finally waking up to the power of religion in their worst-headache colony Tibet. (It is Chinese misfortune that the new Karma Pa slipped out to India to join hands with Dalai Lama.)
Beijing leaders' decision of giving religious freedom to the local Tibetans on the one hand and opening the gates of Tibet to the outside world on the other only reflects a new Chinese strategy that aims at turning its old sins to its advantage. After Dalai Lama and his supporters having worked for more than 40 long years to make Tibet a household name in the West, Beijing has now decided to cash in on this awareness and mint millions of Touro-dollars. Chinese can surely afford to do so. Besides a massive network of informers and spies to its credit the population-transfer policy of Beijing has already tilted the population scale against the Tibetans in all their cities in a ratio of at least 10 to one. With examples of hundreds of political workers languishing in jail since ages, Beijing has already ensured that Tibetans do not create any significant political problem for the Chinese masters. No wonder the Chinese rulers of Tibet can now make political as well as financial capital through selling Tibet as the most popular cultural zoo of our times.
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