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Tibet: Caught in China's "Two Hands"

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/09/21; September 21, 2003.]

While Beijing aims to secure Tibetans' loyalty by building infrastructure, it makes pitiless puinishment the only antidote to dissent

By Dexter Roberts
SEPTEMBER 19, 2003

For 20 years, I've wanted to visit Tibet. And after almost a decade of reporting from across mainland China, this was the moment I had been waiting for. Before me, a dozen canvas tents are staked near a large white stupa -- a religious reliquary believed to hold remnants of the body of the Buddha. About 80 Tibetan barley farmers, herdsmen, and their families are camped here just outside the city of Tsetang, 12,000 feet up on a green mountainside slope, and some two months into a summer religious pilgrimage. It'll take a full seven days of driving in their beat-up blue Dongfeng trucks on pitted dirt roads over high mountain passes to get back to their home village in Northern Tibet's Nagqu prefecture.

Still, "life isn't bad at all," says a 47-year-old dark-skinned father of five, surrounded by curious fellow villagers and their children, all hopeful an unexpected visitor may have a spare picture of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's revered religious leader.

My elation is tempered, however, knowing for many years the difficulty in getting here and the possible repercussions of my interviews with these impressive people. Beijing is still wary of letting foreigners -- particularly foreign reporters -- into the country to observe their mixed record of integrating Tibet into the mainland. For decades, uprisings against Chinese rule were bloodily suppressed. Now Beijing is trying a new approach. "Grasping with two hands" is the policy first launched more than a decade ago by then top Tibet boss Hu Jintao, now Chinese Communist Party Secretary and President to all of China.

Carrots and Sticks

In Hu's formulation, one hand is more benevolent and showers Tibet with money to build new infrastructure and bring about economic development in hopes of tamping out lingering independence sentiment. These barley farmers on pilgrimage tell me that a school has been built in their remote village. Recent harvests have been good -- and more important, they're now making a tidy sum of money on the side by harvesting and selling a wild Tibetan caterpillar fungus, which after passing through the hands of several Chinese middlemen, ends up as a culinary delicacy sold in far-off Japan. They might be benefiting from Hu's one hand, without even realizing it.

The other hand, however, is the iron fist: It aims to ruthlessly squash Tibetan desires to be free of Chinese domination. And the iron fist is in evidence everywhere: Earlier this year, a 28-year-old Tibetan was executed, accused of attempting to overthrow Chinese control. Another suspect received a suspended death sentence.

China still condemns the 68-year-old Dalai Lama as a traitor, out to split the motherland, and it restricts religious freedoms here. But Beijing authorities are clearly feeling more confident of their ultimate success in subduing Tibet -- I wouldn't be here if not for China's Foreign Ministry, which now routinely takes in groups of China-based foreign reporters. It's even possible for us journalists to escape the scheduled program and go out and talk to Tibetans, like these farmers, although you can never rule out the possibility of being watched.

Flocks and Floods

You can almost feel the huge change coming to the lives of Tibetans, a proud but still mainly pastoral people. Eighty percent live in the countryside away from the few urban centers like Tsetang, Shigatse, Gyantse, and Lhasa, all of which my group visited on our eight-day reporting trip.

More than a hundred miles away from this mountain encampment, construction is racing forward in Lhasa on the terminus of a massive multibillion dollar railway project, which, when finished in 2007, will provide a rail link between this landlocked high plateau and the mainland China for the first time in history. Beijing is building new roads, hydropower projects, and power stations across Tibet, with the hope of integrating this restive region into China.

While projects like this will no doubt lift the incomes of many, there's a still profound ambivalence about such plans for the future here. Asked whether the railroad will be good for most Tibetans' lives, a farmer sitting in his tent outside Tsetang expresses suspicions: "It will bring all kinds of chaos to Tibet. Thieves will come and steal our sheep."

Other Tibetans fear that economic development -- particularly the railroad -- will bring floods of new Han Chinese immigrants to their land. That seems certain to happen. While Beijing says that Han Chinese still only represent 5.9% of Tibet's total population of 2.66 million, official statistics don't include the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who have come from provinces like Sichuan and Anhui and are classified as temporary residents.

Urban Imbalance

Indeed, Tibetan human-rights organizations outside China estimate that with the completion of the railway, Tibetans may soon become a minority in their own land. Meanwhile, local officials -- including those of Tibetan descent -- defend Beijing's policies as an attempt to help boost Tibet's economy. "Our policy is no matter what color of skin someone has -- [whether they have] black, red, or blond hair, blue eyes or brown eyes -- if they benefit our local economy, they are welcome to work here," says Tsetang Deputy Party Secretary De Ji, a Tibetan woman who has worked in the Chinese-controlled government for decades.

What officials don't particularly like to talk about is that Tibet still lags behind the rest of China on almost every measure -- including per capita income in the countryside, health, and educational opportunity. The problem is that China's efforts to lift Tibet are having an unbalanced outcome -- one that often doesn't benefit Tibetans so much as those thousands of new, largely city-dwelling Chinese immigrants.

These trends won't change as long as Beijing's development focus continues to be on urban areas, emphasizing construction of main roads and city infrastructure over rural investment, such as water projects or rural road systems. And even with Tibet's annual economic growth exceeding 10%, the prevailing policy "is greatly exacerbating income inequality between the city and countryside and between Han and Tibetan," warns Arthur Holcombe, president of the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund (TPAF), a nongovernmental organization based in Cambridge, Mass., and Lhasa.

A Brighter Picture

Holcombe says China's economic-development policies for Tibet are also fueling urban poverty, crime, and a swelling problem with prostitution, as young, often poorly educated Tibetans move to the cities and find few legitimate opportunities to make a living. I saw this in districts of Tsetang and Lhasa, where sultry pink lights hang from door fronts that are thronged by made-up young women.

Holcombe, who once headed the U.N. Development Program in Beijing, is trying to head off such ugly trends. He has set up a school in Lhasa that trains Tibetan youth from the countryside in thangka, or traditional Buddhist painting, as well as Tibetan carpet weaving. On a hot summer afternoon in August, some 30 students drawn from impoverished families across Tibet sit cross-legged on folded-up carpets, carefully sketching Buddhist icons under the watchful eye of their teacher. The idea is to train them in a trade that will allow them to make a living after graduation.

Norbu Chodon, a serious 19-year-old who lives with her grandmother and unemployed older brother in a village on the outskirts of Lhasa, searched for work in local hotels and shops before finally giving up. With only six years of education, she couldn't find a job. Now, after six months of studying painting, her confidence builds about her future.

"I plan to help support my grandmother with my painting," she told me, shyly averting her eyes during the interview. Other programs run by Holcombe's TPAF include teaching rug weaving, offering microloans to budding Tibetan entrepreneurs, as well as an ambitious effort to create a large Lhasa-based emporium that will allow a range of Tibetan handicraft makers to sell their rugs, thangkas, and traditional Tibetan instruments.

Dalai Lama's Return?

Such efforts by NGOs to help Tibetans can go only so far, however. Even as Beijing has tried to lure foreign business to Tibet with low tax rates, the remoteness of the region has drastically limited investment. All told, Tibet has 146 foreign-invested enterprises, mainly involved in tourism, real estate, and transportation, with 138 of them -- the vast majority -- based in Lhasa. Actual investment to date is just a piddling $5.2 million, explained one rueful official in Tibet's capital.

Further investment inroads will have to wait for the infrastructure construction now under way. Even then, there's no guarantee that investment from overseas will benefit local Tibetans any more than those now coming from inland China.

Many Tibetans still long to see the return of the Dalai Lama, according to numerous conversations on my visit. Exiled from his homeland for more than four decades, he is now taking a more conciliatory approach. He asks only that Tibetans be given the right to manage their cultural and economic affairs, rather than seeking any formal independence.

Decisive Force

Despite Beijing's anger over the Dalai Lama's frequent visits to the U.S., including a recent meeting with President Bush, there are encouraging signs of negotiations that could allow for his return. The Dalai Lama's emissaries, including representatives from his government in exile based in Dharamsala, India, and the religious leader's older brother, have made several recent trips to meet with Chinese officials in Beijing and Lhasa.

The hope remains that the Dalai Lama could prove a decisive force in ensuring that Tibetans aren't marginalized in their own, rapidly changing land. I left Tibet overwhelmed by its harsh, physical beauty, and awed by the courage and faith of the people. Let's hope their faith won't be in vain.

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