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China Wins the Wallets Of Tibetans, but Hearts Are Still Slow to Follow

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/12/01; December 1, 2001.]

By ERIK ECKHOLM
The New York Times
December 1, 2001

LHASA, Tibet - Earlier this year, officials put up two large billboards here, portraying Tibet the way China wants it to be.

One showed a grateful woman in traditional Tibetan dress ladling grain to a Chinese soldier. The message, in both Tibetan and Chinese, read: "Breathing the Same Air, Sharing the Same Fate, Hearts Joined to Hearts."

The adjacent sign featured the heroic faces of three Chinese Communist titans - Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin - in front of the Potala Palace, one of Tibetan Buddhism's most sacred sites.

That Chinese ideal meets the reality of Tibet in the small plaza where the billboards hang. There, unemployed Tibetan teenagers gather to get drunk on cheap home-brewed beer, indifferent or worse to the propaganda above them.

"They're the ones who took over Tibet," one boy told a visitor, gesturing toward that second sign - just one of many cues that China's hold on the people of this mountainous border region its forces occupied in 1951 is not as firm as Beijing claims.

Having all but ruled out negotiations with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader who is vilified by China's leaders, Beijing has undertaken a determined effort to win over Tibetans by putting the region on a fast track to economic development and integration.

Tibetans, like people anywhere, would welcome more prosperity. But Beijing's strategy, facing serious obstacles of its own, is drawing a skeptical eye from many Tibetans and their advocates abroad who say that it will undermine the culture and autonomy of Tibetans.

Chinese officials often seem almost bewildered by the global acrimony toward their reign in Tibet, which they insist has long been an integral part of China. They tend to blame it on the machinations of foreign "separatists" and enemies, including the exiled Dalai Lama.

In recent times, at least, Chinese officials insist, haven't we allowed free worship, so long as the Dalai Lama himself isn't openly venerated and monasteries follow orders? Haven't we brought roads and education to a region that was locked in feudal darkness?

The happiness of the average Tibetan should only increase in coming years, Chinese leaders say, as investments are showered on the region, including its first railroad link to the outside world, to be built at enormous expense over frozen mountain passes.

Whether fast development would cement the inner loyalty of Tibetans is an open question, but even taken on its own terms, the strategy faces major obstacles.

For years, Chinese leaders have boasted about the dramatic social progress achieved in Tibet and ambitiously promise that they will raise incomes here to China's national average in the next 10 years.

But Chinese and foreign experts point to a dangerously widening gap between a small elite of outsiders, officials and urban workers and the more than 80 percent of the 2.6 million residents of the Tibet Autonomous Region who still herd animals or farm.

Chinese leaders also recently declared that extreme poverty in Tibet had nearly been wiped out. But that claim was based on dubious statistics and a poverty line set at the harsh level of $72 per year.

Nutritional surveys by international and Tibetan doctors have found widespread stunting among children, a sure sign of malnutrition, in part because so many herders still live in isolation and rarely consume vegetables or fruits.

By the government's count, only 44 percent of Tibetan children even start junior high school. Only paltry numbers of Tibetans receive any further education that might help them partake of an economic boom.

While many Tibetans have gained employment through government projects, most have done so as laborers, because so few have advanced technical skills.

An expected boom in tourism will create more opportunities, but some Tibetans have had a hard time gaining any foothold in the emerging economy.

For now, small shops and services in the cities and larger towns are often run by migrants from neighboring Sichuan province. Tibet's fast-growing economy has lured hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese from surrounding regions, some seasonally and some permanently.

Arunbanja, a 19-year-old native of Lhasa, attended only two years of primary school and learned to speak halting Chinese by watching television. He said that he worked at a supermarket for a while, but the boss, who is from Sichuan, got rid of him when fellow migrants became available.

"The outsiders are taking our jobs," he complained. "To get a good job, you need to be able to read and write Chinese as well as to speak it."

As a last-ditch measure, he has entered a seven-year apprenticeship in the crowded field of painting Buddhist images for the tourist trade.

No one advocates returning to the isolated theocracy of the past, with most Tibetans living as nomads and every family sending a son into monkhood. Tibetan religion and culture are changing and will evolve further as new generations receive education and opportunities.

But China's critics say a development pattern that is set in Beijing, and that requires continued infusions of Chinese "experts," will make it impossible for Tibetans to choose their own paths and preserve what is best about their deep spirituality and ties to nature.

In a shrewd effort to give more of Tibet's brightest a stake in the system - and, not coincidentally, weaken their ties to the traditional lifestyle - the Beijing Government sends hundreds of star students to other Chinese provinces each year, where they attend high school and often college.

One result has been a stream of Tibetans able and willing to take on government jobs within their home region. As the Chinese like to remind foreigners, Tibetans account for a majority of positions in the regional and local governments, although no one doubts that the Beijing appointed party secretary, always from outside, holds the ultimate power.

Chilai Daji, 28, embodies the government's ideal. Raised in a poor herding family in Nagqu District, 200 miles north of Lhasa, he shined in grade school and in 1987 was offered the chance to go "inland," as they say here, for junior high school.

"I was very happy to go," he recalled. He ended up spending four years in school in the coastal city of Tianjin, then four years at a vocational high school in Nanchang, in the eastern province of Jiangxi.

Now Mr. Chilai is a midlevel anti-poverty official, working to raise incomes among isolated herding families. His short hair and Western clothes mark him as a "modern" Tibetan, but he says he does not feel estranged from his village family or from Tibetan culture.

"Most of us who go to school inland are less pious," he acknowledged. "But my parents don't feel that I've lost the traditions or become more distant."

"Many Tibetan families are quite open- minded," he said, "and their ideas aren't as fixed as many outsiders seem to think." With a seemingly bright future in the government, Mr. Chilai is now in the preparatory phase of entry into the Communist Party.

Still, for all the change in styles and attitudes - mostly among the small minority of Tibetans living in cities - Tibetan identity remains strong.

In Lhasa's Tibetan old quarter, in the blocks around the sacred Jokhang Temple, a new kind of nightclub has proliferated over the last five years, reflecting the tenacity of Tibetan culture, if in a hybrid form.

Known as langma clubs - the name means "courtly performance" - these places emerged as a response to the Western-style discos and seedy karaoke bars brought in by ethnic Chinese.

The clubs are decorated in traditional Tibetan style, with religious symbols on walls. The performers, illuminated by flashing disco lights, wear colorful Tibetan dress as they sing old folk songs or new Tibetan pop, throwing in a few Chinese favorites, too.

The clubs attract a surprising range of Tibetans - students and construction workers, policemen and managers. At one of Lhasa's most popular langma clubs on a recent Saturday night, the video entertainment was Western rave, house and rap.

But when the costumed Tibetan singers came on stage, pictures of the 10th Panchen Lama, a revered figure who died 12 years ago, filled the TV screens. Several customers joined in a conga line to a lively Tibetan song.

"I speak Chinese, but I like music to be about Tibet, because this is where I live," said Mindur Balung, a cadet at the police academy.

These are venues for fun, not political debate, and what the emerging culture they cater to will mean for ethnic politics is hard to predict.

Asked about religion, Jirbun, a 23-year- old pharmacist out for a club night, said, "Buddhism is part of being Tibetan, and the Dalai should be respected here, like he is abroad."

"But we're here, and he's there," the man added. "It's like when a couple has to live apart for a long time. You say 'I love you,' but it's hard when you're apart. It seems less real."


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