The Spoiling of Shangri-la
[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/09/02; September 2, 2003.]
30 August 2003
Tibet is modernising rapidly, thanks to booming China's billions, but at what cost to its unique culture?
The hottest nightclub on the roof of the world sits between an enormous concrete monument to Chinese rule and Potala Palace, the awe-inspiring world heritage site that was formerly the winter residence of the Dalai Lama. Lighting up the Lhasa night with its giant red neon sign, JJs does not pretend to inspire the devotion of the Buddhist pilgrims who throw themselves to the city's holy ground after journeying through the mountains. Nor does it pay much heed to the ideology of the central government in Beijing, which has dispatched an army of bureaucrats, engineers, soldiers and businessmen to stamp Tibet with a Chinese image.
Yet it packs in a crowd of locals in traditional dress, Han tourists, off-duty police and even the odd foreign visitor with its dizzyingly eclectic music, dance and decor. Opera divas, belly dancers and crooners of Chinese pop songs share the stage with actors performing classical plays about demons and princesses. Fans show their appreciation by draping their idols with white hada scarves.
Tibet's deeply religious culture is apparent behind the bar, where a portrait of the 10th Panchen Lama beams out serenely from among cans of Lhasa beer. Modernity is more evident after midnight, when the red sconces on the wall start flashing to a techno beat that gets the crowd dancing so hard you would never believe that oxygen is in short supply at this altitude.
For those expecting a Shangri-la in the Himalayas, the club's existence is likely to be a disappointment. But it is a striking example of the disorientating changes in modern Tibet, as economic migrants rush into one of the most spiritual places on earth, hoping to cash in on breakneck economic development that is raising the living standards of its impoverished people but heightening inequality and destroying a unique culture.
In terms of investment and infrastructure, the Land of Snows has never had it so good. Under the "Go West" policy of President Hu Jintao - a former engineer who spent part of his career in Lhasa - the government is pouring money into the region in unprecedented amounts to try to close the gap between China's prosperous coastal regions and its economically backward inland areas.
The figures are staggering. Prodded by the central government, rich municipalities like Shanghai and Chinese corporations like the oil giant Sinopec are on a five-year, £5.5bn spending spree in Tibet.
This has brought new roads, power plants and hotels and the Potala Palace is undergoing renovation. Construction has begun on a new terminal for Gongkar airport, the main point of entry into Tibet. In the mountains, engineers are blasting out tunnels and bridging ravines so that Tibet's first railway can begin operations in 2007.
The new line is expected to accelerate the huge influx of Han, China's biggest ethnic group, into the previously isolated state. Last year, more than £1bn of public funds flowed into Tibet - equivalent, say officials, to a subsidy of £400 to each of its 2.7 million people, which is more than the annual salary in China.
But the figure is misleading. Rather than enriching the local population, most of whom are farmers and herders, much of the money ends up in the hands of the Han migrants who dominate the urban centres. While the average disposable income in towns is the highest in China, Tibet's farmers are among the poorest in the country.
The growing inequality is evident along the dusty, potholed roads between Tibet's two main cities, Shigatse and Lhasa, where children rush up to beg food and money from any car that stops. Beneath the glacier at Snow Pass, yak herders and trinket sellers subsist in tents. In Lhoka, where the government is offering businesses free land and tax concessions, peasants say the practice of brothers sharing a bride is returning because they cannot afford to divide up their fields.
But in the towns, bars, brothels, internet cafes and electrical appliance shops are springing up to cater to the growing army of non-Tibetan construction workers, security guards and bureaucrats who are paid more than double their usual salaries to work in Tibet.
In the growing red-light district of Shigatse, a massage parlour owner from Sichuan jokes that he was attracted to the holy land by the lack of competition. In Tsetang, now almost unrecognisable as a Tibetan town, a businessman boasts that he has invested £770,000 in shops. Even though the investment has yet to show a profit, he says: "Phone me 10 years from now and I'll show you a different Tibet."
He may not have to wait that long. Lhasa is already being transformed. Ten years ago, the streets around the Jokhang Temple were filled with pilgrims. Today, they are filled with tourists haggling at souvenir shops.
At least, though, the buildings there are Tibetan. The old town is shrinking as developers rush to build incongruous new hotels, apartment blocks and shopping malls of a type that could be seen anywhere in China. The clearest sign of the Han influence comes at night, when the main street of the new town is illuminated with street lamps decorated with the last motif you would associate with the Himalayas: a plastic palm-tree.
"It's a rather ugly street with no local characteristics," says the governor of Tibet, Jampa Phuntsog. "In the construction of new buildings, there are some problems that need to be resolved. We have to work on ensuring that they have Tibetan characteristics."
He is not alone in being concerned. Earlier this summer, Unesco took the unusual step of urging China to halt the demolition of historic buildings in Lhasa and to reconsider the city's development plans.
But the problem is not solely of China's making. Even with the restrictions imposed on foreign visitors, tourist numbers have risen rapidly in recent years, transforming the lives of many locals. Nyima Tsaring, a senior monk at the Jokhang Temple, says he is so busy showing westerners around that he only has two hours a day left for the spiritual training. "I have to guide people like a museum worker, but I'd rather be studying all the time."
Urban Tibetans have undoubtedly benefited from China's development drive. Lifespans have increased, public health has improved and the opportunities to explore the outside world have grown.
"I don't like the style of the new town," says Migmar, a carpet seller in Lhasa. "But I'm not against the Chinese. Before they came, the roads were bad. Now they are much better. The Chinese bring many good things."
Tibetan life remains spiritual, but materialistic global values are seeping in through television and the internet. In Shigatse, three factory workers from the countryside invite us back to the cosy room that they share. Although they are paid just £25 a month for making pillows, the sisters have bought a television and DVD player, which takes pride of place alongside two pictures of the 10th Panchen Lama.
It is a similar story at Sara Temple, near Lhasa, where a 19-year-old monk keeps a picture of the Panchen Lama above his bed and one of the footballer Ronaldinho on his front door. "I love football," he says.
Clubs like JJs can be seen in every major town. For the urban young, these are exciting times. For the rural old, something essential is being lost. Those caught in the middle admit they are confused.
"The development is good, but too much Chinese influence is bad," says Zashi, a driver from Shigatse. "It is a contradiction that I don't know how to resolve."
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