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Unesco Takes on China Over Future of Tibet's Past

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/08/09; August 9, 2002.]

By Oliver August
The Times
August 09, 2002

THE ancient centre of Lhasa, a perennial battleground for Tibetan independence, has become the focus of a row between Unesco and the Chinese Government over the preservation of native culture.

Experts have accused Beijing of trying to strengthen Chinese rule by demolishing large parts of the historical city that was home to the Dalai Lama before his flight from Tibet.

Unesco is planning to send a task force to Lhasa to investigate claims that ancient districts have been torn down, in one case to make room for a 13-storey police station. Parts of Lhasa, including the Potala Palace, the 1,300-year-old home of the Dalai Lama that towers over the city, are listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, which is meant to ensure their preservation.

Unesco is awaiting approval from Beijing to travel to Lhasa, and is trying to recruit experts from the International Council on Monuments and Sites. The council has assessed Tibet heritage protection and published several studies, including one called The Final Demolition of Lhasa.

Other experts have supported claims that old Lhasa is vanishing. Two Scandinavian architects, writing in the recently published Lhasa Atlas, said that nearly two thirds of the traditional Tibetan buildings within the Lingkor, the five-mile pilgrimage circuit around Lhasa, had been torn down. Alison Reynolds, of the Free Tibet Campaign, said: "Tibetan palaces have been destroyed to make way for characterless squares designed to make it easier to control demonstrations. Demolition of this lovely city has been accelerated, even in the Unesco-protected Barkhor area.

"Old Tibetan housing is destroyed and the skyline is jarred by the prominent new 13-storey Public Security Bureau building."

To counter accusations of cultural barbarism, Beijing has launched a campaign in the official state media praising its renovation efforts in the Tibetan capital

The Xinhua news agency has published several items outlining justifications for recent urban planning measures, including one headlined "Lhasa facelift complies with wishes of local Tibetans".

Beijing has also tried to enlist the help of prominent Western figures to counter the public relations power of the actor Richard Gere and other pro-Tibet Hollywood stars who regularly criticise China.

Clark Randt, the US Ambassador to China and a university friend of President Bush, was quoted by Xinhua as saying: "Tibet is very attractive. The local economy has seen remarkable expansion over the past decade."

Beijing claims to have conducted an authoritative survey of 1,000 Lhasa households, the results of which support the renovation of the capital. Zhaxi Toinzhub, a local official, said: "The survey shows local people, discontented with existing living conditions, are yearning for the renovations being done as soon as possible."

Together with the survey results, Xinhua published stories on the apparently overjoyed recipients of new apartment homes. It reported: "Seventy-seven-year-old Soi'nam finally has a new home - in the same building as her old house. 'I have never thought my old house could be so clean and bright and I even get tap water,' says the woman. 'The renovated house is so much better.'

"She moved back into her old house to find it had also been fitted with bigger windows and stronger pillars."

Pro-Tibet activists dismissed the Xinhua reports as propaganda and said that the Government was not interested in genuine restoration work.

Beijing has on several occasions disrupted independent efforts to save parts of old Lhasa: two officials of a German non-governmental organisation that had helped to restore historic buildings were expelled from Tibet by China last year.

The Government accused the Tibet Heritage Fund of illegally circulating publicity brochures, using unauthorised construction firms, restoring unapproved sites and damaging social order. The fund has restored 76 buildings in Lhasa, including homes and temples that are more than 1,200 years old.

The accusation of disturbing social order, a charge that may reflect government suspicions that the fund was linked to the Dalai Lama, was "vague and groundless", a diplomat said.

Mrs Reynolds said: "An expert mission from Unesco is welcome news, but regrettably this agency has few teeth, as demonstrated by the Bamiyan Buddha destruction in Afghanistan."

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