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Tibet Palace Damaged in Quest for Tourists

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/08/18; August 18, 2001.]

The Times


THE historical seat of the Dalai Lama has suffered structural damage after Chinese efforts to create a Tibetan "theme park" expected to draw millions of tourists and settlers to the "Roof of the World".

One of the main walls of the Potala Palace, built in Lhasa 1,300 years ago, has collapsed, while rot and shoddy construction work has damaged other parts of the Unesco World Heritage Site. The collapsed wall - 30ft by 60ft - is clearly visible from the city below the mountain on which the palace sits.

Chinese officials, who claim to invest heavily in conservation work, have admitted the collapse of the Potala wall. One official said: "A portion of the palace wall recently collapsed due to heavy and persistent rain and the situation has been put under control through emergency efforts. The palace faces many potential risks."

An expert said that much of the repair work done by the Chinese during a reconstruction project between 1989 and 1995 had been sub-standard. Archaeological and engineering experts had not been consulted about the plans for the Unesco-recognised site, as would be standard practice in most parts of the world. The restoration had been done as if it were any ordinary building and, even on those terms, the standard of the work was not high.

Beijing is attempting a radical transformation of the Tibetan capital that could lead to the extinction of traditional Tibetan culture, according to exiles. The residential area surrounding the Potala Palace has been bulldozed to make room for a tourist park and more than half of Lhasa's historic buildings have been destroyed to prepare for the million-strong influx.

The Potala Palace, towering over Lhasa, had 220,000 visitors last year and is expecting twice as many this year. "We are actively looking at ways to limit the flow of visitors," Qiangba Gesang, the Potala's administrative director, told a visitor this week. The Chinese have admitted that the heat and humidity brought by visitors are causing problems.

Beijing has decided that the best way to control the disputed territory is to make Tibetans wealthy, essentially bribing them to accept Chinese rule. The only industry that will thrive at an elevation of 12,000ft is tourism, hence Beijing's plan to increase the number of foreign visitors.

The Potala Palace has been the home of Dalai Lamas since 1645. Kate Saunders, of the Tibet Information Network, said: "The Potala is being preserved very differently than in the past, more like a museum. The most potent symbol of Tibetan Buddhism is being turned into a symbol for Chinese rule."

Beijing's ambitious plans for the transformation of Lhasa include an increase of the population by 30 per cent and a quadrupling of the urban area. Most new residents will be Chinese, not Tibetans, thereby undermining the area's identity. Streets are being widened to take tanks and troop carriers.

The Potala Palace was first built by Tsongtsen Gampo in the 7th century and expanded during the 17th century. It houses at estimated 70,000 ancient Tibetan artefacts, making it one of the world's most significant heritage sites. The Dalai Lama fled from the palace in 1959 after a failed rebellion against the Chinese.

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