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Asia / Solar Panels and Cellphones Take Tibet into Digital Age

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/12/04; December 4, 2005.]

The Asahi Shimbun

LHASA, China--Until recently, Lhaba, a 33-year-old farmer, used to illuminate her stone house in the remote village of Zem with candles and lights made from butter oil. She was usually in bed by 9 p.m.

But since a new solar power plant began supplying her house with electricity three years ago, she spends her evenings knitting sweaters i n front of the TV, watching videos of Tibetan pop concerts, Chinese historical dramas and American horror movies. She has an electric machine for making butter tea, and she seldom goes to sleep before midnight.

The solar plant is part of the Chinese government's push to modernize the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which marked its 40th anniversary in September. Last year Tibet's gross domestic product reached 21.2 billion yuan (about 300 billion yen)--19 times its GDP in 1964.

In part the rise is due to the money being poured into the region by the Chinese government. Financial and technological support has enabled Tibet to speed up construction of roads and power stations to serve its 2.5 million residents. Farmers whose land was affected by the projects were compensated with government subsidies.

A railway connecting the region's capital, Lhasa, with Qinghai province in western China is now under construction. The service is due to b e up and running in summer 2007. New hotels and condominiums have sprung up around the city ahead of the railway's opening.

In Lhasa, a city of 400,000, the streets are dotted with showrooms for foreign cars, and the talk is about the real-estate boom. Teenagers chat on cellphones and surf the Internet at cyber cafes. Young adults drink beer and boogie the night away in local discos.

A total of 1.22 million tourists visit the city annually. Ninety-two percent of them are Chinese, many of whom come from big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Lhasa has more than 100,000 migrant workers who came from farming areas in inland provinces in China, such as Sichuan. They run vegetable stands at markets or Chinese food restaurants, or work as taxi drivers. The inflow into Lhasa of Han, the dominant ethnic group in China, is on the rise.

Even in the most mountainous regions, people's lifestyles are changing. Residents of Zem vil lage, which sits atop a 4,200-meter mountain 120 kilometers east of Lhasa, are among those who have felt the changes most strongly. About 760 people live there, making a living by cultivating wheat and breeding cattle. Since the government of the Tibetan autonomous region built a solar power plant in the village at a cost of 3 million yuan (about 42 million yen) three years ago, 45 households now have electricity for the first time.

The solar plant in Zem is one of 400 built by the government recently, supplying power to 140,000 people.

However, the electricity is yet to reach districts far away from solar power plants. Nine out of 10 families living in those areas have bought their own small solar generators.

Even nomads are getting hooked up. In one community, nomads set up solar panels around their tents to generate power to run lights, televisions and VCRs. In August, a mobile phone antenna was erected nearby, and four member s now have cellphones. But people are hungry for more.

"People here want to watch domestic and international news," said 43-year-old community chief, Genzhen. "We are asking the government to build antennas to receive satellite-television broadcasts."

In the midst of this rush to modernize, Tibetan Buddhism stands at a crossroads. In Lhasa, the Jokhang temple, Tibetan Buddhism's holiest site, dominates the city center.

In late June, the temple was the site of final examinations to award the "Geshe" degree, the highest rank in the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism. It was the first time the examination had been held at Jokhang in 16 years. The Beijing-based Buddhist Association of China organized the test, which was conducted in the form of a question-and-answer debate.

Usually, Buddhist priests study in the temple for about 20 years before taking the test. This time, six monks in their 70s pa ssed the final examination. The exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetans, the 14th Dalai Lama, passed the test in 1959 at the age of 23. That same year, when the military put down a rebellion against Chinese rule of Tibet, the Dalai Lama fled the country and set up a government in exile in the town of Dharamsala in northern India. Since the spiritual leader's exile, the annual examination for granting the Geshe degree has been suspended at the temple, except for three years from 1986 to 1988. Because of the suspension, Tibetan Buddhism in China is facing a serious shortage of priests with the "Geshe" rank.

Other factors have also restricted the number of senior priests. Many senior priests went into exile with the Dalai Lama. Also, Tibetan Buddhism places a cap on the number of priests who may live in monasteries. Sources close to Tibetan Buddhism said that encountering a priest with the Geshe degree is as difficult as f inding a star in the daytime.

At the same time as the number of senior priests in Tibet is dropping, in India, the Tibetan Government in Exile has continued to offer the Geshe test every year. Consequently, the gap between priests in Tibet and those in exile has grown wider every year.

The divide makes the chance of the two strands of Tibetan Buddhism reuniting more remote.

To try to remedy the problem, the priests at Jokhang temple called for the resumption of the examination for the Geshe degree. A vice head of Jokhang temple's management committee, Nima Tsulen, 38, said the current situation is driving the temple into a corner.

"As the examination for the Geshe degree was suspended for a long time, it takes time to recover what was lost over the years," he said. "Unification of Tibetan Buddhism is essential. We want the Dalai Lama to be back in Tibet as soon as possible."

Tsulen also lamented the change that has come over local people. "As the autonomous region's economy develops, a growing number of people are praying for their own personal happiness," he said. "People's spirits have become poorer."

Some observers say the resumption of the Geshe degree test might in fact reflect a change in the Chinese government's policy on Tibet. However, the Chinese government and special envoys sent by the Dalai Lama are yet to reach an agreement on ways for the spiritual leader to return to his homeland, according to sources close to the Tibetan Government in Exile.

Pema Gyalpo, a Tibetan resident of Japan who is a professor of international relations at Toin University of Yokohama, warns that the Chinese government must find a solution as soon as possible.

Noting that the Dalai Lama is 70 years old, he said: "The Chinese government should solve the problem while the 14th Dalai Lama, a pacifist, is still alive. Without him, radic al movements could start at any time and the issue would get more complicated."(IHT/Asahi: December 3,2005)

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