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Development

Beijing Helping Tibetans Catch Up With The West, Says Author

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2004/01/30; January 30, 2004.]

South China Morning Post
January 28, 2004

Byline: Ray Cheung meets Ma Lihua, an authority on Tibet, who dismisses claims that Chinese rule is destroying its native culture

Critics of Chinese rule in Tibet may view author Ma Lihua's work as propaganda, but for many people it is inspirational.

Ma, one of the country's leading authorities on Tibet and author of 16 books, offers a curt dismissal of accusations by human rights groups and exiled Tibetans that Beijing's policies are destroying the region's native culture.

"We are helping Tibetans catch up with the west ... It is not 'Hanification', but globalisation," she says, referring to the influx of Han Chinese. "You try living in a tent and burning wood for heat every day. It is not fun.

"I'm not saying this because I simply accept government propaganda, but because I have seen the improvements in Tibet with my own eyes. The west should be more objective, but it's not."

However, she admits mistakes have been made in Tibet. One of the worst was the harvesting of the region's natural resources, such as timber, in the 1970s and 1980s which devastated the pristine environment.

After living and travelling throughout the region for more than 26 years, Ma recently moved to Beijing as head of the government-backed China Tibetology Research Centre's publishing unit, which promotes Chinese-language books on Tibetan culture. "I have already lived a couple of lifetimes - as Tibetan Buddhism would say - with all these books I have written," said Ma, whose work has focused on the first Han Chinese explorers, Tibet's native culture and folklore.

Glimpses of Northern Tibet, published in 1991, explores Ma's feelings for Tibetan people and their daily lives, and is required reading in Tibetan culture classes at universities the world over.

The Shandong native arrived in the region in 1976 with 3,000 young people from all over China at the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Aged 23, she had answered Chairman Mao Zedong's call to serve the Communist Party by working in the west of the country. "I was so simple-minded back then. I just wanted to serve, no matter where it was ... It was that revolutionary fever," she says, chuckling.

Her first assignment was to visit remote villages and observe people's living conditions as she lived among them. "We travelled in old carts on really bad roads. At night, we would just pull off the road and stay at villagers' houses."

After being reassigned to the region's culture bureau as an editor in 1981, Ma began to write about her experiences. A common theme appeared in her work: Chinese cadres working with local Tibetans to help lift villagers out of poverty by building roads, schools, hospitals and power lines.

Ten Years in Northern Tibet, another of her books, provides a daily account of the Han-lead improvements in Tibet. One of the greatest improvements in the lives of Tibetans was the introduction of television, she says. "The faces of villagers just lit up when they saw TV for the first time. They really loved it," she recalls.

She believes many reports on human rights abuses in Tibet are either exaggerated or isolated incidents carried out by low-level cadres without the knowledge of the central government. "Religious freedom is protected by law by the central government," she says.

Her worst memories of Tibet involve the 1987 uprising in which thousands of pro-independence Tibetans clashed with Han Chinese authorities in Lhasa. The unrest, which continued until 1990, was quelled by the People Liberation's Army, leaving at least 50 Tibetans dead and hundreds in jail. The central government blamed the exiled Dalai Lama for fanning the flames of discontent.

Ma saw the violence first hand. "There were burning cars and buildings everywhere. Everything happened so fast. My Han Chinese friends were afraid to go places where there were lots of Tibetans," she recalls. "I felt terrible. We came to Tibet to help the people. It seemed all our work was forgotten. We were misunderstood."

Ma, 50, says the conflict strained ties between the two ethnic groups after decades of peaceful co-existence, even during the Cultural Revolution. But times have changed, Ma says, and most Tibetans are not in favour of independence because they also want economic development. "Tibetans want to make money now. To do that, they realise there must be stability."

The key to preserving Tibetan culture is tourism, she believes. "Development is Tibetans' only hope," she says.

Asked if there was anything specific Han Chinese and outsiders could learn from Tibetans, Ma says it is their pace of life. "Tibetans know how to really enjoy life. They spend a lot of time praying and singing."

And even after devoting so much of her life to Tibet, Ma says there is still one project she would like to complete: an interview with the Dalai Lama. She said she felt pity for the religious leader. She would first ask him how he saw himself. "Are you the person you chose to be? My guess he would not answer but just smile," Ma says.


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