Controversy on the Tibetan Plateau

“The main reason Tibet is so undeveloped and un-Chinese – and so thoroughly old-fangled and pleasant – is that it is the one great place in China that the railway has not reached.  The Kun Lun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa.  That is probably a good thing.  I thought I liked railways unit I saw Tibet, and then I realized that I liked wilderness much more.” – Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster, 1988

“This is a magnificent feat by the Chinese people, and also a miracle in world railway history,” Chinese President Hu Jintao

“China plans to use the railway to transport Chinese migrants directly into the heart of Tibet in order to overwhelm the Tibetan population and tighten its stranglehold over our people.” – Exiled Tibetan Lhadon Tethong

“The railway line itself is not a cause of concern for the Tibetan people…How it will be used is the main concern.” – Dalai Lama’s spokesman, Thupten Samphel.


I visited Lhasa in the fiftieth summer of Chinese rule and I was eager to explore Lhasa and discover how Tibetan culture had survived so far.  I found that it is easier to describe Lhasa by what it is not than by what it is.  

Tibet is not the medieval theocracy that it once was.  The politico-religious government has been dismantled and replaced by the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhists had two leaders: a political one (the Dalai Lama, Mongolian for “Ocean of Wisdom”), and a religious one (the Pratchen Lama, who s in Tibet after the invasion).

The Tibetans had reason to protest and the Chinese had reason to be nervous.  Last March marked the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile to India.  In 1959, as Chinese troops “liberated” Tibet, hundreds of Tibetans surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace and protected him as he rode off on horseback disguised as a commoner.  Thousands of monks followed him to Dharamsala, where he set up a government-in-exile and pledged not to return until the Chinese leave Tibet.

The Chinese have tried to undermine his authority in the 50 years since.  In the 1950’s as the insanity of Mao’s “Religious Reform” swept across China, Mao ordered the destruction of ancient temples, prohibited Buddhist rituals, disbanded monasteries and sent monks to work on farms in other parts of China.  Soldiers knocked down a Buddhist school of medicine and built a radio tower in its place.  They bulldozed the traditional entrance to Lhasa to remind Tibetans that Lhasa would no longer be off-limits to foreigners – it would be ruled by foreigners.

The banned pictures of the Dalai Lama, for now he was a foreigner and the Chinese were the ancient and rightful rulers of Tibet.  So if you go to San Francisco, wear a flower in your hair; but if you go to Lhasa, bring plenty of pictures of the Dalai Lama – Tibetans will love you for it.

Tibet is modernizing quickly and losing its medieval aspects.  The traditionally nomadic people who roam eastern Tibet find fences enclosing lands that were once open to all.  Lhasa’s dirt roads have been transformed into wide boulevards.  Its airport connects it to the rest of China, Highway 318 passes through Lhasa on its way from Nepal to Shanghai, and the recently constructed railway directly links Lhasa with Beijing and all that comes with it.  Tibet’s isolation, once its most defining characteristic, is forever gone.

In 1950 Tibet had no hospitals and its only school was in a monastery.  To their credit, the Chinese have built schools and hospitals, but the primary language of instruction is Mandarin, the history books teach of the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet, and the hospitals are prohibitively expensive.  Ferguson told me that the Tibetans treat minor flesh wounds themselves, often by urinating on the cut.  What if they have a cut on their faces, I cheekily inquired.  Ferguson thought for a moment, then said that it would probably warrant a trip to the hospital.

There used to me no money in Tibet and most of the population were desperately poor serfs locked in a feudal arrangement with the land-owning monasteries and wealthy aristocrats.  Mao’s reforms swept away these class divisions and now there are commercial banks all over Lhasa.  A closer look reveals that the Bank of China’s ATMs are only in English in Mandarin, not Tibetan, and it’s hard to imagine Tibetan nomads putting their money in anything other than a monastery’s donation box.

The traditional mud-brick buildings still stand in much of Lhasa.  Their fortress-like walls are whitewashed and their doors and windows are decoratively painted and bedecked with colorful tapestries and curtains.  Skinny, leafless trees wrapped in prayer flags stand on all four corners of the roofs and waive the five colors of Tibetan Buddhism – blue, white, red green and yellow, symbolizing the five elements of the earth.

The other flag you see is the red flag of China with its golden sickle and stars, reminding Tibetans of the 1959 invasion, the destruction of temples and monasteries, cultural devastation and political repression.  Across from the Potala Palace, once the throne of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese have commemorated the 1959 liberation with a patriotic statue and a dominant Chinese flag.  Soldiers guard the statue and security cameras watch over the plaza lest Tibetans decide to express their true feelings about the statue.

The Chinese have tried to copy the traditional Tibetan architecture but the result is tasteless and tacky, like most modern Chinese developments in my opinion.  Huge hotels and malls have erupted along Lhasa’s new boulevards, assuming that by painting on fake adobe bricks they can somehow blend in with the Tibetans.  But the endless chains of fashion shops, banks, Chinese restaurants, and malls run contrary to Tibet’s traditional asceticism.

The road in front of the Dalai Lama’s palace is now called Beijing Street.  Most signs in Lhasa are written in three languages: Mandarin, the biggest and in the center, English, subordinated below, and Tibetan, squeezed in at the top like a small formality .  It is common to see signs in only Chinese but rare to find them only in Tibetan.

There are security cameras in the major public places and soldiers on most streets.  I saw more soldiers on the streets of Lhasa, Tibet than those of Yangoon, Burma. The soldiers are dressed in green camouflage and full riot gear – Plexiglas shields, face masks, white gloves, batons, tear gas guns, shot guns, and machine guns.  The soldiers are young, and they have the faces of scared children.  If there was a major riot I don’t think they would know what to do.

The soldiers march down the center of the road, they patrol Lhasa in armored trucks, and they guard the entrances to all the government buildings, temples and gas stations.  Why the gas stations?  To prevent Tibetans from making Molotov Cocktails.

It is difficult to imagine Tibetans throwing flaming bottles of gasoline at Chinese tanks, but the younger generation is growing increasingly impatient with the current situation.  Though their grandparents watched helplessly as Mao’s Red Guards dynamited their monasteries, today’s Tibetans are sick of the growing number of Chinese that flock to Tibet each year.  The new railway has made Tibet readily accessible and since its construction tourism has jumped 30%.  The government is subsidizing train tickets to encourage Chinese to visit China’s most exotic little province, with its oddly dressed natives, its fascinating monks, and its stunning scenery.

Most Chinese I have spoken with come to Tibet for the scenery.  After watching Chinese tour groups shuffle through the temples, I agree with this statement.  In the temples I saw a few Chinese bow before the Buddha statues, but most were just sightseeing.

I met a young Chinese boy in Tibet who was wearing Buddhist prayer beads and a hat with a picture of Buddha and the words The Faith.  He said he was not religious, that it was just for fashion.  He said he was just there “for the scenery, not the Buddhas.”  It’s a shame that Mao had to destroy all the Buddhas so the Chinese can see the scenery without a visa.

I met a couple of girls from Shanghai who were spending a couple of weeks in Lhasa for summer break.  I asked them whether they planned to explore the rest of Tibet.  No, they said, they were perfectly happy in Lhasa.   I am not sure what percentage of Chinese tourists act this way, but a number of cafes and bars have sprouted up to cater for this demographic, and I sensed that Lhasa is emerging as a pseudo-counter culture hangout for middle-class Chinese.

I say pseudo-counter culture, because I haven’t seen a real counter culture movement in China.  I won’t say that all Chinese are apolitical, but all the ones I have spoken with agree with the party line regarding the Tibetan issue.  When talk about the “incident” of March 2008 (the Tibetan riots), they say that the foreign media is telling lies about what happened.  They tell me the “people who started it” should be imprisoned.  For them, the debate begins in March 2008, not March 1959 – the riots are an isolated incident created by a few disrespectful hooligans, not the culmination of fifty years of Chinese policies.   The government blames “outsiders” for instigating the riots (read: that troublesome Dalai Lama in India).  The question as to whether the Chinese should be in Tibet does not even arise.

I wondered if there were any truths behind their arguments.  Are the riots pre-planned CIA-funded operations?  Maybe they are, but if it is the interest of freeing Tibet, is CIA funding necessarily a bad thing?  And is the Western media distorting realities to fit their anti-Chinese agenda?  Maybe.  But even if CNN is quicker to jump on a story of Tibetan monks being beaten by Chinese soldiers than a similarly morally dubious event in the west, that does not change the fact that the event did occur.  It boggles my mind to think that opinions on so many issues can vary so dramatically.  If their government is feeding them such baloney, I wonder how much of what we assume is true is actually propaganda.  It makes you think, doesn’t it?

But young Chinese tend to take the same view when asked about the Great Firewall of China.  I ask them how they feel about over 10% of websites being blocked.  They all seem to say the same thing: it’s probably a good thing, because outside influences can be bad for society.  What, for example?  Well…stuff that is bad for children (pornography, they say)…but they quickly add that there are Chinese porn sites available.  So, what’s the point of censorship?

They scratch their heads, and mutter some excuses.  In my opinion, attempting to block the flow of information from almost a quarter of the earth’s population, in the middle of the Information Age, is simply ludicrous.  Yet Chinese tourists continue to visit Tibet, unaware of the controversy of their presence.

But the Tibetans less concerned with the Chinese tour groups and more concerned about the Chinese who come to stay – the settlers.  Through the Develop the West campaign, Beijing encourages many ethnic Chinese to resettle in Lhasa by offering them bonuses and subsidized housing.  Enticed by these benefits, many Chinese from the poorer provinces have migrated to Lhasa where they earn decent living unavailable to them back home.  The massive influx of migrant workers has made Han Chinese the ethnic majority in Lhasa.

These policies are similar to those in neighboring Xinjiang, where ethnic frustrations have erupted in previous weeks.  Xinjiang and Tibet are the two largest provinces in China, yet both are heavily populated by restive minorities displeased with Beijing’s pro-settler policies.  With so many anti-Han protests, it makes me wonder if China has bitten off more territory than it can “chew.”

The Chinese claim that these policies are essential for development.  They are unarguably essential for the integration of Tibet into greater China.   But the Tibetans do not want assimilation; the Dalai Lama labels China’s Tibetan policies as “cultural genocide”.  It is a controversial issue, but one thing is for certain – the sinocization of Tibet is in full swing and is practically irreversible unless the Tibetans destroy all Chinese buildings in their own Cultural-Counter-Revolution.

I pondered all these complex issues as I walked through Lhasa on my first day, sandwiched between chanting Tibetan pilgrims and armed Chinese soldiers.  Tibet was going to be difficult to unravel, even with my knowledgeable guide.  Lhasa had surprised me on my first day, but I had seven days left and dozens of more surprises ahead!

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