China floods Ti­bet with money to woo lo­cals

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY ARITZ PARRA

Ji Yun­peng misses hot­pot din­ners with his wife and daugh­ter back in Bei­jing and fights in­som­nia caused by the high al­ti­tude in the Ti­betan cap­i­tal by play­ing com­puter games, and, oc­ca­sion­ally, study­ing Ti­betan Bud­dhism.

“It’s just out of pure in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity,” he said, aware that gen­uine re­li­gious in­ter­est would be a breach of dis­ci­pline in main­land China’s nom­i­nally athe­ist Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party (CCP).

Ji is in Lhasa on a three-year loan from the Bei­jing mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment to over­see the school cur­ricu­lum in Ti­betan class­rooms. In re­turn, he gets a dou­ble salary and a short­cut up the party lad­der. Nearly 6,500 civil ser­vants like him have been dis­patched to man­age hefty bud­gets and shape Ti­bet’s mod­ern­iza­tion.

They are the hu­man face of top-down de­vel­op­ment that has poured more than US$100 bil­lion dol­lars into the re­gion since 1952. Crit­ics say that Bei­jing’s ob­ses­sion with so­cial sta­bil­ity also has led to wide­spread hu­man right abuses. But as in­comes fi­nally be­gin to in­crease across the Ti­betan coun­try­side, Chi­nese author­i­ties are hope­ful they can dis­pel in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism over their rule in Ti­bet while win­ning the hearts of Ti­betans and pulling some of their loy­alty away from the ex­iled Dalai Lama.

“The strat­egy for Ti­bet is now shift­ing from the over­all kind of re­pres­sion that we have seen in the past to ac­tu­ally mov­ing to­ward lur­ing sec­tions of the com­mu­nity and try­ing to work with those who co­op­er­ate with the author­i­ties,” Ti­bet re­searcher Tser­ing Shakya said in an in­ter­view from Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia in Van­cou­ver.

For most Ti­betans in ex­ile, the re­gion has been un­law­fully oc­cu­pied by China since it was over­run by the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army in 1951, and no ma­te­rial gains jus­tify Bei­jing’s re­pres­sion. But even skep­tics like Shakya ac­knowl­edge that “with­out its in­ter­ven­tion, the dis­par­i­ties be­tween the de­vel­op­ment in Ti­bet and in China would be even greater.”

In a sign of new con­fi­dence, author­i­ties this month in­vited a hand­ful of for­eign media or­gani- za­tions, in­clud­ing The As­so­ci­ated Press, on a tightly scripted visit to show­case Ti­bet’s de­vel­op­ment, timed to the 50th an­niver­sary of the cre­ation of the Ti­bet Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion.

Strings-at­tached De­vel­op­ment

Ji over­sees the US$40 mil­lion dol­lar Lhasa-Bei­jing Ex­per­i­men­tal Mid­dle School, where many of the 2,500 stu­dents are from ru­ral Ti­bet. Act­ing as deputy to the head of Lhasa’s ed­u­ca­tion bureau, Ji ex­plains how the pupils are en­ti­tled to nine years of free school­ing.

As gov­ern­ment min­ders watched, a Ti­betan teacher wrote in Ti­betan on a chalk­board crowned by the na­tional flag, the CCP em­blem and a por­trait of main­land Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping. School of­fi­cials ex­plained that all sub­jects are taught in Man­darin, China’s of­fi­cial lan­guage, but that the cur­ricu­lum in­cludes manda­tory Ti­betan lan­guage.

In Lhasa, Bei­jing has also paid for hous­ing projects, hos­pi­tals, an amuse­ment park, an US$80 mil­lion sta­dium and the Ti­bet Yak Mu­seum, honor­ing the “hairy cow” of the grass­lands.

“Bei­jing and Lhasa are still like two worlds apart,” Ji says. “But in a place like this, where things are still back­ward, there is a sense of achieve­ment in ev­ery step for­ward.”

Robert Bar­nett, lead­ing aca­demic of Ti­betan stud­ies at Columbia Univer­sity in New York, ques­tions whether the two-decade-old pol­icy is truly ben­e­fit­ing Ti­betans. Eco­nomic gains of the de­vel­op­ment have for decades gone largely to mi­grants from China’s eth­nic Han mi­nor­ity, who make up only 8 per­cent of the Ti­bet’s 3.2 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. Only re­cently, he said, have they started to trickle down to the coun­try­side.

“If you pour in money in that amount to an area that is frag­ile in its ecosys­tem and so­cial com­po­si­tion and you just re­move bar­ri­ers for mi­gra­tion, you at­tract in­come seek­ers, with a huge neg­a­tive ef­fect and a dom­i­na­tion of the econ­omy,” Bar­nett said.

Mov­ing in from Grass­lands

Per­fectly iden­ti­cal “new so­cial­ist vil­lages” have sprouted in the coun­try­side of the Ti­betan plateau dur­ing the past decade, com­pel- ling for­mer no­mads to take on a seden­tary lifestyle, but also giv­ing them im­mac­u­late two-floor vil­las with run­ning wa­ter, la­trines and bio­gas cook­ers.

Dawa, a 55 year-old herder re­set­tled in Lhoka pre­fec­ture’s Gongkar county, proudly showed vis­it­ing of­fi­cials and jour­nal­ists how each mem­ber of the fam­ily now has a sep­a­rate room. “Even in my dreams I never thought of hav­ing a house like this,” he said.

When re­peat­edly prompted about what he misses from his old life, Dawa paused and stared at the of­fi­cials seated in his liv­ing room be­fore an­swer­ing.

“We have be­come self­ish,” he said fi­nally. “Now that liv­ing stan­dards have im­proved, eat­ing a piece of meat doesn’t make me as happy as eat­ing a potato once did.”

The In­flux of Tourists

Look­ing ahead, the gov­ern­ment hopes to de­velop the min­eral wa­ter in­dus­try, wool gar­ment weav­ing work­shops and fac­to­ries of byprod­ucts of tra­di­tional Ti­betan medicine that will di­rectly ben­e­fit the lo­cals. Tourism de­vel­op­ment is, how­ever, the big­gest pri­or­ity.

With plans to go from 15.5 mil­lion tourists in 2014 — five times Ti­bet’s pop­u­la­tion and most of them Chi­nese — to 20 mil­lion in the next five years, the in­dus­try al­ready is trans­form­ing Lhasa’s land­scape. Four huge pyra­mids of con­crete and glass, the skele­ton of a 2,000 room five-star re­sort, are join­ing new shop­ping malls, karaoke par­lors and theme parks.

Visi­tors sweep through cham­bers of the labyrinthine Po­tala palace and com­pete for space with lo­cal pil­grims at the iconic Jokhang tem­ple.

“There is a great deal of un­hap­pi­ness and re­sent­ment among Ti­betans over the way their cul­ture and re­li­gion is be­ing ex­ploited,” said spokesman Alis­tair Cur­rie of the Lon­don-based ac­tivist group Free Ti­bet, which is cam­paign­ing against for­eign ho­tel chains in the au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

Sta­bil­ity on the Plateau

More than 140 Ti­betans, men and women, lay peo­ple and monks, have died since 2009 protest­ing Bei­jing’s rule and de­mand­ing the re­turn of the Dalai Lama, who fled to ex­ile in 1959 fol­low­ing an aborted upris­ing by Ti­bet’s elites against the CCP.

Ti­bet’s se­cu­rity bud­get in­creased by 28 per­cent an­nu­ally from 2007 to 2012, a sim­i­lar pace as in Xin­jiang, home to the Tur­kic-speak­ing and Is­lam­prac­tic­ing Uighurs. The per capita spend­ing in Ti­bet was 3.6 times the na­tional av­er­age in 2012, said the Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights and Democ­racy in Ti­bet.

Penpa Tashi, an eth­nic Ti­betan party mem­ber who is the re­gion’s vice chair­man, blames the tight se­cu­rity on un­rest linked to the Dalai Lama, the spir­i­tual leader of Ti­betans, many of whom re­vere him as a demi-god. “Only by re­main­ing sta­ble can we achieve de­vel­op­ment and im­prove peo­ple’s liveli­hood,” he said.

The paramil­i­tary po­lice who were ubiq­ui­tous fol­low­ing deadly ri­ots in 2008 have re­treated from the spotlight, leav­ing the streets in the hands of lightly-armed pa­trols and po­lice sta­tions on ev­ery block. More sub­tle forms of sur­veil­lance — from CCTV cam­eras to plain­clothes agents and mon­i­tored com­mu­ni­ca­tions —have taken the lead.

Com­mu­nists in the Monastery

The party in the past in­stalled “spe­cial work­ing groups” at Ti­bet’s county lev­els to en­sure pa­tri­o­tism. Those groups now have been ex­tended to ev­ery vil­lage and ev­ery monastery, ex­er­cis­ing an un­prece­dented level of con­trol while also fun­nel­ing money and re­sources to groups who co­op­er­ate.

In Lhoka’s Tradruk monastery, the sec­u­lar man­age­ment of­fice has ob­tained funds for the lat est ren­o­va­tion of this 12-cen­tury- old in­sti­tu­tion, one of the ear­li­est Bud­dhist con­struc­tions in Ti­bet. As Han Chi­nese work­ers placed the last slate slabs in a court­yard, con­gre­ga­tion head Mig­mar Tser­ing ex­plained how the monastery can get elec­tric­ity, tele­vi­sions and li­braries in ex­change for dis­play­ing the Com­mu­nist lead­ers’ por­traits and top­ping the com­plex with the red flag of China.

In ad­di­tion, monks meet once a week with the monastery’s CCP branch to re­ceive le­gal and pa­tri­otic ed­u­ca­tion.

“We now en­joy com­plete free­dom of re­li­gion,” Mig­mar Tser­ing, 43, said in an in­ter­view ar­ranged by the county pro­pa­ganda of­fice.

Shakya said the new sys­tem is ac­tu­ally help­ing to re­vive Bud­dhism through­out Ti­bet, although un­der the con­trol­ling eyes of the party.

How­ever, other ex­perts dis­pute that there has been any re­vival, es­pe­cially given that the gov­ern­ment has been pro­vid­ing the same fig­ure of nearly 1,800 re­li­gious sites and more than 46,000 monks and nuns in the au­ton­o­mous re­gion since the early 90’s.

“You can have tele­vi­sion sets, roads and flags in monas­ter­ies but you are not al­low­ing the num­ber of peo­ple to grow,” said Bar­nett, the Columbia Univer­sity pro­fes­sor. “It’s hard to have monas­tic life thrive if you have a cadre team over­see­ing them.”

Dalai Lama’s Long Shadow

The cur­rent, 14th Dalai Lama, who is now 80, re­mains the neme­sis of China’s in­ter­ests in Ti­bet. De­spite an ob­ses­sive vil­i­fi­ca­tion of the man by Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and party of­fi­cials, he re­mains im­mensely pop­u­lar and in­flu­en­tial among Ti­betan Bud­dhists.

He has said he may not rein­car­nate, to un­der­cut Bei­jing’s plans to pick his suc­ces­sor. This has forced the athe­ist CCP to em­brace a prac­tice in­tro­duced seven cen­turies ago by a Qing dy­nasty em­peror to con­trol the se­lec­tion by hav­ing names drawn from a gov­ern­ment­con­trolled golden urn.

The re­gion’s vice gover­nor, Penpa Tashi, told re­porters over a din­ner of yak meat that, with­out doubt, the 15th Dalai Lama will be ap­proved by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and that the 14th has been an “ano­maly” who made no con­tri­bu­tion to Ti­bet’s de­vel­op­ment and sought only to split the re­gion away from China.

“His at­tempt to split and de­stroy will never be re­al­ized,” he said. “The 14th Dalai is just like a pus­tule or a weed. A pus­tule must be squeezed to make the body health­ier, the same way that a weed must be up­rooted.”

(Left) Tourists take photos of the Po­tala Palace be­neath a se­cu­rity cam­era in Lhasa, cap­i­tal of the Ti­bet Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion of China, Sept. 19. Top-down de­vel­op­ment has poured more than US$100 mil­lion into the re­gion since 1952, but crit­ics say that Bei­jing’s ob­ses­sion with so­cial sta­bil­ity also has led to wide­spread hu­man right abuses.

AP

(Above) Dawa, 55, a re­set­tled for­mer Ti­betan herder, stands in his apart­ment in a freshly built “new so­cial­ist vil­lage” in Gongkar county of Lhoka pre­fec­ture in the Ti­bet Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion of China, Sept. 19.

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