Giant on the move
Beijing has poured money into Tibet over decades of trying to bring the restive region to heel, raising average wages, restoring cultural treasures like the Potala Palace, even paying a monthly stipend to monks who hold government permits. Local officials are sensible about this munificence and grateful for the help in running one of China’s poorest regions. “The support of the government is the reason for Tibet’s development. Without their backing….Tibet could not be its the current position,” Tsering, vice chairman of the regional government, told reporters on a recent officially sponsored trip. Tsering, like many Tibetans, uses only one name. The sentiments of ordinary Tibetans are more complicated. Many of them resent the political baggage that comes with the funds and the influx of Han Chinese who have followed. There is little question that life has improved materially for many over the last 50 years, particularly in rural areas where scholars say the harshness of farming life has also kept outsiders away, helping to preserve traditional culture.
“Life is better now. Every day is like our old New Year,” said 55 year-old Gelek, a farmer who speaks only Tibetan and greeted a foreign visitor the old-fashioned way, by sticking out his tongue.
He says he makes cash from vegetables grown for sale in Lhasa, has moved into a new house, and eats meat far more often than as a young man.
But frustrated urbanites face discrimination and often see jobs that are created with cash from Beijing going to Han Chinese competitors.
“They are very lovable as a people, but they are not really motivated about work,” said one senior Han Chinese intellectual working in Lhasa who works with several Tibetans but shares prejudices common among many outsiders.
“They start (a project) and then they go off for a drink and sometimes you call, and call and they don’t even answer.” Many monks and nuns, whose numbers and religious activities are constrained by the government, also resent a ban on expressing their devotion to the man they still revere as spiritual leader — the exiled Dalai Lama, who has been denounced by Beijing as a scheming separatist. The Dalai Lama denies this accusation, saying he seeks only genuine autonomy within China, not a separate nation. Many Tibetans also appear more interested in religious and cultural freedoms than independence. But on their right to those freedoms most Tibetans agree. Few have time for Beijing’s ubiquitous assertion that Tibet has always been a part of China, which even led to a dispute over the Chinese version of a Tintin comic book — published as “Tintin in China’s Tibet” instead of just a straight translation of the English title “Tintin in Tibet”. “They treat us like a child and think they can deceive us. But we know Tibet was once an independent country,” said a monk called Jigme in Tongren, an ethnic Tibetan part of neighbouring Qinghai province.
Photo Credit: Sixty-eight-year-old Tibetan farmer Danzeng Basa adjusts his solar-powered kettle outside his recently built house in a small village outside Lhasa, Feb. 12, 2009. REUTERS/Emma Graham-Harrison