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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Return to Tibet -- Outward calm (Day 3 and 4)

February 2, 2010

Across the region, an array of tactics for keeping the peace
The Economist (UK)
February 2, 2010

Day four
ON THE plane out of Lhasa, I sit next to a Nepali
businessman who frequently visits Lhasa to buy
shoes. He puts them in containers to be taken by
lorry to Nepal, where most of them are
re-exported to India. He has his complaints:
about the duties he has to pay at the border, and
the snow that sometimes blocks traffic. But of
the road from Lhasa to Nepal, he is full of
praise. It once took three days by lorry, he
says. Now it is a day and a half. "China is so
developed," he says wistfully, looking out of the
window at the ribbons of light marking highways
and city streets below. He has little positive to
say about Nepal and its roads.

China has been pouring money into its
infrastructure in the past few years, and -- from
a business perspective at any rate -- Tibet has
been a big beneficiary. On my last visit to
Lhasa, in 2008, I went by train. The railway
line, Tibet’s first such link with the Chinese
interior, had been opened just two years earlier
and is one of the country’s most spectacular
engineering accomplishments. Critics of Chinese
rule in Tibet condemn its impact on the
environment and the encouragement it gives to a
flood of immigrants from the rest of China. But
as a feat, it amazes: the $4.2 billion line
crosses higher terrain than any other in the
world, including permafrost—which requires
elaborate ground-cooling measures to protect the
rails from changes in temperature.

On this trip I drove to the city of Xigatse on
the same highway traversed by the Nepali
businessman’s shoes. Xigatse itself may look
uninteresting to tourists, who usually come to
admire the ancient monastery on its outskirts or
to stop off on a sightseeing trip to Mount
Everest on the Nepali border. But the businessman
is in awe of the wealth of some of its
inhabitants. They have got rich, he says, by
running freight services along the 830km
(515-mile) highway. In the past few years,
hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent
improving the road. This has included covering
its gravel sections with asphalt, which has
greatly facilitated cross-border trade. On the
Lhasa-Xigatse section, which winds along a valley
lined by sand dunes and spectacular peaks, Han
Chinese from the interior have opened little
Sichuanese restaurants catering to the lorry drivers.

There is more to come. Later this year, work is
due to finish converting Xigatse’s military
airport to civilian use (Peace Airport, it is
called, in homage to China’s "peaceful
liberation" of Tibet 60 years ago). This will
enable direct flights to Xigatse from the rest of
China. A local tourism official says that Mount
Everest will need to be protected from the
resulting influx of visitors. Tibet had only one
civil airport until the mid-1990s. It now has
three, and this year should have five. Work is
due to begin next year on a sixth, which at 4,400
metres (14,400 feet) will be the highest in the world.

Railway building continues too. By 2012, says an
official in Lhasa, the railway line will be
extended to Xigatse (though he denies reports
that there are plans to build another line to the
interior, connecting Lhasa with the Sichuan
capital, Chengdu). And there has been huge
spending in recent years on rural roads. Work
began last year on connecting China’s last
roadless county -- Medog, on Tibet’s border with
India -- to the highway network. There have been
seven failed attempts to do this since the 1970s
(mountains and frequent earthquakes are among the
obstacles). The target now is 2011. It would be unwise to bet against success.

Critics of China’s human-rights record in Tibet
worry that all these connections will facilitate
the ravaging of China’s environment as mining
companies move in to extract the region’s natural
resources (the railway line happens to run
conveniently close to a massive copper reserve,
possibly the biggest in China). The rail link has
already boosted immigration from the interior and
with it the ethnic tensions that resulted in the violence of March 2008.

More prosaically, as I discovered on the road to
Xigatse, better roads have fostered a tendency to
put the pedal down. On one stretch, a recently
repaired metal barrier above a perilous drop into
the Brahmaputra River (the Yarlung Tsangpo, as it
is known in Tibet) bore testimony to the fate of
a speeding tourist bus. In reaction, police now
stop drivers periodically along the way, where
their average speed since each prior checkpoint
is measured. Our car crawled along a near empty
road. With a fine of 100 yuan ($15) for each
minute short of the ordained time of arrival at
the next checkpoint, we could not afford to do otherwise.

Day three
I HAVE seen my share of development zones in
China. They appear on the edges of cities and
towns, amid wasteland or, very often, farmland
prised from ill-compensated peasants. Officials
fill them with dreams of transforming their
region’s economy. Sure enough, within months or a
couple of years at most they are brimming with
factories turning out profits with the help of
armies of low-paid workers who flock in from far and wide.

The Lhasa Economic and Technological Development
Zone fits the bill partially. It is an expanse of
wasteland, a few minutes’ drive west from the
centre of Lhasa, along a six-lane road divided in
the middle by closely packed little Christmas
trees and lined with military camps, restaurants
and big, smart-looking car dealerships: Toyota,
Volkswagen, Ford and Buick. The new and
oddly-named Jardin Secret Hotel ("like a piece of
emerald on the bank of the Lhasa river" says its
website, making no mention of the camps and
dealerships) presents itself with a large,
mock-Tibetan façade that suggests hope for an
influx of big-spending tourists and businessmen.
The steep hills opposite bear the scars of quarrying.

Officials’ dreams are evident enough. Over the
entrance to the zone there is a big blue hoarding
with a quotation from Deng Xiaoping, China’s late
leader and architect of the development-zone
concept. "The development zone has a lot of
hope," it says. The phrase was uttered more than
two decades ago in another vast expanse that was
to transform a sleepy border town into a whole
new skyscraper-studded city: Shenzhen. There had
been pessimists, who thought Shenzhen would not
make it. In Lhasa, scepticism is certainly in order.

"Build it and they will come" does not really
work the same way on the roof of the world. Lhasa
won state-level approval for its development zone
in 2001. In 2006, Tibet’s first rail link with
the rest of China was opened. The line runs
straight through the zone and Lhasa’s extravagant
new railway station lies just beyond it. In
recent years millions of dollars have been spent
upgrading the Friendship Highway that runs past
the zone and leads into Nepal, a vital conduit
for Tibet’s exports. Conditions, it might be
said, look ripe for the zone’s takeoff.

A boom there has been, but not an industrial one.
The rail link has been a huge boon to Lhasa’s
tourist industry. It has been a help to Lhasa’s
commerce too. The trains provide more reliable
transport for the sort of freight that used to
get stuck on the plateau’s roads for days in bad
weather or when trucks broke down. But Lhasa’s zone is proving slow to fill.

My last visit was in March 2008. It was
mid-morning when I was taken to the zone’s
headquarters. The vestibule was large, bright and
tellingly empty of people. An official showed me
a model: a dream come true of factories, villas
and office buildings. Half of it, he said,
already been built. My own observations suggested
there was a degree of hyperbole in this. We
walked up to a first-floor meeting room, beside a
silent corridor. It was during this interview
that the ethnic violence erupted downtown, waking
up dreaming officials with a jolt (though in that
first hour of the rioting no one appeared to
bother my hosts at the zone with news that something was amiss).

This time I needed no more than a quick drive
around to see that the past two years -- and a
huge infusion of government cash, to get Lhasa’s
riot-shattered economy back on its feet -- had
done little for the zone. "Lhasa Economic and
Technological Development Zone booms," trumpeted
an official website at the end of 2008. It said
115 companies had registered to set up there. Of
these, 14 had "started operation" or were "under
construction." A new definition of "boom"
perhaps; try telling that one with a straight
face to the officials in China’s coastal zones.
By the end of last year, there had been an
uptick: 178 registered with 40 already on-site.
The statistics, however, deserve a little
scrutiny. A report just published in Lhasa’s
official media mentioned only six factories that
were actually making things, some of them on an
experimental basis. Not bad for nearly a decade’s work.

One company preparing to move into the zone this
year is Lhasa Brewery, which is half-owned by
Carlsberg. Its current factory, which will remain
in production, lies just off the road to Sera
Monastery north of Lhasa. A senior manager there,
Tsering Daji, told me the brewery had fulfilled
its targets for 2008 despite the rioting. Last
year post-tax profits were up more than 8%.
Business, he admitted, had been affected by the
violence. Fewer beer-swilling tourists came. But
tourism is getting back on its feet (for Chinese
visitors, at least, who make up the vast majority
of travellers). It will be a big day for the zone
when the brewery’s premium brand, Qingke, rolls off the production line.

But few of those bottles are likely to rattle
their way into the Chinese interior or down the
road to Nepal. Tibet’s zone has another problem:
it is far from any affluent markets, and
transport -- though relatively improved -- adds
cost to anything that does get shipped out. Most
of Lhasa Brewery’s beer is consumed in Tibet and
much of it by visiting Han Chinese. Zone
officials will be praying that Lhasa’s streets remain peaceful.

Day two
MORE than 300km (200 miles) west of Lhasa lies
Tibet’s second-largest city, Xigatse. Its vast
administrative area embraces the Chinese side of
Mount Everest and a population that is 90% rural.
Unlike Lhasa, the city of Xigatse has no rail or
air links with the rest of China (though these
are on their way). Yet in 2008, when many other
Tibetan areas of China were in turmoil, urban
Xigatse was oddly calm. Has China here found a formula for successful control?

Nowhere is the contrast between Xigatse and Lhasa
more evident than at Tashilhunpo monastery on the
outskirts of the city. Set on the side of a steep
hill, the ancient complex of whitewashed
buildings and gold-roofed shrines looks much like
any of the handful of great monasteries scattered
across the Tibetan plateau. Unlike at Sera
monastery in Lhasa however, Tashilhunpo’s
security looks minimal. I saw no police inside,
and, unlike at Sera, I did see dozens of monks
including young boys who had been sent to the
monastery for training. My government guide was
with me, along with a senior Tashilhunpo monk,
but not the posse of minders who had trailed
behind me at Sera. The Tibetan
government-in-exile reported a small protest in
Xigatse in March 2008, but the monk, Bianba
Tsering, and other Xigatse residents I spoke to
said the city had been quiet. Bianba Tsering (who
might have had reason to be cautious on this
topic) said no Tashilhunpo monks had been
involved in Lhasa’s upheaval. "It’s too far away," he said.

The only other large Tibetan monastery that has
remained largely trouble-free in the past two
years is Kumbum, close to Xining, the capital of
Qinghai province to the north of the Tibet
Autonomous Region. But Kumbum is in an exposed
position. Xining is a large Han Chinese city on
the border between the plateau and Han China: far
from Lhasa, the nerve centre of Tibetan Buddhism.
A senior abbot defected from Kumbum to America in
1998, but otherwise its monks have kept quiet.

Tashilhunpo, however, is deep inside Tibet. It is
the traditional seat of the second-most-powerful
monk in Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama. Its
religious importance might have been expected to
make China all the more worried about the
possibility of dissent there. But China clearly
feels that it controls the Panchen Lama, and
through him the loyalty of monks who revere him.

Unlike in Lhasa, I saw no riot police deployed on
the streets of Xigatse, even though it is a city
that seems brimming with the main ingredients for
trouble that are manifest in Lhasa: a large
population of Han Chinese drawn in by a booming
(2008 excepted) tourism industry. Xigatse looks
like one of China’s myriad of boomtowns, with
endless Han-Chinese-owned restaurants and
Han-Chinese-run clothing shops and hair salons.
During my visit it lacked the pall of haze that
normally shrouds Chinese cities. It has little manufacturing to speak of.

In Tashilhunpo, pilgrims flock to pay homage at
shrines honouring the Panchen Lamas. One of them
contains a golden statue of the tenth Panchen
Lama, who died in January 1989. The central
government donated more than 60 million yuan and
600kg of gold for its construction. The tenth
Panchen Lama stayed in China after the Dalai
Lama’s flight to India in 1959. He was imprisoned
during the 1960s and 70s, only to emerge in the
1980s as China’s chief spokesman on Tibetan
Buddhism (even though he was privately critical
of China’s stringent controls). Pilgrims appear
unfazed by his ambivalent career, crowding
forward to offer small banknotes and add yak
butter to the flickering lamps in front of his statue.

This and several other Tashilhunpo shrines
display three photographs of Panchen Lamas side
by side, with the tenth in the middle, his
predecessor to the left and the 11th to the
right. The young man who now holds the title
embodies China’s attempt at control over Tibetan
Buddhism. He was appointed in 1995 at the age of
six in a ceremony attended by top Chinese
officials. China refused to accept the boy
recognised by the Dalai Lama as the new
incarnation. This alternative,
non-state-sanctioned Panchen Lama has not been
seen in public since and is believed to be under
close watch somewhere in China. His photograph is
displayed in some monasteries far from Lhasa, but
certainly not at Tashilhunpo. Bianba Tsering, my
guide, said all Tibetans accept the official Panchen Lama as the rightful heir.

China’s success, so far at any rate, in keeping
Xigatse relatively calm will make it all the more
inclined to try the same tactic when the Dalai
Lama dies. Tibetan Buddhism could well end up
with two Dalai Lamas -- one in Tibet, but another
living outside China and able to speak out. For
the Communist Party it will be a dangerous game.

Day one
IN LHASA the authorities want to project an image
of life returning to normal after the riots of
March 2008. In some ways it is. The extensive
wreckage I saw during my last visit, which
happened to coincide with the riots, has long
since been cleared. Ethnic Han Chinese whose
shops were wrecked and merchandise piled up and
burned by Tibetans are back in business. After
the violence I had seen Tibetan pilgrims turned
away from the Jokhang temple in the heart of
Lhasa by gun-waving troops. Now they are flocking
to it again, prostrating themselves on the paving
slabs outside (two small boys among them wearing
sacks to protect their clothing from the wear of countless obeisances).

That I have been allowed to return is doubtless
part of the authorities’ efforts. An occasional
visit by a journalist gives the impression that
the city is open. It is still far from it.
Numerous previous requests to go there since the
unrest had been turned down (though, it must be
said, it was rarely easy for journalists to get
permission to go, even before the rioting).
Tourism -- a crucial driver of the city’s economy
-- has yet to recover fully. The upheaval
unnerved Han Chinese who might have visited from
other parts of China. Jittery officials did not
help by tightening restrictions on foreign
tourists, including a requirement that they be escorted by guides.

My own official guide took me today to Sera
monastery, about 3km (2 miles) north of the city.
I had tried to visit this important centre of
Tibetan learning just after the rioting, only to
be detained by police standing guard outside.
Sera, and Lhasa’s two other large monasteries
Drepung and Ganden, have long been at the
forefront of Tibetan dissent. A protest by Sera
monks outside the Jokhang temple on March 10th
2008, and a subsequent demonstration by
colleagues demanding the monks’ release, were
part of the build-up to the violence (directed
mainly against property rather than people) in Lhasa four days later.

The police presence outside Sera is hardly less
evident than it was on my last, abortive visit.
This time I got through with my government
escort, but even beyond the police cordon
(through which, it seemed, pilgrims were allowed
to pass) the ancient monastery itself was teeming
with security officials. I probably saw more of
them than I saw monks. Half a dozen people in
plainclothes accompanied me, along with one of
Sera’s senior monks, Qamba Tashi.

The monk enthusiastically described the
monastery’s religious artefacts, but was clearly
reluctant to give away much of anything about
life in Sera today. There were, he said, 500
monks at Sera. A report in the official media
last year suggested that there could have been
twice as many there when the riots broke out in
Lhasa (in which very few monks were seen
participating). Some 500 "visiting monks and
lodgers" were expelled after the unrest, the
report said. Qamba Tashi said that no monks from
Sera itself were punished after the riots, though
"some" of the temporary residents had been.
Again, no details. Visitors would have included
long-term students; Sera is one of Tibetan
Buddhism’s highest centres of learning.

In downtown Lhasa, approaches to the city’s two
main temples, Jokhang and Ramoche, are guarded by
clusters of riot police in camouflage uniforms
and helmets, armed with batons and -- some of
them -- rifles. Others are stationed on rooftops
overlooking the square in front of Jokhang, a
large open area surrounded by shops selling
Tibetan handicrafts that is often the starting
point of any unrest in Lhasa. A foreign tourist
describes seeing police get upset when another
foreigner took a photograph that included such police in the background.

China needs to be careful if it wishes for a
return to normality in Lhasa. There is little
sign that it has understood how a massive influx
of tourists in 2006, following the inauguration
of Tibet’s first rail link with the rest of
China, helped fuel the riots. The resulting boom
brought with it a large number of ethnic Han
immigrants and left some Tibetans feeling
marginalised. Extra security measures adopted
since the riots are likely to put a lasting
damper on tourism here. But they will do nothing to make Tibetans happier.
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