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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The Tibetans are back in town

January 26, 2010

By Cristian Segura
Asia Times
January 23, 2010

BEIJING - Early in the 18th century, Emperor
Yongzheng ordered the Yonghegong Palace in
Beijing to be converted into a Lama temple. The
transformation of his former residence was
designed to show the great importance Chinese
rulers attached to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan
religious society. Long after the emperor's death
in 1735, Tibetans in Beijing enjoyed a prestigious status.

Tibetans in Beijing are worshiped no more. Today,
they are an anonymous and small group compared
with other ethnic minorities in China's capital
city. Security measures for the 2008 Beijing
Summer Olympic Games and last year's 60th
birthday celebrations for the People's Republic
of China kept Tibetans away. It was not until
last autumn that their numbers began to rise again.

Dongdo is a Tibetan peddler one can find almost
every afternoon at the entrance of the
Dongsishitiao subway station, not far from the
Yonghegong Lama Temple. He and his wife sell all
kinds of traditional garments, side-by-side with
two other Tibetan families. Dongdo and his wife
live together with eight people in a tiny apartment in downtown Beijing.

Hailing from the northwest part of Sichuan
province that is inhabited mostly by Tibetans,
the couple lost their homes in the earthquake in
May 2008 that killed more than 70,000 people.
They didn't have money to rebuild or survive so
left their hometowns, choosing Beijing to restart their lives.

Just before the Olympics, Beijing authorities
sent them back to Sichuan. Dongdo says that they
didn't obtain permission to resettle in the
capital until last November, after the 60th National Day parade on October 1.

Statistics about the Tibetan population in
Beijing are difficult to obtain. The last data
available on the website of the Ethnic and
Religious Affairs Commission of the Beijing
Municipal Government only reported 585,000 ethnic
minority individuals in Beijing city in 2000.

The Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee says
it doesn't have specific figures on Tibetans
living in Beijing province. Cai Fang, director of
the Institute of Populations and Labor Economics
at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS),
also says he has no information about the
migration of Tibetan workers inside China. Cai
and two other prominent CASS professors last year
wrote a report for the United Nations Development
Program on migration among China's rural population.

A recent study of Professor Lu Ding, published by
the National University of Singapore, determined
that between 2000 and 2005, the migration ratio
of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) decreased
by less than a 0.5%. This means that emigration
from the region is slightly above immigration.

Andrew Fischer, senior lecturer in population and
social policy at the Erasmus University
Rotterdam, said: "Because of the economic boom in
places like Lhasa [the capital of the TAR], net
migration out of Tibet might not be increasing,
relative to total migration, although in terms of
absolute numbers I am sure there is probably some increase."

According to Dongdo and his friends, there are
about 2,000 Tibetan peddlers in Beijing. This
can't be the total number because experts like
Fischer consider that most of the Tibetans who
settle in the eastern cities of China are highly
educated: "Most Tibetans only migrate to local
towns and cities inside Tibet. The ones who
migrate to elsewhere in China usually have high
school or university education and hence Chinese
fluency. There is also a regular number of
Tibetans students who are sent to study in east
China for high school, somewhere around 5,000 and 10,000 students per year."

The Beijing Tibet Middle School is an example of
this "elite migration". Top students from the TAR
- those who obtained the best marks in primary
school - are sent to 26 Tibetans institutions
across China. This school and another educational
center for Tibetans - the only two of their kind
in Beijing - are the first choice for the
brightest Tibetan kids: 30 students apply for every vacancy.

Beijing Tibet Middle School has 810 pupils and
130 teachers. Just three members of the academic
staff are Tibetans. Membership of the Communist
Youth League of China is compulsory and students
must wear a pin of the Chinese Communist Party
during lecture hours. Most of these youngsters
express their wish to work for the government.
Luo Biao, vice headmaster of the school, said the
majority of these undergraduates would become public servants.

Luo concedes he is not sure that the presence in
Beijing of highly educated Tibetans helps
increase understanding between the two cultures.
"We help our students to interact with the local
society in three different ways: we arrange
cultural visits for them and sports competitions
with other schools, and from time to time there
are Han families that invite them to have lunch
and take them out to enjoy leisure activities."

Violent and political clashes in Tibet could
explain why most Han people avoid interaction
with the Tibetan community. But Fischer is
convinced that "not anyone would be scared of
Tibetan migration in places like Beijing or
Shanghai" because in these cities Tibetans are a
clear minority, in comparison with places such as Chengdu, Lanzhou and Xining.

There are differences indeed. Near the Jianguomen
subway station is a group of about 15 Tibetans
proud of their identity - one carries a picture
of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual
leader, on his cell phone. The man, who says he
is from Lhasa, sells tiger paws that have been
cut into small pieces. His customers are Han
Chinese who believe the tiger has medicinal qualities.

Dechen Pemba, a Tibetan writer currently living
in London, was in Beijing studying Chinese from
2006 to 2008. She recounts that during the
Olympics, nearly all Tibetan migrants were forced
to leave the capital, herself included. "Some
Tibetan friends of mine even lost their jobs as a
direct result of discriminations against Tibetans
after the protests in Lhasa [the riots that
exploded in the Tibetan capital in March 2008]
... Without jobs, and with anti-Tibetan
sentiments rising high, they had no choice but to leave town."

Tibetans in Beijing live in fear and under
surveillance, according to Pemba. But the number
of Tibetan migrants in the city is growing,
according to Mipham Jamyang, a Tibetan who leads
the Lotus Center, a non-profit school founded two
months ago with the aim to teach migrant workers
useful skills, such as the use of computers or
learning English. Jamyang says that Tibetans stay
in Beijing between two to five years then return
to their hometowns to invest their savings.

Jamyang takes issue with any idea that Beijing
citizens dislike Tibetans and he is sure that
Tibetans are treated fairly by the law and enjoy
the same rights as other migrant groups. The
Lotus Center opened with the authorization of the
Beijing government and Jamyang will request
official funds to sustain a school conceived to
meet the growing needs of Tibetans flowing into the capital.

* Cristian Segura is a European journalist based in Beijing.
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