Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Outward calm

January 30, 2010

Across the region, an array of tactics for keeping the peace
The Economist (UK)
January 28, 2010

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.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank