Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tibet Today

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the second in the series for my blog on what I learned from this trip.

Arriving in Lhasa by train, a quick first impression would be that Lhasa seemed like another modern city in China. Look at Lhasa a little more closely and one then sees that it is not exactly another Chinese city. Being a recently built city, the streets were wide and cleaner than most cities on the mainland. All the billboards and storefront signs were bilingual, in hanzi and in Tibetan script in place of pinyin.

Tibetan people in colorful garb walked, clockwise around objects of veneration, such as a temple, all the while spinning a prayer wheel held in their hands. Every once in a while, we would see some Tibetans clap three times, take three steps and prostrate themselves in full stretch on the ground and then getting up to repeat the process.

We were told by our guide, a Tibetan, that 30% of the population of 2.8 million lived in the urban area, another 30% lived in the countryside as farmers and the remaining 40% has continued to live according to their nomadic tradition. As we drove through the Tibetan countryside, we can see that lives of at least 60% of the (non-nomadic) lives of ordinary Tibetans have materially improved from the feudal days.

Those living in the cities are participating in a booming economy, our multilingual tour guide being one example. As Lhasa, Shigatse and other cities become increasingly popular tourist destinations, a boom in the hospitality industry has followed. As more tourists come, demand for restaurants and native handicraft also increased.

Jobs are also created by the infrastructure investments made by the central government. We saw early efforts underway to lay a second track connecting Lhasa and Xining in Qinghai. National Highway 109 begins from Beijing and runs over 3700 km to Lhasa. National Highway 318 runs from Shanghai through Lhasa to the border, over 5400 km in length. Road crews are constantly maintaining and repairing these and other highways in Tibet.

As we drove to Xigaze on the newly paved NH 307, a trip that took two days only 5 years ago now took less than one, we saw lush farms fed by a well coordinated system of irrigation ditches. Many newly built homes in these villages along the road side testified to evidence of new wealth.

Would the people of Tibet welcome Dalai Lama back, I asked. Yes, most of the Tibetans would welcome him back as the spiritual leader but not as the secular leader, our guide said. “Because we fully understand that if the Dalai Lama becomes the leader of our government again, our standard of living would take a big step backwards.”

For two reasons, he went to say. Tibet’s economy is weak and not self-sustaining. More than half of Tibet’s operating budget comes from the central government. If the Dalai Lama takes over, the subsidy is likely to go away. More importantly, about 70% of Tibet’s aristocrats fled to India with the Dalai Lama. These followers want nothing more than to revert to the feudal days when they owned everything. While such a reversion is unlikely after so many years, just the tension could wreak havoc on the Tibetan society.

Here is the dilemma of modern Tibet as I see it. The Dalai Lama is just one person, albeit first among them. Even if he wants moderation and willing to give up claims to secular rule, his followers are unlikely to let him do so. They have lost too much in leaving Tibet and seeing former serfs and slaves thrive and becoming financially independent.

Beijing also has a problem. When Beijing interjected itself in the selection of the next Panchen Lama, most Tibetans are skeptical of the legitimacy of this selection. The 11th Panchen Lama is only 19. It remains to be seen whether he can win the hearts of the Tibetan people with time. The popularity of the 10th was damaged by the perception that he collaborated with the Beijing government. He died in 1989.

Beijing also has to deal with a perception and education problem. Most Tibetans born after 1959 have only a vague to no idea of what life was like under a theocratic rule. Without knowledge of Tibet’s past, some now believe they could do even better by themselves without the Han Chinese presence. This is still a minority voice but is being fed by resentment over the evident success of roadside restaurants and stalls all seemingly owned and run by the Han Chinese from neighboring Sichuan province.

The aforementioned 60% of Tibetans now appreciates the value of education and sees a good education as the ticket to a better life. Beijing’s challenge is figuring out how to reach the 40% nomads roaming in Tibet and get them to join the mainstream economy. Our guide told us that the government has been building permanent dwellings for them and encouraging them to live in a permanent base. Thus the percent of nomads is expected to decline, albeit gradually.

The future of Tibet is clouded with uncertainties. Beijing is not going to negotiate with Dalai Lama unless he is willing to renounce his right to rule. He can’t renounce because his followers of aristocrats won’t let him. The impasse might not be broken until he passes on. Then the Beijing anointed Panchen Lama will help find the 15th Dalai Lama and selling that candidate to the people of Tibet—a huge undertaking of uncertain outcome.

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