After 30 years, Tibet remains a thorn for China

September 03, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- The 26-year-old doctor was given a choice: spend three years in Tibet and return to a big promotion and his own apartment or live in a dormitory and treat emergency-room patients for the next 10 years.

He did as authorities wanted by signing up for the three years in Tibet, and thereby joining thousands of other Chinese forcibly recruited to populate the region. But it is more evidence of the government's inability to integrate Tibet into the rest of the country, even as Beijing last week celebrated the 30th anniversary of Tibet as one of the "autonomous" parts of China.

China's propaganda machine has been warning that Tibet will never be allowed to secede, but also insisting that Tibetans have no reason to be dissatisfied. Pumped up by dozens of government-financed construction projects, Tibet's economy is growing rapidly -- by 8.6 percent last year, perhaps by more than 10 percent this year -- and the propaganda asserts that growth brings contentment.

But beyond the show of government largess, China still finds Tibet an awkwardly grafted appendage, a distant land in the Himalayan mountains where Chinese only go if promised perks and bonuses.

It is more the foreign than the familiar, as was highlighted when China's government-run TV broadcast scenes of a Communist Party delegation leaving Beijing to participate in the 30th anniversary ceremonies.

The officials were seen off by colleagues at the Beijing airport, just as they are seen off when going abroad. Then, like guests arriving from afar, they were greeted in Tibet by dancing girls and rows of local officials standing at attention.

"The reality is that we are part of China," said a Tibetan monk on a business trip to Beijing. "But even if you are willing to accept this, you get angry by the way China controls us.

"The Chinese have no real respect for our history or culture. They think we're savages who are lucky to be ruled by China."

In a new brochure issued by the central government, for example, Tibet is portrayed as a semi-barbarian land before its "peaceful liberation" in 1951, when China's army fought its way through mountain passes to conquer the kingdom. Traditional Tibet was in "the last dark ages," and was saved only when China's central government pushed "a primitive society of serfdom into the modern society of civilization."

Many Tibetans see it differently.

After a failed revolt in 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India, China imposed military rule, which lasted until 1965 and the creation of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. What followed was a decade of looting and destruction -- the Cultural Revolution -- and then relative calm.

Demonstrations, restrictions

But demonstrations against Chinese rule occur almost every year, and Tibet remains off-limits to journalists as well as to travelers wanting to visit on their own rather than as part of a group.

Security has recently been tightened, most noticeably after an attempted bombing of a memorial to the Chinese workers who built a highway connecting Tibet to China. Bus service to the capital, Lhasa, has been curtailed, and security checkpoints have been established to monitor other vehicles, according to recent visitors.

The anniversary of Tibet's "autonomy" was celebrated with a lavish show in the square by Lhasa's soaring Potala Palace, which was freshly renovated for the occasion. The pagodas destroyed during the Cultural Revolution have been replaced and the square rebuilt.

But other buildings in the traditional Tibetan quarter of town have been demolished.

Lhasa's reconstruction parallels what Tibetans fear will be the fate of the rest of their land: a few key cultural monuments preserved as tourist attractions, while the rest is homogenized.

The work around the Potala Palace is one of 62 projects that China has "given" Tibet as a 30th anniversary gift. In a novel financing arrangement, Beijing has required China's provincial governments to pay a portion of the cost.

The recruitment drive that sent the Beijing doctor to Tibet is part of the national campaign to cement the region to China.

The government, for example, says 1,200 new college graduates have joined the army and asked to be stationed in Tibet. Eighty-one party activists have also gone. But there are harsh penalties for failing to show the expected enthusiasm. A vice-mayor of a small city in eastern China was fired when he refused to be "persuaded" to move, according to the official Wenhui newspaper in Shanghai.

Population mix changing

For Tibetans, the Chinese who arrive on short-term assignments are less worrying than the migrants who have flooded into Tibet from neighboring Sichuan province.

A senior Chinese Communist Party official said in a recent briefing for reporters that Tibet's population of 2.2 million is still 95 percent Tibetan. But almost every independent visitor to the capital says that Lhasa appears to have more Chinese migrants than Tibetans.

China has also been taking an increasingly active role in appointing Tibet's high religious figures, drawing on 200-year-old precedents from imperial China. It has recently been drawn into an arcane dispute over who is the latest reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, a living Buddha who is only second to the Dalai Lama in religious importance.

In his briefing, the senior party official said that China could not accept the Dalai Lama's choice for the new Panchen Lama but would not say whether China would look for its own candidate.

He said the Dalai Lama's choice, a 6-year-old boy, was not under house arrest and was in good health.

He added that the head of the Panchen Lama's monastery has been "ill" for several months, but would not disclose the illness or his whereabouts.

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