November 11, 1998

Booming China Threatens Spirit of Tibet

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    LHASA, Tibet -- At daybreak, thousands of Tibetan worshipers march a path that circles this holy city, twirling prayer wheels and murmuring tributes of faith. Clad in dark robes or silk tunics, they wind their way around a gold-roofed temple where the scent of smoldering juniper bush, a traditional offering, rises from a blackened stupa, a dome-shaped shrine.

    Seth Faison/The New York Times
    Two monks at the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa.
    Photo Essayнн(6 photos)

    Past a dilapidated Chinese factory, down an ill-paved city street, their daily parade then takes the faithful right by a row of gambling houses and massage parlors that represent the gaudiest element of a growing Chinese presence here. Yet few Tibetans even glance into these places of imported debauchery as they walk by, keeping their focus on the sacred trail.

    Tibet, a mountainous desert whose people have preserved a remarkably intense form of religious devotion despite decades of persecution by the Chinese, is now in the next stage of a grindingly long battle between Tibetan tradition and Chinese modernity. Today, it is the onslaught of China's free-wheeling economic boom that most threatens Tibet's resilient Buddhist culture.

    "They try to beat us, to silence us, to overwhelm us," said one monk, whispering in a dark corner at Sera Monastery, a sprawling complex at the edge of town. "You can see they are not succeeding, just look at all the people who come to worship every day."

    Tibet's exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, is in Washington seeking support for his efforts to persuade Chinese leaders to allow more self-rule for Tibet, even if it is under Chinese sovereignty. Apart from international pressure, however, Beijing has little incentive to negotiate.

    China exercises firm military and political control over Tibet, as it has since its troops suppressed an uprising and the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. In the past four years, the authorities have sharply tightened restraints on Buddhist monasteries, which are seen as centers of dissent, and limited the number of monks allowed to worship.

    No sign of protest or potential violence is evident in Lhasa today, and for a city that is ethnically divided -- there is a distinctly Tibetan half and a Chinese half -- there is little palpable tension. In the first visit to Tibet allowed to a reporter for The New York Times since 1990, crowds of both groups were seen mixing easily in open-air markets where fruit, clothing and distinctive Tibetan jewelry were sold.

    Yet, after decades of trying, Beijing's political and now economic efforts to fully transform Tibet into another province of China still founder on Tibetans' extraordinary religious fervor. Religion and culture create such a deep gulf between Chinese and Tibetan ways of life that it is hard to foresee any easy resolution.

    The most striking aspect of daily life is the passionate worship by Tibetans of every station. One must rise at dawn to see the daily, two-hour march around central Lhasa that draws thousands of worshipers each day, but thousands more pilgrims who come from elsewhere in Tibet to pray at the region's holiest sites are evident everywhere in town.

    All day long at the gate of the Jokhang Temple, the most revered structure in Tibet, dozens of worshipers perform an obeisance of prostration, lying face down on cold stone, only to stand up again, hands together, motion hundreds of times in succession. Dirt-poor pilgrims, filthy from weeks or even months of travel, pray next to well-dressed businessmen and women from Lhasa.

    "The Chinese don't understand our religion," said Chuni, 25, a health administrator who came to the Jokhang Temple to pray one recent evening. Like many Tibetans she uses only one name. "They think we are uneducated and inferior. They will never understand," she said.

    The Resentment Wears a Mask

    A layer of good-natured Tibetan fatalism, Chuni said, often shields the animosity that ordinary Tibetans feel toward the Chinese. Underneath, she said, most Tibetans deeply resent the Chinese presence here.

    Tibetans are unlikely to forget the relentless efforts to destroy their culture that came in the years after Chinese forces consolidated control in 1959. Calling it "liberation," the communist authorities banned religious worship, demolished monasteries and killed untold thousands of Tibetans who resisted.

    Times change, as do methods. But China's aim in Tibet remains the same, to integrate it more closely with the rest of the "motherland." In the 1960s, that meant tearing down almost anything old and parroting fanatical political slogans; today it means building almost anything new in the name of economic development.

    Officials in the Chinese government point to the undeniable benefits built with Beijing money in recent years: roads and telephones that allow communication in previously impassable areas, hospitals and schools that offer care and general education in a land that had almost none during its centuries as a theocracy.

    Chinese authorities make much of the stubbornly medieval nature of Tibet's old society, where slaves of various grades were taught that they suffered for the misdeeds of a past life.

    But material gains have come on Chinese terms. All Tibetans are required to be literate in Chinese for the best jobs; few Chinese ever learn Tibetan, even officials who live here for decades. Schools are theoretically bilingual, but in practice Chinese dominates.

    The Economy: For Whose Benefit?

    Many Tibetans, accepting the fact of Chinese dominance, push their children to study Chinese, because it broadens their chances for decent employment. Some send their children to study at schools in China proper.

    "I am sad that so many children cannot read or speak Tibetan well," said a 35-year-old employee at a state-run department store, and mother of a 9-year-old girl. "But I want what is best for my daughter."

    Like many other Tibetans, this woman complained that economic gains in Tibet have overwhelmingly benefited Chinese here, not Tibetans. It is hard to measure, since economic status is not measured by ethnic group, but Tibetans uniformly say that unemployment among Tibetans is many times that of Chinese.

    A senior Chinese leader, Hu Yaobang, decried the colonial attitude that prevailed among Chinese officials here when he visited in 1980. Much has changed in Tibet since then, but perhaps not the mindset of the average Chinese official. In a small but telling example, Chinese officials still insist that Beijing time be observed throughout Tibet -- as it is elsewhere throughout Chinese-controlled territory -- even though this means sunrise in November here comes after 8 a.m., and sunset after 7 p.m.

    Although Beijing clearly hopes a rising economic tide will draw Tibetans closer to the Chinese way, local officials assigned here often seem more interested in taking advantage of loose restrictions to make money in any way possible. As in most of China, a local official has wide latitude in economic matters, as long as his or her political patron is secure.

    An attractive park called Sun Island, where the path of worship takes thousands of Tibetans each morning, was converted two years ago into a resort area of gambling halls that operate openly, even though they are technically illegal. Across the street is a long row of massage parlors with come-hither names, equally open and, because they are clearly fronts for prostitution, equally illegal.

    "Gambling? How could we allow gambling?" asked Nima Tsering, a deputy governor of Tibet, in an interview. "No gambling is allowed in China."

    Asked if he was truly unaware of what transpired on Sun Island, Tsering quickly backtracked.

    "Maybe our supervision is not perfect," said Tsering, one of many ethnic Tibetans in the Chinese government here. "Maybe this phenomenon does exist in some cases. We know about it. We're keeping an eye on it, and we'll decide what to do when the time comes."

    Many Tibetans are as disgusted by the presence of the Chinese here as they are by the fact that Chinese businessmen and workers keep arriving each day. Exactly how many Chinese live in Lhasa has become a matter of constant interest.

    According to official statistics, of Lhasa's 198,000 current residents, including Chinese workers who have temporary residence permits, 55 percent are Tibetan and 45 percent are Han, China's dominant ethnic group. Tsering conceded that this figure does not include the innumerable Chinese itinerants who fail to register.

    Many Chinese and Tibetan businessmen estimate that at least 60 percent of the people in Lhasa at any given time are Chinese. Yet it is hard to know with accuracy because Chinese workers typically stay anywhere from five days to five years.

    In addition, Chinese statistics do not include Chinese military personnel. International military experts say there are probably about 50,000 Chinese military personnel stationed in Tibet, as well as an unknown number of paramilitary police. After protests erupted here in 1987 and 1989, however, Chinese soldiers have been ordered to keep out of view as much as possible.

    Although outside critics of China's Tibet policy denounce what they see as a monolithic Chinese plan to overwhelm Tibet, the day-to-day reality of Chinese expansion here appears to be relatively limited and haphazard.

    Tibet's economy, though growing by 10 percent, reached only $927 million last year, a tiny amount considering that more than half of it came in the form of direct grants from Beijing. Yet Chinese businessmen here say there is a larger, unrecorded economy of trading in consumer goods and commodities that draws thousands of businessmen and workers from neighboring Sichuan province, which is overflowing with 110 million people, compared with Tibet's 2.4 million.

    In fact, several Chinese businessmen here complained that their biggest obstacles lie not in Tibetan culture, but in the corruption among local officials, who often make money in the form of "fees" that are unlikely ever to appear in provincial balance sheets.

    For all the attention and problems that the Chinese presence in Lhasa produces, it represents a small part of the larger picture in what is still a desperately poor region. More than 80 percent of the people in China's Tibetan Autonomous Region live outside cities and towns as herdsmen and farmers with an average income of $10 a month.

    The official population of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is only 2.4 million. Yet the larger Tibetan plateau, each corner carved into another Chinese province, includes a total population of roughly 7 million Tibetans.

    One of the traditions that ordinary Tibetans keep alive is saving their meager earnings for years in order to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa. Virtually every Tibetan who can comes here to worship.

    Herdsman's Family Who Came to Pray

    One recent morning, Thondrup, 57, a herdsman from northern Tibet, sat outside the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, describing how he had prepared for years to bring his family to Lhasa.

    For a total of 11 people, including his wife, 2 daughters and sons-in-law and 5 grandchildren, Thondrup rented a truck to make the journey. It took eight days and nights of terrible roads and volatile weather to reach the capital.

    "We came to pray," said Thondrup. "It is the most important thing we do in our lives."

    Offering a simple interpretation of the Tibetan belief that an act of worship brings good will that will pay off in a future life, Thondrup said his family members could improve their karma by visiting each of the main religious sites in Lhasa.

    The only other time Thondrup came to Lhasa, 15 years ago, he traveled by horseback, truck and bus. It took three weeks each way.

    New roads, Thondrup said, have greatly improved livestock trading in his area and fattened his wallet. Yet it has hardly made him more partial to Chinese officials, whom he regards as patronizing and bribe-hungry.

    "All they think about it money," he said.

    For all the material improvement in Thondrup's life, like most Tibetans he seems to care far more about prayer and devotion to the Dalai Lama.

    "All Tibetans want the Dalai Lama to come home, more than anything else," he said.

    In the end, here lies the unsolvable dilemma for the Chinese authorities in Tibet. Regardless of the physical improvements that have been made, the health care and the education, and the fast-growing economy, most Tibetans do not hesitate to talk about their religious attachment to the Dalai Lama.

    Almost without exception, ordinary Tibetans here eagerly say that they would happily sacrifice all their own material goods, as well as all the modern advances in Tibet, if only the Dalai Lama would come home for a single day.

    Asked to consider this quandary, Tsering, Tibet's deputy governor, took a deep breath and exhaled.

    "Some people do have this ideal," he said. "But Tibet needs to be more modern. We need science and technology. That was the old society. We need a new society."

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