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    Greater China
     Oct 5, 2010

Beijing building Potemkin village in Tibet
By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India - Beijing has recently been involved in two major development projects in its restive Tibetan region. It has rebuilt the Dalai Lama's birth village with modern houses, and extended the rail network in the Tibet Autonomous Region. But these efforts have done little to impress Tibetan critics in exile. They believe that developing Tibet economically will never change the mindset of the Tibetans there unless religious, political and cultural freedoms are guaranteed.

China has extensively renovated Taktser (Hong'Ai), a remote village in the Tibetan region of Amdo (now Qinghai province of China) - the birthplace of the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso. All 54 houses in Taktser have been rebuilt at state cost, and in an attempt to win the hearts of the Dalai Lama's followers, the new homes have been designed with traditional Tibetan


flourishes. Every Tibetan household was consulted for its requirements before the overhaul, said Dong Jie, head of the Civil Affairs Bureau of Ping'An County, who oversaw the project.

Chinese officials have compared the new developments in the village to the state of the place at the time of the Dalai Lama's recognition 70 years ago, when Taktser was impoverished and backwards. The old Tibetan homes have been replaced with modern structures of brick and strong timber, says Xing Fuhua, chief official of Shihuiyao township, which administers Hong'Ai. The village now has roads and a stable power and water supply, although it is still not connected to the world via the Internet.

One of the rebuilt homes is that of Gongpo Tashi, a Tibetan whose main job is to maintain the birthplace of his uncle, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. A state media report quoted Gongpo, who still awaits the Dalai Lama to return Tibet, as saying, "If I call him some day, I will definitely tell him of the changes at home." Gongpo has visited the Dalai Lama twice in India, but says he has not contacted his uncle for a while. He is not sure the Dalai Lama will ever see the changes. "Am I waiting for his return? Well, if he is back, all problems will be solved," Gongpo said.

Interestingly, the state media report on the renovation and remarks from the nephew came just days after the Dalai Lama said in Budapest that he would return to Tibet with a Chinese passport. "I'm an optimist; I think I will return to Tibet with a Chinese passport. A solution must be found that is good for both China and Tibet," he said.

The state media report is unusual in not criticizing the Dalai Lama, unlike ones in which Beijing accuses him of inciting unrest in Tibet with a hidden pro-independence agenda.

China has also started work on a railway line that will connect Tibet's second-largest city, Xigaze, to the capital, Lhasa. The 253-kilometer line climbs over a pass at 5,072 meters above sea level, making it the highest railway in the world. Nearly half of the new link will be laid through tunnels and over bridges. It will cost nearly US$2 billion and take four years to complete, according to the China Daily. Officials plan two more extensions, including a proposed route to the Nepalese border.

The rail line is part of a building boom in transport infrastructure to improve links between the remote regions of Tibet and northwest Xinjiang province with mainland China. Chinese officials say the line will promote tourism and access to natural resources in the region, but it is clear that it will also ensure the speedy mobilization of troops and equipment to these occupied areas in future.

Critics say that the rail line will allow the Han, China's majority ethnic group, to flood into Tibet, marginalizing the Tibetans in their own region. Samphel Thupten, a spokesman for the exile government in Dharamsala, India, said Tibetans had already become a minority in their own land. He pointed out that vast deposits of minerals had been found it Tibet, and that China would move more Han Chinese to Tibetan areas to exploit these riches. "Unrestrained settlement by Chinese should be halted and if possible reversed. If this trend continues, the autonomous region will be meaningless."

The exiled Tibetan government says the rebuilding of houses is welcome, but what is more important is to improve the quality of life for the Tibetan people. "As long as a political atmosphere of suppression continues, no amount of building will have a direct impact," Thupten said.

Critics also say that the rail line will lead to environmental degradation in the largely pristine Tibetan region. But Chinese state planners argue that the route extension is designed to bypass pristine areas, use the least land resources and create the least pollution. "The railway will detour around nature reserves and drinking water sources," said Zhang Qingli, Tibet's Communist Party chief.

Other opponents of the rail link see it as a provocation of China's neighbor. "The railway line between Lhasa and Xigaze will further aggravate the tension between India and China. Both Asian giants have hugely militarized their sides of the 4,200-kilometer Himalayan border," said Tenzin Tsundue, a Tibetan independence activist quoted by exile news portal Phayul.

Against all these criticisms, Beijing continues to maintain that it has done more good than harm in Tibet. China's State Council, its cabinet, recently issued a compilation of white papers on Tibet outlining its history since 1959. The papers cite a number of achievements in the Tibet Autonomous Region, including economic growth, the protection of the area's cultural heritage and environmental conservation.

But many Tibetans still believe that Tibet's culture is based on the spiritual leadership of the Dalai Lama, and the centuries-old tradition of herding yak, cattle and sheep across the Tibetan plateau's grasslands. They say this way of life is threatened as Chinese officials move increasing numbers of semi-nomadic herdsmen into resettlement towns.

"Chinese think that developing Tibet's infrastructure will change the thinking of Tibetans, but they have always been forgetting the real issue - without the freedom to live our lives, such developments will bring no fruit," said Jamphel Sioche, a young Tibetan in exile.

Saransh Sehgal is a writer based in Dharamsala, India, he can be reached atinfo@mcllo.com.

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