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
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
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
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