You can learn a lot about contemporary Lhasa simply by taking a scroll from Jokhang Monastery to Potala Palace at night.
Signs of encroachment from Han Chinese are everywhere between these two pinnacles of Tibetan culture. Head north from Jokhang is a police checkpoint to scan everyone entering and leaving Barkhor, the area surrounding the holy monastery. This historic center of Lhasa are now occupied by rows upon rows of cafés, souvenir shops, restaurants, hostels and bars that clearly cater to tourists and Han migrants. Most of these businesses are owned and operated by Han Chinese.
Lhasa is no longer the no man’s land of decades past, the place that could only attract the People’s Liberation Army, the most hardcore of Mao’s fanatics or communist party members seeking quick promotions. Since the inauguration of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2006, a huge influx of Han migrants and visitors have poured into the city. According to the 2000 census, Lhasa’s population was 474,5000; it ballooned to 559,000 in a decade’s time, a growth of 18%.
Most major Chinese cities have a street called Beijing Road, the equivalent to the Main Street in the States. Lhasa’s Beijing Rd is an exact replica of other Mainland cities’, complete with shopping arcades, outlets of major banks, China Post, China Insurance and most major Chinese corporations and government agencies. Conspicuous by its absence is any trace of a Tibetan business footprint. The only hint this is Lhasa are the rather poorly built Tibetan style buildings along the road.
Potala Palace, also located on Beijing Rd, dominates Lhasa’s skyline, even more so at night when this utmost symbol of Tibetan identity is lit up by floodlights. Before the 1959 uprising the palace was the residence of Dalai Lamas and the seat of government of Tibet, its 1,000 rooms functioned like a hybrid of the West Wing and the Vatican; today it is a hollowed out museum as dead as the Pyramids.
To the south of the palace a large area of the old town had been cleared to make room for a communist style public square, in the middle of which stands a 37-meter-high spire-like concrete of an abomination called the “Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”. In the evening an equally tall fountain erupts from the ground just in front of the monument, its water dazzle in the bone-dry highland air to communist era songs. For a plaza designed for thousands, only a few camera-yielding tourists are in the proximity of this high-handed ostentation of Chinese authority.
“Closest to heaven”
At a two-storied tea house in Barkhor, a congruent crowd from all corners of Mainland China are sharing their Tibet travel stories.
“Ah, the sky. Nowhere else is the same as here.”
“This is as close to heaven as you can be on Earth.”
“A laid-back place to escape for a couple of days.”
As the conversation lingers on, one would be forgiven in thinking the topic is about a placid mountain resort in the Alps rather than one of the world’s most geopolitically sensitive regions. Any political topic like the 2008 unrest or the periodic self-inflammation of Tibetan monks are obvious nonstarters, but even the ubiquitous presence of police checkpoints and soldiers is never mentioned. For most Mainlanders, Tibet has been marketed as China’s Bhutan, a mystical place in the Himalayas where visitors can come and enjoy its one-of-a-kind culture and landscape, then go home and brag about the experience of surviving one of Earth’s most hostile environments.
As the opening of St. Regis shows, the tourism demand on Tibet is growing in size and trending upscale. An infrastructure boom is taking place in this once sleepy settlement, and the general view among Han Chinese is, thanks to this committed inflow of capital and labor, the standard of living is fast improving.
“When I was deployed here 40 years ago, you can hardly find a flushing toilet. Look around Lhasa now, you can find all kinds of modern amenities imaginable.” proclaims Mr Chen, a trading firm owner from Chengdu who once served as a member of the PLC. “A rising tide lifts all boats. Without Chinese investment Tibet is just as improvised as Nepal. Tibetans should be thankful they are citizens of the great nation of China.”
“We can never leave”
Certainly economic opportunities unimaginable to previous generations abound in today’s Lhasa, and Tibetans do enjoy certain privileges such as exemption from the one-child policy, but are Tibetans truly equal citizens of China?
Pan, a second generation Lhasa native whose Han parents migrated from Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution, works for a travel agency that mainly caters to Japanese clients. His effort for passport renewal has been repeated declined since last year. The reason? There has been an exodus of Tibetans to Nepal and India and the authority wants to curb on this trend. If a Lhasa-based Han Chinese with genuine business interest is forbidden to leave the country, what kind of restrictions are placed upon Tibetans?
“We can never leave Tibet Autonomous Region.” Luoni, Pan’s coworker who works as a long distance driver, says matter-of-factly. “Our movement is traced closely by the authority. There are checkpoints along all major thoroughfares across the region which demand us to register with the authority. We are legally restricted by when, where and how long we can travel.”
Despite Luoni’s complaint about the higher cost of food and housing since the completion of the railway, he also admits being benefited by the influx of Chinese traffic. He now earns a higher salary than in the past when he was a construction worker, which afforded him a new home on the town’s outskirt, built by a competitively priced Sichuan firm.
This relative affluence does come with a cost to personal freedom. In the dining room hangs a poster that reads “Enthusiastically celebrate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Tibet”.
“Inspectors come to check on every residence to make sure this poster is hanged and no improper material is displayed.”
An Unsolvable Dilemma
Wang Lixiong, one of the leading Chinese scholar and writer on Tibet, named the last chapter of his highly influential book Sky Burial: The Fate of Tibet “An Unsolvable Dilemma”. The book was published in 1998 yet the current situation remains as inextricable as ever.
The Chinese Communist Party relies on two principles in maintaining its legitimacy: rapid economic growth, and an unflinching commitment to upholding every inch of its territory. Thus the ability to assert control over Tibet is crucial for the very survival of the CCP, and the party has responded by pouring an unfathomable amount of soldiers and capital into the region.
This inflow of people and money has created resentment among the locals, which requires even more resources from the party to monitor and appease the populace. How this strategy will end is very much up in the air, but one thing is certain – while most locals still revere the Dalai Lama and identify themselves as Tibetan first and foremost, today’s Tibet, and especially Lhasa, resembles very little to the place where Dalai Lama called home back in 1959. CCP’s political apparatus has trickled into every aspects of life in Tibet; it might no longer be feasible for Tibet to become an independent nation-state, both politically and economically.
Every day in the very early morning and late in the afternoon, pilgrims and locals alike pray devoutly while circumambulating Jokhang Monastery and Potala Palace. This ritual has lasted for hundreds of years and always remain so, because no matter what happens, Lhasa will forever remain the spiritual heart of the pious Tibetans.