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Sorting out the Future for Chinese-Controlled Tibet

October 30, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITV News Correspondent: The Jokhang Temple, the spiritual heart of Tibet. Dawn comes late because the Chinese government insists that everywhere it controls keep the same time as Beijing, even Lhasa, 1,600 miles to the west.

Pilgrims and monks do their kora, a clockwise circuit around a 7th century temple, prostrating themselves before the Buddha. Western tourists, and these days a growing number of Han Chinese, watch the religious devotion, which characterizes Tibetan Buddhists.

Most of the time, though, Chinese tourists and visiting dignitaries take pictures of each other. A popular spot: against the back drop of the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s seat until he fled Chinese rule and went into exile 48 years ago; or just as they arrive, in front of the railway station, built to look like Potala.

Two-and-a-half-million people visited Tibet last year. The railway is expected to bring 80 percent more this year.

HE BEN YUN, Tibetan Development and Reform Committee (through translator): Now the railway is running, there’s a sharp increase in both tourists and businesspeople from home and abroad. It works with the principle of the market economy. I think it’s good. Nowhere can develop in isolation.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Much of Lhasa increasingly looks like, well, any small city in China. Steadily, rapidly, the government is integrating Tibet into the Chinese economy, making it ever more difficult for what it calls splittists, those who proclaim independence, to have any impact.

HE BEN YUN (through translator): Tibetan culture is an exotic flower amongst Chinese cultures. It has existed for more than 2,000 years. But, as Marxism says, we should keep the good things of a culture and remove the bad.

Some Tibetans fear speaking out

LINDSEY HILSUM: Everywhere in Tibet, we were accompanied by officials. Journalists aren't free to go where they want, and many Tibetans fear the consequences of talking to foreigners.

So we met the dissident Tibetan writer, Woeser, at a small monastery in the neighboring province of Qinghai. A devout Buddhist, she was expelled from her work unit in Lhasa after praising the Dalai Lama. Her writing is banned in China.

WOESER, Tibetan Writer (through translator): When they built the railway and brought in the train, Tibetans had no say in it at all. Real autonomy involves democratic discussion. Do the majority of Tibetans want the train? How do they want the railway to be built? We're forced to take something. We're told it's good, that we're being treated kindly. This is colonialist. The colonized people are supposed to be grateful, but how much do they really benefit?

LINDSEY HILSUM: The railway runs through the Tibetan countryside, 15,000 feet or more above sea level. They call it the roof of the world. It cuts through the grasslands where Tibetan nomads have grazed their yaks for centuries, living off yak milk butter and meat.

But Tibet is changing. In the last year, 25,000 families have been settled into what the government calls new socialist villages. In five years, the government plans to build new houses for 80 percent of Tibetan nomads and farmers.

There's no question that the new socialist villages are more comfortable than the nomadic camps and huts where people used to live. And many young Tibetans welcome the opportunity to go to school and a possibility of paid employment. But gathering people together like this makes it much easier for the Chinese Communist Party to control Tibetans, and that's something which has always been a challenge for the government in Beijing.

In Sangbasa, about 50 miles north of Lhasa, local officials took us to meet one of the beneficiaries. Two of her six children are still herders, but others have joined the modern economy as the government wants. She, however, stills churns the yak milk tea in the old way.

SUO NANG ZHUO, Tibetan Herder (through translator): With help from the Communist Party of China, we've started a happier life without many worries.

Government building new settlements

LINDSEY HILSUM: The county chief denies that they're forcing Tibetans to give up their traditional way of life.

HUANG QIAN MIN, County Chief (through translator): New settlements provide herders better living conditions. Their lives are greatly improved. They can live in the settlements in winter and herd their animals in summer. Then they can go on herding and enjoy a modern life at the same time.

LINDSEY HILSUM: We took the train to Qinghai over the high pass and onto the plateau. The government is building settlements for Tibetans in towns. Some Tibetans have been told they must stop herding completely because of ecological pressure on the grasslands. But what's there to do when you've sold all your yaks? Just play pool.

Families are given a house and about 70 pounds a month as welfare. At first, most enjoyed the novelty.

XIANG MU LU, Former Herder (through translator): It's good, especially for the children who can't go to school in the herding area. They can learn literature and mathematics here. For us adults, it's also more convenient. We just hang around doing nothing in the summer.

Concerns over ethnic customs

LINDSEY HILSUM: But eventually the welfare payments will dry up, and the danger is that Tibetans, who rarely have the business skills of the Han Chinese, will become an underclass.

WOESER (through translator): They signed up to the move looking forward to living like the city people they see on TV. At first, they have money from selling their animals, plus money given by the government. But over time, their money is used up. They learn to spend money like city people, but they don't have the skills to make money like city people.

LINDSEY HILSUM: They've left their sacred sites and stupas behind, so lamas come to hold services in the new settlements. Religion has always been the center of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule.

Last month, the government banned lamas from reincarnating without permission, a law which might be a little hard to enforce. Following the exiled Dalai Lama is banned, too, so we won't say where we saw this, nor where we found these children openly demonstrating the loyalty that most Tibetans feel despite government restrictions.

WOESER (through translator): Dalai Lama is not only a religious, but also a national leader. His international influence makes Tibetans proud. People are proud to prove that they're not like the communist propaganda which says Tibetans are backward and dirty.

HE BEN YUN (through translator): The government fully respects ethnic customs, but we will help the people remove bad or backward habits and lead them towards a civilized life. As a result, they'll keep their ethnic characteristics while adding elements of science and civilization.

Maintaining ancient rites

LINDSEY HILSUM: Back in Lhasa, it's the Yoghurt Festival, an ancient rite commemorating the end of a period of meditation. The faithful carry a giant thankga, a picture of the Buddha, Sakyamuni, out of the Drepung monastery. This year, there are nearly as many tourists as pilgrims.

Down in the main square, the government celebration has a more Chinese than Tibetan flavor. Every year, hundreds of cadres from around the country are sent to Tibet to supervise projects and investments from across China and to keep an eye on the Tibetans. For some reason, the officials are sporting baseball caps from Amway, an American pyramid selling company.

Mammon competes with Buddha. The Yoghurt Festival real estate show features ambitious plans for luxury apartment blocks in Lhasa. Companies from all over China are encouraged to build here, as more Han Chinese move in.

Pilgrims gather on the hill, waiting for the thangka to be unfurled, a holy rite, a display for tourists. China has ruled Tibet for more than half a century now. As more Tibetans adopt a modern way of life, it's easier for the Chinese Communist Party to decide where and how Tibetans live, but it still can't control what they believe.