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After 50 years in Tibet, China sees no 'middle way'

Beijing's Tibet policies point to legacy of distrust of religious groups

After 50 years in Tibet, China sees no 'middle way'

Thousands of people gather in front of Lhasa's Potala Palace on Sept. 8 for an event billed as marking 50 years since the founding of the administrative area of Tibet. (Photo by AFP)

Published: September 11, 2015 08:04 AM GMT

Updated: September 10, 2015 10:52 PM GMT

Late on Aug. 27, frantic villagers tried to extinguish flames engulfing 55-year-old mother Tashi Kyi. By 3 a.m., on Aug. 28, she was dead.

Tashi self-immolated after authorities bulldozed houses that failed to provide the right paperwork in a small Tibetan village in China's Sangchu County.

Ten other Tibetans in Sangchu have self-immolated over the past three years, including Tashi's 18-year-old nephew, Sangay Tashi. In 2012, Sangay called for the return of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, before setting himself ablaze.

"His self-immolation was also an act of protest against the actions and brutalities of the Chinese government," Sangay's brother, Jamyang Jinpa, wrote in a letter published online in early September.

Tibet has been both the testing ground and the blueprint for Beijing's strategies for dealing with religious minorities in other parts of the country — from Muslim Uighurs, to its long-running campaign against Christianity. And as China marks 50 years of governance in Tibet this week, Beijing continues to ignore complaints over its heavy-handed rule.

On Sept. 8, Beijing staged a huge set-piece anniversary event outside Lhasa's Potala Palace — the former residence of the Dalai Lama. As part of the event, a 65-member government delegation warned of an even tougher stance against Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

"Tibet has entered a new stage of sustained stability after people of all ethnic groups together fought against separatism, successfully foiling attempts by the 14th Dalai Lama group and international hostile forces," Politburo member Yu Zhengsheng said in a speech at the ceremony where he dished out gifts, including electric blenders for making Tibetan yak butter tea.

All week, the Communist Party has presented a positive, unified message on Tibet.

Yu spoke of guaranteeing religious freedom. A new government white paper issued on Sept. 6 offered assurances that the Tibetan people would have the right "to participate equally in the management of state affairs".

State broadcaster CCTV screened a documentary juxtaposing Tibetan children studying in modern classrooms with the region's pristine, snowcapped landscape.

And a new museum exhibition, opened in Lhasa on Sept. 7, which displayed photos of development projects and one key economic statistic from Beijing: gross domestic product multiplied almost 300 times in Tibet since the Communist Party took over in 1965. GDP was valued at 92 billion yuan (US$14.4 billion) last year.

Muslim Uighur men walk toward a mosque in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region. China's strategy for dealing with Tibetans is reflected in its treatment of other religious groups, including Muslims and Christians. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)


Opaque development

Beijing has long justified its heavy-handed development in Tibet as a program that has raised living standards. But separating fact from fiction in Tibet has been difficult.

Access to Tibet is restricted — foreigners require special permits to travel to the area and are required to stay in groups, as in North Korea. And foreigners are not allowed in at all during March, the anniversary of one of many Tibetan uprisings under Communist Party rule.

After 50 years of Chinese rule, it's still "impossible" for outsiders to gain independent access to Tibet, said Michael Buckley, one of just a handful of overseas journalists to spend extended periods there.

"[You are] still blocked off from contact with Tibetans unless you have an interpreter and it's highly risky for Tibetans to be interviewed," he said.

Buckley's book, "Meltdown in Tibet," published in December 2014, paints a damning picture of the impact of China's development on the fragile environment, contradicting Beijing's upbeat narrative.

While party officials speak of the schools built in Tibet, Buckley counters that China spent more on the railway line to Lhasa completed in 2006 than on the entire health care and education budgets since invading Tibet in 1950.

"The railway is now expanding east and west of Lhasa," said Buckley. "These railways enable large numbers of Chinese migrant workers to come into Tibet, and enable large-scale exploitation of Tibet's resources economically."

Finding out whether the slew of hydropower dams and copper, iron and lead mines built in Tibet in recent years have benefited normal Tibetans is, again, challenging.

Tibet Mineral Development Company and China Gold International Resources Corp — both of which operate mines in Tibet — did not respond to emailed questions.

Similarly, campaign groups have complained that the more than one dozen Canadian mining companies operating in Tibetan areas have failed to give feedback on how their operations contribute to the livelihoods of Tibetans.

Often, only when tragedies occur has it has been possible to pin down how many ethnic Tibetans work on the big infrastructure projects that dominate Beijing's GDP figures for the region. Of 83 miners killed in a huge landslide in March 2013 at a site operated by a state-owned company, just two were ethnic Tibetans. The rest were Han Chinese.

Anecdotal evidence suggests infrastructure projects in the world's highest region have devastated the environment, as noted in Buckley's book. But again, few independent studies exist separating China's impacts from the effects of global pollution.


Changing landscape

A Chinese priest who declined to be named for security reasons said the negative impacts on Tibet's environment were evident on repeat visits in recent decades.

"When I visited a Tibet county above 5,000 feet [1,500 meters] two years ago, it had changed so much. The snow on the mountain had melted and the water level had dropped," the priest said.

Like many visitors to Tibet, he noted that Chinese development remains dominated by projects that destroy the environment, raising tensions with ethnic Tibetans who consider the landscape sacred, a part of their Buddhist faith.

In the half-century that China has ruled Tibet, similar policies have been instituted in cycles targeting ethnic minorities and religions.

Elsewhere, the government has long suppressed the Muslim Uighur minority. A "strike-hard" campaign initiated in May has triggered a period of intense persecution against Uighurs.

In Zhejiang province, Christians have been devastated by a two-year cross-removal campaign. While the actions against Zhejiang Christians have been pushed by local authorities, many observers believe such a long-standing campaign must have tacit approval from Beijing.

Taken together, such actions underscore the Communist Party's fear of organized religion as a potential alternative power base to the party itself.

The severity of these actions has depended on the threat level perceived by Beijing, notes Fenggang Yang, director of Purdue University's Center on Religion and Chinese Society.

"At the minimum, the Chinese Communists in their gut have deep suspicion and distrust in religious leaders even if they seem to be amicable toward religious believers and leaders during the good times," he said.

Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama delivers a lecture in Sydney on June 8. (Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP)


Direct control

For Tibetans, this week's anniversary marking Chinese rule only brings more uncertainty.

In its Sept. 6 white paper, Beijing rejected a "middle way" approach, put forward by the Dalai Lama, which proposed more autonomy for Tibet.

While sidelining Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, Chinese authorities have further eroded religious freedoms, said Tsomo Tsering, director of the Tibet Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala, northern India.

"It's ridiculous. Sometimes Tibetans will keep images of the Dalai Lama, and the simple act of keeping pictures of their own spiritual leaders is criminalized," said Tsomo, who works with informants on the ground in Tibet.

Since 2011, authorities have replaced members of monastery management committees with officials who work directly for the government. Small police stations have been built inside some monasteries. This year, authorities ordered all Buddhist monasteries to fly Chinese flags and display pictures of party leaders.

"The problem is that the whole of religion is now directly controlled by the Chinese government," Tsomo said.


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