On the roof of the world

Tibet faces the old, the new and realpolitik.

The Tibetan capital of Lhasa is a modern Chinese city teeming with new buildings and shopping centres yet immersed in the sacred silence of its three thousand metres above sea level. And many flags, from prayer flags to the towering flags of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

The first sign of the impressive development underway in the region is the massive investment the government has poured into building the railway system. By 2020, Tibet will be connected to all its neighbouring provinces (Xinjiang, Sichuan and Yunnan). Besides tourism (from the PRC above all), another driving industry is mining, which if properly developed could account for one-third of the region's GDP according to The Economist.

However, the industrialisation of Tibet requires a profound overhaul of the economic system, which so far has been pulled along by government incentives and state investment. This explains Beijing’s qualms over the impact of development on the environment and social balances. Last year, Tibet’s GDP grew by 12%.

The local population lives side by side – with obvious reluctance – with the Han Chinese, who arrived en masse after Beijing introduced incentives to attract migrant workers to the country. Yet the money now flowing into Tibet often flows back out into the coffers of the eastern Chinese provinces from which the investments derive. Today, there are six airports on the Tibetan plateau, while many areas still lack highways.

Beijing’s policy of building infrastructures in order to align Tibet's economy with the rest of China elicits scepticism among the Western world. The West knows that Tibet has one of the saddest and most repressed populations in the world. It knows that Beijing occupied Tibet in 1951 – “peacefully,” according to official rhetoric – and has always asserted its sovereignty. It knows that in 1959 the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he still lives in exile, in Dharamsala. It knows that Buddhism was never banned, but no photographs of the Dalai Lama are allowed to hang in Tibetan homes and monasteries, which are instead supplanted by portraits of Chinese leaders, from Mao to current President Xi Jinping. The West also knows that the number of selfimmolations has risen to 130 since 2009. It knows that before the events in Lhasa in 2008 a tremendous number of refugees fled to India through Nepal; and that since 2008 leaving has become much more complicated. It knows that Beijing is in negotiations with the Dalai Lama because it urgently needs to lay this prickly issue to rest. Because according to Beijing, everything's just fine in Tibet – save the unresolved relationship with the Dalai Lama, which is a true sore spot.

“China can’t allow the tense relations with the Tibetan leader to go on for too long,” explains Nehru Ram of the Indian daily The Hindu, who has been following negotiations between Beijing and Dharamsala for years. “In March of 1979, [then Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping began talks with the Dalai Lama, stating that sovereignty was essential to any type of negotiations. Or rather that Tibet is part of China, and if the Dalai Lama couldn’t accept this, talks would not continue.” He adds that in recent years,“So far Beijing and Dharamsala have engaged in nine rounds of talks.” Time is running out, beckoning the question of who will succeed the spiritual leader. Beijing’s ability to influence the choice of successor will determine to what extent it will oppose the threat to its own sovereignty over Tibet or, conversely, put an end to it.

“Negotiations ran aground when the Dalai Lama requested that Tibet be granted administrative independence, something that Beijing has no intention of discussing,” says the Indian journalist. “Recently, the Dalai Lama said that he will not reincarnate after his death if Tibet is not freed. These are dangerous and irresponsible statements,” according to Ram.

Along with sovereignty, Beijing must also plot out clear borders: “For Beijing, Tibet is the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] and the neighbouring Tibetan provinces. Overall, there are around six million Tibetans, three million of whom live in TAR. To bring all these areas together under a single administrative entity would be crazy,” observes Ram. For it would mean “demographically and politically dismembering the entire area.”

Ram continues: “In 1979 Deng told the Associated Press that the Dalai Lama was welcome in China as a Chinese citizen. The Dalai Lama recently announced he might make a pilgrimage to China, following informal talks with Beijing. A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately said that the “Dalai Lama must stop dividing China if he wants to see his future resolved.”

According to the Dalai Lama’s supporters, China must move cautiously and welcome the spiritual leader benevolently. “The Chinese have a real chance of winning over the Tibetan population if they allow the Dalai Lama to come back,” said Robert Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University, speaking to Al Jazeera. Barnett further claims that the Nobel laureate knows “it’s hard for the Chinese to see a way forward without him, but it’s difficult to see a way with him.”

Until 1911, Tibet was a vassal state. Many tend to believe that Tibet enjoyed independence from 1911 to 1951, from the fall of the Chinese empire to the arrival of Mao's People’s Liberation Army. Yet historians don’t all agree. “Before 1951, the majority Tibetan provinces weren’t run by Buddhist monks: the government was mixed,” says Ram. To the human rights activists who accuse Beijing of invading Tibet in 1951 and forcing the Dalai Lama into exile, China says the People’s Liberation Army freed Tibet from extreme poverty, bringing development and modernity to a backward nation. China also rejects accusations of having curbed religious freedoms.

The actual data points to undisputed development, which Beijing detractors have a hard time admitting. “A colonialist power would have exploited and impoverished the country. Instead, China brought development, growth and investments while respecting the local language and traditions,” stresses Ram.

Talk of people’s happiness should be examined further, however. President Xi is convinced that GDP is not a universal indicator of well-being. And Tibetans have undoubtedly been forced to follow China's vision.

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