Wall Street Journal on Shangri-la and Tibet issue

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

Loading Map
Map your own trip!
Map Options
Show trip route
Hide lines

Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The week after a predicted 25% of people on Wall St lose their jobs, Wall Street Journal has this piece about Tibet, its development, tourism, and its future.

Shangri-La, or Not

The Dalai Lama and Beijing take new tacks on Tibet.
By LESLIE HOOK | From today's Wall Street Journal Asia

Tibetan envoys are in Beijing this week for the eighth round of Sino-Tibetan dialogue -- and it could be the last such dialogue for a long time. "My faith and trust in the Chinese government is diminishing," the Dalai Lama said a few days before his envoys departed from their home in exile in India. "It is very difficult to deal with people who are not sincere." His comments amount to a stunning admission that the Middle Way approach, a policy of compromise and dialogue that the Dalai Lama has advocated for decades, has failed to achieve its goals.

Seven months after violent riots in Lhasa, both sides appear to be hardening their positions. Within the Tibetan exile community, many believe the Dalai Lama has made too many concessions without receiving anything in return. In Beijing, the Tibetan unrest coupled with the Olympics has solidified a belief among Chinese leaders that military crackdown and greater media restrictions are the answer to any such disturbances. Despite three rounds of dialogue since March, including the one currently under way, Beijing and the Tibetan government in exile have come no closer.

This impasse came about because the two sides' respective visions for Tibet are irreconcilable. I recently visited a Tibetan area of Yunnan Province known as Shangri-La as part of a journalist delegation hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we were shown a clear picture of the trajectory Beijing believes will be successful in Tibet. Nearly all journalists remain barred from the Tibet Autonomous Region, but these border areas can reveal a lot about what's going on there. This area was dubbed Shangri-La in 2002 after the lost paradise in James Hilton's novel.

Since its renaming, the town has been transformed from a backwater into a tourist mecca. It hosted 4.8 million tourists last year and has seen annual economic growth of 20% for the past six years, thanks in part to massive government investment, such as the new airport. The area's population is only about 30% Tibetan, a percentage that is decreasing as Chinese from other provinces move there to work.

In Shangri-La, Tibetan culture and religion are neatly packaged for tourist consumption at every turn. But when it comes to the lives of citizens, the government still exerts total control. Nowhere is this more evident than at the local Buddhist college. This state-run school, opened four years ago, provides free tuition, room and board, and graduates of its five-year program go on to management positions in monasteries or in government. But the education isn't just spiritual -- it's also "patriotic." A framed set of rules for students hangs in the central prayer hall; No. 1 reads: "Love the motherland, love the people, love socialism, use the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party to strengthen the unity of the minorities and protect the unity of the motherland." When we visit the largest monastery, Songzanlin, officials from the local Bureau of Religious Affairs pry the head teacher, a living Buddha, out of his 45-day period of fasting and seclusion to greet our delegation. The very fact of his presence speaks volumes about the lack of religious freedom.

Officials at the Bureau of Religious Affairs shy away from criticizing the Dalai Lama, however. "It's your individual choice what to believe in," says Li Xiongyong, a Tibetan and the deputy director of the Songzanlin Monastery management office, when I ask whether patriotic education includes teaching about the Dalai Lama. "Our education doesn't talk about this." Meanwhile, in Lhasa, patriotic re-education campaigns have intensified since March and, according to human-rights groups, these campaigns often require monks to denounce the Dalai Lama. Inside Tibet, even monks' travel to other monasteries and gatherings for teachings are closely monitored. The degree of religious control is far greater than in Shangri-La.

The Tibetans I meet in Shangri-La have only positive comments, although I am rarely allowed to speak with anyone without our government minders. At the Buddhism college, our group is accompanied by one minder for each journalist and every time I linger behind to talk to a teacher or a student, one stays with me. One afternoon I slip away and go exploring in a nearby village. The young Tibetan farmers I meet there have been left out of the boom -- none works in the tourism sector -- but they don't complain. From what I am allowed to observe, economic growth is succeeding in keeping most people fairly content in Shangri-La.

But Tibet is not like Shangri-La, and policies that may work in Yunnan will not necessarily work there. For starters, the area around Shangri-La has always been ethnically diverse, with significant populations of Naxi and Lisu minorities, so the recent migration of other ethnicities into the area is less disruptive. Because Shangri-La is outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Tibetans there have also been relatively freer.

In the realm of religion, for example, it has only been in recent years that Beijing has begun to pay much attention to Tibetan Buddhists outside Tibet. In the realm of government, the cadres who run Shangri-La are local officials and often ethnic minorities themselves. The party secretary of the region, Qi Zhala, is a Tibetan who speaks enthusiastically about the importance of spiritual as well as material health to keep people happy. A taxi driver tells me that during the March riots in Lhasa, Mr. Qi paid his respects to the living Buddha at Songzanlin monastery.

Tibet, by contrast, is ruled by Beijing appointees from outside the region whose mandate is to maintain public order at all costs. One such ruler was President Hu Jintao, who was party secretary of Tibet during a violent crackdown on rioters in Lhasa in 1989. Tibetans have seen a constant erosion of their freedoms since the People's Liberation Army arrived in 1951. This year has been particularly brutal; many monasteries remain under lockdown and arbitrary arrests and detentions have created an enduring atmosphere of fear.

But the Chinese government sees no such distinctions. "The root of the riots in March this year was not the failure of our policies," Qin Gang, the spokesman for the Ministry of Affairs told my group shortly before we left for Shangri-La. "It was the policies or attempts of Dalai Lama and his group, [the] Dalai Lama group, to break from China." Mr. Qin says the "so-called Tibet issue is not about culture, it's not about religion, it's not about the environment -- it's about sovereignty and territorial integrity of China." Beijing is fixated on the idea that the Tibet issue is purely one of sovereignty -- despite the fact that the Dalai Lama has for decades advocated autonomy, not independence, for Tibet.

The Dalai Lama has recently called upon Tibetan people to decide for themselves what would be best for the common good of Tibet, and said he "could no longer bear this responsibility." He has called for an emergency special meeting to convene in Dharmsala, India in two weeks. The future of the Middle Way will be on the agenda.

This week, China's negotiators are taking the Dalai Lama's envoys to visit a model ethnic minority outside Beijing. Their destination is unknown, but the message they will receive is already clear. As far as Beijing is concerned, it's the Shangri-La model, or nothing.

Ms. Hook is an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.

Report as Spam
  • Your comment has been posted. Click here or reload this page to see it below.

  • You must enter a comment
  • You must enter your name
  • You must enter a valid name (" & < > \ / are not accepted).
  • Please enter your email address to receive notification
  • Please enter a valid email address

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: