Behind the facade of Chinese rule in Tibet

A state-sponsored visit to the Himalayan enclave was supposed to mollify journalists with an image of happy co-existence. The truth, as Clifford Coonan discovered, was very different

Through the haze of incense and the smoke of yak butter candles in the Jokhang temple, a nervous 29-year-old monk is making a remarkable confession.

Two weeks after the deadly Tibetan riots in 2008, Norgye was one of a group of monks who rushed towards journalists at the temple, shouting demands for freedom. Now he stands before another group of journalists, on a rare state-sanctioned trip to the Himalayan enclave, casting continual glances towards his minder to make sure he's on message.

"I didn't know anything at that time," he explains. "I have not been beaten or tortured. We had to learn more about the law. Through education I realised what I had done." It is quite a U-turn.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has organised the trip for foreign correspondents to showcase the progress Beijing has made in its development plans for Tibet. There have indeed been some remarkable improvements in infrastructure and development programmes, but the fact that Norgye has to make this scripted statement also highlights the tensions that still exist in this restive province at the roof of the world.

The monk is speaking inside the beautiful seventh-century monastery that is the holiest shrine in Tibetan Buddhism. Behind him, a large container holding relics has been wrapped in a Manchester United scarf, and money has been attached to various pictures of holy figures. None of these pictures depict the Dalai Lama, of course, the Nobel laureate who is the god-king from the point of view of Tibetan Buddhists and a dangerous separatist from the point of view of the Chinese government.

The Dalai Lama fled Lhasa in 1959, eight years after it was formally annexed by the People's Republic of China, and now lives in exile in Dharamsala. On 14 March 2008, riots flared at the Jokhang temple, and tensions spilled over into widespread violence both inside the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas in China, with 19 people killed.

In tandem with a crackdown that saw hundreds of Tibetans arrested, the government launched a major patriotic education campaign after the riots and Norgye's testimony would appear to show that efforts to muzzle dissent are paying off.

There are still soldiers on the streets, although admittedly fewer than before. However, some Tibetans speaking privately say the troops were removed for the duration of the journalists' trip, and whisper about the uncertainty and fear that lingers among people. Witnesses tell of snipers on the roofs around the Jokhang monastery and of troops marching up and down.

Memories of the 2008 violence still rattle throughout the enclave, for both the Tibetans – targeted by state security forces – and the ethnic Han Chinese – targeted by Tibetans resentful of the way these migrants seemed to get all the best jobs and have all the power.

Jiang Yen, a 40-year-old shopkeeper from Sichuan, fled Lhasa to settle in Shigatse, Tibet's second city. "It was terrible, terrible," she said, her eyes tearing up. "It's safer here, quieter."

Like many Han Chinese, she is puzzled as to why, given the central government ploughs so many billion yuan in subsidies, investment and aid into Tibet, the Tibetans do not appear happy with Beijing's rule. "We give the Tibetans so much," she says, bewildered. The Tibetans argue – angrily – that the money tends to go into the pockets of Han Chinese migrants who come to the enclave to set up businesses and run the state enterprises.

Talking to three young cousins who have moved from Anhui province to set up a mobile phone shop in Shigatse offers an insight into the complicated mix of prejudice and fascination that Han Chinese have regarding Tibetans. One is adamant that Tibetans wash only three times in their lives – when they are born, when they marry and when they die, but the trio have lots of Tibetan friends, appreciating their company and their way of looking at the world.

Tibet's relationship with Beijing is no more straightforward. China says Tibet is, was, and always will be Tibetan, but the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala in northern India claims to represent the Tibetan people and wants more power for them.

The destiny of the Han Chinese and Tibetans is closely linked. Tibet has never been a strictly independent state in a modern sense, and the Chinese emperors have been involved in Tibetan affairs for hundreds of years. An independent Tibet is a very difficult political entity to conceive of. The Tibetan area stretches far beyond the area known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region, including parts of provinces such as Sichuan and Gansu. The Dalai Lama says that he does not want independence, but more autonomy for Tibetans within China.

While the Chinese government does not believe him, its efforts to win hearts and minds in the enclave has focused on improving the living standards of Tibetans in the belief that many of the political issues will fall by the wayside if people have enough food in their bellies and money in their pockets.

The model village of Gaba is home to just over 737 people, most of them farmers and most of them Tibetan rather than Han Chinese. The village chief, Solang Jiancan, explains how the project began in 1996, with the government giving subsidies of up to 50,000 yuan (£4,880 pounds) to build new homes, as well as interest-free loans.

"Eighty per cent of the villagers have rented their farmlands, mostly to Han Chinese, while 20 per cent operate the land themselves. Many have second jobs in Lhasa," he said. The reason that most have rented out their farmland is that the Tibetans have no tradition of growing crops other than barley; winters are so harsh that the focus has always been on livestock. Tibetans are learning new skills, but they are still largely happy to work in town and rent the land to the Han Chinese migrants, rather than till the land themselves, Mr Solang said. "It's hard for local people to develop the skills to grow vegetables. With this village we can protect our traditions and have a harmonious relationship with the Han Chinese," he said. He shows us pictures of the houses that the farmers used to live in – charming, but hovels all the same.

In the courtyard of one of the new houses, the first thing we see is a solar-powered kettle – a water pot on a plate surrounded by two large silver half-dishes. The woman here has five cows and is quite elderly. She rents out the land to a Han farmer from Sichuan province, and makes 18,000 yuan (£1,760) from rent. "The house is new and clean and it's very good," she said. "The rental income is higher than we can earn from growing vegetables," she said.

In every house there is a poster showing the triumvirate associated with the foundation of the modern Chinese nation – the "Great Helmsman", Mao Zedong, the former president Jiang Zemin, and President Hu Jintao.

The most famous symbol of Tibet is the Potala palace, the Dalai Lama's winter palace. Every year 60,000 people visit the 360-year-old edifice on a hilltop gazing down benevolently at the city below. Renovators are still discovering new spaces, with the current tally believed to be 999 rooms.

Qiangba Gesang, a former film projectionist with an Elvis Presley quiff, is in charge of the renovation process. "It took more than 10 years to renovate this palace and it cost more than 200m yuan (£19.4m). The central government attaches great importance to the renovation of the palace," he explained. "Because of opening up and reform there are more tourists coming here. This means the local people have more money," he said.

After listening to him extol the work of Beijing, we climb to the top and see the Jamkang Buddha – one of the most important Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism – the throne of the eighth Dalai Lama, various mandalas and relics. Soldiers watch as the odd monk sits reading scripture. They must be having a hard time concentrating.

More of Tibet's cultural treasures are on display at Tibet University, where Gesang Wangdui, director of the liberal arts school, shows us around the manuscript library. It looks like a traditional Chinese medicine dispensary, lots of little nooks with long, thin, folded Tibetan documents perched on little golden cushions. They are mostly copies, but some are originals donated by individuals and some are 800 years old. It's a peaceful moment before the repetition of the official message resumes.

"This school is in charge of the heritage of written and spoken Tibetan language. The books are the scientific results of our efforts including lots of Tibetan language learning and teaching tools," Mr Gesang says. "People learn Tibetan here and all students are required to learn Tibetan: it's compulsory," he said. All the signs in the college are, however, in Chinese.

Shrugging that aside, the university's president Gesang Qunpei gestures at the state-of-the-art campus and says Tibetans account for 70 per cent of the student population. "We have no problems here – just look around," he said.

But we are discouraged from talking to students by security guards. I do manage to talk to one young man who is about to head home on his electric bike. We chat more than anything about college life – innocuous stuff – but it is alarming to see security officials approach the young man. I wait until he has mounted his bike and departed, before leaving the grounds myself.

Key Events

*1950: People's Liberation Army troops march into Tibet, one year after Chairman Mao establishes People's Republic of China.

*1959: Tibetans stage abortive uprising in which thousands are killed. Dalai Lama flees to India with 80,000 followers. He sets up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala but no country recognises it.

*1965: Tibet Autonomous Region formally established.

*1979: Rapprochement begins. Dalai Lama's brother visits China at invitation of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

*1989: Martial law imposed in Lhasa after days of rioting sparked by death of 10th Panchen Lama, most senior figure after Dalai Lama. Later that year, Dalai Lama is awarded Nobel Peace Prize.

*1990: Lhasa lifts martial law. The government-in-exile disbands, paving way for polls the following year.

*1993: Dalai Lama says at a rare news conference he is fighting for Tibet's political autonomy, not independence.

*2006: China opens Qinghai-Tibet Railway, world's highest railroad, saying it will help modernise and develop Tibet. Tibet advocacy groups say it is accelerating an influx of Han Chinese.

*2008: Anti-Chinese riots break out in Lhasa and spread to ethnic Tibetan communities in nearby Chinese provinces.

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