Old Tibet falls to Chinese wreckers

CHINA has been shooting, torturing and imprisoning Tibetans since its army invaded the Himalayan country in 1950. But now, as Peking's final affront to the capital, Lhasa, it is dismantling Tibetan buildings block by block and replacing them with the concrete flats that characterise towns and cities all over China.

'Some kind of cultural genocide is taking place in Tibet,' according to the Dalai Lama, the country's spiritual leader, who has been in exile in India since 1959. Tibet's culture was facing extinction, he said last week. 'I'm appealing to the international community to put more pressure on the Chinese government.'

Evidence of the wholesale demolition of Tibet is painfully obvious: in the centre of Lhasa, within view of the sacred Jokhang Temple, labourers are knocking down the old Tibetan houses, many of whose residents have been evicted by the feared Chinese Public Security Bureau. The sound of sledge- hammers and the tractor-trailers that cart away the debris jar against the pilgrims' murmured prayers at the temple doors.

Only a remnant of the buildings are now typically Tibetan, with their whitewashed facades, gaily painted window lintels and flat roofs festooned with prayer flags offering their messages to spirits passing on the wind.

A Dutch group, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, calculates that about 5,000 Tibetans in Lhasa have been evicted since 1989, and that the homes of another 10,000 are about to be demolished.

Most of Lhasa's 150,000 inhabitants are now Han Chinese immigrants, brought in to dilute the Tibetan population. According to China's 1980 Lhasa Development Plan, a copy of which has been smuggled out, all Tibetan buildings in Lhasa, except a few tourist landmarks, are earmarked for destruction by the year 2000.

It would be the final, tragic chapter in a four-decade campaign by the Chinese to destroy a culture that developed over 1,300 years. 'If things go on as they are now, within 10 years Tibet will look just like any other part of China,' said a Tibetan in his late twenties. 'My children will grow up watching Chinese television, living in a Chinese apartment building, and if they are lucky, working for a Chinese company.'

About 6 million ethnic Tibetans live in the territory of historical Tibet, much of which has been absorbed into China's provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai, where by some accounts they are outnumbered by incoming Chinese.

A number of incentives encourage Chinese people to move to Tibet: salaries that are one-third higher, an exemption from Peking's 'one-child limit' and automatic preference over local Tibetans in the granting of business licences. But most dislike the country's climate, isolation and barren landscapes, and come for only a short time to make some quick money.

The young woman who runs the Lucky Flower restaurant in Gyantse, west of Lhasa, said she had come from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, two years ago and was planning to return home soon. Did she like Tibet? 'Oh, yes,' she replied sarcastically, pulling a face. 'They don't even have rice here]' (Rice does not grow at Tibet's altitudes and Tibetans eat barley instead.)

The influx of Chinese is taking its toll in a more insidious way than the straightforward military repression of the past. Crime is on the increase - gangs of armed muggers hold up people after dark in the centre of Lhasa, and even cherished prayer-wheels are stolen.

Younger Tibetans are being won over by the imported entertainments. The craze for pool that swept China five years ago has arrived in Tibet, and young men spend hours hunched over the outdoor tables in Lhasa, playing, betting and drinking the day away. Many are unable to find full-time jobs in an economy dominated by the Chinese.

And by night, the new attraction is karaoke. Dozens of such bars have opened in Lhasa, and the young Tibetans sit beside Chinese patrons, mouthing the words of songs they cannot properly read.

In the Dynasty karaoke and disco bar, hundreds of Tibetans congregate over the weekends, watching and copying the Chinese dancers, drinking heavily and brawling in the street outside.

China, with 200 times the population, has set out methodically to destroy Tibet. The West turned a blind eye to China's abuses during the Cold War, when Peking was a useful card to play against Moscow. But last May, Bill Clinton became the first US president to list an improvement of human rights in Tibet as a precondition for the renewal of China's trading privileges.

The prayer flags are blowing in the wind.

(Photograph omitted)

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