We’re in Jyekundo, capital of the vast Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Region in southern Qinghai Province. This is an interesting place to witness interaction between China and the Tibetan world: earnest efforts by the government to develop the economy and improve living conditions on the one hand; and on the other, strict control, ramped-up security, and an influx of Chinese workers with negative dispositions toward the locals.
Jyekundo was struck by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake a little over two years ago, which leveled the town and killed at least 2,700 people. Chinese newspapers in the last couple months have reported on high-level government frustration with the slow pace of recovery here, despite tens of millions of dollars allocated for reconstruction, including thousands of free new houses for the Tibetans. The local government is facing mounting frustrations from below as well. As Western media have reported, Tibetans have protested opportunistic land seizures conducted by local officials under the banner of recovery and development. These frustrations, combined with general Tibetan dissatisfaction with aspects of Chinese rule, most recently manifested in two self-immolations within the prefecture this June. As has become all too clear, the Chinese local and central governments are extremely nervous about the political ramifications of such public acts of suicidal resistance.
Currently, Jyekundo itself is one big construction zone, as the government now races to complete a rebuilding project that began two years ago. Dust fills the air as trucks and heavy equipment move up and down the one main street. Propaganda banners around town express the people’s thanks and gratitude to various central government organs involved in delivering reconstruction funds. Numerous government, municipal, and state-owned enterprise buildings appear finished or nearly so, and hundreds of small Tibetan-style homes have been completed. But there are also thousands of tent shelters remaining, housing Tibetan families who have watched the enormous, flashy government offices go up while continuing to live in refugee-camp conditions.
Tensions are thus palpable, although for us they were especially palpable in Bayley’s head. A stomach bug from bad ‘cow-meat pulled noodles’ at the last stop, self-induced dehydration from fear of having to go during our long overnight bus, and 18 hours of claustrophic rattling in the child-sized coffin rack on that bus–all of these, it turns out, do not combine well at 12,000 feet. Thus the first day, upon arrival, Bayley went straight to bed with a bad stomach and a worse headache. Owen (who slept just beautifully on the bus in his child-sized rack) and I were left to do some exploring on our own. Fortunately, just outside of town we found numerous families out making the best of their Saturday, and a good river for Owen to throw rocks in. We watched yaks cross the river and talked to plenty of curious Tibetans. The curiosity went both ways.
Other, more serious tensions were also noticeable. To begin with, the security presence was beyond anything I’d seen in China before. Checkpoints are currently everywhere on the approaches to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (which includes Lhasa, to where we were denied entry permits) and the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Outside Yushu, these security efforts seemed more serious than elsewhere. By way of example, in Yunnan’s Deqen County, four bored, low-ranking, unarmed PLA soldiers didn’t bother to turn down the Eminen playing on their laptop as we joked about what a pain it is that westerners’ names are so darn long. (Their regestration forms were apparently designed with only three-character Chinese names in mind.) At the crossroads in Qinghai between Yushu and Ganzi Tibetan Prefectures, however, the only thing the pacing, shotgun-bearing People’s Armed Police were listening to were their walkie-talkie headsets. After some questioning, they made me write out, in my best Chinese handwriting (which approaches that of a rather stupid 7-year-old), 本人承诺在玉树时不从事犯罪活动, or, “I promise that while in Yushu I will not engage in criminal activities.” Only then, and after quietly conferring among themselves for a while, did they ask for my adopted Chinese name and send me back on the bus. (Again, how to handle western names is apparently not part of the training.) They then turned to the Tibetan monks riding our bus, questioning them for half an hour and searching their belongings.
But beyond this evident friction between the Chinese state and Tibetan society, tensions also seemed to be widespread at the individual level, between Han and Tibetan. This to us was most surprising. We simply didn’t expect to hear the kinds of sentiments expressed to us by numerous Chinese about the Tibetans they lived among.
For example, from a cab driver from Sichuan:
“It’ll still be another year before everything’s finished.”
Why is reconstruction taking so long?
“Well, Tibetans. They are extremely dull. And their way of thinking is all messed up. You can’t talk to them–they’re just not reasonable!”
But how does that relate to slow reconstruction?
“Tibetans can’t do anything for themselves, they just sit around and wait for us to do it for them.”
And from a construction foreman from Gansu and his friend:
“Working here’s okay. Gotta watch out for colds. And you also have to deal with Tibetans.”
Do all Han Chinese here detest Tibetans?
Unison: “Yes!” The foreman: “They’re just so dumb, and also so unreasonable!”
And from a Hui restaurant owner from Gansu:
“You’d like some bread? Let me get you some fresher bread from the kitchen. These pieces aren’t so good, they’re for selling to Tibetans. Besides, Tibetans have probably already touched all these with their hands! The ones in the kitchen are clean.”
To be sure, not every Chinese person we met had such negative opinions. To two construction laborers from Gansu: What do you guys think about the Tibetans here?
“They’re just fine! Although they sure are poor and backward.”
But the overall impression we got from Chinese individuals was that very little sympathy, and far less respect, exists for the Tibetans here. I wish I could have gotten a better understanding of how some of the Tibetans we met see things, but our conversations seldom got beyond Tashi delek, “American,” and “Boy, fifteen months.” I would blame my inability to speak Tibetan, but all but the oldest could speak just as good or much better Mandarin than me. (On a side note, it was interesting that, more than once, we observed Tibetan children using Mandarin to converse among themselves.) Perhaps the issues are too sensitive, or Tibetans are just less likely than Chinese to proclaim all their judgments to a complete stranger. But I certainly didn’t come here so that I could behave like a lousy reporter, and I didn’t prod with my casual questions.
Actually, we came here to see an incredible part of the Tibetan Plateau that is both currently open as well as reasonably accessible. Outside of town, in the areas around Jyekundo, is the most beautiful landscape I have ever been lucky enough to see. Rows of jagged snow-capped peaks backdrop immense green valleys, with chortens and prayer flags dotting the hillsides. And the Tibetans here are probably the hardiest and most welcoming people I will ever meet in China. This place and its people are simply amazing.
And for family readers wondering how things turned out, so is Bayley. By the second day, feeling halfway recovered, she was already leading hikes up into the hills and around nearby monasteries. Now both of us, having been introduced to the area and curious about things will develop, would love some day to come back.
It’ll just have to be before Owen outgrows that tiny rack on the sleeper bus.