In the Holy City of Lhasa, Pilgrims Progress — through Metal Detectors and Permit Checkpoints

Chinese flags fly over the Potala and the main square.

Lhasa — just hearing the name of this fabled far-off place brings shivering sensations of cold wind and low oxygen, conjuring up images of a mystical, faraway Himalayan land, where imposing monasteries guard over snowy mountain passes and where, in the frigid dawn, the silence is broken by the guttural chants of thousands of monks rising with smoky billows of incense. At least, that’s what supposed to happen, I think, when westerners hear the name. I’m more clear on how Chinese imagine the place, informed as I am by the continuously-cycled radio tracks about the place, which all out-do songs on the American South in terms of nostalgic longing: Wide blue sky, expansive green grasslands, clear rushing rivers, high snowy mountains, and a clean simple life. Never mind that most people who listen to these songs have never been on the Tibetan Plateau. That’s probably the point. For Han Chinese living in the packed, high-growth and high-stress cities of their own ancestral lands, images of the wide-open frontier (and, perhaps, a Manifest Destiny sort of pride in their great nation’s domination of it) apparently make for very catchy pop lyrics.

Not surprisingly, there are multiple competing imaginations of what Tibet is, was, or should be like. And based on how one describes the past, one can describe very different visions for the future. The “Free Tibet” version that people reading this probably know is probably partly the result of the Dalai Lama’s sincere efforts, partly the result of our own romanticism. If you believe this history, Tibet prior to the 1950 occupation by the People’s Liberation Army and 1959 crackdown and implementation of communist policies was basically Shangri-La, a peaceful spiritual utopia, untouched by the modern world, ruled benevolently by the holy Dalai Lama and all the better for it. Based on this past, the most deserving future for Tibet can only be significant autonomy for a Dalai Lama-headed government, or outright independence.

And if you believe the Chinese government, Tibet prior to the 1950s was a harsh feudal theocracy, with a system that enslaved hundreds of thousands of serfs in order to provide for a privileged monast-ocracy, which maintained its unequal status through legalized slavery and firm control of the people’s religion. It was also a ripe prize for China’s many enemies, whose imperialist aims on the strategic Plateau would have them further exploit the oppressed Tibetans in order to weaken and dominate China. Based on this past, the Chinese government’s massive investments in security, education and economic development are the best hope for fulfilling the common aspirations of the Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

Both of these competing imaginations are obviously self-serving for the sides that espouse them. (I have simplified them as well, but hey, let’s not forget that this is a lousy blog with a name based on a bad pun of a Guns’n’Roses song.) But what about the Tibetans themselves? What are their aspirations, individual and collective?

Well, I don’t know.

On our 7-day organized tour, with all the rushing from one famous site to the next, the hang-ups of group travel, and a cautious guide constantly fretting over losing his tour license if one of us got too adventurous, it was hard to get much meaningful interaction with locals outside the service industry. Of course, that’s probably precisely why I was only permitted in Tibet as part of an organized tour. As a westerner, any vision I have for Tibet is inherently suspect. But are the Chinese authorities more worried about what local Tibetans might learn from me (not much), or what I might learn from local Tibetans? I suspect the latter.

In any case, talking with Tibetans can be hard. There were reasons for this beyond the simple limitations of my tour group itinerary. First, language. My Chinese is mediocre, and so is the Chinese of many Tibetans, particularly older ones. Actually, in Lhasa I thought the general level of Chinese ability was much higher than in some of the outlying places in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan I’ve been to. But most of my conversation partners still found it uncomfortable to speak at much length in the lingua franca. Second, a degree of wariness. No explanation needed there. And third, well, a degree of normal. Many Chinese people, like many Americans, will tell you their whole life story, or at least everything about where they live and what their work is, in the first five minutes after you meet them. This makes for great, if somewhat repetitive, conversations across most of China. But compared with most cultures, I think, this gabbiness also makes us weird. The more reserved Tibetans, in contrast, are probably just more normal.

The Han Chinese I met in Lhasa were plenty eager to tell me about local conditions, as well as their aspirations. Many of the Han in Lhasa are small business owners, immigrants of the last decade, particularly since the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2006. While official statistics say Tibetans are the majority at 63% of the population, my impression was that Lhasa has already become a majority-Han city, a “little Sichuan” as a result of all the migrants from that area. I met one middle-aged Han Chinese woman, the owner of a small restaurant near the Potala Palace, because I was drawn in by the “Hangzhou Xiaolongbao” advertised on her restaurant’s window. It turned out she was, in fact, from Hangzhou. She’d moved to Lhasa ten years ago with her husband to start their business, she said. I told her I also hailed from Hangzhou, and she told me how much she missed it; she’d lived in the Binjiang area, and left just as it was starting to be transformed into the city’s gleaming new commerical business district. I asked her a little about living in Lhasa, and her responses, given in the presence of the two Tibetan servers she employed, were pretty typical of what other Chinese told me:

Relations between Tibetans and Han? Fine! Now.

How are the Tibetans? Well, most of them don’t work! Instead, they receive the most generous subsidies of any group in China, and live off of that. The tractors they all drive around like cars, in and out of the city, are given free to all rural households. And most of them live in free housing, too. [A 2009 government figure put the unemployment rate for the Tibet Autonomous Region at 3.95%; but a 2009 referenced the Tibetan exile government high-range estimate of 75%). A quick online search didn’t turn up any official information on subsidy schedules for urban or rural Tibetans.]

The riot in 2008? That was a mess! But most Tibetans here weren’t involved. Just the extreme ones. Nobody damaged my business. The public security forces did a bad job controlling the situation then. But things are secure for us now. [In 2008, riots took place across the Tibetan world, including in Lhasa, where many Han businesses were targeted.]

As for the self-immolations in other parts, these are probably just encouraged by the Dalai Lama. The Tibetans who do this lack good education, lack jobs. But there are many favorable policies for them. How are they still unsatisfied?

The future of Tibet? More economic development! But the Tibetans will need more education, more jobs.

We were in Lhasa during the pilgrimage season, when the arrival of winter means farmers have nothing to grow and the hills have no grass for the herders’ yaks. Outside the woman’s shop, pilgrims lined up at a checkpoint, where cold-looking Han police officers scanned their government-issued IDs and ran their bags through X-ray scanners.

Checkpoints like this one were located around town, controlling entry to all the major religious sites. And on the roads leading into Lhasa, police and para-military manned additional checkpoints, recording pilgrims’ arrivals and verifying their travel permit. Like foreign tourists, ethnic Tibetans (but not Han Chinese) also need a permit to enter Lhasa. They actually need two. The first one is provided by the public security officials in their hometown, who approve their application to leave town and go to Lhasa. The second one is provided by the Lhasa authorities, who must approve their application to stay any amount of time in the city itself. I met pilgrims from eastern Tibet, from Litang in Sichuan, and from Yushu prefecture in Qinghai. But while hardly a confirmation of the overall permit situation, I noted that I did not meet any pilgrims from Aba or Gannan prefectures, where most self-immolations and a recent mass protest have occurred.

The police manning the X-ray checkpoints, much like the employees everywhere who man X-ray machines, appeared to be the least well-trained (and compensated) of the various security services that were seldom out-of-sight. They were also the most cheerful, to foreign tourists and Tibetans alike (as far as I could see), despite the fact that their job involved standing all day in an unheated tent with only a thermos of tea to keep them warm. Curiosity for what exactly it is that foreigners carry around in their backpacks often elicited giggles. While not an uncommon sight in Lhasa, the number of foreign tourists was definitely small compared to many other cities in China. The tight permit restrictions since 2011 have had their effect.

In addition to all the checkpoints, there were actually small police stations, more like outposts really (派出所), just about every other block. Inside each one, a squad of cops passed their shift by watching through the glass doors, or occasionally their TV, with kits of riot gear stacked high nearby. Presumably these were the officials who’d be called first to restore order if there were any disturbances. But outside, patrolling the streets, were also squads of People’s Armed Police. A sort of paramilitary service dedicated to internal security, these guys are generally well-trained, fit, and professional-looking. Even more so than the typical People’s Liberation Army soldier. Which isn’t surprising, really, given that the Chinese central government has recently been spending more on internal security services than on all the traditional military branches combined. The PAP squads patrolling near the Jokhang, Lhasa’s symbolic and spiritual center, were armed with assault rifles and shotguns. I wondered whether and how they were authorized to respond to a disturbance. Were they armed with rubber bullets?

In addition to the scowling men in heavy jackets outside various temples that I guessed to be plainclothes police, rounding out the complement of security services in town was the Special Police (特警), which I believe are a specialized component of the PAP. They wore blue uniforms with “SWAT” labeled across their backs in white capital letters, and could be seen off to one side of the Jokhang, chatting with eachother and eating snacks, next to a fire truck and a van with armor plating. Like the regular police, they mostly just looked cold, and bored.

Walking around town, on two or three occasions I noticed something strange: young Tibetan children, talking to each other in Chinese. Why weren’t they using Tibetan, presumably the language spoken in all of their households? After a few years of Chinese instruction in their public schools, did they actually prefer it to the language of their parents? Certainly, growing up speaking Chinese would be critical if they were to have any real economic opportunities in life. How did their parents feel about it, though?

And then came the big question for me. When one culture is extinguishing another, children become the battleground. Whoever controls the younger generation’s upbringing also largely controls their adult identity, and determines whether their culture survives or disappears. The Chinese government wants Tibetans to become more Chinese, or at least less conscious of a separate identity and the separate interests that identity engenders (return of the Dalai Lama, independence, etc.) I imagine many Tibetan parents are resistant to these designs on their children, as evidenced by recent . But no matter how cruel or unfair the system that creates these conditions (and in this case it’s deplorable), if becoming less Tibetan and more Chinese means a better shot at economic or professional opportunity, then are parents selfish to teach their children to resist this?

On our third day in Lhasa, we toured Sera Monastery. Located on the outskirts of town against the side of a mountain, this is where anti-Chinese demonstrations by monks in March 2008 resulted in a dozen, or dozens, or more killed by Chinese security forces, and 200 detained. As I watched the monks conducting religious training in one of the courtyards, all I could do was wonder whether most or some of them had been witness to the violence, or whether all the witnesses were long gone and these monks had been brought in to replace them.

And before we left, I ask one of the younger monks, a skinny boy I estimated at 13 or 14, how old he’d been when he first donned his red robes.

“Six,” he replied.

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Filed under 7 Days in Tibet, Foreign-er Travel

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