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Assimilating Tibet

Tibetans Get Ahead by Joining, Not Fighting, the Chinese System

October 9, 2002


LHASA, Tibet -- Tenzin, 20, a senior at Tibet University, isn't so sure Tibetans and Chinese can ever get along. He has no Chinese friends. He calls himself a Tibetan first and Chinese second. He likes to hang out in teahouses drinking butter tea and chatting about his favorite performers, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Backstreet Boys.

But Tenzin, like his friends, hopes to get a government job after graduation and join the Communist Party to better his chances of promotion.

Half a century after Communist troops took control of Tibet, China has crushed rebellions and invested heavily to develop this impoverished and remote plateau.

Tibet is one of China's most vexing domestic issues and one of the Western world's favorite causes. Pro-Tibet campaigners accuse China of cultural genocide, human rights violations and environmental destruction in this Himalayan region.

Yet these days, foremost on young people's minds is not protesting for a "Free Tibet" but how to make it in the system, however corrupt and unjust they may find it.

At 21, Tsering Namgyal has served two years in the Chinese military, gotten a job at a government agency and joined the Communist Party. He's saved enough to buy a motorcycle and relaxes on weekends in jeans and a jean jacket, smoking and chatting with friends.

"As a party member, it's easier to get ahead," he said.

Asked what he thought of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader denounced by Beijing as a separatist, he knows better than to answer: "Don't ask me what I have in my heart. I can't say."

Discussing the Dalai Lama, or anything political, is still taboo in Tibet. Surveillance cameras in some monasteries and on the Barkhor, the main square where Lhasa's major demonstrations and riots have taken place, reinforce the sense of fear. Most Tibetans interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity.

"You can commit murder and not go to jail if you know the right person," said a 20-year-old Tibetan art student at the university. "But say one wrong thing, and you'll be behind bars the rest of your life."

While the political climate remains tense, the economic mood is more buoyant. Beijing is pouring massive subsidies and investment into Tibet to develop badly-needed infrastructure and, it hopes, raise incomes and win over Tibetans.

"In Tibet it's like, make money, get rich," said Tsering Shakya, a Tibet scholar at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "As long as you don't talk about politics or human rights, you're allowed to do it."

And so Tenzin, who is thankful he won't have to plant crops or herd animals like his parents and 80 percent of the population of Tibet, thinks about how to get ahead.

What he sees is not a level playing field. Corruption and cronyism are rampant. Those with good connections -- whether Tibetan or Chinese -- obtain better jobs and face lower barriers getting into good schools or winning business contracts. Plus, ethnic Chinese, or Han, have an inherent advantage because of language -- most Tibetans learn Chinese as a second language.

A major source of resentment is the large-scale migration of Han, or ethnic Chinese, and Hui, or Chinese Muslims, to Tibet. Some are teachers and cadres sent by the government to help out, but most have come to seek their fortunes. They are taxi drivers from Sichuan province, Muslim butchers and rug-dealers from Qinghai province and, causing the greatest dismay to locals, prostitutes from all over.

Critics say Chinese migration is threatening Tibetan culture by diluting it. But officials says Tibet is an open place where Tibetans still make up more than 90 percent of the 2.6 million population.

"A closed country is a backwards country," said Degye, an official of Shigatse, Tibet's second-largest city. "Regardless of nationality, we welcome anyone to come to Shigatse -- for travel, tourism or investment."

While prostitutes are not officially welcome, they aren't being driven out either.

"We're now in the era of reform and opening," said a plainclothes police officer in Shigatse, where the streets are lined with brothels at night. "(Prostitutes) should be able to prosper, too. They rely on their flesh to get rich."

Still, the population question is one of the most sensitive in Tibet. When Degye, who like many Tibetans uses only one name, was asked the population of Shigatse at a press conference, she first pretended she didn't understand the question and then refused to answer it.

Later it was revealed Shigatse has 50,000 migrant laborers, outnumbering the permanent population of fewer than 40,000. And in Lhasa, migrants make up nearly half of the population of 320,000.

Schooling the two groups has become another point of contention. Han are not required to learn the local language, and almost none do. But Tibetans, in addition to Tibetan language classes, must do all other course work in Chinese.

"At some point they feel learning the Tibetan language is useless," said Tashi Tsering, a Lhasa resident who runs a charity building schools in rural Tibet. "They say, 'it's not feeding me."'

The payoff for mastering Chinese is a stable, well-paid government job. Salaries of public servants in Tibet, one of the poorest regions of China, are as much as double that of other provinces. Beijing calls it an "altitude subsidy."

Not only economically, but culturally and linguistically, Tibet is both opening up and being drawn closer to China. It has become trendy and even common to liberally sprinkle Chinese words into everyday spoken Tibetan. Students say having a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend is also fashionable. Pop influences from Nepal and India are nearly as prevalent as those from China and America.

For Tashi Tsering, the changes have been dizzying. Educated in India and the United States, he returned to China in 1964. In his 1997 autobiography, co-written with two professors at Case Western Reserve University and published in the United States, he writes about turning down pleas to work for the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, which he found elitist and out of touch with ordinary Tibetans.

Instead, Tsering decided to help modernize Tibetan society from within.

Now 73 and living in a small apartment just opposite the sacred Jokhang Temple, Tsering believes that problems between Tibetans and Chinese must be ultimately solved not with outside intervention but through dialogue.

"For a long time throughout history, we had relations," he said. "We are geographically tied together."

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