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Preparing Tibet for the Olympics

By Lindsey Hilsum

Updated on 28 August 2007

With the Beijing Olympics less than a year away, Chinese investment is transforming traditional life in Tibet.

The Jokhang Temple, the spiritual heart of Tibet. Dawn comes late, because the Chinese government insists that everywhere it controls keep the same time as Beijing, even Lhasa, 1600 miles to the west.

Pilgrims and monks do their kora - a clockwise circuit round the 7th century temple, prostrating themselves before the Buddha. Western tourists, and these days a growing number of Han Chinese, watch the religious devotion which characterises Tibetan Buddhists.

"Now the railway's running, there's a sharp increase in both tourists and business people from home and abroad."
He Ben Yun, Development and Reform Committee

Most of the time, though, Chinese tourists and visiting dignitaries take pictures of each other. It's a popular spot, against the backdrop of the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's seat until he fled Chinese rule and went into exile 48 years ago - or just as they arrive, in front of the railway station, built to look like Potala. Two and a half million people visited Tibet last year and the railway's expected to bring 80 per cent more this year.

"Now the railway's running, there's a sharp increase in both tourists and business people from home and abroad. It works with the principle of the market economy. I think it's good. Nowhere can develop in isolation." - He Ben Yun, Development and Reform Committee

Much of Lhasa increasingly looks like - well, any small city in China - steadily, rapidly the government is integrating Tibet into the Chinese economy, making it ever more difficult for what it calls "splittists", those who proclaim independence, to have any impact.

"Tibetan culture is an exotic flower among Chinese cultures. It has existed for more than 2000 years. But - as Marxism says - we should keep the good things of a culture and remove the bad." - He Ben Yun, Development and Reform Committee

Everywhere in Tibet, we were accompanied by officials - journalists aren't free to go where they want, and many Tibetans fear the consequences of talking to foreigners. So we met the dissident Tibetan writer Woeser at a small monastery in the neighbouring province of Qinghai. a devout Buddhist, she was expelled from her work unit in Lhasa after praising the Dalai Lama. Her writing is banned in China.

"When they built the railway and brought in the train, Tibetans had no say in it at all. Real autonomy involves democratic discussion - do the majority of Tibetans want the train? How do they want the railway to be built? We're forced to take something - we're told it's good, that we're being treated kindly. This is colonialist. The colonised people are supposed to be grateful. But how much do they really benefit?" - Woeser, Tibetan writer

The railway runs through the Tibetan countryside -15,000 feet or more above sea level. They call it the roof of the world. It cuts through the grasslands where Tibetan nomads have grazed their yaks for centuries, living off yak milk butter and meat. But Tibet is changing.

In the last year, 25,000 families have been settled into what the government calls new socialist villages in five years, the government plans to build new houses for 80 per cent of Tibetan nomads and farmers.

There's no question that the new socialist villages are more comfortable than the nomadic camps and huts where people used to live. And many young Tibetans welcome the opportunity to go to school and the possibility of paid employment.

But gathering people together like this makes it much easier for the Chinese Communist Party to control Tibetans, and that's something which has always been a challenge for the government in Beijing.

Last month, the government banned lamas from reincarnating without permission - a law which might be a little hard to enforce

In Sangbasa, about 50 miles north of Lhasa, local officials took us to meet one of the beneficiaries - two of her six children are still herders but others have joined the modern economy as the government wants. She however still churns the yak milk tea in the old way

"With help from the Communist Party of China, we have started a happier life, without many worries." - Suo Nang Zhou Ma, Tibetan herder

The County Chief denies that they're forcing Tibetans to give up their traditional way of life:

"New settlements provide herders better living conditions. Their lives are greatly improved. They can live in the settlements in winter and herd their animals in summer. Then they can go on herding and enjoy a modern life at the same time." - Huang Qian Min, County chief

We took the train to Qinghai over the high pass and onto the plateau. The government is building settlements for Tibetans in towns - you might call them ghettos. Some Tibetans have been told they must stop herding completely because of ecological pressure on the grasslands - but what's there to do when you've sold all your yaks? Just play pool - families are given a house and about £70 a month as welfare. At first, most enjoy the novelty.

"It's good, especially for the children who can't go to school in the herding area. They can learn literature and mathematics here. For us adults, it's also more convenient - we just hang around doing nothing in the sun." Xiang Mu Lu, former herder

But eventually the welfare payments will dry up and the danger is the Tibetans - who rarely have the business skills of the Han Chinese - will become an underclass.

"They signed up to the move, looking forward to living like the city people they see on TV. At first, they have money from selling their animals plus money given by the government. But over time, their money is used up. They learn to spend money like city people but they don't have the skills to make money like city people." - Woeser

They've left their sacred sites and stupas behind, so lamas come to hold services in the new settlements. Religion has always been the centre of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule.

"Dalai Lama is not only a religious, but also a national leader. His international influence makes Tibetans proud"
Woeser, Tibetan writer

Last month, the government banned lamas from reincarnating without permission - a law which might be a little hard to enforce. Following the exiled Dalai Lama is banned too so I won't say where we saw this - nor where we found children, openly demonstrating the loyalty that most Tibetans feel despite government restrictions.

"Dalai Lama is not only a religious, but also a national leader. His international influence makes Tibetans proud. People are proud to prove that they're not like the Communist propaganda which says Tibetans are backward and dirty." - Woeser, Tibetan writer

"The government fully respects ethnic customs. But we will help the people remove bad or backward habits, and lead them towards a civilized life. As a result, they will keep their ethnic characteristics while adding elements of science and civilization." - He Ben Yun, Development and Reform Committee

Back in Lhasa, it's the Yoghurt Festival, an ancient rite commemorating the end of a period of meditation. The faithful carry a giant thankga - a picture of the Buddha, Sakyamuni - out of the Drepung monastery. This year there are nearly as many tourists as pilgrims.

Down in the main square, the government celebration has a more Chinese than Tibetan flavour every year, hundreds of cadres from around the country are sent to Tibet to supervise projects and investments from across China and to keep an eye on the Tibetans. For some reason the officials are sporting baseball caps from Amway, an American pyramid selling company.

Mammon competes with Buddha - the Yoghurt Festival Real Estate Show features ambitious plans for luxurious apartment blocks in Lhasa. Companies from all over China are encouraged to build here, as more Han Chinese move in.

Pilgrims gather on the hill, waiting for the thangka to be unfurled - a holy rite, a display for tourists. China has ruled Tibet for more than half a century. As more Tibetans adopt a modern way of life, it's easier for the Chinese Communist Party to decide where and how Tibetans live - but it still can't control what they believe.

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