In what used to be the dungeons of the Potala Palace, once the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa and now a religious and tourist site, is an unusual museum. The Zhol jail, a place where disobedient or rebellious serfs and labourers were subject to horrific forms of torture, was once located here. Today, photographs, paintings, models, and sound effects are used to recreate the brutality of the ancien regime against those classes whose labour created and sustained the splendid monument that soars above.
The squalor, poverty and social hierarchies of Lhasa, captured vividly in black and white photographs of the 1940s and 1950s, belong to a historical phase now squarely in the past.
Today the Potala Palace overlooks a city of modern infrastructure and conveniences. It has attractive tree-lined avenues, a busy business district, hotels, cultural centres and open spaces like the 12.2 square km Lhalu wetlands, a protected marsh that acts as what our hosts refer to as “the kidneys” of the Lhasa urban area. The modernity of the capital bears the impress of a strong Tibetan stamp in architecture, dress, and cultural practice.
Apart from warm clothes and altitude sickness pills, a foreign visitor to Tibet usually carries baggage of another kind. This is a belief that the ‘real’ Tibet lies hidden somewhere beneath what the eye sees and the mind registers; that the well being and modernisation evident in contemporary Tibetan society is a sort of maya. This perspective has been shaped by a vast literature and propaganda offensive that has emanated over the years from within the support base of the 14th Dalai Lama. It comes in large part from people who have not set foot in Tibet, and has, unfortunately, many well-meaning adherents.
A report published this year by the Dalai Lama’s Dharamsala-based “Government-in-Exile” and titled Environment and Development in Tibet: A Crucial Issue (available on their website) has this to say: “China claims that Tibet is experiencing growth and prosperity, but the reality is that, under Chinese rule, Tibetans are impoverished, marginalised and excluded; the sensitive and globally important ecology of Tibet is deteriorating; and many plant and animal species face extinction.”
In fact, the fatal flaw of the report is that it has been written by people who have not visited their research area, for it is evident to any visitor’s eye that the allegations of the impoverishment, marginalisation, and exclusion of Tibetans are unsubstantiated.
I was part of a journalists’ delegation invited by the Chinese government to Tibet in July this year. To a visitor, the relatively high levels of living standards of people in the Tibet Autonomous Regions (TAR) are a striking feature of observable social life. In Lhasa, small towns and the villages of Tibet, there are no crowds of people ill, destitute, and unemployed — on the contrary, the overwhelming visual impression is of a population healthy and gainfully employed. Schools and universities hum with activity, and cultural assets like museums and ancient monasteries are treasured — these are but some marks of a society that is on the move.
Older Tibetans emphasise that life has changed beyond recognition since 1959, when the system of monastic feudalism presided over by the Dalai Lama was overthrown and over a million serfs were set free.
“I consider myself middling-prosperous,” says Zhuoga, the head of an eight-member farming family in Gapa, a village of 60 households, 10 km from Lhasa. She and her family members offer fruit, biscuits and Tibetan tea to her visitors in her warm and colourful sitting room decorated with Tibetan thangkas (religious scroll paintings) and carpets.
The Zhuoga household’s annual income of 20,000 yuan (roughly Rs. 140,000) comes from her oilseed and corn harvest, from the rent paid by vegetable farmers for land they lease from her, from a 500 yuan annual subsidy given by the Government, and from collective work she and the family put in on village projects. School education and health care are free. Although a Buddhist, she thinks the Dalai Lama “is not a good man” as he “masterminded” the disturbances of March 14th 2008. “We could not go to the city for work,” she said. “I was angry and scared.”
“Life now is like this,” says Pingtso Tashi giving a thumbs-up sign. “And before 1959 it was like this.” He holds up his little finger. This 58-year old dam inspector and farmer is the son of former serfs. “Today, hard work pays,” he said. Every village family owns land and the average individual land holding of the village is 3.8 mu (15 mu = 1 hectare)
A range of special preferential policies and measures for social and economic development apply to Tibet. There is a preferential taxation policy by which income tax in Tibet is three percentage points lower than elsewhere, and farmers and herdsmen are completely exempt from taxes and administrative charges. There is a preferential interest rate on bank loans, the rate being two percentage points lower in the TAR than in the rest of China.
Yang Chen and Deji, microbiologists working for a bio-pharmaceutical company in Lhasa, and their office colleagues, are part of a cheerful and spirited group of women dressed in formal western office wear who have come to see a photographic exhibition on Tibetan women at the Tibet museum in Lhasa. Asked about the exhibition and whether it reflects the progress of women in Tibet, Yang Chen says, “Yes it does. Today we are equal to men in every way.” She and Ms Deji have two daughters each, and hope that the girls will one day become doctors. The one-child norm does not apply to Tibetans and other ethnic minorities as it does to Han Chinese.
6 months ago