Tibetan perspectives on Lhasa today  

Personal view: Tibetan perspectives on Lhasa today

TIN News Update

London, 27 Dec - Tibet's capital, Lhasa, is a society in transition. Economic reforms and the process of modernisation, combined with continued hardline policies aimed at controlling Tibetan cultural and religious activities, have created a city where corruption co-exists with hard-nosed commercialism, where prostitution thrives in areas previously better known as places of spiritual pilgrimage and where citizens may own computers and widescreen TVs but not necessarily toilets or running water. Lhasa today has the atmosphere of a frontier town and a divided city. The following report reflects this complex picture. It is based on the views of Tibetans - officials, intellectuals and monks - whose knowledge of contemporary Lhasa is second to none. It does not represent one voice, but several disparate voices speaking to TIN at different times over the past few weeks.

The report reflects the issues that are currently of most concern to Tibetans living in Lhasa and beyond - particularly religious and cultural freedom, prostitution and corruption. The sources of the report bear witness to what they see as an undermining of Tibetan culture and a decline in moral standards in their city. The anecdotal accounts of corruption within the forestry department are vivid indications of the impact on Tibetans' lives of policies imposed from the top down and without consideration for the needs of local people. They also indicate the extent of corruption that exists within government departments.

It is interesting to note that the Tibetans whose views are expressed in this report see the recent appointment of Guo Jinlong as Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region as offering a breathing space following the transfer of hardliner Chen Kuiyuan, although they acknowledge that this lull may only be temporary, and that the same hardline policies are still in place. One of the Tibetans interviewed says that Guo Jinlong has ordered salary increases for government cadres and has called for more flexibility on religious practice than before. These moves may be a calculated attempt to address the dissatisfaction of Tibetan cadres and Party workers following the crackdowns on religion over the summer. The measures may also be aimed at reducing concerns among Tibetans over loss of status and competition for employment due to the continuing influx of Chinese migrants into the city, encouraged by current economic policies.

Restrictions on Religious Practice

" When Chen Kuiyuan was the TAR Party Chairman, the government adopted a very tight and restrictive control over political and religious matters throughout the region. All that was valuable and cherished by the Tibetan people such as religion and culture were denigrated and criticised in strong terms. He had ordered a compulsory ban on any form of association or involvement with religious faith and practice for Tibetan members of the Party, government and even retired workers and craftspeople.

" Families and individuals were prohibited from making any religious displays and offerings at home; from going to shrines and temples to make offerings and seek blessings; from making the long walk around the holy places of Lhasa, or attending or participating in incense burning rituals and ceremonies and so on.

" These bans were so strictly enforced that people found guilty of infringing these rules were immediately removed from their workplace, educational centre or whatever institution they belonged to. Others would have their salaries cut, their pension entitlements cancelled and so on.

" As a consequence, many people were too afraid to express their true religious feelings and sentiments in the open. Despite their deeply-rooted hatred of the Chinese government, the above-listed sanctions and punishments persuaded Tibetan cadres to hide their true feelings in order to survive.

" However, since the appointment of Guo Jinlong as the new TAR Party Chairman, the situation is changing. First of all, he has ordered salary increases for government cadres based on their length of service; increased their accommodation allowance; and made it possible for workers and craftspeople to be able to afford the cost of living as well as allowing retired workers and craftspeople to go on the holy circumambulation around Lhasa, display the traditional religious artefacts and make offerings. All these have had the effect of making the people feel a little more relaxed and breathe a sigh of relief.

" With regard to the administration and work style, the new Party chief has made decision-making less bureaucratic. Where key policy decisions and initiatives from the central government are concerned, he is delegating to the concerned department considerable responsibility for decision-making and implementation of central policies, whether in respect of the economy, finance or forward planning matters. In his public statements, indications have been made that departments will no longer need to refer every initiative and issue to the relevant line manager for authorisation. They may be allowed greater decision-making power and be able to show initiative according to the demands of the situation.

" [However] the older generation of Tibetans do not enjoy the kind of religious freedom they used to enjoy in the past. Nowadays, they are rather cautious about revealing their religious beliefs or participating in celebrations for fear of damaging the future prospects of their children. Apart from walking around the traditional Lingkor circuit of the holy places in Lhasa, the elders are apprehensive about any conspicuous display of religious fervour. The number of elderly Tibetans going on pilgrimage or day offerings at nearby monasteries such as Ganden, Drepung or Sera has dwindled.

" The Tibetan youth in Lhasa are no longer as excitable or daring as they used to be. No longer can one find young people gathered in tea-houses, cafes and restaurants and other public places, openly and freely talking about the issues of the day such as the current social conditions, the international news gleaned from foreign broadcasts or the visits and talks of HH the Dalai Lama, and other international news.

" Instead, today's youth are more likely to be concerned about their office work, school education, employment prospects or lack of them, salaries and the realities of obtaining food, shelter and clothing. It's very unusual now to find them talking in public about anything contentious or political that might be interpreted as being seditious or detrimental to the friendship between the Tibetan and Chinese nationalities, or anything that might be interpreted as being too nationalistic - much less criticising or denouncing the leaders of the Chinese government.

" In fact, in isolated cases where a Tibetan youth gets drunk in a drinking house and sings an assortment of Tibetan songs, he is likely to be whisked away for interrogation by the Public Security Bureau cadres, checked for possession of [banned] Tibetan audio-recordings and, quite often, beaten up severely.

Prostitution in Lhasa

" These days, in Lhasa city alone, it is reported that there are over 7,000 unemployed Tibetan girls who are working as prostitutes. Girls aged about 15 as well as women aged about 45 are to be seen touting for customers around the traditional Lingkor circuit and the public parks normally used for picnics and family outings.

" The majority of these prostitutes are girls who cannot afford to attend school or those who have tried to do some sort of small business but failed to meet the challenges of the fiercely competitive market, or those with no education or marketable skills.

" Feeling for the plight of these prostitutes and saddened by the rapid moral decline of Lhasa society, many respectable and responsible older Tibetans have made numerous representations to the city government authorities to clean up the sordid market of prostitution and restore moral and social values and cultural dignity to Lhasa city.

" However, on the few occasions that some token action is taken to investigate and arrest culprits, the losers are invariably the Tibetan prostitutes. There are more Tibetan than Chinese prostitutes. When a vice-squad plans a raid or surprise action, Chinese prostitutes usually get tipped off by their contacts in government departments and leave the city temporarily. It is then the Tibetan prostitutes who get arrested and prosecuted or fined. There are cases of high-ranking Chinese leaders ordering the release of an arrested Chinese prostitute.

" When the official crackdown starts to relax, the Chinese prostitutes return and the trade resumes as normal. In fact, instead of paying attention to the complaints of many citizens against the ever-expanding social evil of prostitution, the government is actually condoning and even encouraging it. A leader of the Lhasa City Revenue Department made a specially arranged televised speech in which he said: "Although there are many prostitutes in Lhasa, they are making a huge contribution to the government coffers through taxes." Thus, with this speech, instead of discouraging prostitution he has made all other government initiatives against prostitution 'toothless' and even encouraged the brothel business to be more daring.

Corruption within the forestry department

" These days, when all forms of corruption, bribery and embezzlement are rife, the most widespread examples of this can be found in the forestry and timber business. The department called the TAR Forestry Department is responsible for the management of all forests in the region.

" In the wake of the wide-scale deforestation of many forest areas of Tibet over a period of many years, this forestry department was created to manage and save the remaining forest cover of Tibet. The department was given overall control and authority with regard to forestry and forest products. For any kind of logging work and transportation of timber, prior permission and Authorisation Certificates must be obtained from this forestry department.

" This has given the department the best of opportunities to accept bribes. Thus, officially, logging and trade in timber are prohibited in the forest regions of Tibet such as Kongpo [Ch: Gongbu] and other areas. However, if you can manage to pay bribes ranging from RMB 5,000 to RMB 50,000 (US$600 to $6,000) to the right officer in the forestry department, an Authorisation Certificate can be obtained which would allow the logging and transportation of timber ranging from 30 to 100 lorry loads. Once you have the Authorisation Certificate, there is no one to stop you from transporting the timber to anywhere for sale for a massive profit. Most of this timber goes to China. Some of such illegally obtained timber is also sold in Lhasa.

" As a result, in Lhasa alone there are quite a few people who are engaged in the illegal timber trade, obtaining such certificates through bribes. Therefore, the Chinese and Tibetan senior officials of this forestry department are the key beneficiaries from this illegal but lucrative trade.

" On the other hand, the local Tibetan inhabitants, particularly those who used to be dependent on the forest for their livelihood and have been adopting afforestation methods to sustain the supply of wood and timber, are now being forced out of work. They are required to obtain permission even to get wood for home use such as building a house or making furniture. The application has to be made through the local office of the forestry department and they have to pay all the charges set by the government. They are also required to plant exactly the same number of trees as those that are cut.

" In short, Tibetans have no special rights or privileges with regard to their local forest resources. They have to apply for permission like any other customer from outside. In fact, in many respects, Chinese nationals coming from outside enjoy more privileges and exemptions than the local Tibetan inhabitants ".



To the start page