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Chinese migrants change face of Tibet

Lobsang, a spare-framed Buddhist wearing a baseball cap, explains how

By Kevin PlattStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 1999


Lobsang, a Tibetan Buddhist wearing a baseball cap, doesn't want to live here anymore. He requested a transfer from Lhasa to a remote town near Mt. Everest. With this move, Lobsang seems to be breaking faith with not only millions of his Tibetan compatriots, but also centuries of tradition.

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"I had to get away because Lhasa was corrupting me," says the spare-framed, pensive young man of an act that would be akin to a Roman Catholic fleeing from the Vatican or a Muslim from Mecca.

Lobsang's homeland was long isolated from the rest of humanity by the planet's highest mountain ranges. But a massive influx of ethnic Chinese since the Red Army "liberated" the devoutly Buddhist region is changing the face of the "Roof of the World."

"It's possible that Tibetans are already a minority in Tibet's largest cities," says Tom Grunfeld, an expert on Tibet at Empire State College in New York.

The migration of Chinese settlers is transforming everything from Lhasa's outward appearance to the goals and values of young Tibetans, say both American and Tibetan experts.

"The growing Chinese influence on Lhasa and other cities is reflected in the changing architecture," as traditional Tibetan two-story homes are replaced by socialist, match-box high-rises and neon lights in Chinese characters that advertise new bars, massage parlors, and dance halls, Professor Grunfeld says. "There is a real danger that Tibetans will become a small minority in Tibet," and that their way of life will slowly fade into the past, he adds.

The new look

Tibetan pilgrims of every age and description, from young, scarlet-robed monks to elderly sheepskin-clad nomads to peasants donning long, purple-and-black cloaks, must make their way past prostitutes by night and armed police by day as they circumambulate the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, two of the holiest sites in Tibet.

The low, humming chants of Tibetan monks at prayer in small temples scattered throughout the city are often drowned out by Chinese disco music blasting from record stores, just as the flowing Tibetan script on prayer flags is being overwhelmed by oversize Chinese characters on billboards, government buildings, and billiards halls.

Lhasa, which Tibetans call "The Place of the Gods," has for hundreds of years been the center of the Tibetan spiritual universe. For countless generations, worshipers from throughout the Himalayan region have been drawn to the holy city, with many half-walking, half-prostrating as they trace ever-smaller orbits around the heart of Lhasa.

"It is the central act and hope of a lifetime for each Tibetan to make at least one pilgrimage to Lhasa," says Jigme La, a Tibetan exile who heads a refugee center in neighboring Nepal. "Religion is at the heart of Tibetan life, and Lhasa is the center point of Tibetan Buddhism."

Before Chinese troops crossed into Tibet in 1950, Lhasa had perhaps the highest concentration of Buddhist monks and monasteries in history. Each family was expected to send at least one son to a lamasery, and Buddhist beliefs and rituals dominated the lives of most Tibetans.