'Seeking truth from facts' in Tibet

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On our last night in Lhasa on a rare media visit here, some of us seek to find out how Tibetans feel about the Panchen Lama. The 14-year old boy was chosen by Beijing to one day replace the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader who fled in 1959. The Panchen Lama lives in Beijing under heavy wraps. We hear the Panchen is actually in Lhasa tonight, a block from our hotel - though he could be in the Himalayas high-fiving the abominable snowman, for all we are told by officials.

As night falls, we head for the Jokhang Monastery where the Panchen gave instruction and laid hands on monks earlier in the day, in a display of authority.

But at the monastery most monks wave us off. The question is a little dangerous. One elder does offer that "the Panchen Lama is not one of us, and the Dalai Lama is not here." He smiles as if to say, "that's all you really need to know."

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We wander through the narrow twisting alleyways of the old city in search of a "safe" place to talk.

At 11 p.m. we find an open shop, one in a row of cheap tea houses, some of dubious character, off Bharkar Street. The owner is Tibetan and came here ten years ago from northern Tibet. He immediately learned Chinese. He's not religiously pious, but says that Buddhism is part of his identity. He says that Tibetans must participate in the Chinese system or be further marginalized.

He is pushing his daughters to learn the Chinese language. He tells them this is the "only way they can survive." They are resistant. But he pays for a special school where all math and science classes are taught in Chinese.

The owner keeps our glasses full but warily says that politics is off limits for talking. But he does confirm that the Panchen is in town. He says that "only a third of us pay attention to the Panchen. He is not our leader."

On the way home we note the lack of tension in Lhasa. Unlike Xinjiang, the rugged province west of Tibet that is mainly ethnic Uighur and Muslim - there's no bad vibe in the air here. In southwest Xinjiang, where the main question among Uighurs is also "participation versus marginalization," there is a barely concealed and palpable anger on the street at times. Chinese police, and the few tourists there, are fidgety.

Not in Tibet. In some ways, the Dalai Lama's principled stance of non- violence has mediatedfeelings of collective upset, some colleagues say.

We have been here a week, and it seems clear that China will develop Tibet, come what may. Since Tibet is viewed as part of the Chinese motherland dating back thousands of years, Chinese assume the right to establish themselves here. They are investing millions of dollars a year on roads, schools, and training. In the small town of Bayi, for example, a large set of Western-style apartments are going up on an attractive campus. We were told that 70 percent of these subsidized flats will go to Tibetans. Still, some Chinese privately say that Tibetans are not grateful for such benefits from the government.

The next morning many in our group marvel at our final press conference. It is with the No. 2 official in Tibet, Wu JiLie. In every press event in Tibet, officials repeated to us the hope that we would "seek the truth through facts." The phrase is a famous one from former leader Deng Xiaoping.

Space does not allow for all of the contradictions and questions raised by the conference. Here's a sampling:

Our press group was told on Day 1 by the deputy mayor of Lhasa that it is illegal for Tibetan families to own personal photos of the Dalai Lama. The reason is that the Dalai Lama is a splittist who advocates subversion. When asked what legal code forbade the photos of the Dalai Lama, which most families keep tucked away, no answer was given.

Now the story has changed: It is not illegal for Tibetans to have a photo of the Dalai Lama. Mr. Wu tells our group that so few people in Tibet accept the Dalai Lama, that no one has his picture.

"That you cannot find photos of the Dalai Lama is a voluntary choice of a vast majority," Wu said. "The Dalai Lama has aroused the strongest revulsion among Tibetans and endangers the country and harms the Buddhist religion."

Next, the vice minister assures us there is not a single case of AIDS in Tibet. But he later notes that no testing of AIDS has been done in Tibet.

When asked about the large numbers of police and military guards posted at bridges, on highways, in the countryside, we are told the main purpose of these troops is not for security, but to "guard plants and endangered species." Later, on the bus to the airport, this particular answer gets many horselaughs among our group.

We also receive conflicting stories about special help given to those relocating in Tibet. In the deputy mayor's press conference we were told there are no special financial policies that aid Chinese coming from outside Tibet who want to start businesses here. The vice minister, however, tells us there are such policies.

As our group flew out of Lhasa, we contemplated further the necessity of seeking truth from facts.

The previous four parts in this series ran on Aug. 24 through Aug. 27.

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