Chinese migrants change face of Tibet

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

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.

"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.

Each simple, black-and-white house in Lhasa was festooned with man-made rainbows of multicolored prayer flags, massive monasteries were built at the foot of mountains surrounding the city, and prayer wheels were deployed along the nearby Kyi Chu River. All were designed to generate a constant dialogue with the gods, and to guide the thoughts and actions of Tibetan mortals.

Yet today Lobsang compares parts of Lhasa to a moral black hole that can swallow the unwitting who venture too close.

"Many of my friends have begun wasting away their nights in [Lhasa's] discos, karaokes, or bars, and some are unlikely to escape from that kind of life," he says in explaining his decision to move as far away from the Tibetan capital as possible.

As more Chinese move in, market-savvy entrepreneurs are joining the trend "to cater to the needs of the dominant ethnic group," Grunfeld says. "This new group is re-creating the place - each day in Lhasa there are more Chinese shops, more Chinese movies, more Chinese television, more Chinese newspapers."

Roots in the revolution

While Tibetan culture is now threatened by Chinese migrants and market economics, it began with a much more direct assault during the radical reign of Chairman Mao Zedong.

During Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Red Guard stormtroopers pillaged many of Tibet's lamaseries, detained countless monks, desecrated Buddhist icons and scriptures, and punished with force any public sign of religious belief.

A period of limited liberalizations following Mao's passing helped trigger not only a Buddhist revival, but also growing calls for Tibetan independence.

Since security forces opened fire on largely peaceful protesters, led by young monks in Lhasa 10 years ago, the Communist Party has reimposed many controls on Tibet's clerical life.

A multimillion-dollar restoration of the Potala Palace, from which generations of Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet's Buddhist theocracy, has included the installation of surveillance cameras throughout the red-and-white hilltop structure in central Lhasa.

At the nearby Jokhang Temple, a party-controlled "management committee" keeps watch over monks and pilgrims alike, and similar security groups have been installed in religious centers throughout Tibet.

Yet many Tibetans say the biggest threat to their way of life is being presented by the steady march of Chinese values, practices, and pastimes into what is ironically called the Tibetan Autonmous Region.

"The foot of the Potala Palace is now surrounded by brothels, nightclubs, and mahjong parlors," says Bhuchang Tsering at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, a rights monitoring group. "We are concerned that more and more young Tibetans are being tempted by the very worst aspects of Chinese culture."

Lobsang, meanwhile, spends many nights in a small guesthouse near the far-off border with Nepal listening to the same song over and over.

"Going Home to Lhasa," a recent pop hit that is sung in Chinese, "makes me nostalgic about my hometown," he says. "But I am afraid I will never be able to return to the Lhasa where I grew up."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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