Sunday, July 31, 2005

The New Tibet?

Special to The Japan Times

The Japan Times: July 31, 2005

BRUSSELS -- Any visit to Tibet is liable to leave you breathless.

At Tibetan altitudes, oxygen is only 60 percent of what it is at sea level, with the
result that it takes several days to acclimate. Yet it is clear from the start that Tibetan reality, at least on the surface, is very different from its image in the West.

Towns and cities are grids of paved streets linedwith multistory blocks with Chinese and Tibetan labels. In the countryside, Tibetan two-story courtyard houses cluster among monasteries and temples. The number of construction cranes -- as in China -- shows that the economy is booming. Just as a rising tide lifts all ships, Tibet, which constitutes one-eighth of China's land area but only a quarter of 1 percent of China's population, is benefiting.

The 40th anniversary of Tibet's "liberation" is approaching.

Since September 1965, the gross domestic product has grown 15-fold. China, partly due to international attention and interest, has pumped people and money into the economy.

In the past 10 years 1 billion euro has been invested by the central government into infrastructure and services. This year Tibet will finally have a rail link with China. Ninety-five percent of children attend school, and the number of people living below the poverty line has shrunk from nearly half a million to less than 70,000 in 10 years, according to local officials.

Almost a quarter of a million Chinese professionals are in Tibet, and the newspapers reported that 250 new graduates from Beijing's university of geology had just volunteered to go there in September. Chinese President Hu Jintao himself spent four years there.

The consequence is that Tibet's GDP has grown 12 percent a year for the past four years, as nearly 200 million euro of foreign direct investment flowed into brewing, pharmaceuticals and tourism. Revenues for the tourist industry exceeded 100 million euro for the first time in 2003.

Tibet has been opened up for Western tourists, as evidenced by the bustling market around Lhasa's Jokhang temple, where you can buy Tibetan jewelry and yak bells, Buddhist robes and paintings. The monasteries and temples are full of worshippers with no obvious impediments to religious freedom. The only problem in major temples is the conflict between tourists and worshippers, as crowds jostle for position in front of a kaleidoscopic cocktail of Buddhas, each with its own brand of salvation. Longevity seems more popular than the infinite void.

In the famous Potala Palace in Lhasa, maroon-robed "Leama" -- in the absence of any Chinese assistance -- explained in perfect English that he had traveled last year toNepal and India to visit monasteries and temples. He complained that it had taken him a long time to get a passport and permission, but that he had been able to speak with the Dalai Lama. In another temple, as worshippers added ghee to dozens of candle holders and tossed small-denomination notes in front of their Buddhas of choice, a monk, again in faultless English, discussed the merits of the English soccer team and Michael Owen's future role. Owen is currently prominent in Tibet, his face advertising the chronographic merits of a particular brand of Swiss watch.

If Tibetan Buddhism seems to be flourishing -- and the Chinese acknowledge that it was repressed during the excesses of the Cultural Revolution -- the same can be said for Tibetan medicine.

Chinese, Tibetan and Western medicine are available by choice. After seeing some fearsome Tibetan medical instruments, including one for bleeding the tongue, my enthusiasm went West. But clearly the local population has made a different choice. Hundreds were at a Tibetan hospital watching doctors perform a series of complex rites to ensure the efficiency of their medicine.

Senior monks and lamas chanted in a daylong ceremony. Herbs and animal parts are collected when the Tibetan astronomical calendar indicates it auspicious to do so, and prescriptions are given based on the date of birth and urine taste. A prescription for high blood pressure consisted of three different sets of tablets: four in the morning, one in the afternoon and four in the evening. The World Health Organization is said to be enthusiastic about Chinese medicine's herbal cure for malaria. Elsewhere, a Buddhist religious artifact has just been used to calculate the weather for each day of next year.

At the moment the outlook appears settled. Driving around shows evidence of Chinese concern. The police and military are unobtrusive but present, which is not much different elsewhere in China. Bridges have guard posts, and whited-out graffiti from time to time decorates the walls of public buildings. In the 21st century, Chinese thought control is gone. You can think as you will; the crime is to organize.

In Lhasa, independence activists are having as tough a time as trade-union organizers in Beijing -- a good reason why the European Union should intensify its human-rights dialogue with China, and why one welcomes the ongoing dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Chinese authorities.

Despite the economic success story, man does not -- entirely --live by bread alone.

Glyn Ford, a member of the European Parliament (Labour Party Southwest England) was a guest in Tibet of the Chinese government. This article was picked up from the World Tibet News Network.