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Tibet: In the crosshairs and at a crossroads

Using economic and political pressure, China tries to persuade Tibetans to leave the past behind, writes ROD MICKLEBURGH

Globe and Mail Update

Thubten Samdup recalls little of the harrowing, 32-day trek he made across a frigid landscape as a 10-year-old in 1959, fleeing his mystical, mountainous Tibetan homeland.Tibet's revered spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, had escaped into northern India earlier that year. So Mr. Samdup's parents gathered a few treasured possessions and set out to join him and his followers in their uncertain asylum.

"I just remember my eyes became infected because of the snow," says Mr. Samdup, now a manager with a flight simulator company in Montreal. "It was so bright, I will never forget it. I also remember being very frightened.

"But when his holiness the Dalai Lama left, my parents simply felt there was no longer any hope in Tibet."

Forty-five years later, hope is still in very short supply for those who dream of a Tibet free from the stranglehold of China's authoritarian rulers.

While the world justly celebrates China's incomparable economic achievements over the past decade, Tibet continues to be a dark chapter, a reminder that China, when it chooses, remains a very hard country.

Almost every aspect of Tibetan life - religion, education, language - is under the thumb of Chinese authorities. When Tibet is quiet, as it is now, controls are relaxed. The moment there is a whiff of dissent, the clamps come down and the prisons fill up.

Although the countryside is still resolutely Tibetan, the look and character of Tibet's towns and cities are being changed by a huge wave of ethnic Chinese businesses and migrants, encouraged by tax incentives and easing of residence requirements.

Not only does Chinese dominate commerce in Tibet, it is also the language of all education past elementary school. For many young Tibetans, lacking their parents' devotion to Buddhism and keen to have a good life, the future is China.

"They think Tibetan is unfashionable and unhip," says long-time Tibet watcher Robert Barnett of Columbia University in New York City. "Their education after ages 12 or 13 is all in Chinese, so they have difficulty expressing complex ideas in Tibetan. They use Chinese instead."

In such a hostile environment, it is difficult for Tibet's unique brand of Buddhism to survive, yet alone thrive. Preserving a Tibetan identity separate from China is even tougher.

Now there is a new threat. Within the next three years, a train will glide into a gleaming new railway station in Lhasa, completing one of the most remarkable projects undertaken anywhere and effectively ending Tibet's reputation as an isolated Shangri-la.

Railways change countries. They open them up to new development, but they often doom the indigenous way of life.

Many fear that will happen in Tibet, that the audacious 1,100-kilometre railway from Golmud in western Qinghai to Lhasa, over permanently frozen tundra and through high Himalayan passes, will be a steel stake through the heart of Tibet's rich culture.

"They say the same thing again and again: 'It's going to bring in the wrong sort of people.' And by that they mean ethnic Chinese," says Mr. Barnett.

Yet no society can close the door and turn its back on economic development if it wants to prosper. China has been pouring money into the region in recent years, boosting Tibet's GDP by an average of 12 per cent a year since the turn of the century.

Much of the money has gone into badly needed infrastructure projects, particularly roads. But substantial funds have also been spent on health, education and restoring temples and approved heritage sites, such as the magnificent Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama, that still towers on a cliff-top over Lhasa.

Chinese authorities hope that improved living conditions and affluence will lessen Tibetans' yearning for more autonomy and their continued allegiance to the Dalai Lama.

And many Tibetans are indeed torn between the lure of development and the risk to their traditional way of life. A monk at the renowned Tashilunpo monastery sums it up to a group of visiting journalists: "We have enough to eat and enough clothes, but our spirits are heavy."

A major problem is that China decides what is good for Tibet, not native Tibetans. For instance, the spokesman for the religious affairs commission in one of the most devout and spiritual regions in the world is a Chinese atheist named Zhang Leying.

Earlier this year, Mr. Zhang proclaimed himself an expert on Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, he said, no longer has any qualifications to be a Buddhist. "Everything he does is a violation of the spirit of morality that a Buddhist should follow and a contravention of Buddhist discipline."

Meanwhile, pictures of the Dalai Lama are banned, prospective monks must denounce him as a "splittist," and Tibetan government officials and students - at least a quarter of the adult population - are prohibited from practising Buddhism.

"The Chinese are continually telling everybody, and a lot of governments in the West are quite happy to believe it, that they allow freedom of religion," says Mr. Barnett. "But every Tibetan knows this is a complete lie. It's a very nasty game that the Chinese play."

The situation is not totally bleak. High-level talks have resumed between China and envoys from the exiled Dalai Lama, promoted perhaps by the coming 2008 Summer Olympics and China's desire to cover as many of its political black eyes as possible.

Much as he welcomes these discussions, Mr. Samdup fears he will suffer the same fate as his parents: Both of them died in Dharamsala, centre of the exiled Tibetan community in India, without seeing their homeland again.

"I'm hoping I will see Tibet before I die. I want to see where my parents were born. I want my kids to see it. But it is still very risky. I just don't know if it will happen."

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