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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 00:39 GMT 01:39 UK
Tibet's hidden tensions
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes reports from Tibet, where he is on a Chinese Government tour to view the changes taking place there.

It is just after dawn in the Lhasa valley and tens of thousands of Tibetan pilgrims are streaming up a mountainside. Many have walked for days, even weeks to be here.

View of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet
Lhasa has been transformed in recent years
As the sun bursts over the mountain it reveals the object the pilgrims have come to venerate - a 40-metre (130-foot) image of the Lord Buddha.

I had been invited to Tibet by the Chinese Government.

They wanted me to see for myself, they said, the tremendous changes that are taking place there - how under Chinese rule a new Tibet is emerging, modern, prosperous and happy.

Looking at the throngs of pilgrims streaming up the mountainside it was easy to believe the Chinese Government propaganda.

But as our trip through Tibet continued a different picture began to emerge.

After a gruelling eight-hour bus ride from Lhasa we arrived in the small city of Shigatse to the south-west.

On the mountainside above the city the golden roofs of Tashilumpo monastery shimmer in the afternoon sunshine.

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In the candle-lit gloom of the great prayer hall fresh-faced young monks are chanting their sutras - more evidence of how free Tibetan religion is under Chinese rule.

Tashilumpo monastery
Tashilumpo monastery is a battleground
But beneath the calm exterior Tashilumpo monastery is a battle ground, where Tibet's Chinese masters are fighting to eradicate the influence of the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

I had been told by Tibetan exile groups that monks here are spied upon, that those who venerate the Dalai Lama are punished and that photographs of him are banned.

The Chinese authorities insist that is not true. So I went to find some ordinary monks to ask them.

In a back alley of the monastery I came across a group washing their clothes. At first they were friendly and willing to talk.

But as soon as I asked about the Dalai Lama the atmosphere changed. Monks who seconds before had been chatting away were suddenly struck dumb.

The fear was palpable.

New frontier

Leaving Tashilumpo we travelled another 300 kilometres east. The dirt road winds along lush green valleys, across raging rivers and up tortuous mountain passes.

Chinese police in Tibet
The security forces are keeping a close eye on Tibetans
Tibet is still one of the most remote and imposing landscapes on earth. For centuries its vast mountain ranges have kept the outside world at bay.

But that too is changing.

Our next stop is the modern market town of Zedang. In ten years it has grown from a tiny outpost to a bustling commercial centre of 60,000 people.

It is all new, and virtually all Chinese. Almost every single shop in Zedang is run by migrants, people who are flooding into Tibet from all over China.

In the market I meet a fruit seller from Henan, more than 1,000 miles to the east in central China.

Why on earth would she move all the way to Tibet? I ask her. "It's easier to do business here," she tells me.

The government in Beijing is encouraging China's teeming masses to look to Tibet as the new frontier, as a land of opportunity, and tens of thousands are taking up the call.

Beyond recognition

And what of the Tibetans? Well, the only ones I could find were a group of unemployed farm labourers squatting on a street corner looking for work.

"Is it easy to find work in Zedang?" I ask them. "No," they chorus.

The city doesn't look like Tibet anymore
Lhasa resident
"And what do you think of all the Chinese coming in here and setting up businesses?" I ask. They smile and shake their heads, it is not a question any are willing to answer.

Tibetans are still the majority here. But economically Tibetans are being marginalised.

As our bus rolls into Lhasa at the end of our journey we are greeted by the majestic sight of the Potala Palace sitting atop its rocky outcrop in the middle of the city.

This home of 14 Dalai Lamas still dominates the city skyline. But Lhasa is a city the Dalai Lama would hardly recognise.

In the heart of the old city pilgrims prostrate themselves outside the Jokang temple - more than 1,000 years old and by far the most sacred place in the whole of Tibet.

Many pilgrims have walked for months from every corner of Tibet to visit this holy site.

But today the Jokang is hemmed in by a sprawling modern city of concrete and glass. A mere stone's throw from the Jokang, the streets are lined with lurid plastic palm trees!


In a back street I meet Tseden Namgyal. He runs a small gallery making traditional hand painted Thangkas, religious paintings of the Buddha.

New Jokang courthouse
The new face of Zedang
Namgyal has watched as the city has changed around him, and he does not like what he sees.

"It's really bad," he tells me. "The city doesn't look like Tibet anymore. It just looks like any other city in any part of China. We don't like it at all."

The Chinese Government had invited us to Tibet to see for ourselves the rapid changes taking place here.

In particular it wanted us to see the economic development it believes is the key securing its rule here.

What we found was a Tibet riven by tensions, where reluctant acceptance of Chinese rule was tempered by fear, and by an enduring passion for the Dalai Lama.

And where Chinese immigration and economic imperialism nurtures growing resentment from a native population that feels increasingly marginalised in its own land.

China defends Tibet plans
10 Mar 03 |  UK
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06 Dec 02 |  Asia-Pacific
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05 Dec 02 |  Asia-Pacific
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30 Sep 02 |  Asia-Pacific
'Chinese' Panchen Lama appears on TV
10 Feb 02 |  Asia-Pacific


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