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Tibet: Economy vs. Culture

Tibet's Chinese rulers say the region is undergoing badly-needed economic growth and modernization. But some Tibetans are concerned that such progress is a threat to their ancient culture and language.

Monks chant Buddhist sutras at Jokang Temple, Tibet's most sacred shrine. Pilgrims walk here from all across the Tibetan Plateau, a sparsely populated area nearly the size of Western Europe, just to prostrate themselves at the front door. So many pilgrims have done this, so many times, over 13-centuries, that the big paving stones near the temple have been ground down and worn smooth by their hands, knees, and feet as they show their devotion.

Chinese troops took control of Tibet half a century ago. Since then Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile after a failed 1959 rebellion against rule from Beijing. He won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent struggle against Chinese rule of Tibet. Tibetan exiles complain the unique religion at the heart of their culture is being crushed by the region's Chinese rulers.

Disputes between the Chinese rulers and Tibet's devout Buddhists are nothing new, China's Cultural Revolution that ended in the mid-1970's, saw Red Guards (Communist zealots) damage or destroy thousands of Tibetan monasteries and shrines.

Thubten Samphel, speaking for the Tibetan government in exile in India, says today there is an even greater threat to Tibetan culture from Chinese immigrants flooding in from other parts of China. He says newcomers have different values and language and are changing Tibet's cities into copies of Chinese neighborhoods. He says careless economic development and urbanization make it hard for Tibetans to continue their traditional lives, based on herding, farming, and faith.

But officials of the Chinese-run government say they can accommodate newcomers and also preserve Tibet's unique form of Buddhism. They are spending millions of dollars to restore damaged monasteries, and offering school children classes in their native Tibetan.

These bright, eager Tibetan students are learning the language of their ancestors in Lhasa's Number One Primary School, where they also study the language's beautiful flowing script. But Principal He Yuangui says after the first couple of years of school, most classes in most subjects are taught in Chinese.

This presents Tibetans with the dilemma of learning their traditional language and preserving their ancient culture, or learning the language of the larger Chinese society, in the hope of lifting themselves out of the region's pervasive poverty.

Chinese language skills are important because Chinese immigrants generally have better business skills than Tibetans and they dominate the growing private economy in Tibet.

Head of the government tourism bureau, Zhang Wansheng, says hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Tibet each year, and a growing majority of them are Chinese. Nevertheless, he says native Tibetans are doing well in this key industry. Mr. Zhang says Tibetans hold many tourism jobs and are 50 percent of the owners and managers of this "pillar" industry, which is the fastest growing part of the economy. He says the government is doing all it can to preserve the Tibetan culture that attracts these profitable throngs of tourists, including a careful restoration of old town areas of Lhasa.

The economic changes are taking place as China's government is making a series of political concessions to Tibetan exiles and critics. In the past few months Beijing has released half a dozen Tibetan political prisoners, invited journalists and diplomats to the formerly restricted area, and held the first high level talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama in years.