Following Tibetan riots in 2008 that left parts of Lhasa in ruins, Frenchmen Eric Meyer and Laurent Zylberman were the only freelance journalists Beijing allowed into Tibet. They witnessed the friction between Han Chinese helping to usher in a modern culture and Tibetans seeking to hold on to centuries-old traditions.
Through a day-to-day narrative of their visit, analysis of what they saw, and in stunning black and white photographs, they portray changes, clashes and emotions in a new book: Tibet, The Last Cry.
Eric Meyer told VOA’s Jim Stevenson of both what he sees as lament and optimism for the future of Tibet.
The title of the book was a game of words because you could have two meanings. These two meanings in my view represent two possible futures of Tibet. “Last Cry” would be an agony of a land losing its culture. That is a claim of the exiles. On that I can follow them. I agree probably with them that Tibet is now at a crossroad with a true risk and danger of losing its identity. If Tibet can reconcile its two populations, now Tibet has about 40% Han Chinese and the rest of Tibetans, but also a lot of other small ethnic [groups]. There are frictions. They are normal. They will settle in a couple of generations and something new will happen. I saw it in nightclubs, for example, in Lhasa where you see a table of Han Chinese and the next table is Tibetans. The young people are in the same place having fun, not together, not yet, but they are on their way. The “Last Cry” is a high fashion, something that people would like to discover.
STEVENSON: You were able to go inside Tibet and have a look around. What is actually happening with the culture in Tibet? A lot of people online [in the West] are very alarmist saying that the culture is being crushed. What is the real state of Tibet today?
MEYER: When you see the plateau of Tibet, you see a huge space of grass. Fifty years ago, 80% of the population was traveling with their herds of yaks, sheep and goats. They were traveling hundreds or thousands of kilometers throughout this plateau grazing and feeding their animals.
As I was in Tibet, this 80% had dwindled down to 5%. This happened in two generations. That is the real problem. My assumption, which is corroborated by expats, is that this would have happened anyway. It had to happen in China or not because modern times needs schools, needs hospitals, needs to settle. These people have settled. They have done it very rapidly.
This brings about a cultural problem between kids and parents. Kids want blue jeans, which I have seen a lot. They want mobile phones, I have seen it a lot. They want on Saturday evening to go to the nightclubs and go dancing. This I have seen as well. The parents tend to wear more traditional dress and to still be on their horses. So they lose the lifestyle which made them very poor [economically] but rich in emotions and rich in events. Now they have to go to offices. They will have to conform themselves to city life. This in two generations.
There are also other problems which are political which cannot be denied. I want to stress the marvel of Tibet, the light of Tibet, this blue light is unique in the world. It is absolutely a place that should be visited.
STEVENSON: There has been some criticism I have seen among Tibetan groups outside of tourists going into Tibet. They are saying the tourists are in effect supporting Beijing’s view of what Tibet should be rather than what Tibet actually is. Is there anything really that tourists should be wary of going into the region?
MEYER: In my view this kind of idea is cold war and is not helpful. In Lhasa, the governor does not like too much to see foreigners coming in. The people of Lhasa would like to see you in. That is for sure. People coming to support or not support China, I think they want to discover the land. The land does not belong to China. It does not belong to the Dali Lama or to the exiles. It belongs to Tibet itself and it belongs to the world. It is simply beautiful. Foreign tourists are more or less accepted, especially if they come from outside from Nepal.