On the station platform a group of retirees are posing for photos, pumping their fists and shouting “Lhasa” with every snap of the shutter. “Lhasa, Lhasa, Lhasa,” they chant.
Their backdrop is an olive-green train carriage that will take them from the western Chinese city of Chongqing to the Tibetan capital. It’s a journey of 42 hours over three days and, in recent years, it has become a rite of passage for the country’s youth and a late-life adventure for retirees.
But it is also a patriotic journey – a demonstration of how the dominant Han Chinese have conquered the restive western province of Tibet.
The train line to Lhasa, snaking through the arid north of China before heading south across the grasslands of Qinghai and then climbing into Tibet, is a symbol of Beijing’s colonisation. Opened in 2006, it is the world’s highest railway, an item on the bucket list of train spotters and a feat of indigenous engineering often championed by Beijing. But it is also despised by many Tibetans for opening up their land to further influences from the Chinese state.
Knowing a little of such tension, I have been trying to make this journey for the last four years. Through a combination of luck and subterfuge, in early September, I find myself on Z223 from Chongqing to Lhasa. The 3394-kilometre journey, across five provinces, is only possible as China’s Foreign Ministry is hosting a rare press trip to Tibet.
Playing the frail foreigner, I have pleaded altitude sickness, arguing a slow ascent to Lhasa, which sits at 3700 metres, rather than going by plane would be best for my “condition”. After dispelling worries about the journey’s length and the train’s general lack of amenities, I am granted permission.
For a foreign journalist it is a rare opportunity; Tibet is one of the most closed reporting zones in the world. It is more restricted even than the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, which at least has an Associated Press bureau these days. At best, 20 members of the foreign press corps are allowed to visit Tibet for a week each year, under the tight supervision of the Foreign Ministry. But an annual trip is not guaranteed and indeed, over the last decade, just four groups of China-based foreign journalists have been allowed into the province.
Once there, some independent reporting is permitted, although travel is highly restricted. We discovered this in the eastern Tibetan city of Nyingchi on the last day of our tour when a police road block was erected to prevent a group of us visiting a 1200-year-old Buddhist monastery. (See breakout below: The Disappearing Monastery.)
At the same time, it remains dangerous for Tibetans to speak out – one activist is facing 15 years’ jail for advocating greater teaching of the Tibetan language in an interview with The New York Times last year. It was with this rarity of opportunity in mind that I boarded an early morning flight from my base in Shanghai to the wartime capital of Chongqing.
From there, it was a $10 taxi ride to the train station and a three-hour wait. Everything went smoothly until boarding time. But the sight of a foreigner on the Lhasa platform taking photos of excited tourists apparently aroused suspicion. The guards, keen to prevent an unauthorized visitor slipping into Tibet, asked again for my travel documents, which included a letter of authorization from the Foreign Ministry.
“Have you got permission to travel?” they barked.
Two hurried phone calls later and I was allowed to board, but no sooner had this happened than someone higher up the chain apparently got nervous. Just before departure, another group of guards asked for my documents and, after more shouting and a phone call to my minders in Beijing, the matter was settled.
With permission from the capital, the guards relaxed and I was shown to my “hard sleeper”, a cabin two metres wide with six bunk beds. My travel companions for the next three days were a young couple from Chongqing and three university students from the same city. They were typical modern day backpackers, with their skinny jeans and designer trainers. One even clutched a Chanel handbag.
As the train pulled out of the station, they laughed nervously, took selfies and sent WeChat messages, in an atmosphere that was typically loud, but unusually jovial for a journey in China. But no sooner had the train left to the strains of a classical tune, than it became obvious that everything on this trip would be political.
Show of obedience
The magazine rack at the entrance to each sleeper was the first hint . It contained a glossy called China’s Tibet, where the possessive apostrophe left passengers in no doubt about the ownership of Tibet, and Beijing’s attitude towards independence. It is a phrase I would see repeatedly over the next week in Tibet on everything from billboards to pamphlets. It confirmed that while China’s military occupation of Tibet may be less visible these days and security controls have been loosened ever so slightly, the propaganda war remains in full swing.
Every sign, temple tour, theatre production and utterance by a government official during our week-long visit was tailored to Beijing’s line that Tibet has always been part of China.
“Enhance ethnic solidarity and build a beautiful China’s Tibet,” reads a banner strung across the main street of Lhasa. In addition, the five-starred red flag of China hangs from almost every shop front and rooftop, even in the remotest of villages – something not seen in most other parts of the country.
Equally unusual are photos of President Xi Jinping and the four previous Communist Party leaders that dot the streets of Lhasa and were on display in many of the homes we visited. It is hardly subtle and a show of obedience usually only associated with Middle Eastern dictators and central Asian strongmen.
But it’s the phrase, “China’s Tibet”, which most neatly captures Beijing’s attitude to its second largest province. It implies that the 1951 takeover of Tibet, then independently governed, was not an invasion but the simple and correct return of an area over which China had exercised “jurisdiction” since the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century.
It was a “peaceful liberation”, the vice-chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Penpa Tashi, said when welcoming the foreign press corps to Lhasa. “It was a great leap from darkness to light … from dictatorship to democracy,” he said, invoking the idea of China’s “people’s democracy”.
While varnished with the usual dogmatic certainty of a Party official, his comments are not without some historical basis. Prior to the Communist takeover, Tibet was run like a feudal state with the Dalai Lama as the king and top religious leader, supported by a land-owning nobility, which on some estimates numbered just 300 families.
“The freedom of serfs and semi-slaves was an historical moment for Tibet,” Penpa said.
Province’s economy growing fast
His often repeated claim that 95 per cent of the Tibetans were indentured labour is a highly disputed point, but there is no denying that Communist rule has brought development and modernity to the province. According to official figures, Tibet has enjoyed 23 years of double-digit economic expansion and was China’s fastest growing province last year with a rate of 11 per cent.
But in building modern infrastructure, housing, shopping malls and hospitals, the Party has struck the same bargain with Tibetans as it has for the rest of the country – economic growth in exchange for the curtailment of political rights and religious freedom.
“Tibetan autonomy has gradually been hollowed out,” says James Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University and an expert on Beijing’s ethnic relations policies.
And while China’s sovereignty over Tibet is an issue Australia and others accepted when they recognised Beijing, not Taipei, as the legitimate government of the mainland in the 1970s, the issue of independence is never far from the surface. It is kept alive by the Dalai Lama’s high profile internationally and through Tibetan groups in exile.
Partly in response to this, Beijing has embarked on a campaign to develop Tibet through tourism in recent years, in the hope of legitimising its rule through higher living standards.
The train to Lhasa is a central part of this strategy and, in this area, the figures are stark. In 2016, a record 8 million tourists are forecast to visit Tibet according to government figures, 11 times more than before the railway was opened a decade back. More than 95 per cent of these are Chinese. It is difficult and relatively expensive for foreign tourists to visit; they require a travel pass and must be accompanied by a guide.
For a province of just 3.2 million people, this influx is at times as overwhelming as it sounds.
“Tourism in Tibet is a double-edge sword,” says Leibold. “On the one hand, it brings in money, but on the other it is another element of Chinese cultural imperialism which erodes Tibetan language, identity and religion.”
Tempted by adventure
During my first evening on the train, I get chatting to one of these tourists, Liu Bo, sitting in the buffet car with its white lace table cloths, plastic flowers and orange bench seats. He’s a software engineer from Beijing, making the trip with his parents but sees no link between tourism and politics.
“I don’t think about the politics,” he says over our dinner of salty fried pork with rice. “I am just going for the views. I am not going to disrupt the way of life or culture [of the Tibetans].”
By this stage, we were past the industrial outskirts of Chongqing, which claims to be the world’s largest city with a population of 32 million people, and into the fertile countryside of neighbouring Sichuan Province. The low hills are planted with trees, rice is cultivated on the flat lands and the occasional flock of geese can be seen through the window.
Returning to our conversation Liu says he was not taught much about Tibet at school. “We were shown a map and told Tibet belonged to China,” he says. “Young people don’t care about the politics they just go [to Tibet] for the adventure.”
The attraction is easy to see. In a country where development has taken precedence over all else, Tibet is relatively unspoilt. Even in China’s remote north-west, development is an ever-present part of my view from the train.
On the second day, after a surprisingly good night’s rest in the “hard sleeper” with its thin mattresses and minimal head room, the locomotive is still forging north through Gansu Province, a region of semi-arid soils, eroded gullies and exposed hill tops. The occasional corn crop and vineyard can be seen on the flat ground, but this is interrupted by high tensile power lines, petro-chemical plants and cement-making facilities.
When the train finally turns south on the second evening and we glimpse the first snow-capped mountains of the Tibetan Plateau the industrial landscape gradually fades, to be replaced by the grasslands of Qinghai, a province that is home to many ethnic Tibetans, as are neighbouring Sichuan and Gansu provinces.
In Qinghai, cattle, sheep and yaks can be seen grazing, but the postcard-like views that accompany the train’s slow ascent into the Tibet Autonomous Region, come with a sense of occupation and even hostility.
Amid the tents of nomadic herders, windblown grasslands and shallow streams are the signs of China’s insecurity. At every one kilometre mark along the train line, for the last two hours of the run into Lhasa, there are guardhouses manned by men in military fatigues. They often salute or acknowledge the train by standing to attention as it passes.
The sense of occupation is heightened when the train passes a column of at least 100 army trucks towing artillery pieces on the road into the capital. They form part of China’s strategic military build-up in Tibet, which is partly to enforce stability but which has equally worried neighbouring India.
On the streets of Lhasa, this military presence is less obvious than in recent years, according to those who have visited previously. But that does not mean control is any looser. Leibold says while Tibet remains largely a “police state” the presence of the security forces is less visible because they have become more sophisticated in monitoring the population through CCTV cameras and community level informers.
“There is also a sense [from Beijing] that they have largely solved the Tibet problem. They see the economy doing well and believe they have come a long way since [the riots of] 2008,” he says.
That uprising, the worst violence the province had seen in 20 years, was triggered by restrictions on religious freedom and efforts to force Tibetan officials to pledge their allegiance to Beijing. Dozens of Tibetan protesters and Han Chinese were killed and the violence spread to ethnic Tibetan regions outside the TAR and led to calls for world leaders and athletes to boycott the Beijing Olympics that year. Those calls were largely ignored, but the riots saw Tibet closed to foreigners as China increased its military presence in the province.
Leibold’s view, that in the years since the riots, Beijing believes it has regained control of the security situation, is one shared by two Chinese government officials spoken to by AFR Weekend. Both said Beijing was increasingly confident in its hold over Tibet and that it had “nothing to be ashamed of” and “nothing to hide”. This was communicated to Party officials by President Xi himself during an internal working conference last year, according to other sources.
“The security situation is stable,” one of the officials said.
Visitor numbers soar
Such a view, that resistance from the Tibetan population has largely been quashed and “ethnic harmony” restored, has allowed the rapid opening to tourism in recent years. While the growth over the decade since the train line opened has been strong, the big numbers have flowed in over the last three years. And the government plans to increase this number by a further 45 per cent to almost 12 million annual visitors by 2020.
To accommodate them, the number of hotel beds will be increased by 50 per cent to 150,000 to accommodate tourists from across China and neighbouring Nepal and India; restrictions on other foreign tourists will remain in place. According to the government figures this has created 320,000 jobs, while 97,000 Tibetan farmers and herdsmen have supplemented their income through tourism.
The author Emily T. Yeh labelled China’s development led approach the “Taming of Tibet” in her 2013 book of the same title. She argues development in this context is a form of “indebtedness engineering”, which recruits Tibetans to participate in their own marginalisation, while entrapping them in gratitude to the Chinese state.
This largesse from Beijing is borne out in budget figures that show 90 per cent of public expenditure in Tibet comes from direct fiscal transfers from the central government. Between 1959 and 2008, this equated to $US32.6 billion, according to government figures, but that figure doesn’t include the recent splurge on roads, rails, lines and public housing.
‘Political crisis’ continues
After being greeted at Lhasa station by my government minders, who drove their mini bus on to the platform and draped me in a white Tibetan scarf, I meet up with the other members of the foreign press corps who have flown into Lhasa. Before dinner, a Canadian journalist and I slip out for a walk along the river, with its broad flood plain to accommodate melting snow in the spring.
It’s a warm autumn evening and, to our surprise, we are allowed to leave the hotel and don’t appear to be followed – on previous trips, journalists said they were prevented from doing any independent reporting. This confirms the view of Leibold and others that Beijing believes it has largely solved the “Tibet problem” and is therefore more confident in allowing foreign journalists a degree of freedom.
It takes no more than five minutes for us to speak with a Tibetan who, when asked about the “situation”, dismisses claims of ethnic harmony.
“The political crisis is very much here,” he says. “We have no right to speak out about our situation and no right to practise our religion.”
As his son runs along teasing the family dog, the man notes his taunts are in Chinese not Tibetan. “Listen he’s speaking Chinese,” he says, confirming reports that the teaching of Tibetan language in Chinese-run schools is limited.
The following day, another local tells us separately that Tibetan is no longer the native tongue for many younger locals, who attend Chinese government schools. “Most people speak it like they are from another ethnic minority,” he says.
The recent influx of tourists is another point of tension he highlights. “We have all these sacred rocks and mountains, which tourists just trample all over,” he says.
His metaphor of “rocks and mountains” could easily be applied to the Jokhang Temple, the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism. This area known as the Bhakor, in the heart of old Lhasa, remains a vibrant pedestrian shopping precinct of low-rise stone buildings surrounding the temple.
Holy site turns tourist trap
When we visited, pilgrims spinning prayer wheels and prostrating themselves on the ground, were having to jostle for space with Chinese tourists taking selfies. Our tour guide confirmed the temple had no Lama and held no religious ceremonies during the year. It would be the equivalent of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican never holding a church service and not being overseen by a senior religious figure.
To confirm the idea the Jokhang has become little more than a tourist attraction, our guide walked the wrong way round one shrine as bored monks collected the occasional offering.
“The Chinese state has largely turned the monks into public servants who are there for the tourists,” says Leibold. “The Jokhang is such a sensitive [religious] site but it has become just another tourist attraction.”
The nearby Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, is less over-run by tourists, although our guided tour was more about contemporary politics than history or Tibetan culture. Despite this, it remains one of the great sites of the world, looking over Lhasa from the “Red Hill” 300 metres above the valley floor. But it has become just another tool for China to demonstrate its “jurisdiction” over Tibet. Of the 10,000 shrines, 200,000 statues and countless murals within its walls, our tour guide chose to provide a detailed explanation of only one.
It was a mural showing the life of the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, who established diplomatic relations with the Qing Dynasty and visited the Beijing court of the Shunzi Emperor in 1653. While this relationship has been categorised as “mutual independence” by many historians, Beijing has long used the visit as an example of a Tibetan leader paying homage to the Chinese Emperor.
The English sign near the mural makes this point, saying the 5th Dalai Lama “paid a visit” to the Emperor, who bestowed upon him the title “The All Knowing Dalai Lama the Holder of the Buddhist Religion in the Great West”.
Apart from this reference to the 5th Dalai Lama, the tour failed to mention the Potala Palace’s most famous occupant – the 14th and current Dalai Lama who fled to India in 1959.
When we asked if visitors inquired about him, our tour guide demonstrated how effectively Beijing has rubbed out the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism in China.
“Many visitors don’t have any idea about the Dalai Lama,” she said.
As we asked further questions about him, time suddenly became short. We were instructed to quickly leave the palace for our next appointment. That mainly involved us taking selfies in the square below, watched over by a billboard featuring the five men who have led China’s Tibet since 1949.
THE DISAPPEARING MONASTERY
In the Tibetan city of Nyingchi is a 1200-year-old monastery, which according to one Chinese official, does not exist.
As the foreign media’s tour of Tibet entered its last day, our group was in this newly ordained city, 520 kilometres east of the capital, to see how its tourist infrastructure was developing. We were taken to see faux-Tibetan villages and recently opened five-star hotels, but one of the area’s most historic sites, the Lamaling Monastery, was not on our agenda.
Sensing reluctance on the part of our minders, we decided to test a statement from the Chinese government’s that it had “nothing to hide” in Tibet. The reality proved otherwise, as the excuses were rolled out.
“My information is that the heavy rain overnight caused a rock slide, which has blocked the road,” said one official. “So we won’t be able to visit it today.”
That was not correct, as three of us had got up early that very morning, sneaked out of the hotel and driven the 27 kilometres towards the Lama Mountain to see the famed monastery with its golden roof. We arrived just on sunrise as the mist was clearing to find most of the monks chanting prayers, while one walked the grounds clutching a string of beads.
Another monk made it clear morning prayers were not to be disturbed and indicated we could return later.
The “rock slide excuse” delivered over breakfast, suggested the monks of Lamaling may challenge the official narrative of “ethnic harmony” and “religious freedom” in Tibet. Sensing the chance of an unscripted conversation on these subjects, we resolved to head out again that evening.
But before this, Xue Chengtao, head of the Foreign Affairs Office of Nyingchi, denied such a monastery even existed. When pushed, he said there was a minor monastery 100 kilometres away, but it was of no historical significance and not worth a visit.
The English language internet would disagree. One post on the TripAdvisor website recommended it as the only site around Nyingchi worth visiting, given it can trace its origins back to the 7th century and the reign of the first king of a unified Tibet, Songtsen Gampo.
But that was not good enough for our minders. Instead, we spent the day looking at saffron plants, pig farms and driving four hours up the mountain to view a modern take on a traditional Tibetan village. The Nulang Village will eventually have five, high-end hotels, overlooking a central lake, after real estate companies from the southern province of Guangdong were encouraged to invest.
There will be few Tibetan business owners however, according to Tu Hong from the Foreign Affairs Office of Nyingchi. “Tibetans will have shops which sell small things like biscuits and sweet tea,” she said as though this was to be expected.
Arriving back at our hotel after 9pm, four of us walked straight out again and into a taxi. This time, our trip would be more eventful. A white SUV didn’t bother to hide that it was following us. After changing cars, like any well-trained operative in the movies, we thought the path was clear. But the famed security grid, which China’s police and armed forces have established across Tibet, soon caught up with us.
On the road out of town, a taxi drew level with our car, slowed down, looked in through the windows, then sped off. Just to be sure, it allowed us to overtake a few kilometres down the road, which permitted them another look.
Then came the road block. On the turn-off to the monastery, police had erected a checkpoint just for us. We were stopped and, after being forcefully told the monastery was closed, were sent back to town with an escort.
So, we never did speak to the monks of Lamaling, but a sign board outside the temple indicated the type of ideological conformity demanded by China’s Communist Party.
Accompanying a photo of President Xi Jinping were extracts of a speech he had given on religion in April.
It said “religious doctrines must be merged with Chinese culture” and the country must “resolutely resist overseas infiltration through religious means”.