China hints at new development approach to Tibet

Ananth Krishnan

“If there is no culture, there will be no development”

“Our temples should not be a place where we do business”

BEIJING: Ahead of the third anniversary of the March 14 riots in Tibet, a top official from the region said the government would pay more attention to preserving Tibetan culture to address rising concerns about imbalanced growth.

“If there is no culture, there will be no development,” Na Ceng, a Tibetan adviser to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's top political advisory body, said in an interview with The Hindu.

“Culture is like the eye of a person. It plays a crucial role,” said Ceng, who in 1943 was recognised as a Tibetan “living Buddha.”

Ceng is among a group of delegates who has pushed forward a proposal for China's first ever law on the preservation of intangible cultural heritage, during the ongoing annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislative body.

The law, passed by the NPC this week, mandates that regional governments should do more to preserve minority cultures, including oral literature and cultural practices.

Huge challenge

Ceng acknowledged that Tibet was facing a huge challenge “in transferring Tibetan Buddhism to the next generation.” “The cultural preservation law can play an important role.”

Tibetans, as well as many of China's 54 other minority groups who together make up 8.4 per cent of the population, have voiced concerns that focus on rapid development has eroded their cultures, with increasing migration of the majority ethnic Han Chinese to areas traditionally inhabited by ethnic minorities. Ahead of the anniversary of the riots, which left at least 22 people dead, the government has warned of “grave challenges” to stability in Tibet. In recent days, it has increased security restrictions in Lhasa and surrounding areas. It has also imposed travel bans on Tibetans and barred foreign tourists from travelling to Tibet.

Ceng stressed that a more balanced development was key to the region's long-term stability. He suggested a new approach to tourism — one of the Tibet Autonomous Region's (TAR) main sources of revenue — to better protect its cultural heritage and ensure that monasteries were not reduced to tourist sites. “Monasteries and temples should only be for cultural development,” he said. “Our temples should not be a place where we do business.”

Language issue

Asked about recent protests over a move to expand the introduction of Mandarin Chinese as “a common language” in Tibetan universities, he said it would be ensured that “only Tibetan language” was spoken and taught in religious institutions. In October, hundreds of Tibetan students in the western Qinghai province and in Beijing protested the policy, which has subsequently been suspended.

Ceng, however, said “bilingual education” in schools and colleges, for Tibetan students to learn Mandarin, was a necessity, if Tibet was not to be left behind other regions.

At a work conference on Tibet held in Beijing in January, Chinese officials acknowledged the need for more equitable growth, amid rising disparities. The urban-rural income ratio in Tibet is 3.82 to 1, higher than the national average of 3.33 to 1.

The officials also called for greater attention to livelihood issues of farmers and nomads, who make up four-fifths of the population. Restrictions on grazing have seen many lose their livelihood, with a resettlement programme having limited reach.

Just this year, around 1,500 Tibetans from Shigatse and surrounding areas moved to Beijing, according to Xia, a Tibetan nomad who now makes a living by selling handicrafts on Beijing's streets.

“This has been our life for generations. We used to earn more than 10,000 yuan a year, but now there are restrictions on grazing,” he said. “There are few jobs in Shigatse,” added his 22-year-old sister, who pointed to increasing competition for jobs from migrants. “We have to leave home,” she said.