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Lhasa today

  • Source: Global Times
  • [22:47 April 08 2010]
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Business has resumed in Barkhor Street, downtown Lhasa.

By Li Hongwei in Lhasa

Two years after the riots, Lhasa now appears to be peaceful. Barkhor Street, where rioters looted and burned shops in March 2008, is now swarming with tourists and pilgrims. A group of monks in brown robes are prostrating themselves toward the gate of Jokhang Temple. Western backpackers, ambling along and clicking away, all look bewitched by the azure sky, the dazzling sunlight, and the colorful, omnipresent prayer flags fluttering in the unworldly air.

The tension is easily overlooked amid the hustle and bustle of the prosperous city, until one sees those in uniforms. Security guards, police and the paramilitary forces are stationed at almost every intersection downtown and patrolling the streets. On a rooftop near the square in front of Jokhang Temple, two armed policemen keep a watch on the crowd below until sunset.

Their presence instills a sense of security in the businesspeople. "I feel safe when I see the police patrolling streets," said Li Jinhua, a 29-year-old shop assistant of the menswear store Septwolves on Beijing East Road. The old store was burned to the ground during the riots but soon rebuilt with government subsidies. Favorable policies like exemption from taxes have lured the boss, a 30-something entrepreneur from neighboring Sichuan Province back to the old business.

Yishion, a fashion store on the same street that suffered the worst damage, is now run by its old boss too. Business owners tend to see the riots as "accidental" and seem to have regained confidence in safety.

In a city increasingly dependent on tourism for its revenue, tour guides might be the last people who would like to see any turmoil. "A lot of tourists ask me if it's safe here within minutes after we met, and I told them, absolutely, yes," said Laba Zhuoma, a Tibetan tour guide, her hand sweeping out toward the rooftop guards across the street from where she was sipping butter tea on the second floor of a chic restaurant.

"This is calmness under tight control," said Pan Jiansheng, a professor of the Communist Party School of Tibet, citing a high-level official of the autonomous region. The ever-present police will not withdraw the guard any time soon, he added.

Education in the temple

Security guards are also seen in Drepung Monastery, five kilometers from the western suburb of Lhasa. There is con-sensus among officials and scholars that a stable Tibet relies on the situation of temples, especially Drepung Monastery, where earlier Dalai Lamas resided and their later reincarnations had reserved the title of honorary abbot of the monastery. It was here that monks began their protest on March 10, 2008 and triggered the riots four days later.

After the riots, more officials were sent to join the management committee of the monastery, which now composes 12 monks and nine officials—some as high-level as the vice-chairman of Lhasa municipal people's political consultative conference, Luobu.

Dozens of officials have been sent to Drepung to function as a "legal education working team" since the riots. Twenty of them are assigned the responsibility of educating the monks to be patriotic and law-abiding, through seminars, individual talks and playing videos of Shenzhou VII spacecraft launching and the parade of 60th anniversary of the founding of the New China, according to Luobu.

The working team said the education was rewarding. "Monks had long been secretly listening to overseas radios like VOA and BBC's Tibetan service and spreading the Dalai Lama's edicts in the temple, but no one has been found listening to such programs or spreading news about him since the education started," said Yundan, a Party official of the autonomous region.

"This is not a campaign-like education but a long-term one," said Luosang Jiangcun, chief of United Front Work Department of Committee of the CPC in Tibet. He said that if there was any lesson the government needs to learn from the past, it is that the government should be "courageous enough to manage religious affairs."

"Of course there should be a pretext- -the management should be based on law," he added.

Most temples in Tibet made their last recruitment in 2003, and the government now imposes a population cap on monks. Before the 14th Dalai Lama went to exile in 1959, Tibet had 110,000 monks, over one-tenth of its population. Now the number has fallen to 46,000.

Monks, especially those in Lhasa, now lead a much less cloistered life. Tourism has brought a bonanza to temples in Lhasa. Jokhang Temple, located in the city center and renowned for the Buddha statue brought by Princess Wencheng of Tang Dynasty, raked in 27 million yuan($3.86 million) through tourism in 2007. The revenue plummeted to a mere 6 million yuan in 2008 due to the riots, but rose to 30 million yuan last year.

Almost all the monks in Jokhang have cell phones, and a lot of them possess laptop computers. Younger monks change to shorts when they play football, an increasingly popular game in Tibet. Some juxtapose pictures of living Buddhas with pin-ups of Japanese football star Hidetoshi Nakata, who visited the temple years ago. Senior monks in Jokhang earn a monthly salary of 2,600 yuan, and neophytes are each allocated 1,000 yuan per month, compared with an average annual per capital income of 3,500 yuan for farmers and herdsmen in Tibet. Young monks in Drepung don't cook, and instead visit a restaurant for every meal.

Even 170 kilometers north of downtown Lhasa, in Kangma Temple, which stands on a barren slope of at the foot of a mountain, the meeting room is lit with electricity and heated by air conditioners. The temple runs a grocery store and a teahouse. Monks bought a truck and hired a driver to run a transportation business and have built themselves a two-storied dorm.

Given the material gains and the declining rigors of life, fewer people want to become monks amid urbanization. Almost all the monks in Drepung and Jokhang are from farming or nomadic families. "Society is changing fast and there are too many temptations in the world," said 59-year-old Lama Pingcuo in Jokhang through a translator.

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