China’s plan to ‘liberate’ a cradle of Tibetan culture

Tongren, China — Two photographs grace the walls of the Tibetan farmer’s home. In the courtyard, affixed with silver tacks: Xi Jinping, smiling. Inside, by the light of a yak butter candle: the Dalai Lama in monk’s robes.

Here, in a region called Qinghai in Chinese and Amdo in Tibetan, in a town known as Tongren or Rebkong, depending on whom you ask, things exist in disparate pairs: Two portraits. Two languages. A public face and a private heart.

Even that, it seems, is not enough.

Local officials this year issued a 20-point notice that reaches ever further into the lives of Tibetans here in what’s long been a cradle of Tibetan culture, a thriving monastery town where people proudly speak their native tongue and tout the artists who paint scrolls called thangkas.

The man whom many Tibetans love like a father, the Dalai Lama, was born not far from here. After a failed anti-Chinese uprising, he fled over the mountains to India in 1959 and has not been allowed to return.

In his native Amdo, and across the Tibetan plateau, his absence is a source of anguish. Many, like the farmer, keep a framed picture in their private quarters, or tuck a passport-sized photograph into the folds of their clothes. They pray for him.

But the Chinese authorities’ new rules, reminiscent of restrictions in the Tibet Autonomous Region to the west, treat these everyday acts of faith as potential crimes against the state: You shall not pray for the Dalai Lama at a religious festival, the notice says. Nor shall you carry his picture in public.

According to the directives, Tibetan calls for “protecting the mother tongue,” “food safety,” “literacy” or “wildlife protection” are merely a “pretext” for separatism, and therefore a threat to “social stability” — a Communist Party buzzword that presages political crackdowns.

Now, as frost settles on the hills and farmers take temporary leave from the land, local officials are readying for what some euphemistically call “stability maintenance season.” They believe that tighter controls will keep the peace through the restless winter months.

Tibetans in exile, rights groups and academics counter that ever more aggressive policing fuels unrest. They fear that what is happening in Rebkong may mark a shift toward the type of security that’s suffocated other Tibetan areas, especially Lhasa.

“This security-run notion of politics — stabilityfirst, as they put it — is spreading from central Tibet to eastern Tibetan areas,” said Robert Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program. “These days, everything is stability maintenance — it’s a big theme of Tibetan life.”

In Rebkong, that life is very much in flux.

Set among low hills at the far eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, Rebkong is known as the birthplace of several significant writers and the home of the centuries-old Rongwo Monastery.

The monastery has long been the city’s center — but that is changing, fast. In a regionwide building boom that intensified after the 2008 riots in Lhasa, the government has expanded or renovated many public spaces, sprucing up Dolma Square, at the monastery’s gate.

State funds — including a much-advertised sponsorship from the coastal city of Tianjin — have since fueled the construction of a second square on the other side of town, as well as new roads and half-built high-rises well-suited to migrants from the east.

China’s state-backed media cites this type of achievement in infrastructure as evidence of the government’s commitment to “liberating” Tibet.

“They are trying to build their image as a savior, as the benefactor of the Tibetans,” said Woeser, a Tibetan writer and poet who generally goes by one name.

But even as “courtesy of Tianjin” garbage trucks roll down freshly paved streets, there are questions about what is gained and what is lost in rapid, state-led development.

“All construction, all the roads, the majority of the benefit goes to migrants,” said Yangdon Dhondup, a research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “Of course, the streets are better, but the big money is not really made by most Tibetans.

“I think Rebkong will follow the same path as Lhasa,” she said. “Thanks to migration, it will soon look like any other Chinese town — and that’s the aim: Dilute Tibetan identity as much as possible.”

That fear is turning the city’s vast public squares and smooth roads into sites of resistance.

In 2010, several thousand students took to the streets to protest plans to change the language of instruction from Tibetan to Chinese. Their slogan: “Equality of people, freedom of language.”

The area around Rebkong has also seen several self-immolations, part of a wave of fiery protests that have claimed more than 140 lives. In the early winter of 2012, six people set themselves on fire in a single month, prompting the police to put SWAT vehicles and fire extinguishers in Dolma Square.

In the demonstrations that followed, high school students reportedly ripped Chinese flags from public buildings.

A government memo that leaked after the suicides urged officials to withhold state support to the families of the dead — and their home towns. “All projects running on state funds in self-immolators’ villages must be stopped,” it read.

This year’s notice takes things a step further, prohibiting people from “making incense offerings, reciting prayers, sparing the lives of animals or lighting butter lamps for self-immolators, or greeting their family members.”

The goal of such rules is to scare would-be “separatists” into submission. Given the range of acts that are now considered threats to China’s stability, some wonder if the 20-point notice could have the opposite effect, widening the distance between the local government and local Tibetans, most of whom want to be able to pray, speak and study as they please.

Mark Stevenson, a senior lecturer at Australia’s Victoria University who studies Tibetan art and regularly visits Rebkong, said the gap is only growing as the “new” Rebkong grows.

“These days, you have the government end of town and the monastery end of town,” he said. “Instead of communities coming together, the divisions are getting sharper still.”