Seven Years in Tibet was the title of a popular book and movie. I spent only five days in Tibet in early July—just long enough to get adjusted to its headache-inducing altitude (the capital is 11,800 feet above sea level)—so I hesitate to draw sweeping conclusions. But even a brief visit revealed realities beyond the headlines, which normally focus only on events such as monks burning themselves to death to protest Chinese occupation. Visiting two of the largest cities, Lhasa and Tsetang, and driving around the countryside, I saw the benefits as well as the bane of China’s rule.
Benefits? I admit to being surprised to find any, given the (understandable) focus of “Free Tibet” activists on how terrible China’s rule has been. The Chinese have killed hundreds of thousands of Tibetans and inflicted upon them oppression that has been described as cultural genocide. But, high as the cost has been, the benefits of Chinese sovereignty are undeniable, especially to someone who had just come from India and Nepal, both democracies that are considerably freer than China but also considerably poorer. Per capita income in Nepal is $730 a year; in India $1,570; in China, $6,560.
I was surprised to find that Lhasa and Tsetang are not nearly as decrepit as Kathmandu or even Mumbai. In fact they are not decrepit at all—both cities look brand spanking new. That’s because, for the most part, they are. China has poured billions of dollars into Tibetan economic development. The result: smooth concrete roads (not like the bumpy ones full of potholes in Nepal and India); countless new stores, apartment blocks, and single-family homes; the first-ever railroad on the high plateau; a new airport in Lhasa; and clean, orderly sidewalks (unlike the dirty, littered, chaotic ones in Nepal and India). You do not see the poor, huddled masses sleeping on the streets of Lhasa, as is common even in India’s biggest cities. Nor do hordes of beggars confront you. Even traffic is better regulated. Lhasa and Tsetang resemble relatively prosperous cities anywhere else in China—and therein lies the problem.
For Beijing is undertaking an aggressive program of cultural and political imperialism. All the money poured into Tibet is designed to reconcile Tibetans to their status as subjects of Beijing, which they have been ever since Mao Zedong’s Red Army invaded in 1950. (A Tibetan uprising in 1959, carried out with CIA support, was brutally suppressed.)
China’s imposition of authority is not subtle. Red Chinese flags fly everywhere—even (or especially) from the Potala Palace overlooking Lhasa, where generations of dalai lamas resided before the current occupant of that august politico-religious post (the 14th dalai lama) decamped in 1959 to exile in India. Just as common are propaganda posters depicting all of China’s presidents, from Mao Zedong to the incumbent, Xi Jinping. Chinese guards in orange jumpsuits that make them look like henchmen from some Bond movie are omnipresent inside Buddhist monasteries. No doubt undercover operatives are just as numerous, if less conspicuous.
Surveillance cameras ring both Lhasa and Tsetang, and Chinese Army bases are a common sight in both cities even if official rules prohibit photo-graphing them. The Public Security Bureau (China’s powerful police force) actually operates checkpoints on the roads where drivers have to present their identification to be allowed to proceed. As elsewhere in China, Internet access is strictly censored; anyone trying to access Facebook, Twitter, or Gmail is out of luck unless equipped with elaborate software to do an end run around the Great Firewall of China. Simply getting a permit to visit Tibet is a tortuous process (an ordinary Chinese visa will not do), and foreign visitors can be denied entry on a political whim. (Japanese tourists are forbidden to come because of tensions between Beijing and Tokyo.) The State Department’s 2013 human rights report noted “other serious human rights abuses” including “extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial detentions, and house arrests.”
To its credit, Beijing has reopened and rebuilt monasteries that were trashed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Buddhist monks have limited religious freedom, as long as they don’t display any pictures of the current dalai lama. But that has done little to lessen resentment among Tibetans, who fear that they are becoming a minority in their own country as Beijing continues to encourage and subsidize Han Chinese immigration.
The Tibetans know they are second-class citizens in a country not their own—they have a separate language, history, and religion from those of the Han Chinese, even if they were ruled by Chinese dynasties for part of their long history. Their fate is all the more bitter in that, unlike other Chinese, they are denied the right to travel freely abroad, and they must deal with the often rude and condescending attitudes of Chinese newcomers who act like colonialists anywhere. As the State Department’s report further noted: “There was a perception among Tibetans that authorities systemically targeted them for political repression, economic marginalization, and cultural assimilation, as well as educational and employment discrimination.”
The prospect of real freedom for Tibet seems ever more remote—it will become thinkable only if China itself has a change of regime to become as democratic as Taiwan. Even local autonomy under China’s imperial oversight, as advocated by the dalai lama, seems unlikely. The level of Chinese investment in Tibet makes clear Big Brother is here to stay. The best that Tibetans can hope for is a bit more breathing room inside their gilded cage.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.