Development or destruction in Tibet?

Recently a petition was sent to China’s top leadership and simultaneously to the UNESCO by right group about it alleged to be calculated destruction of Lhasa, capita of Tibet’s, heritage architecture.

According to the scholars who wrote out the petition, Lhasa was being morphed into a “21st century town, shorn of its uniqueness and traditional culture.”

The filing of the petition was followed with a recent report in the state media about major development work, including the renaming of, a small town in Qinghai where the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, Dalai Lama was born in 1935.

According to reports, the plan had been endorsed by China’s cabinet.

Among the new city’s key development projects are the renovation of old roads and residential areas, as well as the construction of new homes, urban boulevards, commercial centres, a sewage treatment plant and drinking water facilities.

The Dalai Lama’s village of Hong’ai, located in Ping’an county in Qinghai province, will be renamed Haidong. Starting from this year, the provincial treasury will allocate 1.5 billion yuan (USD 244 million) annually to boost Haidong’s infrastructure development, the local government said.

Beijing has always maintained that it wants to develop Tibet and bring it at par with the more developed areas of China. But both the news coming from Lhasa and the report about Dalai Lama’s town have raised the fear among rights groups that these were part of Beijing’s attempts to gradually eat into the unique Tibetan culture and not-so-surreptitiously subsume it within the culture of the majority.

Renaming the village where the Dalai Lama was born will obviously not go down well with the Tibetan community – they could accuse Beijing of trying to strike at the heart of Tibetan identity.

Not preserving Lhasa’s ancient architecture could raise similar accusations.

“It has been and is destroying irreplaceable structures that in some cases have stood for centuries, creating what appears to be a contrived tourist village and making the organic Tibetan presence and way of life in the Old City a thing of the past. It is depriving Tibetans and scholars of Tibet alike of a living connection to the Tibetan past. It is causing injury to aspects of the cultural and religious practices of Tibetans from various walks of life,” the petition about Lhasa said.

The petition argued that both development and preservation could be done at the same time – indicating that it depended on the will of the authorities if they wanted to do it that way.

“Modernisation and preservation need not be mutually exclusive. There are culturally sensitive ways to modernise ancient city quarters and preserve traditional buildings. But what is happening in the Old City of Lhasa appears first and foremost to have been undertaken with commercial rather than cultural goals in mind,” it said.

To many Tibetan activists, the goals might be more sinister than simply being commercial. The goal, to them, is to eradicate the Tibetan way of life and to sever old traditional ties.

The petitioners reminded the authorities that China had recognised “the essential underlying international nature of the matter in its support for UNESCO’s work in designating the Potala Palace (including the Jokhang and Norbulingka areas) a world heritage site.”

Most importantly, the petitioners urged UNESCO provide a clear-cut plan outlining what needs to be done immediately to preserve the Old City of Lhasa, to halt the current destruction, and to prevent Lhasa from being turned into an early 21st-century tourist town, shorn of its uniqueness and its innate traditional culture.

A copy of the petition was sent to President Xi Jinping. It remains to be seen whether China’s top leadership attempts to look into the issues mentioned by the worried scholars and activists. And whether there will be any reversal of the decision to change Lhasa’s ancient, creased face.

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