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An inaccessible, romantic and mystic Shangri-la where Chinese police torture Buddhist monks is a common Western view of Tibet.

A mysterious, terrifying land where lanterns are made from human skin, skulls are used for goblets and slavery is a recent memory is a widespread Chinese view of this far-flung outpost of Beijing's rule.Somewhere in between may lie the truth.

"Tibet is constantly used as a Cold War icon by anti-Chinese opportunists," said Robbie Barnett, who runs the London-based Tibet Information Network that specializes in providing data on the human rights situation in Tibet.

For Tibetans prostrating themselves before their beloved Buddhist shrines, buying chunks of yak meat in the Lhasa market or cycling to a disco in the evening, such issues seem far removed from their daily lives.

Tibet's capital Lhasa, one of the world's highest cities at 12,087 ft., has the air almost of a Wild West town that is rushing to catch up with the rest of the world.

The tap of hammers and roar of drills signal a construction boom that is transforming meadows and wasteland on the edges of the ancient city into a Chinese town like any other.

Many Western human rights groups and pro-Tibet activists cry foul. They speak of the sinicization, the Han Chinese invasion of a land that belongs to Tibetans. They say that wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a few Han Chinese at the expense of the indigenous people and Tibetan culture is being annihilated.

Beijing says Tibetans in the region number 2.3 million while Han Chinese total fewer than 100,000. No figure is given for the military presence in the strategic region that borders India, with which Chinese troops have fought numerous skirmishes in the past 40-odd years and last went to war in 1962.

Official figures show an economy growing by about 10 percent a year, with rural per capita incomes around 600 yuan ($72) while urban incomes are about 2,000 yuan ($240). Both are still about half the national average but are increasing rapidly.

China chooses to compare the present standard of living with the traditional feudal system of serfs, many now officials, that persisted until well after People's Liberation Army troops marched into Tibet in 1950.

One Tibetan bus driver boasted of earning 100 yuan ($12) a day, a princely sum even for a Beijing cab driver.

Western activists prefer to heed the cause of the exiled Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet and winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his peaceful struggle for autonomy for his homeland since he fled after an abortive uprising in 1959.

"There are a lot of former hippies getting into something they think is an easy ride," Barnett said.

"I do think things are enormously oversimplified," he said. "But fundamental disdain in Tibet for Chinese rule is so prevalent and of such long standing that in many cases it constitutes the basic context or tone within which other events have to be placed."

Tibetan exiles report a revival of traditional Tibetan ways in rural areas, pilgrims come freely to worship in Lhasa and commerce involving Tibetans apparently thrives on almost every Lhasa street corner.

In the main square in front of Lhasa's Jokhang temple, the Tibetan holy of holies, ragged pilgrims with matted hair prostrate themselves in medieval religious fervor and warrior merchants from the eastern Chamdo region mingle easily and chat in the marketplace with plainclothes Tibetan police.