“The only thing that scares me is when they come to ‘aid Tibet’”

by Woeser

Last year on Duowei TV I watched a current−events talk show in which He Pin and Meng Xuan, two overseas Chinese scholars in America, discussed “Ways out of the Tibet problem.” I wrote a quick response at the time, and now I’ve amplified it in the light of this year’s events.

To Mr. Meng Xuan’s way of thinking, Tibet’s geography will be the salvation of Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama has nothing to worry about, because it’s hard for Han people to keep living at high altitude and consequently the culture of Tibet will not wither under Chinese Communist rule. When I first heard this I was skeptical; I am even more skeptical today.

You only have to go back ten years or so to find Han people poorly adapted to Tibet, just as Meng Xuan said. But in the course of rapid modernization (more precisely, the Chinese style of modernization, or Sinification), Tibet has undergone major changes with respect to transportation and communication. In particular, the construction and opening of the railroad has shattered the protective isolation which the Tibetan Plateau once enjoyed, and an endless stream of migrants from outside have come pouring in. This can be seen with the eye and heard with the ear: in Tibet you can feel the unoccupied space steadily shrinking. It’s true that the immigrants (mainly Han) are still poorly adapted to the high altitude of the Plateau, but their numbers are huge, there’s no comparison. Years ago, the immigrants spent just a few years — maybe a little more than ten — in Tibet, then when they couldn’t stand it any more they went back home. When some left, those that came after were not many: the new crop didn’t overtake the passing of the old. It’s different now. Even though the immigrants still spend only a few years (maybe a bit more than ten years, but rare indeed are those who stay for decades, as altitude sickness still seems a disease correlated with race and afflicting non−Tibetans), nevertheless the immigrants (mainly Han) are pouring into the Plateau at an unprecedented rate. As soon as one goes, another comes; or rather, another has come before the first has gone.

If you took a late−night walk along the Barkor a decade ago, the only sound to break the stillness of the night would have been the barking of dogs. These days, the air is filled with the smoke and aroma of sausages and kebabs being barbecued. In an alley there are eateries serving ‘Sichuan snacks’ and ‘Muslim noodles’ where the lights are still on and the doors are still open late at night. A decade ago, you’d find by day in the Barkor Ashis from Kham, Khatsaras (the mixed−race children of Tibetans and Nepalese), and pure−bred Lhasa people, managing shops or peddling from stands or otherwise carrying on their proper business. What you find near the Barkor now is the Tromsikhang wholesale market which is full of fake and substandard goods, where 80% of the businessmen are from Hubei, so it’s been called “the Hubei folk’s ‘clone’ of Hanzheng Street in Lhasa.”

Another report says that along Beijing East Road, on the periphery of the Barkor, “there are more than 50 shops and among those, 25 are run by people from Huangzhong, dealing in jello, biscuits, powdered milk, instant noodles, candied fruits, and other foodstuffs.” On the Barkor itself, at least 70% of the storefronts are leased by Muslims from the northwest, and five or six huge markets are run by Han. What’s sold there as “Tibetan handicrafts” is basically a lot of fake goods manufactured in Zhejiang’s Yiwu or Gansu’s Linxia: they call cupronickel “Tibetan silver” and turn brand−new buddha−images and thangkas into antiques; they make worthless stones into fake Dzi beads, coral, or turquoise. There’s also fake yartsa gunbu, fake Tibetan herbal medicine… and the prices are sky−high. Rip 'em off while you can! All these frauds are trading off the name of Tibet. There’s no way to know how many visitors from outside, interested in Tibetan culture, have been fooled, nor can one know how badly Tibet’s reputation has been harmed. Some of the markets even bar Tibetans at the door. Monks in their robes, rural Tibetans in Tibetan attire, or Tibetans who look poor: all are likely to be denied entry and be called “yaks” and “savages” or even get beaten. Many Tibetans have suffered the indignity of being barred from this place.

On the Barkor nowadays there’s only a handful of small shops whose Tibetan owners haven’t given up and sold out, but persevere even though business is bad. One of them said to me sadly, “It used to be that when tourists circled the Barkor they would observe Tibetan customs, for example during festivals when Tibetans would close up their shop and go perform Buddhist devotions. But now places stay open on the Tibetan New Year, though on Chun Jie or Muslim holidays they may close, and people from outside might think these are Tibetan customs. Maybe in ten years the Barkor will no longer be the Tibetans’ Barkor; in ten years, it may be embarrassing even to mention the name of the Barkor.” A decade or so ago, the Han immigrants you’d see on the streets of Lhasa were in the prime of life, but these days, in New Shöl Village where my home is, little Han kids with bookbags on their backs are busy climbing trees, and Han old ladies keep doing their knitting when they go out for a stroll. Here at the roadside there’s a table of Sichuanese playing mahjong; over there, a fellow from Henan shouting Propane, Propane, get your propane here! A decade or so ago, Kumalinka had trees, it had beaches, it had the Lhasa River gliding gently past, and both ends of the little bridge were festooned with prayer flags. Today it has been transformed into Zhonghe International City by officials working hand−in−glove with businessmen; it’s Lhasa’s biggest and most brazen red−light district, where dining establishments of various cuisines are mingled. There’s also a retail center for Tibetan mastiffs, some big four−star restaurants, and a temporary office for the Lhasa municipal government.

Superficially, it’s true: no matter how long the Han immigrants’ period of residency may be, it’s still transient, and the state of affairs is fundamentally one of transiency. But the transiency of today is a far cry from the transiency of the past. The transiency of the old days was meager and intermittent, while the transiency of today is like a torrential river, each wave in front hard−pressed by one behind; the reality for some time now has been that these migrants, chiefly Han, are the new inhabitants of the Tibetan Plateau. Of course, they are no longer migrants: they live here. Of China’s population of 1.3 billion, if there are even 10 million who go back and forth in an endless flow, it will make the aboriginal Tibetans (who number less than 6 million) a minority group in their own land. With their diverse genetic and social backgrounds, these immigrants can only have a powerful impact, radically changing everything that has belonged to or been part of the now−minority Tibetans. In a word, even though like the soldiers in the proverb they flow like water, these immigrants constitute “a barracks cast in iron.” The Tibetan Plateau which has provided a place for this barracks and these soldiers has been undergoing a decades−long process of domestication, whose purpose was to make it a suitable locale for them to live in. That’s why the Lhasa of today has become a carbon copy of Chengdu, filled with residences, gardens, shops and public squares that look just like inland China. The point is to cause already−Sinicized Tibetans to mistake their hometown for some other place, and to enable the ever−increasing numbers of immigrants to consider another place, for the time being, as their hometown.

After March of this year, when protest incidents erupted across the lands of Tibet and shocked both China and the outside world, my first thought was that this upheaval would cause many outsiders, at the very least, to withdraw and stay away; but that’s not how it turned out. One evening when I went back to Lhasa a few months afterward, I passed an intersection in New Shöl Village that was being guarded by Wujing armed to the teeth. At that moment I heard a voice ring out in Sichuanese: “Ho! This time, it’s the Han who are filling the streets!” The voice sounded excited and happy, yet I noticed that the speaker was a very ordinary Han, just like all the other peasant laborers who’ve come from Han regions to fill Lhasa. The people around him — every single man or woman — were all of the same type. They were walking along without a care, chatting loudly, and one woman in the group even flashed a grin in support of the Wujing, and in return the Wujing (who, with their rifles at the ready, usually have only a cold scowl for Tibetans), gave a nod and a smile. This was the first time I ever saw these grim tools of the State break into a smile and show some humanity. No, that’s not quite accurate: they were showing a rather selective humanity reserved for Han people. It reminded me of something that happened five days after 3−14. Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV is like an overseas version of CCTV. They were doing a snow job to the effect that life in Lhasa had already returned to normal. The only problem was that the Phoenix reporter who was interviewing a few “Lhasa residents” on a streetcorner was interviewing only Han people, as if Lhasa had already become a harmonious city of Han. Obviously she, too, showed a certain selectivity: in her eyes there were no Tibetans living in Lhasa. For all one could gather from the TV, the people she interviewed were Lhasa’s original residents.

But a few days ago, on November 10, Beijing coldly announced that His Holiness the Dalai Lama “had basically no standing to negotiate with the central government.” Zhu Weiqun, the Vice−Minister of the United Front Department who had been active in the negotiations, dispensed with all etiquette at a press conference of Chinese and foreign reporters when he denounced the Dalai Lama for “concealing his evil intentions,” adding that anything His Holiness said was “a deceitful lie.” He even denied that Deng Xiaoping uttered that saying thirty years ago which people have since overused, namely, “Anything can be discussed except independence.” To these developments, an old Tibetan member of the Communist Party retorted that this was basically “the way of hegemony.” After their first reaction of shock and repugnance, many Tibetans have recognized that this outcome was not wholly unanticipated. When Beijing sprang this on the world, like the dagger revealed with the unrolling of the map, it came with a murderous glance: but it was only the unmasking of their true face. And in the midst of the old, stale rationalizations, there slipped out a new piece of information. When Zhu Weiqun mentioned the population of ‘the greater Tibetan region,’ he said, “The Dalai Lama would like to drive out all the people of other ethnic groups, numbering in the tens of millions, who dwell and live in this territory.” Watching the live CCTV broadcast, I heard him say this and I expected when the official transcript came out there would be a correction, dropping that phrase “numbering in the tens of millions.” I thought he had perhaps erred when speaking off the cuff, since his words would lead people to infer immigration on an enormous scale. But when the formal statement was issued, nothing he had said was deleted or changed, and one can conclude that this figure has been officially approved and is accurate. Note that this is the first time a Chinese Communist official has acknowledged that in the whole Tibetan region, where there are not quite six million Tibetans, there are already “people of other ethnicities numbering in the tens of millions.” Until now, the public statistics had always given a lower figure.

When Zhu Weiqun was abroad recently, he gave an interview to the BBC in which once again he mentioned this figure for the non−Tibetan population in the Tibetan areas, going a bit further this time and confirming it was “several tens of millions.” However, according to Current Population of China’s Tibet, a document compiled by the Census Office of China’s State Council and issued by China’s Tibet Studies Press, as of 1990 all the Tibetan Autonomous districts (the T.A.R. plus the Tibetan areas of four adjoining provinces ) had a total Han population of 1.52 million. So we can draw a conclusion: in the 18 years from 1990 to 2008, the total Han population (Zhu said “of all other ethnic groups” but actually it’s predominantly Han) in all the Tibetan districts increased by a factor of six or seven. Immigration on this scale and at this speed is staggering.

The “people of other ethnicities numbering in the tens of millions” are by no means original inhabitants, locally born and bred; they’ve basically all come from inland China, the remarkable descendants of the emperors Yan and Huang who have made the arduous journey by hook or by crook to Tibet’s broad lands in hope of settling down and making their contribution to the people of these parts. So generous is this urge to make a contribution that it was not enough for them to offer up their youth: they also have made a gift of their children and grandchildren, generation after generation. That is why this population has surged to surpass the Tibetans in power and size. Not to mention that, in what has become an established practice, no soldiers (whether the national defense forces or the Wujing) are ever included in the population statistics; but you need to be aware that Lhasa, at least, is a city ringed by troops, this year more than ever. Likewise, no contract workers are ever included in the statistics, and that means migrant laborers, xiaojie, peddlers, and zangpiao are left out; and all these, while nominally transients, in truth constitute a small army of immigrants who are there to stay.

It’s just like Xinjiang. According to the statistics, every week as many as two or three thousand Han people move there. The numbers and the speed give rise to the same reality: the new arrivals make themselves at home and arrogantly elbow their hosts aside. Oh yes, and I’ve yet to mention the “Aid Tibet cadres.” That started more than a decade ago. A never−ending stream of cadres dispatched from inland China brought themselves and a horde of miners, a horde of general contractors, a horde of prostitutes, a horde of entrance−exam migrants, a horde of travel agents, a horde of small peddlers and big merchants, and so on … people from all walks of life. In the train of an “Aid Tibet cadre” there often follow more than a hundred opportunists panning for gold. The Aid Tibet cadres make the most of their perks until their time is up and they must return, but then they come running back for a second tour of duty. However, they can’t keep doing this repeatedly because there’s a long line of people waiting behind them. So instead of arranging to return as an Aid Tibet cadre, some come back as general contractors — this has actually happened in some counties of Shannan Prefecture. Even more splendidly, in one county of Chamdo Prefecture, because a general contractor happened to be the business buddy of an Aid Tibet cadre, the cadre took this fellow who was busy building houses and digging highways and made him the vice−magistrate! It’s no wonder that, around the time the railroad was being completed, an old gentleman of Lhasa whose family has lived for generations on the Barkor said something of profound significance to me: “The only thing I fear is when they come to ‘aid Tibet’!”

So when Mr. Meng Xuan says, “There’s a movement of thought throughout the world to promote cultural diversity, including inside Communist China, where they speak of protecting Tibetan culture,” I want to say to him I’m terribly sorry, but it’s not that way at all, and if he can make a trip to Tibet he will be astounded to see that the reality is not what he thinks.

First written October 15, 2007; revised November 20, 2008
Translator’s Notes

Duowei TV a Chinese−language TV service accessible via the Internet and operated by Chinese Media Net, Inc.

Hanzheng Street A street in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, where small and independent enterprises clustered in one of the first signs of the flowering of the private sector unleashed by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms at the end of the 1970s. It remains a major shopping and distribution district today.

Ashis from Kham The term ashi in the Khampa dialect denotes a high−born or high−class lady. By people outside Kham it is often used to refer to any Khampa woman.

people from Huangzhong A town in Qinghai close to Kumbum monastery. The population of the town itself is largely Han and Hui.

each wave in front hard−pressed by one behind From an old saying that uses the waves of the Yangtze to symbolize the endless succession of generations, ideas, or historical movements.

the soldiers in the proverb Woeser is citing a Chinese proverb that describes how a military presence can be fixed, notwithstanding the rotation of the troops: “A barracks cast in iron, the soldiers flow like water.”

A few months afterward, I went back to Lhasa Woeser’s visit in August 2008 to the city of her birth was cut short when she was arrested and briefly detained for photographing street scenes. The experience inspired a poem.

A grin in support of the Wujing. Wujing is the abbreviated name for China’s Armed Police, also known as the People’s Armed Police, a large paramilitary force under joint control of the Central Military Commission and the Ministry for State Security. The phrase translated as “a grin in support of” is literally “a smile to bring warmth to.” Exhortations to “bring warmth to” certain classes of workers or soldiers — selected according to the priorities of the moment — were a staple of propaganda during the Mao era.

Beijing coldly announced Woeser has here adapted material posted in another essay whose footnotes explain some of the references found in this paragraph.

Current Population of China’s Tibet The original title is Dangdai Zhongguo Xizang renkou.

China’s Tibet Studies Press The publisher Zhongguo Zangxue Chubanshe

increased by a factor of six or seven Woeser’s conclusion is understated. Zhu’s words imply a minimum of 20 million, which would indicate the non−Tibetan population had increased over the 18−year span by a factor of at least 13. This is presuming, of course, that the official figures for 1990 were roughly accurate.

descendants of the emperors Yan and Huang A stock description for the Han Chinese.

xiaojie The Chinese word means ‘Miss’ or ‘young lady’ but has acquired a disreputable air from association with prostitutes.

zangpiao In the footnotes to another essay, Woeser explains this as a moniker for cultural workers (artists, photographers, journalists, for example) who’ve been drawn to Tibet from inland China. The Chinese word means ‘one who drifts into Tibet.’

just like Xinjiang The vast Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, north of Qinghai and the T.A.R., has a Turkic culture and a Muslim population who have endured harsh pressure to assimilate. The 2004 short story “Wild Pigeon” by Nurmuhemmet Yasin is a haunting parable of alienation and despair. Since the publication of that work, Mr. Yasin has resided at Urumqi No. 1 Prison and is allowed no visitors. He is one of several Uyghur writers imprisoned for their literature: see the International PEN Uyghur Centre.

entrance−exam migrants (gaokao yimin) The gaokao is a nationwide high−pressure examination that determines college admissions. Because the passing score is varied, in a kind of geographical affirmative action, to promote admission of students from certain places including Hainan, Tibet, and Beijing, many students move to one of the advantaged provinces in the year before they take the exam. This practice recently became illegal but it has not ended.

Shannan Prefecture An administrative division south and southeast of Lhasa, including the Yarlung River Valley.

Chamdo Prefecture Farther east in Kham, though administratively part of the T.A.R.

the vice−magistrate The Chinese title is fuxianzhang