After landing at Lhasa’s Gonggar airport, among the first things to catch my eye were two fighter jets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Layers of clouds masked my view, but there was no mistaking the roar of a fighter jet, bringing home how close the Asian powerhouse is perched vis-à-vis India. It also weakened the theory that the Himalayas were a “natural barrier" between the two countries. Also unmissable, just outside the terminal, was a pedestal with pictures of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, and the Chinese national flag.
These were my first impressions of Tibet, or Xizang, as the Chinese call it. Coincidentally, our visit (of a group of eight Indian journalists invited by the Chinese embassy in New Delhi to visit in early July) was taking place a few months after the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan spiritual leader’s flight in March 1959 to India. The Dalai Lama had fled after a failed uprising against Beijing, eight years after China’s “annexation" (as described by Western officials and media) or “assimilation" (as many controversy-averse Indian authors put it) of Tibet in 1951.
We couldn’t stop marvelling at the unforgiving mountain terrain of sharp ridges, sheer-drop valleys and winding hill springs. The hour’s drive to Lhasa reinforced China’s infrastructural prowess—wide all-weather roads stretched for miles, winding round stark grey-brown mountain sides. Long tunnels have been bored through the base of some mountains. Passing through one of the tunnels, I recalled an agreement between Chinese leaders and their Nepalese counterparts to link the two countries with a railway line (to reduce Nepal’s dependence on India after the 2015-16 economic blockade). New Delhi’s hope that geography will act as a constraint is clearly misplaced.
Modern-day Lhasa is nothing like the imaginary “Shangri La" of yore. The city had all the trappings of a global cosmopolitan hub, with its nightclubs, high-end hotels and glitzy shops. The imposing Potala Palace, once the Dalai Lama’s home, was the only structure to offer a sense of the past. Right opposite it stood another towering pedestal with images of Mao, Deng, Jiang, Hu and Xi. Foreign tourists appeared few. But there were Han Chinese everywhere.
The Chinese imprint on Tibet was palpable. All signs directing people and traffic were in Tibetan and Mandarin. Though Chinese authorities claim that people of Tibetan stock comprise over 90% of Tibet’s population, Han Chinese seemed to have a major presence, running shops and businesses in Lhasa and Shigatse; those employed in construction activity across the stretches of Tibet we visited, seemed overwhelmingly Han Chinese. Five-starred red flags and traditional lanterns were visible not only along roads, but also outside shops, and there were fancy cars and signs of prosperity—at least in Lhasa city—all around.
What was unclear, though, was whether it’s the “good life"—jobs, infrastructure and modern education—that was keeping Tibetans content. Those one got to speak to in English, mostly in the hospitality industry, did convey that impression. In the villages we visited, one could see efforts to preserve Tibetan traditions of paper and incense making, an obvious counter to the criticism that China was destroying the Tibetan cultural legacy.
The drive from Lhasa to Shigatse was across a rugged landscape dotted with huge greenhouses growing vast varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains, besides flowers. The produce was for domestic consumption in China, aside from its export. There were many dairy farms of animals shipped from Europe and New Zealand. All these involved local Tibetan participation and appeared responsible for the seeming contentment and prosperity among the local populace. The declining number of Tibetans fleeing to India via Nepal was due to this, we were informed, with one Chinese official pointing out that Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region were aware of the “hardships" endured by those who had followed the Dalai Lama. The decline has been acknowledged by the Tibetan government in exile in India. Development apart, it’s a fact that the Chinese have been exerting pressure on Nepal to block routes for escape. By one line of thinking, one of the reasons Beijing befriended Kathmandu was to ensure Tibetans do not flee.
Conversations with Chinese analysts and officials in Beijing and Tibet indicate that China is prepared to cope with the aftermath of the eventual passing of the Dalai Lama. A reincarnation would be found among Tibetans in China, they said. So what happens if the population in exile name a reincarnation from among them? That wouldn’t work, we were told, as the Dalai Lama, for historical reasons, has to be recognized by the Chinese government.
Controlling the institution of the Dalai Lama is seen as key, given the hold that the Buddhist faith has on Tibetan life. This is why the Panchen Lama, who stayed back in Tibet and is seen as second only to the Dalai Lama, is considered a “patriot" by Beijing, while the Dalai Lama is billed as a “dangerous splittist". That China will want India to endorse its choice of the next Dalai Lama seemed amply clear—leaving me wondering how long the “Tibetan issue" would bedevil our ties.
Elizabeth Roche covers foreign affairs for Mint