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Rebirth of the Lama Kingdom

At the foot of the stunning red-and-white Potala Palace, under the five-star flag, pilgrims prostrate themselves on the ground, falling to their knees and then lying flat on their stomachs.

It is a usual, quiet Sunday morning in Lhasa. Devout Buddhists are constantly seen, walking clockwise around the holy Potala and the Porgor Street near the Jokhang Temple.

But this peaceful scene could have become unusual if the history was not what it really was.

The signing of the agreement on the peaceful liberation of Tibet on May 23, 1951 was the beginning of an endless debate among politicians and academia throughout the world over Tibet's status and the 14th Dalai Lama who went into exile in India eight years later.


The document, known as the 17-point agreement, was signed between the Chinese central government and representatives sent by the 14th Dalai Lama to decide the plateau region's future.

According to the document, the Tibetan people should "unite and drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet and return to the big family of the People's Republic of China."

The document further said the Tibetan local government should assist the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to enter Tibet and consolidate the national defense. It also pledged to keep the status of the Dalai Lama and ensure religious freedom in Tibet.

In matters relating to various reforms in Tibet, it said Tibet's local government should carry out reforms of its own accord, and, when the people raised demands for reform they should be settled by means of consultation with the leading personnel of Tibet.

The agreement was followed, five months later, by the arrival of PLA troops in Lhasa on Oct. 26.

Trinley Dondrup, 80, said he was "secretly delighted" at the PLA's coming. A serf sold to a local aristocratic family near the Potala, he was constantly whipped for minor offences and in dire need of a full meal and his freedom.

The number of serfs and slaves accounted for 95 percent of the Tibetan population in 1951. The lords, including the Dalai Lama's relatives, owned all the land, forests, rivers and slaves. The lords could torture and even kill the serfs and slaves freely, though all were devout Buddhists.

When the PLA troops arrived in Lhasa, Trinley Dondrup said he saw "men and women in uniforms way different from the Tibetan robes...It was the first time I ever saw anyone without a cloak on. At first sight I thought they were naked."

Tseten Dorje's first impression of the soldiers, however, was frightening.

"Rumors had it that the PLA were cannibals -- some of them wore face masks that kept them from eating humans alive," said Tseten Dorje, 76. Those frightening cannibals, he said, turned out to be friendly and even offered candies and biscuits to the children.

Unlike other troops, -- such as the British, these soldiers never plundered local Tibetan's food. Instead, they planted wheat themselves, according to Tseten Dorje.

Today, the face masks that young Tseten Dorje took as "bridles" are popular among the Tibetans as effective protection from ultraviolet radiation.

In 1951, Tseten Dorje was an actor at a Tibetan drama troupe. He is the same age as the 14th Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama, 16 years old at the time, did not witness the PLA's arrival. He was staying in Dromo, today's Yadong County on the China-India border, perplexed over whether he should go into exile to India or the United States.

But it was the Dalai Lama himself who decided to send negotiators to Beijing after he obtained more information about what was going on.

Several months later, he was further assured after the central government sent a representative to Yadong to explain to him the signing process of the 17-point agreement. Then the Dalai Lama decided to return to Lhasa.

On Oct. 24, the Dalai Lama said in a telegram to Mao Zedong that he supported the leadership of the central government led by the Chinese Communist Party. "Tibet's local government, monks and people supported stationing of the PLA in Tibet."

This, he said, was to consolidate national defense, drive out imperialist powers and protect the sovereignty of China's territory.

But after his exile to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama insisted the agreement had been signed under duress. In his autobiography, "My Land and My People," he said it was a "terrible shock" when he heard the 17-point agreement over the radio.

Kyizom Gyaltsen Phuntsog, however, said otherwise.

"When our five-member delegation arrived in Beijing, Zhou Enlai personally welcomed us at the railway station," he said. "We had pleasant and candid talks and exchanged ideas freely. No one forced us to say or do anything."

Kyizom Gyaltsen Phuntsog was an aide to Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme, Tibet's chief negotiator to Beijing in 1951.

Ngapoi Ngawang Jigme himself wrote in an article entitled "Return to the warm embrace of the Motherland" published in 1981: "We held earnest and friendly negotiations on the basis of equality and consultation...and correctly resolved all complicated issues according to the policy of the Chinese Communist Party on resolving issues related to domestic ethnic groups and in line with the special conditions in Tibet."

The Dalai Lama was later to become director of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region, and vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislative body. He was the first Dalai Lama in history to take the post of a state leader of China.

Canadian scholar Tom Grunfeld, in his book "The Making of Modern Tibet," questioned the Dalai Lama's denunciation of the 17-point agreement. Had the document been signed under duress and had the Dalai Lama's denunciation been true," the Dalai Lama would have to disavow the agreement with Beijing and appeal for aid from the United Nations and the United States," Grunfeld wrote.

In any event, a new chapter was opened.


While Mao Zedong claimed the 1951 liberation of Tibet prevented the territory from being reduced to a colony of the aggressive super powers, including Britain and Russia, the Dalai Lama and his followers criticized the move as an "invasion," saying Tibet had been an independent state.

Chinese historians insist that Tibet came under the direct rule of the Chinese central government in the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. In 1288, the Yuan regime formalized a ministry-level agency to administer the entire Tibetan region.

During the Qing Dynasty, all the Dalai Lama reincarnations required approval from Beijing. "In other words, the Dalai Lama was only as good as a local governor, appointed by the central government," said Prof. Huo Wei, a specialist on Tibetan studies with Sichuan University in Chengdu.

After the Republic of China was founded in 1911, it reaffirmed the central government's authority over Tibet in the republic's first constitution. Tibet elected 20 delegates to the national congress in 1913.

The 13th Dalai Lama and the 9th Panchen Lama both sent representatives to the national leadership conference of the Republic of China in 1931.

In 1940, the national government set up its Lhasa branch of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission. "These all indicated the Tibetans were heavily involved in the country's political life and Tibet was an inseparable part of China," said Li Decheng, a scholar with China Tibetology Research Center.

The "Tibet independence" claim, which evolved during the late 19th century, was actually a product of imperialist invasions, with the British invaders in Tibet as the culprits, said Zhang Yun, head of the center's history institute.

In 1888 and 1904 British troops invaded Tibet twice and were resisted by local Tibetan people. In the 1904 war, British troops, led by colonel Francis Younghusband, occupied Lhasa after killing about 4,000 Tibetans. Further, they forced the local government to sign the Lhasa Treaty to include Tibet into the sphere of the British Empire.

"At least four times during the Kuomintang's rule, the British offered military supplies to Tibet's local government to instigate uprisings," Zhang said.

Representatives of Great Britain and China met in 1914 to negotiate a treaty marking out the boundary lines between India and its northern neighbors.

The Simla Convention granted China secular control over "Inner Tibet," while recognizing the autonomy of "Outer Tibet" under the Dalai Lama's rule. The Chinese government refused to sign the agreement and declared the document null and void.

Behind the back of the Chinese delegates, the British, headed by Henry McMahon, clinched an agreement with Tibetan representative Xazha in which Tibet was to cede 90,000 square kilometers of Chinese territory to Britain in return for further British pressure on China to allow Tibet to become independent.

The "McMahon Line" was created against this backdrop, but it was never agreed to by the Chinese government.

From 1923 to 1924, the British set up a school for army officers in Gyangze, Xigaze Prefecture. The young pro-British officers proposed to overthrow the theological rule of the 13th Dalai Lama and plotted a coup, hoping to forcibly introduce a British-style political system. Their plot, however, was reported to the 13th Dalai Lama and stopped before it could be carried out.

The attempted coup warned the Dalai Lama of the imminent possibility of Britain poking its nose into Tibet's internal affairs and potential threat to his ruling position. He closed the British schools in Gyangze and banned Tibetan officials and civilians from wearing Western clothing. He also ordered the dismantling of a Western-style villa the British built for him at Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer residence. Meanwhile, he sought to improve ties with the Chinese central government.

The British also supplied arms during the Tibetan army's eastward campaign in 1931-32, said Zhang.

In 1951, British spies helped the Tibetan local army to prevent the PLA from entering Tibet.

Foreign intervention continued after Tibet's liberation in 1951.

According to Zhang Yun, the CIA provided arms and financial aids to "Four Rivers and Six Ranges," a group of pro-independence Tibetan rebels. The CIA also trained members of the group at its guerrilla training base in Colorado and air-dropped the guerrillas and weapons to Tibetan regions for sabotage activities.

Following a failed uprising by the rebels in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama went into exile in India. But the U.S. aid to the group, based in Mustang of northern Nepal, continued until after Sino-U.S. ties began to improve in 1972.

Two years later, the Nepalese government wiped out the rebels.


After 1951, the 14th Dalai Lama became the first Tibetan religious and political leader who lived in socialist China, although socialism was actually introduced into Tibet as late as the middle 1960s.

He had talks with Mao Zedong and was apparently touched by the great man's personality. He even wrote a poem to praise Mao as the God of Creation.

The 14th Dalai Lama vowed loyalty to the central government when he attended the first session of New China's top lawmaking body, the National People's Congress, in 1954. "There had been rumors saying the Communist Party and government would destroy our religion, which made me restless and dubious," he said. "But now I see they were all lies and we Tibetans truly enjoy religious freedom."

But several years after the peaceful liberation, repeated rebel attacks took place in different areas of Tibet. They were led by members of old Tibet's upper-class who supported serfdom and opposed a planned democratic reform aimed at emancipating the serfs and slaves.

Trinley Dondrup said he did not feel sad at the news of the Dalai Lama's fleeing after 1959's riot in Lhasa. "There were no worries about being beaten by the master now that the tree of feudal serfdom was uprooted," said the serf, who used to work 10 hours a day without food.

Going into exile, however, made the Dalai Lama a star. Over the years he has been lobbying his independence claim and collected more than 100 awards from around the world, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

In recent decades the Dalai Lama has been used as a cat's paw, and the Tibet issue as a subterfuge, for some Western countries when they want to put pressure on China.

The Chinese government blamed the Dalai Lama and his overseas followers for instigating major riots in Lhasa between 1987 and 1989, and again in 2008.

At least 10 rounds of negotiations have been held between the Chinese central government and the Dalai Lama's envoys since talks were restored in 2002, with the most recent round being held in Beijing last year.

However, very little progress has been made as the Dalai Lama and his supporters have never wavered on Tibet's independence, whether they proposed the so-called "middle way approach," "high degree of autonomy" or "the Greater Tibet."

"The Dalai Lama lacks sincerity," said Zhu Weiqun, a senior official who was present at all 10 rounds.

Though chances for his return were slim, his nephew Gongpo Tashi, 65, cleans the Dalai Lama's former residence every day, hoping the spiritual leader would come back to his home village in northwestern Qinghai Province.

Earlier this year, the Dalai Lama announced his "retirement" from the government-in-exile, a move that a senior Tibetan official shrugged off as "meaningless."

"Since no country recognizes his self-declared 'exiled Tibetan government', whatever he does in his illegal political organization is nonsense and Tibet will not be affected at all," said Qiangba Puncog, chairman of Tibet's regional parliament and former chairman of the regional government.

However, the local government rebuilt the Dalai Lama's residence according to its original appearance at his birthplace in Qinghai province. The residence now receives an increasing number of visitors.


Archeological findings reveal that there were human activities on the Tibet plateau millions of years ago.

Buddhism found its way into Tibet and gradually became popular in the region in the 7th century. The number of lamas ballooned to an unbelievable extent in the 18th century, accounting for 54.8 percent of the total Tibetan population.

Study shows that before the liberation in 1951, there was one monk out of every five Tibetan males. Buddhism was flourishing at the cost of a low birth rate and poor productivity.

Serious scholars are convinced that old Tibet was not the heaven-like Shangrila that many Westerners imagined.

Living Buddha Demo had been a witness. During his time living in a cave in the suburbs of Lhasa in 1925, he lent a helping hand to a Nepalese, and was given a camera in return.

By the time of his death in 1973, the living Buddha had taken thousands of photos, though only about 300 negatives survived. On them, well-dressed aristocratic ladies and coolies in ragged clothes stood in sharp contrast, and the Potala was surrounded by ramshackle huts, infertile land and dirt roads crowded with beggars.

"Lhasa has experienced its greatest changes since the 1950s," said his son, Wangchuk Dorje, who followed his father into photography.

Lhasa in his lens is a modern city with four-lane cement roads, neat Tibetan-style homes, fast cars and smiling faces of residents who seem happy and content, wearing custom-tailored Tibetan robes or stylish North Face and Columbia jackets.

One noticeable change is the increase of population.

Austrian author and mountaineer Heinrich Harrer said in his book "Seven Years in Tibet" that 1.2 million Tibetans lost their lives following the PLA arrival in 1951. Figures provided by the Tibetan government at the time, however, indicated the entire population was less than 1 million.

By 1959, the year the central government launched democratic reforms, Tibet's population had increased to 1.23 million.

Latest figures published after the sixth national census, however, showed Tibet's population has topped 3 million, at least 90 percent of whom are native Tibetans. Tibet's population growth, averaging 1.4 percent annually, was much faster than China's national average growth of 0.57 percent, according to the regional government.

This might at least be attributed to the improved medical care and social welfare. Tibetans' average life expectancy has risen to the current 67 years from 35.5 years in the 1950s.

Also, the maternal mortality rate has dropped from 50 deaths per 1,000 live births in the early 1950s to 1.75 per 1,000, while the infant mortality rate has dropped from 430 deaths per 1,000 births to 20.69 per 1,000.

Health officials in Tibet attributed the decline in deaths to better medical care and births in hospitals.

Starting in 1999, a joint project was launched by the local government and the United Nations Children s Fund (UNICEF) to encourage Tibetan women to give births at hospital, since they used to cut themselves off from the world from the time of their pregnancy through their delivery.

Under this program, a new mother who gives birth in a hospital now receives a 30-yuan subsidy for herself and 20 yuan for her caregiver, and her medical bills are paid for.

Though the 14th Dalai Lama claimed, in a speech delivered in 2009, that China had brought "untold suffering and destruction" to the Tibetans who "literally experienced hell on earth," German tourist Kristen Odnun, at the end of her first trip to Tibet last month, was convinced the Tibetans were happy.

"People here are even friendlier than I expected. They love smiling. Even if they're not talking to you, they'll smile at you. I get a feeling that, from the bottom of their heart, they are happy," Odnun said.

Trinley Dondrup, the young serf who was secretly delighted at the PLA's arrival, remembers with fondness how the PLA soldiers magically turned waste land into cropland and built the region's first roads, schools and hospitals.

The democratic reform starting in 1959 brought even larger changes, putting an end to feudal serfdom and emancipating more than 1 million slaves.

In the 1960s, iron ploughs replaced wooden ploughs to increase productivity, followed by tractors and other modern machinery. Trinley Dondrup secured a job at a collectively-owned grocery store, making 18 yuan a month. "It was so much money that I could buy mountains of food."

For the first time in his life, Trinley Dondrup enjoyed his political rights after the reform. Since general elections began in Tibet in 1961, he has been casting ballots once every few years with pride and a strong sense of responsibility.

Beginning in 1992, Tibetan farmers and herders have enjoyed more autonomy in grassroots elections -- no secret ballots have to be cast and the entire process is performed in the open.

In a typical Tibetan election for village head, for example, each candidate gives a brief presentation, after which the villagers present hada -- a traditional white ceremonial scarf. The candidate who gets the most hadas wins the election.

Since the Tibet Autonomous Region was founded in 1965, native Tibetans have taken Tibet's top jobs -- including chairman of the regional government and chairman of the regional People's Congress.

Tibetan and other ethnic minorities now constitute 78 percent of all government employees at regional, municipal and county levels across Tibet, according to figures released by the regional government.

For the Tibetans, reform has improved their livelihoods and broadened their vision.

This year, Trinley Dondrup and his family moved into a new home built by the local government. The three-bedroom house has a chapel and a bathroom.

Trinley Dondrup has only one son but eight grandchildren from ages 10 to 37.

China's one child policy does not apply to rural Tibetans, though polices are in place to encourage Tibetans to have fewer children.

If a couple has no more than two children, they receive 750 yuan per child each year until the child turns 18 years old.

Four of Trinley Dondrup's grandchildren have grown up and had children of their own, while the younger four are still at school.

The fifth child, a business administration major at Tibet University, is the first in the family to enter college. When she comes home on vacation, she always brings novelties: a blockbuster movie poster, a bottle of perfume or nail polish for her mother.

The family's seventh grandchild, 13-year-old Tasang, said his idol was his primary school Tibetan language teacher, but the Republic of Korea was the country he was most eager to visit.

Like many of his city peers, the boy speaks fluent Mandarin and enjoys watching Korean soap operas.

Nine-year-old Qogco, the third of four children from a rural family in Damxung county in the suburbs of Tibet, said her favorite TV series also included the popular Chinese cartoon "Happy sheep and gray wolf," and the Tibetan version of "Journey to the West," a Chinese classic about a high monk's pilgrimage to India escorted by the monkey king.

Qogco speaks fluent Mandarin, though at school she has daily Tibetan language classes and Mandarin class only every other day. She also has two English classes every week.

Now Qogco's family is preparing to pull down their 13-year-old mud house and build a new house of stone. They have bought a mini-van and a truck. They use the truck for bulk cargo transport and the van to carry the family to Lhasa for pilgrimages.

Qogco can only go on pilgrimages with her parents during school vacations. She said she usually prays before Sakyamuni for good grades. "I hope I can enter a university in other provinces and train to be a Chinese language teacher."


Like most other Chinese cities, Lhasa is prosperous with designer outlets, billboards and an ever expanding fleet of private cars. Official figures said that of the 300,000 permanent Lhasa residents, every fourth person owns a private car.

The economic boom, however, goes in tandem with a series of developmental problems.

With the growing number of autos, most Lhasa citizens are beginning to feel the pinch of congestion, drivers also complain it is increasingly difficult to find a parking lot, and the problem has deteriorated the plateau's environment, which was already troublesome due to climate change and retreating glaciers.

Across the plateau region, prostrating pilgrims, prayer flags, prayer wheels, suffocating incense and other icons of traditional Tibetan life are seen side by side with Coca Cola and Budweiser billboards, designer clothing outlets and pop music starring Chinese and international stars.

As a result, clashes are becoming more frequent between the call for modernization and an economic boom and an urge to maintain the Tibetans' own icons - its unique language, religion, art and virtually every aspect of its cultural and social life.

For nearly half a century, Tashi Tsering, 82, has been raising funds to build schools in Tibet's villages which emphasize the Tibetan language and culture.

"Schools in Tibet should teach all subjects, including modern science and technology in Tibetan, so as to preserve our traditional language," he said in a letter to Tibet's regional People's Congress.

Tashi Tsering is one of the most enthusiastic advocates of preserving traditional Tibetan culture.

A former member of the Dalai Lama's personal dance troupe, Tashi Tsering disliked old Tibet's theocratic ruling elite. He studied in the United States and returned to Tibet in 1964, hoping to contribute to his home region's development.

He spent six years in jail during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and became a professor of English at Tibet University in Lhasa after he was officially exonerated in 1978.

Tashi Tsering's cause to revive traditional culture, however, faces difficulties under the impact of modernization and the influx of new products and ideas from other parts of China and abroad.

The Tibetans, for example, have joined the global craze for Apple Inc.'s iPhone. Many people, from office workers and young business executives to monks at Lhasa's major monasteries, bought the latest model, the iPhone 4, shortly after it was launched.

Yet the iPhone does not have a name in the Tibetan language, or even in Mandarin Chinese. "We just borrow its English name and call it iPhone," said Pempa Tsering, a white-collar worker in Lhasa.

Pempa Tsering and his Tibetan colleagues love the iPhone because it supports a Tibetan typing software and a Tibetan-Chinese dictionary. "I always remind myself not to forget my mother tongue," he said.

Also, amid the economic boom and its threat on Tibet's identity, the central and local governments have spent heavily to preserve its culture, religion, arts and other Tibetan icons.

Starting in the 1980s, the central government spent at least 1.3 billion yuan reinforcing major religious sites, including the Potala, the Jokhang Temple and Lhasa's three major monasteries, Drepung, Ganden and Sera.

Poverty, however, remains a critical issue in Tibet.

At the end of last year, Tibet still had half a million people living in poverty, earning less than 1,700 yuan a year, the local poverty relief office said in a press release earlier this year.

This was, however, only about half the 2005 figure, thanks to a number of poverty-relief projects carried out in the past five years, it noted.

It said the central and local governments were determined to lift more people out of poverty in the coming decade by providing vocational training for farmers and herders, upgrading infrastructure, fostering Tibetan-specific industries, such as traditional arts and crafts, tourism, food and herb processing, and eradicating endemic conditions that prevented people from earning a living.

Meanwhile, the central government has pledged "leapfrog development" and "lasting stability" in Tibet in the coming decade.

By 2020, the per capita net income of farmers and herders in Tibet should be close to the national level, according to the plan announced last year.

Tibet's economy has steered into one of the fastest growing periods in history, with hefty investment in infrastructure construction projects, including airports, highways and railways.

Among the most important projects were an extension of the Qinghai-Tibet railway from Lhasa to Xigaze, Gunsa Airport in the northern Ngari Prefecture, Bangda Airport of Qamdo, and a 100,000-kilowatt photovoltaic plant in Ngari.

Tibet will start building another extension of the plateau railway, from Lhasa to Nyingchi, in the coming five years, according to the region's plan for economic and social development in the 2011-2015 period.

"The clashes between traditional culture and social and economic exist in every culture," said Lhasa-based Tibetologist Drongbu Tsering Dorje. "But preservation of traditions must not become barriers to hinder the overall progress of our society."

As he sees it, economic development is crucial in the rebirth of the lama kingdom.

When he was giving a presentation at a French university, Drongbu Tsering Dorje said a student openly accused the Chinese government of the extinction of traditional Tibetan culture.

"Is it fair for you guys to enjoy every comfort of a modern world, watching with curiosity how the Tibetans still suffer in a Medieval society?" he asked.

The entire audience was hushed.


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