Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

 Also see two companion pieces: kanishka-in-kashgar-a-report-from-the-fringes-of-the-chinese-empire.html and


My trilingual Tibetan guide met me at the airport, an hour’s drive from Lhasa via a smooth new highway. (China has lots of smooth new highways.) The road runs along a braided river delivering snow and glacier melt to Tibet’s capital and largest city, which lies in a long, broad valley. 

Brahmaputra I“The Brahmaputra,” my guide said, which thrilled me.  I’d met this river before, way downstream. It carries life-sustaining water to points South and East, to Bangladesh, that is, and to Assam in India. 

The Brahmaputra (aka the Tsangpo in Chinese)  unites with the Ganges and flows eventually into the Bay of Bengal—which reminds me: China is also the source of the Ganges River, without which India’s northern heartland would be far less fertile.  The Mekong and the Indus rivers also arise in China.  Should Beijing decide to dam any or all of these rivers, much or all of South and Southeast Asia would be begging for fresh water. 

Eyeing a Greater Tibet

I wonder what China’s terms would be.  Draconian, if China’s present East and South China seas policy is indicative.  Hydraulic engineers in Delhi must have  nightmares. Leaders, too.  Would Delhi have to cede Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, which Beijing already claims?  Many well-rooted peoples living in these border areas spring from Tibetan stock and  share Tibet’s Buddhist culture, which, Beijing claims, makes them fair game for absorption into China. 

That would not go over well with the locals.

I’ve  spent some time in Ladakh and in Arunachal Pradesh, personal travel in the former, diplomatic business in the latter. I’ve hiked in Bhutan and Nepal, too.  Never in these Tibet-influenced areas have I met one person who’d trade his or her current citizenship for the heavy-handed rule of Beijing.  This goes in spades for those whose parents and grandparents fled Mao’s eradication approach to Tibetan culture after 1959.  Subsequent Chinese regimes have been  subtler but equally set on eliminating cultural differentiators between Tibetans and Han.

Tibetans who live in the Tibet “Autonomous” Region and spill over into adjacent provinces, like Sichuan, would also prefer freedom from Beijing’s culture-blighting embrace, but voicing such dreams is dangerous.  That’s why so many monks (and at least one nun) have set themselves on fire.  Horse plowGiven Buddhism’s reverence for life, this is a very strong statement, so I decided to see  what I could see  for myself.  Is China the beneficent modernizing force it claims to be?  Or not?  Would my three day visit suffice for any insight at all?   

Not Many Prayer Flags

So, we were driving along the river toward Lhasa, a landscape of brown fields and pale green poplars contained by rapidly-rising mountains to either side.  It was midday.  Many farmers had interrupted their spring plowing to gather in twos or threes for lunch.  Very bucolic.  Especially the use of horses.  Not very modern. 

We’d passed clusters of farmhouses and some ordinary-looking villages, too, when suddenly I registered what I was seeing.  Flags.  Not the ubiquitous (as in normal Flags on street in LhasaTibetan Buddhist locales)  strings of red-blue-green- &-yellow prayer flags that are meant to send waves of compassion to all beings.  Red flags.  Symbols of the People’s Republic of China.

“The farmers have to fly them,” my Tibetan guide said, his emphasis on the word that signifies compulsion.  He didn’t elaborate.  It was clear where his loyalties lay—and more so, the next day, when he excused himself to prostrate three times before one of many golden images of Chenresig, the boddhisatva of compassion, while we were visiting Jokhang temple.  

In Lhasa, I soon discovered, those red flags were everywhere: marching along both sides of the boulevards, waving over store fronts, flying above multi-story buildings, adorning traffic circles, overwhelming the delicate pastels of fruit tree blossoms in the parks.  Red.  Red.  Red.  Although I was  in the capital of the Autonomous Region of Tibet, not once did I glimpse the distinctive flag that Tibetans unfurl so proudly when they are free to do so.  Even on the precincts of famous monasteries that should have been spider-webbed with prayer flags, the prayer flag count was modest—and the flag displayed on a staff rising from the highest point of the Jokhang red flag ultra-sacred Jokhang temple was the harsh  red banner of the People’s Republic of China.  The message was clear. Cling to your superstitions, but bow first and always to Beijing!   

Piety under Surveillance

Lhasa residents and country people making a pilgrimage to Lhasa may light butter lamps, they may twirl prayer wheels, huge or hand-held, and they may perform the two kilometer kora around the Potala, which is to say circumambulate clockwise, but they’d better be orderly about it.  The eyes of the Chinese authorities are always on the alert.  Within the center of the city, a small city, with a population of only 250,000, I came upon three large  Army compounds, in one of which, not quite concealed by its high walls, I glimpsed row on row of buildings that must have been barracks.  Their gates were imposing, even elegant.  They were also very wide—I could imagine armored personnel carriers zipping out quite handily—and always surmounted by a brazen red flag.  Very photogenic.  But I can’t show you any pix.   Even when I tried for a shot through the inky dark windows of our vehicle, my guide went into panic mode. 

“No pictures!” he rasped.  His voice trembled with terror.  No one could see through those windows. No one could have told whether I was fumbling with f-stops or blowing my nose.  But my guide’s fear was so extreme I lowered my camera. 

So Big Han Brother was watching.  Men and occasionally women in uniform were visible,  standing in the shade of this building or that, hovering just around the corner, Two language signsstrolling here and there in the old market area.  As with the red flags, once I’d noticed one officer, I saw them everywhere. But the no camera rule covered the security forces, too.  Very clever.  If  the watchers can’t be photographed, they don’t exist, do they?   

The Legibility Test

Meanwhile, store signs in the old Tibetan market neighborhood were delivering the same message I’d noted a few days before in the commercial districts  of Kashgar.      Because Lhasa too is located in an “autonomous” region, the local version of the shop’s name had to appear on all storefronts along with the relevant Chinese characters.  Ah—but which had primacy?  Which could be read with ease from a distance?  Not the Tibetan.  And my Tibetan guide, echoing my Uighur guide, complained of Tibetan neighborhoods destroyed to make way for wealthier Han store owners.  Even the primitive brick works along the river have Chinese proprietors, I discovered.  And, naturally, the big construction companies transforming the look of Lhasa are not Tibetan-owned either.    

Shades of Kashgar and Urumqui!  In Lhasa, too, posters and billboards caught the eye and delivered the Beijing line wherever the locals could be expected to congregate.  I saw them outside the Jokhang Temple.  I saw them in the old market, whose picturesque concentration of open-front shops displaying Harmony propaganda Tibetan goods invites tourist photography, thereby “proving” to the world that Tibetan culture survives.  Most egregiously, where the kora route around the Potala runs through a little park, a series of posters stands ready to ambush the pious: kitchy versions of Chinese scrolls featuring artsy brushwork, blossoms, pines,  long-gowned scholars and/or neatly-dresssed, attentive children.  My guide translated for me.  The theme, mostly in Chinese, was harmony, harmony, harmony.  And more harmony. 

Hmmmm.  Seems to me that so much harping on good will and cooperation between Han and Tibetan suggests a serious lack thereof.   And maybe the cute little sermons also meant to serve as a warning to Tibetans with dangerously “splitist” thoughts.  In short, behave!

Amnesia via Urban Renewal

Another propaganda theme redundantly hammered in was development, often via “before” and “after” billboards contrasting shabby old neighborhoods with the glittery glass towers of the high (in Tibet: just higher) rise future.  Their ubiquity in Lhasa (and every other city I visited) Billboardsuggested that many locals might prefer elements of an unreconstructed city.  We know from scattered protests thgroughout China that they’d definitely like better compensation for forced removals.

In Tibet, as elsewhere, there’s big money to be made in redevelopment, but the development-is-good-for-you message seemed especially strident in minority areas like Kashgar and Lhasa.  Perhaps the authorities believe that the mental traces of a resistant culture will be easier to erase once the physical reminders are gone.  In any event, it’s good security policy to break up concentrations of suspect peoples.  Meanwhile, if Tibetans are so pleased with the Beijing-imposed modernizing of their old city, why are all the preachy billboards necessary?

Perhaps my biggest surprise in Lhasa had nothing to do with China.  It was my own strongly negative reaction to the Potala, which used to be the Dalai Lama’s palace and the seat of governance for a theocratic state.  On the one hand, topping a pimple of a hill in the center of the city, it was smaller than I expected.  The usual camera angles magnify its height.  On the other hand, it would have been a monstrous imposition on the small, low city that Lhasa certainly was in 1959, when the Red army arrived in force and the current Dalai Lama and so many other Tibetans fled to India. 

Shades of the Vatican! I thought.  Hardly a proper Potala place for a spiritual leader to live.  Should Tibet ever be free and independent (which is unlikely) or even truly autonomous (which is only remotely possible), the best outcome would allow the Potala to remain as a museum, while the returned or new Dalai Lama is housed more simply and appropriately.  The days of profligate, luxury-loving princes of the church or sect are over, as even the new Pope in Rome knows. 

And here’s one of the perks of clerical privilege.  Only the common people have to groan their way up to the top, step by step, on foot.  VIPs (including the Dalai Lama in his heyday) arrive by car at an entry on the unseen side.  Is that why we always get photos of the one  elevation?

Whatever its function in the future, however, the unique structure that is the Potala will never again preside over Lhasa as it once did.  The new buildings are unimpressive compared to the skyscrapers in China’s mega-cities, but they are inexorably changing the scale of the city.  The Potala will not dominate; it will be surrounded, encircled, caged.

The Inhuman Factor

And yet, for all the gratuitous red flags and the rapid, dramatic altering of skylines, what stuck me most profoundly in Lhasa and elsewhere during my visit to China wasn’t this mushrooming of office buildings, residential towers and luxury hotels (the latest in Beijing plans to bill itself as a seven star destination!), but the lack of vivacity on the ground.  China is wealthy now.  The predictable architectural symbols of wealth are proliferating, but where’s the noise, the buzz, the laughter in public places?  Where’s the bustle?  Where’s the exuberance?  Where’s the spark of electricity that passes from stranger to stranger in cities where people are free to express themselves? 

In New York or London or New Delhi or Tokyo you walk down the street and you are part of one mini drama after another.  It’s exciting.   No so in China.  Especially not so in the “autonomous” regions.  Beijing has created order—and shopping malls (my favorite in Beijing is the Big Boom mall for furnishing your chic, new, multi-million-yuan apartment).  So the deal is this: the emergent middle class is free to spend money like crazy, so long as it keeps its collective mouth shut.  Now Beijing is trying to impose that order and those values on its “minority” peoples.  Maybe if Beijing created more good jobs and serious spending power for Tibetans and Uighurs, they would be less restive.

Cave exteriorPostscript

In addition to indulging my political curiosity while I was in China, I ticked off a number of important tourist sites—the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, etc.—and visited some less familiar places that awed me with their finesse and beauty, especially the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang and Turpan.  I couldn’t photograph the interior of any cliff-hanging caves, but here’s a photo of a musician,  Muscian who added enchantment to a lovely oasis in the desert.  Yet, all too often as I moved around China, the human element was lacking.  Served everywhere by dutiful functionaries following procedure perfectly, people whose eyes never sparkled while their lips produced the prescribed smile, I’ve never felt so lonely and isolated, even in other situations where lack of a shared language complicated communication.  Fortunately,  I’d arranged for guides whose time and attention I didn’t have to share.  Each was almost over prepared with a long, fact-filled official spiel for every site, but each was also delighted to scrap the script and engage in candid, private conversation on politics, religion, personal goals, whatever.  They smiled.  They laughed!  The Chinese, I’d been told, recoil from touch, but I got farewell hugs at several airports.  I thank them.

FrescoOf course, there’s life in China, the intellectual and creative sort as well as the human sort, but it seems to have retreated underground, where it’s safe from the authorities.  As a result, all the new construction seemed rather ghoulish to me, like fingernails growing from the digits of a corpse that belongs, not to the Chinese people, or the Tibetans, or the Uighurs, who are all forced to play dead, but to the all-suffocating party that rules. 

That said, I’ll end with a more soothing image that was hard to come by, since photography (sigh!) was also largely forbidden in temples.