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China Focus: Tibet marks 60th anniversary of peaceful liberation

LHASA, May 23 (Xinhua) -- 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, then lie flat on their stomachs.

Monday is the 21st day of the third month in the Tibetan calendar, not an occasion for massive pilgrimages -- which happen on the eighth, 15th and 30th of every month. Still, devout Buddhists are constantly seen, walking clockwise along the major pilgrimage routes around the Potala and Porgor Street near Jokhang Temple.

A crowd of about 5,000 people from all walks of life gathered in front of Potala Palace Monday morning to mark the special date that opened a new chapter in Tibet's history.

"It's a historic date for all the Tibetans," said Qiangba Puncog, chairman of Tibet's regional legislature, while addressing the crowd. "Tibet's peaceful liberation laid a solid foundation for the subsequent democratic reform, building of socialism and the modernization drive."

A grand flag-raising ceremony was held at 10 a.m., with the entire crowd joining in a chorus of the national anthem.

Flowers were then presented at a monument marking Tibet's peaceful liberation in 1951, and the crowd went silent to mourn the heroes who died in the fight for Tibet's liberation, socialism building and economic development.

"It opened a new chapter in Tibet's history...and ushered in a new period of national unity and rapid development," Qiangba said.

Primary school student Dawa Chodron put on a new red scarf for the occasion. "My parents and teacher all say it's a red-letter day," she said. "I'll remember this date."

As the crowd sang the national anthem, all the pilgrims outside the Potala stopped to pay tribute to the flag.

"The quality of our life is so much better than before, and I feel secure and content on my daily pilgrimage," said Deji, a senior citizen from downtown Lhasa.

Tobgye, 66, was excited to witness the flag-raising ceremony. "This flag changed my fate from serf to government official."

Under the former system in Tibet, Tobgye's family were all serfs without personal freedom. His father died young and the family relied on his mother's meager sewing income.

After Tibet's liberation, Tobgye was able to attend school and secure a job at the agriculture and animal husbandry bureau in Shannan Prefecture.

After he retired at 60, his family bought a house in his hometown of Lhasa.

In Beijing, more than 4,000 km from Lhasa, a seminar was held Monday to commemorate Tibet's peaceful liberation and review the region's development over six decades.

The Tibet Daily published an editorial on Monday to hail Tibet's peaceful liberation and six decades of overall development in the plateau region.

"Over 60 years, the Chinese Communist Party has led people of different ethnic groups in Tibet to create one miracle after another on the 'roof of the world,' and to ink a glorious chapter in the advancement of civilization from darkness to sunlight, autarchy to democracy, poverty to wealth and isolation to openness," the editorial said.


For Tibetans like Tobgye, May 23 is a milestone in Tibet's history as well as their own lives.

The date, however, marks 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.

Exactly 60 years ago, an agreement was signed between the Chinese central government and representatives of the Kasha, the former local Tibetan government.

The document, known as the 17-point agreement, said the Tibetan people should unite and drive out imperialist forces and return to the People's Republic of China.

It said the Tibetan local government would assist the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to enter Tibet and consolidate the national defense. It also pledged regional autonomy and religious freedom in Tibet.

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

Trinley Dondrup, 80, said he was "secretly delighted" at the PLA's coming. A serf sold to an 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.


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 look 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 "Pleasant Goat and Big Big 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 for the prosperity of the snowland.

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.

(Writing by Zhou Yan in Beijing, with reporting by Pempa Tsering, Karma Dorje, Deji, Bai Xu, Liu Gang, Hu Xing and Yu Jia in Lhasa.)

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