Tibet Through Chinese Eyes

Many Chinese working in Tibet regard themselves as idealistic missionaries of progress, rejecting the Western idea of them as agents of cultural imperialism. In truth, they are inescapably both
Sichuanese on the Frontier

Perhaps the most hopeful moment in recent Han-Tibetan relations came shortly after 1980, when the Chinese Party Secretary, Hu Yaobang, went on a fact-finding mission to Tibet and returned with severe criticisms of Chinese policies. He advocated a two-pronged solution: Chinese investment was needed to spur economic growth in Tibet, but at the same time the Han should be more respectful of Tibetan culture. Cadres needed to learn Tibetan; the language should be used in government offices serving the public; and religion should be allowed more freedom.

There's no question that such respect is sorely needed, especially with regard to language. I never met a single government-sent Han worker who was learning Tibetan—not even the volunteers who would be there for eight years. And in Lhasa at the Xinhua bookstore, the largest in the city, I found not one textbook for Chinese students of Tibetan—books for foreign students, yes, but nothing for the Chinese.

Some of the 1980 reforms were implemented, but they were cut short by a series of riots in Lhasa that started in 1987. To Beijing hardliners, the riots indicated that too much freedom is a bad thing, and in 1987 Hu Yaobang was purged, partly for his recommendations regarding Tibet. By the spring of 1989 martial law had been declared in Tibet, and the Chinese concluded that relaxing restrictions on Tibetan culture and religion was tantamount to encouraging unrest. The two-pronged solution was quickly cut in half: Beijing would simply develop the economy, hoping that rising standards of living would defuse political tensions while building closer economic ties with the interior. This policy has been accelerated by the enormous investments of the 1990s.

Development, however, often comes at the cost of culture. Traditional sections of Lhasa are being razed in favor of faceless modern buildings, and the economic boom is attracting hordes of Han and Hui (an Islamic minority) migrants to Tibet.

Outsiders dominate Tibet's economy—indeed, they've essentially built it, inspiring enormous resentment among the Tibetan population. I met some Tibetans who didn't mind that cadres were sent from the interior, but I never met one who wasn't opposed to the influx of migrant workers, especially the huge numbers of Han from nearby Sichuan. Longtime Han residents, too, felt this was a serious problem.

The phenomenon of liudong renkou, or "floating population," is affecting urban areas all across China, with some 100 million people seeking work away from home. In the west and south there are particularly large numbers of Sichuanese in the floating population, and during my travels I often heard the same prejudices: the Sichuanese migrants are uncultured, their women loose, their men jiaohua, sly. And worst of all, people complained, they keep coming.

Having spent two years in Sichuan, I understand why the Sichuanese so often leave. Their province, roughly the size of France, contains 120 million people, and the economy is so shaky that recent factory closings have led to worker uprisings in some cities. Mostly the Sichuanese leave because they aren't afraid to; they have been toughened by tough conditions, and all across China that is another thing they are famous for: their ability to chiku—eat bitter. They work and they survive, and like successful migrants anywhere else in the world, they are resented for their success.

In Tibet the Sichuanese have helped themselves to a large chunk of the economy. This was clear from the moment I arrived at the Lhasa airport, where thirteen of the sixteen restaurants bordering the entrance advertised Sichuan food. One was Tibetan. Virtually all small business in Lhasa follows this pattern; everywhere I saw Sichuan restaurants and shops. Locals told me that 80 percent of Lhasa's Han were Sichuanese, and this may not be much of an exaggeration.

This influx is far more significant and disruptive than the importing of Han cadres, and it's also harder to monitor. One common misperception in Western reports is that these people are sent by the government: the image is of a tremendous Han civilian army arriving to overwhelm Tibetan culture. The truth is that the government has little control over the situation. "How do you cut off the people moving out there?" asked one American who had spent much time in Tibet. "What mechanism are you going to have to prevent that? They don't have any restrictions on internal travel—and we always beat them over the head about not having those, because to institute them would be a human-rights issue."

Far from arriving with an ethnic agenda, the independent migrants are for the most part completely apolitical. In Lhasa I often ate at a small Sichuan restaurant run by Fei Xiaoyun, a thirty-one-year-old native of Chengdu who, along with her husband, had been laid off in 1996 by a bankrupt state-owned natural-gas plant. Each of them had been given a two-year severance allowance of $30 a month, and when that was gone, they took their savings and bought plane tickets to Lhasa. They had left their five-year-old son with his grandmother—a common choice for migrants, including cadres. This is partly out of fear of the effects on health of living in Tibet, and also because Tibetan schools are considered worse than those in the interior and children who are registered outside their districts have to pay extra fees.

Fei Xiaoyun never spoke of the growth of the GNP, and she had no interest in developing the motherland. Once, I asked her about Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, whose economic reforms are closing factories like hers, and she didn't even recognize his name. "All of the country's big affairs I don't understand," she said with a shrug. She was simply a poor woman with her back against the wall, and like the rest of the Sichuanese who had made their way to Tibet, she was trying desperately to make a living.

But such migrants have a political effect, as Tibetans watch outsiders develop an economy from which they feel increasingly removed. This also presents a question: If the rules are the same for everybody, why are the Han entrepreneurs so much more successful than the Tibetans? The most common response is that the rules aren't the same: the Chinese have easier access to government guanxi, or connections. But even on a level playing field the Han would have more capital and better contacts with sources in the interior. And their migrant communities have a tendency to support recent arrivals. This is especially true of the Sichuanese—one will arrive, and then a few relatives, and before long an extended family is dominating a factory or a block of shops. In front of the Jokhang, the holiest temple in Tibet, rows of stalls sell khataks, ceremonial scarves that pilgrims use as offerings. It's a job one would expect to see filled by Tibetans—as one would expect those selling rosaries in front of St. Peter's to be Catholic. But one saleswoman explained that all the stalls were run by Sichuanese from three small cities west of Chengdu. There were more than 200 of them—relatives, friends of relatives, relatives of friends—and they had completely filled that niche.

One day I walked past the khatak sellers with a Tibetan friend, and he shook his head. "Those people know how to do business," he said. "We Tibetans don't know how to do it—we're too straight. If something's supposed to be five yuan, we say it's five yuan. But a Sichuanese will say ten." I felt there was some truth to this—the Han are successful in Tibet for some of the same reasons that they are successful in so many places, from Southeast Asia to the United States. They have a stronger business tradition than the Tibetans, and virtually all independent Han settlers in Tibet have failed somewhere else, giving them a single-minded drive to succeed.

Consequently, Tibet feels like a classic frontier region, with typically peculiar demographics. There are disproportionately few Han children, and almost nobody comes to stay: the intention is invariably to return to the interior. The majority of the Han are men, including the government-sent workers. Of the Han women I saw in Tibet, more than a few were prostitutes; locals told me that they had come in a wave in 1994 and 1995, after the investments in the sixty-two major projects. One Han volunteer I spoke with had arrived in a group of thirteen men; one woman had applied but was rejected because the authorities felt that Tibet was no place for a young woman. The young man was resigned to finding a wife during his three paid trips home. "During vacation I'll be able to look for a girlfriend," he said. "I'll have six months. You can meet one then, and after that you c can write andall when you come back here."

There were moments when everything—the ethnic tension, the rugged individualism, the hard, bright sun and the high, bare mountains—seemed more like a Jack London story than a real society. One day some American friends and I hired a driver, a twenty-five-year-old Sichuanese named Wei, who was nursing a defeated 1991 Volkswagen Santana. He had a two-year-old son at home, and he hoped to earn enough money by carrying passengers—though he wasn't registered to do so—to buy a new car in six months. We agreed to pay him $36 if he drove us to Damxung, five hours north of Lhasa. Drive he did—past the police checkpoint, where he faked his credentials ("It's simpler that way," he explained), and past a Land Rover full of foreigners driven by a Tibetan, who, realizing our driver wasn't registered, swore he'd turn him in at Damxung. "It's because I'm Han," Wei said grimly. "And at Damxung the police will be Tibetan." He drove faster and faster, racing ahead of the Land Rover, until finally he hit a bump and ruptured the fuel line.

The car eased to a stop in the middle of nowhere. To the west rose the snow-topped Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains. The Tibetan driver cruised past, glaring. Wei cut a spare hose and patched the leak, and then he addressed the problem of injecting fuel back into the carburetor. He unhooked the fuel line and sucked out a mouthful of gas. Holding it in his mouth, he plugged the line back in. Then he walked around the front of the car and spit the fuel into the carburetor.

The car started. I could see Wei working the taste of gasoline around his mouth, and then, a few minutes later, he took out a cigarette. Everybody in the car held his breath—everybody but Wei, who lit the cigarette and sucked deeply. He did not explode. He stared ahead at the vast emptiness that stood between him and $36, and he kept driving.

That was the way a Sichuanese did things in Tibet. Gasoline was bitter but he ate it, the same way he ate the altitude and the weather and the resentment of the locals. None of that mattered. All that mattered was the work he did, the money he made, and the promise that if he was successful, he'd go home rich.

A House Without Pillars?

Tibet gave rise to exciting stories, but it was indeed jianku, and the social problems made a hard place even harder. Near the end of my trip I ate dumplings at Fei Xiaoyun's restaurant, and as I ate, she complained about her situation. Business was bad, and her life was boring; she worked fifteen-hour days and she had no friends in Lhasa. She missed her son, back in Chengdu, and she probably wouldn't see him until the following year. She asked me how long it had been since I'd been home, and I said I hadn't left China in more than two years.

"We're the same," she said. "Both of us are a long way from home." I agreed, and she asked if I missed my family. "Of course I miss them," I said. "But I'll see them next month, when I go home."

It was the wrong thing to say. Her eyes went empty and then filled with tears. We sat alone in the restaurant. It was unusual for a Chinese to show emotion in public, and I didn't know what to say. Silently I ate my dumplings while she cried, the late-afternoon sun stirring the Lhasa flies that were thick about the table.

Tibet had started to depress me, and I was looking forward to leaving. Strangely, it almost seemed worse for not being as bad as I had always heard. There were definite benefits of Chinese support, and I was impressed by the idealism and dedication of some of the young Han teachers I had met. But at the same time, most efforts to develop the region were badly planned, and it was frustrating to see so much money and work invested in a poor country and so much unhappiness returned. And often I felt that the common people, who knew little of Tibet's complicated historical and cultural issues, were being manipulated by the government in ways they didn't understand. But although I was certain that nobody was truly happy (most of the Han didn't like being there, and most of the Tibetans certainly weren't happy to have them), I wasn't sure who was pulling the strings. One could go straight to the top and probably find the same helplessness, the same strings. It was mostly the irrevocable mistakes of history, but it was also money—simple economic pressure that drove a mother away from her son to a place where the people did not want her.

This was not the first time I'd seen somebody cry in Lhasa. Five days earlier I'd spent the evening in front of the Jokhang temple, where I talked with two Tibetans. The first was a doctor who had done time in prison for writing an article warning Tibetans to protect their culture, and the second was a fifty-three-year-old who described himself as a common worker. Both men were eager to speak with an American, and they had a great deal of faith in America's ability to help solve the Tibet question. That saddened me as well. I wanted to tell them that in America there are many FREE TIBET bumper stickers, but they sit next to license plates that often bear the names of forgotten tribes who succumbed to the same forces of expansion and modernization now threatening Tibet. And the Chinese solution to the Tibet question—throwing money at the problem—also seemed very American. But I held my peace and listened.

"Look at this pillar," the worker said. He was standing next to the temple entrance, and he rested his hand on the worn red wood. "If a house doesn't have pillars, or if the pillars aren't straight, what will happen? It will fall down. It's the same thing here—our pillars are our history and our politics. If we don't have those, our society will collapse, and all of it will be lost—all of our culture."

It was dark, and I could barely make out his face, but I could see there were tears in his eyes. There was no more politically sensitive place in Tibet; virtually every major protest had happened in front of the Jokhang, and I knew it was unwise to speak so openly here. He glanced over his shoulder and continued.

"You need to tell the people of America what it's like here," he said. "You need to tell them what needs to be done." I nodded and shook his hand, but I realized I had no idea what I would recommend, or what the people of America could do. Perhaps we could build casinos.

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