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A Tale of Torn Loyalties for Tibetan Officials

Asia: Many former serfs have aligned with China and against the Dalai Lama. They struggle with tradition versus modernity.


LHASA, Tibet — Chunphel's rebellion came early in life, when his stomach overruled his scant faith in Buddhism. "Even though it was sacrilege, I used to steal offerings of fruit from the temples because I was hungry," he recalls.

The eldest of 10 children in a poor family, Chunphel was a nangsen, or hereditary domestic servant, stoking fires and brewing yak butter tea on the estate of a Tibetan county official.

But when Beijing quashed a Tibetan rebellion in 1959 and the region's top theocrat, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile, Chunphel joined a Communist Party-led work team that redistributed aristocrats' land and livestock to poor peasants.

"I'd lived through a lot of hardship and poverty. I was enthusiastic about the work and was a natural 'activist' " whom the Chinese groomed for Communist Party membership, he said. Chunphel, who, like many Tibetans, uses a single name, joined the party in 1960.

Today, Chunphel is vice chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the No. 2 official in the local government.

Beijing has carefully cultivated Tibetan officials such as Chunphel, many of whom are also former serfs. More than half a century of Chinese rule in Tibet has produced a group of elite Tibetans who have cast their lot with China and against the Dalai Lama.

China claims that 75% of Tibetan officials are ethnic Tibetans and cites that as proof that the region enjoys autonomy under Chinese rule.

Last year, Chinese President Jiang Zemin proclaimed that Tibetan officials are "fully trusted by the [Communist] Party and people."

But the Dalai Lama has said: "Naturally, 99% of [Tibetans]--be they young, old, cadres, officials--are deeply resentful of the Chinese occupation of Tibet."

So where do Tibetan officials' loyalties lie?

In the polarized debate between Beijing and Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, it is easy to dismiss Tibetan officials as either Beijing's powerless puppets or the Dalai Lama's closet allies. But such viewpoints oversimplify the question of Tibetan officials' loyalties, which are far more complex than either side wants to admit.

"Tibetans can never go back to their previous state of uniformity; they have already split into different, irreconcilable groups," writes Wang Lixiong in his Hong Kong-published 1998 book, "Sky Burial," the most critical assessment of China's Tibet policy by a mainland Chinese author.

Wang argues that the walls between Tibetan officials and exiles, nationalists and Communists are for now insurmountable.

He adds that these divisions are symptomatic of deeper fissures in Tibetans, who are pulled apart by tradition and modernity, secularity and spirituality. "This spiritual schism is the Tibetans' greatest tragedy," he writes.

Without this disunity, it could be very difficult for Beijing to control Tibet, which used to be ethnically and religiously cohesive.

"We feel that Tibetan officials working for the Chinese establishment in Tibet are basically creatures of circumstance," said Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile.

He paraphrased a high-ranking Chinese official who reportedly told his Tibetan colleagues, "Your stomach is with the Communist Party, but your heart lies with the Dalai Lama."

Among Tibetan elites, the stomachs are increasingly winning out.

Getting ahead in Tibet these days requires being savvy in the lingo and culture of Chinese officialdom. It often requires an education in one of the many schools Beijing has established to train and inculcate Tibetan bureaucrats.

And it often entails joining the party, which, at least theoretically, requires one to be an atheist and take part in the chorus of official denunciations of the Dalai Lama.

To some Tibetan officials, falling in line with Beijing is less a matter of loyalty than of self-interest. In a strategic bid to bolster political stability and its own public image, Beijing has vastly increased its spending on development and infrastructure projects in Tibet.

For the Tibetan officials in charge of these projects, this creates opportunities for corruption. Last year, China's railway minister pledged to prevent the embezzlement of funds from one of Beijing's largest projects in the region: the $3-billion, 700-mile Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

But Beijing must keep the funds flowing and the Tibetan officials sated to avoid the social discontent that can spark calls for Tibetan independence. When pro-independence riots rocked Lhasa in 1989, central government funding for Tibet rose 20%, according to official statistics. In 1990, it rose 84%.

Beijing's spending is evident all over Lhasa, which has ballooned to many times its historical size and begun to look like a typical Chinese city. But it is also evident that urbanites, officials and employees of state-owned companies--the people Beijing counts on to maintain stability in Tibet--are the main beneficiaries of the gleaming new hotels, museums and department stores.

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