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Train to Tibet Is on the Right Track, China Insists

October 16, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Stung by criticism since the opening of its new Himalayan rail line, China went on a charm offensive last week in a bid to convince the world it is doing everything possible to preserve and develop Tibetan culture.

The opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway on July 1 had sparked speculation that the $4.1-billion train linking Tibet with the rest of the country was part of a strategy to dilute Tibetan culture and identity as a way of blunting calls for independence.

The railway exposes environmentally sensitive Tibet, which China has controlled for 55 years, to more tourists, Han Chinese workers and trade.

In a news conference and two-day forum in Beijing, Chinese authorities and supportive scholars sought to counter international criticism.

"The Chinese government has always shown much concern and attached great importance to the preservation and development of Tibetan culture," Lhagpa Phuntshogs, director-general of the government-funded Chinese Center for Tibetan Studies, told reporters in Beijing.

One of the media's biggest misconceptions, said Sithar, deputy minister with the Communist Party's United Front responsible for Tibet policy, is the view that Tibetan culture should be kept as is.

"The culture should move forward and adapt to the times so it can better suit new development," said Sithar, who goes by one name.

Beijing's efforts to boost its global reputation were marred, however, by reports that Chinese soldiers had opened fire late last month on unarmed Tibetan refugees trying to flee into Nepal.

Accounts of the incident emerged from two British climbers, who wrote on mountaineering websites of border guards opening fire near the 18,750-foot-high Nanga La pass. The climbers said several dozen people were shot, and at least one was killed.

The U.S. ambassador to China, Clark Randt, delivered a protest Thursday to the Foreign Ministry over the incident, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Stevenson said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao initially denied having any knowledge of the shooting, but the government later acknowledged that border guards had killed one refugee. The official New China News Agency reported that the "stowaways" attacked the soldiers, forcing them to open fire. But a Romanian television station released video footage Saturday of what it says was the shooting that appeared to show shots fired from a distance.

Tibetan rights group say that in recent years, Beijing has devoted more attention and resources to counter claims by Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, that China is degrading his people's culture.

Beijing's emphasis reflects in part its assessment of where it has lost ground internationally in the battle for hearts and minds, analysts said.

"These efforts are based on a very strong and broadly accurate analysis by officials in Beijing that they are winning the political battle with the Dalai Lama abroad, in terms of foreign countries not declaring support for independence," said Robert Barnett, professor of contemporary Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

"But ... they are deeply exposed to accusations of eroding Tibetan culture, particularly with the development of the railway line, new city construction, migration and mass tourism," he said.

China deserves credit for bringing many urban Tibetans into the 21st century, building schools and healthcare systems and boosting the economy, said another U.S. academic, who declined to be identified given his ongoing links with Beijing. But it's done almost nothing for the countryside, he added.

"There is an attitude among Chinese officials that, because they are the 'advanced civilization,' they know what's good for the Tibetans," he said.

Some critics question Beijing's commitment to Tibetan culture, citing policies that discourage use of the Tibetan language in school and that forbid civil servants, university students or workers for state-owned enterprises to visit monasteries or engage in other forms of religious activity.

"The new railway to Lhasa will further Beijing's political objectives of assimilating Tibet into China and ensuring 'stability' in the region," said Kate Saunders, an official with the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington.

These "objectives are detrimental to cultural and religious diversity and the exercise of political freedoms," she said.

Pro-Beijing scholars at last week's government-funded China Tibetan Culture Forum in the capital had a different view.

Accusations that the government is "practicing cultural genocide in Tibet" are false and irresponsible, said Colin Mackerras, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "Contrary to what the Dalai Lama claims, the Chinese government has actively promoted Tibetan culture and looks set to continue doing so."

"A few people with ulterior motives have said around the world that the Chinese government has caused the Tibetan language to lose its vitality and Tibetan culture to become extinct," said Changngopa Tseyang, vice president of Tibet University. "Such remarks are totally groundless."

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