'Streets with Memories' in Lhasa

Melissa Block talks with Robert Barnett, professor of Contemporary Tibetan Studies at Columbia University and author of Lhasa: Streets with Memories, about the relationship between China and Tibet, and how the Tibetan community views the railway, and development in Tibet.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

So what about that question? What impact might the railway have on Tibet? We've asked Robert Barnett to help answer that. He's professor of contemporary Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. ROBERT BARNETT (Columbia University): Thank you very much.

BLOCK: I wonder if you could help us understand the context here. Explain for us a bit the relationship and the ongoing tensions between China and Tibet.

Dr. BARNETT: Tibet was under some kind of protectorate of China during the 17th, 18th Centuries, kind of relationship between two different entities which we don't quite know what to call. But it was only after the British invaded in 1903 that the Chinese decided they'd better integrate Tibet into China as if it were like a province.

They didn't manage this until 1950. They sent an army in. The first nine years they negotiated a kind of concessional arrangement where they allowed the traditional system to continue. That collapsed with a big uprising by Tibetans against the Chinese presence. And then they began these huge social engineering projects trying to really eliminate Tibetan culture and religion.

And in 1980, they reversed that as we all have seen throughout China to a more moderate phase. And now they're really trying to make Tibet into part of China, not through any socialist method but by using modernity. Development is the big mantra for the Chinese in Tibet and this is part of that effort.

BLOCK: But for some, that would be the fear, that the Tibetan culture would be crushed by this venture into Tibet.

Dr. BARNETT: Well, yes. I mean, everybody in Tibet likes modernity and everybody is very happy to have the benefits that go with that.

But the problem seems to be - although this is never really articulated because there's no freedom to articulate very much there - but the problem is that Chinese ideas of modernity are really sledgehammer modernity. You send in a huge amount of subsidies to build up infrastructure. A huge number of workers and technicians come in to implement that.

And really the people that are there may or may not be lucky to get much benefit from that. That's the issue. Could they have done this in a more skillful way?

BLOCK: We just heard there in Anthony Kuhn's piece that the Dalai Llama has said he will withhold judgment and wait and see what comes of this new train service. That seems to be a pretty muted statement from him. Did that surprise you?

Dr. BARNETT: Yes. It's extraordinary, actually. And it really represents the kind of unfashionable, really historically remarkable lengths to which at least this leader will go to compromise. He's just bending over backwards to try to get the Chinese to negotiate, I think, before he dies. This is a race against time. A lot of Tibetans will say that he's bent back too far.

But on the other hand, it does fit with both his religious ideals, his kind of passion to create a more ecumenical, more peaceful way of solving conflicts in the world, and his own idea about diplomacy, which is you don't really get anywhere through confrontation.

BLOCK: We heard a few different thoughts on this train expressed in that report from Anthony Kuhn. One person talking about seeing this as an opportunity. The other, though, seeing this as occupation.

Dr. BARNETT: It is really fascinating to see what he reported. Which is also what I saw when I took the train a couple of months ago. A group around me were entirely middle class (unintelligible) educated Chinese. They were in a tour group of 300 people, one group.

But in the other parts of the train, you know, are these people who are workers, people going to find opportunities in the virgin land. And it's these people that really were frightening to the Tibetans. Not because individually they're a problem or because Tibetans don't like them, but because it does create a huge economic imbalance in the market in Tibet.

And Tibetans are really fighting hard to make globalization and modernity work for them, to find business opportunities, ways to function in this new world. And they're quite good at it but they have no way of competing with the very cheap labor and the kind of forms of capital that are coming in from China.

So when Tibetans talk about this issue in these very guarded ways, they use these kind of codes to refer to people who are beggars or people who are untidy or they'll often talk about people who will be criminals who will come with the train. But I think these are just polite politically safe ways to talk about the danger of being swamped in the marketplace that's emerging in Tibetan towns.

BLOCK: What would happen - when we hear that people are very careful and guarded about talking about this really in Tibet, what would happen if they were to speak openly about it?

Dr. BARNETT: Well, that's a really important question because I think the real story about the railway is exactly that. Nobody in Tibet, in central Tibet, dare express any negative view. You know, China is incredibly necrotic about stability, just as obsessed with keeping the significant criticisms silent.

And nobody actually knows what really happens if you test the limits of this. Very few people dare. It's a society that works through the unstated, hinted controls and laws. Probably people would be penalized through their work unit or their neighborhood committee. They would get visits in the night, as we do when we go there to study. We get strange people coming to visit and ask who we've met and what we said to them every day.

But nobody quite knows how far this would go. Sometimes once in a year or so someone will be taken away to prison and sentenced. One man just got a 10 year sentence for a manuscript that he was writing at home about Tibetan history.

So occasionally, as they say in Chinese, a monkey's killed to scare the chickens.

BLOCK: Robert Barnett, thanks very much.

Dr. BARNETT: Thank you.

BLOCK: Robert Barnett is professor of contemporary Tibetan studies at Columbia University. He's author of the book Lhasa: Streets with Memories.

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