TIME China

Yushu: A Tibetan Town Rebuilt in Beijing’s Image

A Tiben woman teaches her son to ride a
AFP/Getty Images A Tiben woman teaches her son to ride a bike beside their new house in Yushu, northwest China's Qinghai province on Nov. 13, 2011

After a massive earthquake destroyed 90% of Yushu's buildings and claimed more than 2,000 lives, the price of recovery has been sacrificing identity

The monk leans forward and flips through the pictures. They were taken in the autumn of 2009, before the earth shook and the city fell, when we met at his monastery on an ordinary October day. Former students. Old classrooms. A friend that moved away. He lingers on a close-up of his face, as it was that day, sunlit and smiling. He shakes his head in disbelief. “Do I look so different?”

Everything does. It’s now been five years since a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit this county — known as Yushu in Chinese and Jyekundo in Tibetan — high on the Qinghai plateau. The county seat was then a small, Tibetan city, a place of dusty markets, monasteries, and low-slung courtyard homes. The tremor toppled almost every structure and trapped thousands in the wreckage. When the valley stopped shaking, the monk and his students emerged from their still-standing school to dig, barehanded, for what remained.

Owing to distance, bad roads and altitude, it took days for rescue workers to make it to the town. But when they did, they arrived in force. Convoys of green army trucks rolled south from the provincial capital, Xining, bearing tents and blankets, cement and soldiers. Before local and foreign press, the central government promised to rebuild the city — and they did, though it is difficult, at times, to recognize the city that they built.

Beijing has poured more than $7 billion into transforming this county. Visitors no longer arrive exhausted from a 17-hour ordeal on the overnight bus. There is an airport and miles of fresh-paved roads. The main street has a brand new school with a spacious, spotless playground. And every family was given enough money to build a new, 80 sq m home.

There are also, at every turn, reminders of this. There are signs thanking the People’s Liberation Army, state-owned enterprises, and Communist Party officials. “Gratitude. Self-strengthening. Innovation. Harmony,” reads one banner. “Develop activities to promote national unity,” reads another. On the road into town, Xi Jinping, Chairman of the Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic, waves at motorists from a massive red billboard: “Unite all Chinese. Realize the China Dream.”

The ruling party’s dream for this region is, and has always been, at odds with what many ethnic Tibetans want. This is the edge of Chinese empire, a contested space where everything has two names and two histories. What Tibetans call colonization, the ruling CCP calls “serf liberation.” Even as monks burn themselves alive to protest Chinese rule, state media trumpet campaigns to improve Tibetan livelihoods through road building and water treatment.

In this sense, the story of Yushu/Jyekundo feels like the story of contemporary Tibet told in fast-forward. The earthquake’s destruction sped the influx of non-Tibetans to the once isolated town. These CCP-backed soldiers, officials and fortune seekers brought money and resources — first shovels and water, and then scaffolding and cranes. But the help was not offered without condition and has resulted in heightened state control.

Take housing. With almost all the city destroyed, the Party vowed to help every family build a new home. Generous. But they did so according to their own logic, and their own plans. Over the last five years, local residents have taken to the streets to protest what they call widespread land confiscation. After losing their homes in the quake, they said, they were evicted to make way for the new, grand city plan.

There are questions, too, about whether this construction boom benefits Tibetans. The locals had little experience in airport building, highway paving or the rapid construction of imposing government offices. The government and state-owned enterprises are experts. In the past, visitors stayed at family-owned inns. Today, there is Gesar Palace, “a boutique five star hotel” run, according to the brochure, by the Hong Kong Evergreen Hotel Group. It has “18 private Chinese dining rooms,” 13 Karaoke machines, and very few guests.

For all the talk of unity, for the shiny new buildings and smooth roads, the gap between China’s avowedly atheist government and ordinary Tibetans seems as wide as ever. You can see it in the monk’s face. The trauma of the earthquake, the influx of outsiders, and the wholesale reimagining of the town where he’s lived for 26 years have aged him, as he knows well. Though he has just entered middle age he is walking more slowly, and talking more cautiously, than he did before.

He asked that I not use his name and I will not post his pictures. This is a sensitive time for his school. The trouble started when he offered free religious education to local students on winter break. Five hundred showed up, spooking local authorities taught to see crowds of Tibetans as a threat. He spent seven days in jail, but plans to keep teaching.

He continues to live as he always has, frugally, in monk’s robes. Asked about the future, of the city and his school, he seems less concerned with matters of politics than questions of faith. The person he loves more than any other, the Dalai Lama, recently conceded that he may be the last to fill the role, a sentiment that many here are still struggling to understand. Looking down at his rebuilt city, the monk ponders somberly, “My only wish is that he’s reborn someplace free.”

—with reporting by Gu Yongqiang

TIME China

China Considers Building Rail Line Underneath Mount Everest, Report Says

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Whitworth Images—Getty Images/Moment RF Last light on Mt Everest and Nuptse, Nepal

A Chinese railroad expert said a planned line linking China and Tibet may have to pass through Mount Everest

China is considering a plan to extend a railway line to Nepal that may run through Mount Everest, state media reported on Thursday.

China has begun preparatory work for the project “at Nepal’s request,” China Daily reported. But the plan, which officials say could be finished by 2020, may have to run through Mount Everest along the border between the two countries, according to Wang Mengshu, a rail expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

“The line will probably have to go through Qomolangma so that workers may have to dig some very long tunnels,” Wang said, using the Tibetan name for Mount Everest.

TIME portfolio

Meet the Tibetan Buddhists of the Yellow Hat Order

These Buddhists live at the edge of the Tibetan plateau in China's Gansu Province

Each year, ever since the early 1400s, Tibetan Buddhists gather to unveil a large thangka — a painting made on fabric — of Buddha. The great prayer ritual, which was banned during the cultural revolution in China and has made a comeback in recent years, offers a rare opportunity to meet the Buddhists who live at the edge of the Tibetan plateau in China’s Gansu Province.

“China has so many unique and varied parts,” says Getty Images’ Kevin Frayer, who photographed this year’s ceremonial proceedings. “It is important to explore as much of it as we can. In this case, this area in Gansu is mostly open to foreigners and Chinese tourists but during times of political tension access can be difficult. So when there was the opportunity to get there to see these people and the beautiful landscape in which they live, I felt it was a trip I had to make.”

The Canadian photojournalist, who lives in South Asia, has spent time with Tibetan Buddhist communities in India, Nepal and Bhutan, but never, until this month, in China. “In my work I am most drawn to people living at the periphery,” he says. “So often, the narrative on China is the story of economic growth and modernization. While the Great Prayer ritual dates back centuries it is still an integral part of Tibetan tradition today. I think it is important to see the attempt of culture and faith to persevere in the shadow of wide-scale development. In this case it was an opportunity to take people to a place and reveal a way of life.”

Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

TIME China

China Says It Will Decide Who the Dalai Lama Shall Be Reincarnated As

“It’s like Fidel Castro saying, ‘I will select the next Pope'"

The Dalai Lama has been described by Chinese government officials as a “wolf in monk’s robes,” and a “dangerous splittist” intent on cleaving the Chinese nation. On March 13, the Chinese Communist Party–linked Global Times kept up the decades-long attack on the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, denouncing him as a “double betrayer” who “keeps spouting nonsense” while devising “a sly trap.”

That supposed trap extends into the hereafter. Tibetan Buddhists believe the current Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of a holy monk who lived in the 14th century. Now 79, and surely aware that his hopes for an autonomous Tibet are improbable, the Dalai Lama has raised several possibilities of what might happen after he dies. Perhaps he will choose his successor during his lifetime, contrary to the usual tradition of identifying the new Dalai Lama only after the death of the old one. Maybe his soul will transfer to a person outside of Tibet. Or perhaps, he has said most recently, the line of Dalai Lamas will end with him, if that is the wish of the Tibetan people.

No way, says the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party. Earlier this week, on the sidelines of China’s annual parliamentary session, Zhu Weiqun, head of an influential ethnic-and-religious-affairs committee, insisted that it was the Chinese government responsibility to designate the Dalai Lama’s successor. “The 14th Dalai Lama hasn’t shown a serious or respectful attitude on this issue,” Zhu said. “He sometimes says he will reincarnate as a foreigner in a place where he visits, sometimes to a woman. When someone gives him a bottle of honey, he would happily say he is going to become a bee in the next life.”

The Communist Party’s spiritual prerogative has stoked controversy before. In 1995, the Dalai Lama named a 6-year-old boy living in Tibet as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, widely considered the second-holiest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government then picked its own child. For 19 years, the Dalai Lama’s choice has not been seen in public, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Despite having fled over the Himalayas to exile in 1959, the Dalai Lama remains popular in his homeland. The Chinese government boasts about Tibet’s economic development, with growth reaching nearly 11% last year. But over the past four years, as government restrictions on Tibetan faith and culture have intensified, more than 130 Tibetans have immolated themselves to protest Chinese rule over the high plateau. In many cases, they have used their final words to express devotion to the Dalai Lama.

Members of the Tibetan exile community have also disparaged the ruling Communist Party’s insistence on dictating the Dalai Lama’s afterlife, which Chinese officials say reflect rules from the Qing Dynasty. “It’s like Fidel Castro saying, ‘I will select the next Pope and all the Catholics should follow,’” Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, told Reuters earlier this week. “That is ridiculous.”

March is a sensitive month on the Tibetan plateau. The anniversary of a quelled uprising 56 years ago that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile falls on March 10. In mid-March 2008, Tibetan protesters fatally clashed with members of China’s Han ethnic majority and the Hui ethnic minority. Chinese authorities cracked down, leading to more deaths. In 2012, police fired on Tibetan protesters, killing two, according to exile organizations. This March 10, Tibetan exile groups claim an unarmed youth was shot after he ignored a police order to stop his motorbike while on his way to commemorate the 1959 revolt against Chinese rule. Four days earlier, a Tibetan woman from a nomadic family immolated herself on the eastern fringes of the Tibetan highlands.

TIME China

Dalai Lama and China in Spat Over Reincarnation

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Alison Wright—Getty Images/Photo Researchers RM Dalai Lama

The aging spiritual leader's suggestion he may not be reincarnated wasn't taken lightly by Beijing

An ideological spat between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government spilled over into very public denunciations this week.

The 14th Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet for exile in 1959, says China does not have the right to choose his successor—contrary to government claims—and that in fact he might not be reborn at all, the New York Times reports. That would end a centuries-old tradition of selecting a successor that holds the soul of the spiritual leader is reincarnated in the body of a child.

On Monday, the autonomous region’s Chinese-appointed governor, Padma Choling, accused the 79-year-old Dalai Lama of blasphemy for suggesting as much and reiterated that Beijing has the right to choose. The Nobel Laureate’s allies fired back the next day, saying that China choosing his successor is akin to Cuban leader Fidel Castro choosing the Pope.

“It’s none of Padma Choling or any of the Communist party’s business, mainly because Communism believes in atheism and religion being poisonous,” Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, told Reuters on Tuesday, the 56th anniversary of the failed uprising against Chinese Communist rule that prompted the Dalai Lama to flee.

Read more at the New York Times

TIME Tibet

See the Dalai Lama’s Life in Pictures

He has made a life out of advocating for peace and understanding

Correction appended, Feb. 27.

The Dalai Lama was enthroned 75 years ago on Feb. 22, 1940, at the age of 4. Since then, he’s been a strong advocate for tolerance; in 1989, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy efforts for an independent Tibet. Here’s a look back at his life in photos, from his young enthronement to his appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Read next: Exclusive: The Dalai Lama Talks Pot, Facebook and the Pope With TIME

Correction: The original version of this photo gallery included a picture that did not show Dalai Lama.

TIME China

China Objects to Obama’s Appearance With the Dalai Lama

Foreign ministry spokesperson urges U.S. not to "interfere in China's domestic affairs"

China registered its displeasure this week over President Barack Obama’s plan to make his first public appearance with the Dalai Lama, reinforcing its staunch opposition to any official recognition of the exiled Tibetan leader.

“China is opposed to any nation or government using the Tibet issue to interfere in China’s domestic affairs, and opposed to any country’s leader meeting with the Dalai Lama in any manner,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a Monday press briefing, according to Reuters.

The statement comes amid an escalation of criticism in China’s state-owned press, where columnists castigated the Dalai Lama as a dangerously divisive figure.

[Reuters]

TIME Tibet

China Takes a Predictably Harsh Line on Obama’s Meeting With the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama talks to the media after a meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington
Yuri Gripas—Reuters Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama walks outside the White House after his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Feb. 18, 2010

To Beijing, a breakfast isn't simply a breakfast. It's tantamount to backing Tibetan independence

It took three days for China’s official media to react to the news that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, will join U.S. President Barack Obama at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5. But Beijing’s response, now that it has finally come, is not joyous.

“Obama is acquiescing to the Dalai Lama’s attempt to split Tibet from China,” went a Monday op-ed in the China Daily, the Chinese government’s English-language mouthpiece.

“Tibet is an inseparable part of China,” it continued. “The Dalai Lama’s flight from China’s Tibet in 1959 was because of his failed attempt to maintain the serfdom in the region, under which the majority of Tibetans were slaves leading a life of unimaginable misery.”

The official Chinese narrative holds that Tibet trembled under the fist of Buddhist monks before the People’s Liberation Army marched in more than six decades ago. Since then, living standards in Tibet have increased; this year, the Chinese government has projected 12% growth in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, higher than in most other parts of the country.

But many Tibetans decry the Chinese government’s systematic repression of their religious and cultural freedoms. Possessing the Dalai Lama’s image can land Tibetans in jail, even though he has repeatedly said he is not calling for an independent Tibet but rather one in which local traditions are respected.

Tibetan monks are regularly required to denounce their spiritual leader in communist-run re-education classes. So profound is the despair among some Tibetans that more than 130 people have committed suicide since 2009 by setting themselves on fire, according to exile organizations. As they burn, self-immolators reserve their final breaths to praise the Dalai Lama and denounce Chinese rule.

More than half a century of anti-Dalai Lama propaganda has failed. The Tibetan leader is still widely venerated across the high plateau. Even Tibetan government officials are not immune, with Chinese state media reporting a crackdown on cadres who “are suspected of providing intelligence to the Dalai Lama’s separatist forces.” Last year, 15 Tibetan officials were punished for “serious violations in discipline.”

Obama has met with the Dalai Lama three times before, but always in a private setting. The National Prayer Breakfast marks the first time the pair will appear in public together. Chinese state media reported that a Chinese Vice Foreign Minister summoned a U.S. diplomat in Beijing to register official displeasure with the Feb. 5 event. News of the National Prayer Breakfast, however, will likely take time to reach parts of Tibet. Since the spike in self-immolations, Internet and phone lines have been severed in some regions.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: President Obama And the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama will be appearing in public with Obama for the first time

TIME revealed on Thursday that the Dalai Lama will be attending the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5.

But why is this going to be so significant — and what does China have to do with it?

Watch today’s Know Right Now to find out more.

TIME Tibet

Tibet’s Lost Films: Watch Never-Before-Seen Footage

The films preserved by the Tibet Film Archive chronicle the region's rich culture, troubled present and unsure future

It’s hard to get to Tibet. But as tough as that is, a more difficult feat is to get something out.

For the 98% of Tibetans still living in Tibet, the best way to preserve their culture from the growing influence of Han Chinese migrants is to send it abroad, preferably in secret. Say, in the bottom of a steamer trunk in the dead of night. That is where the Tenzin Phuntsog found 16 films, some of which hadn’t been seen in nearly 50 years.

Using his own money and learning from friends along the way, Phuntsog restored and digitized the films, creating the Tibet Film Archive. Now, Phuntsog tells TIME, comes the tricky part: Getting the films back into Tibet to show the people who need to see them the most.


German Expedition to Tibet: Geheimnis (1939)

In 1939, Nazi Germany sent an unprecedented expedition to Tibet complete with botanists, anthropologists, photographers and a film camera operator. Despite receiving part of their funding from the infamous Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler—and being forced into becoming S.S. officers themselves—the scientists still collected artifacts, made maps and documented the land for European eyes.

Lowell Thomas: Tibet Lecture (1944)

The traveler who chronicled the story of Lawrence of Arabia also made trips to Tibet. The film shows a young candidate for the position of Panchen Lama, a spiritual leader like the Dalai Lama—or possibly the 10th Panchen Lama as a youth—while documenting the monastic life central to Tibetan culture.

The Religious Investiture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (1970)

Given the newsreel treatment in the 70s, the original footage in this film was shot before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet into exile in India in 1959. Depicting the Geshe exam, a scholarly test, taken by the current Dalai Lama, the film serves as proof that the Dalai Lama attained his rank legitimately—and more importantly, in Tibet.

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