Traditional teahouses and fashion boutiques have sprung up in Bayi, one of the liveliest districts of Lhasa, and are owned and patronised by both Tibetans and Han Chinese. But some say increasing prosperity is just Beijing buying peace.
Tibet was China‘s fastest-growing region last year with expansion of 11.0 percent — albeit from a low base — boosted by government subsidies and investment.
“I don’t care about politics,” said Gesan, a Tibetan tucking into a bowl of chilli fries in a Bayi tavern.
The 22-year-old spent two years in the Chinese army and now works for an insurance company. “My life’s not so bad,” he added, playing with his smartphone.
Chinese forces arrived on the “roof of the world” nearly seven decades ago, followed by waves of immigrants from China‘s Han majority.
More recently there have been financial inflows in the form of huge funding for roads, railways and hydropower.
“These investments are positive,” another young Lhasa resident told AFP on condition of anonymity. “But it’s also a way of buying social harmony, so that people don’t rebel.”
Beijing says its troops “peacefully liberated” Tibet in 1951 and that it has dramatically raised living standards — life expectancy jumped from 35.5 years to 68.2 between 1951 and 2013, according to official figures, although the increase is smaller than the average for China as a whole.
But many of the profits from the region’s natural resources go to companies from China‘s heartland, who bring in Han workers, and the Tibetan government-in-exile accuses Beijing of repressing Tibet’s religion and eroding its culture.
“Lhasa jumped from the Middle Age into modernity” says Jens-Uwe Hartmann, a Tibet expert at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
“The point is the way to modernity was not decided by the Tibetans themselves.”
In Bayi, several kilometres west of the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, a tearoom manager praised economic development, before declining to talk about politics to avoid “trouble”.
Nearby, 18-year-old Niqu, who comes from Shigatse more than 200 kilometres away, shopped for dresses with her friends.
“I’m at university in Lhasa, it’s cool,” she said in perfect Chinese, learned at school along with her native Tibetan.
Linguistics are a crucial issue, say analysts.
Talk of cultural genocide is no longer appropriate, says Amy Heller, a Swiss-based Tibetologist and art historian, but added: “The threat today is rather to the language: university courses are generally taught in Chinese and Tibetan, while taught, is less valued in the labour market.”
Mandarin is often indispensable for a civil service or teaching job, or simply to be able to do business with Han Chinese.
“Tibetans are aware of living in a Chinese colony,” according to Katia Buffetrille, an ethnologist at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris.
Young people have been the main beneficiaries of economic development but “are still very aware” of Beijing’s political clout, she said.
Grievances she cited include the forced settlement of nomads, natural resources exploitation, the emphasis on Chinese-language education, and bans on photos of the Dalai Lama — who fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959 but is still deeply revered by many Tibetans.
More than 140 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against Beijing’s rule, according to tallies from rights groups. Most have died.
Free from serfdom
But not all Tibetans resent Chinese rule. In a Bayi restaurant, Luosang, 67, wore a badge emblazoned with the image of Mao Zedong, who first sent troops into Tibet.
“My parents were serfs. Without this man, who abolished serfdom in 1959 in Tibet, we wouldn’t be living as well as we are today,” he explained.
According to Hartmann, before Communism Tibetans “belonged to their master and couldn’t decide anything freely”.
Today Tibet is officially an “autonomous region”, but the Communist party retains an iron grip on power and its top official in the area is always a Han Chinese, with a Tibetan number-two.
Tibetans retain “a strong sense of identity” says ethnologist Buffetrille. “They show extraordinary resilience. And keep hoping that things will change one day.”
In Bayi’s main street, a well-dressed woman complained: “Tibetans can’t obtain a passport, but Han can. Why this difference?”