CHINA has shocked Tibet scholars by building a shopping arcade and car park next to the main temple in Lhasa as part of plans to transform the ancient capital into a modern Chinese city.
New photographs and video footage from Lhasa show the destruction of traditional buildings and morose monks sitting in a construction site.
More than 130 scholars last week signed a petition calling on the United Nations to send an independent investigative team to find out if China is violating its obligations as a member of Unesco, the UN cultural agency.
Unesco has already warned China that it must do more to preserve the heritage of Tibet. The scholars called for the agency to draw up a clear plan to save Lhasa and stop it being “turned into a 21st-century tourist town”.
They said the project was “destroying irreplaceable structures that have stood for centuries” and added: “It has begun to alter the role that Lhasa has played in Tibetan life for more than a millennium.”
The large shopping mall and an underground car park for 1,117 vehicles are rising at the northeast corner of the Barkhor, an open space where pilgrims process around the Jokhang temple. Hundreds of shopkeepers, traders and residents have been evicted.
“No more of the pilgrims . . . who prostrate themselves from the far borders to Lhasa, no more lamp pavilions in which tens of thousands of butter lamp offerings were lit every day,” the Tibetan cultural critic Tsering Woeser wrote in her blog, “only snipers poised on the roofs of Tibetans’ homes and fully armed military sweeps.”
Chinese censors rapidly removed her postings and photographs but thousands of comments had already appeared on the Weibo social network.
Most foreign journalists are banned from Tibet, but a French television crew who had been given official permission filmed new building works, dozens of surveillance cameras and constant patrols by the security forces in the old city.
More than 120 Tibetans have set themselves ablaze to protest against what they say is the deliberate destruction of their culture and religion. Chinese leaders say they are bringing modernisation and prosperity to a people hitherto sunk in poverty and feudalism.
The radical changes in Lhasa appear to be part of a development strategy by Beijing to subdue what officials call the forces of “superstition and separatism” in Tibet.
China invaded Tibet in 1950 and put down a series of rebellions until the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, fled to India in 1959.
Once a far-off, fabled place, Lhasa has witnessed explosive growth with an influx of Chinese tourists and migrants since the completion of the world’s highest railway across the snowy plateau in 2006. Its population has expanded from 154,000 in 1964 to at least 500,000 today, excluding the Chinese military garrison.
Simmering resentment and fears among Tibetans led to rioting in Lhasa before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but it was swiftly suppressed and thousands of monks were locked in their monasteries.
The images from Lhasa and the petition coincided with a triumphant report by Xinhua, China’s state news agency, stating that even the Dalai Lama’s birthplace in the hilltop village of Taktser where his nephew, Gonpo Tashi, acts as guardian over a prayer hall, is facing urbanisation.
Taktser, in the Chinese province of Qinghai, will benefit from £165m a year to be spent on roads, residential areas, commercial centres, sewage and water plants, Xinhua reported.
“It’s good to live in a city, where children can attend better schools and we can enjoy better medical services,” Gonpo Tashi told the agency.
The propaganda message of modernisation and obedience is consistent from Taktser all the way to Lhasa. But even Xinhua appeared to acknowledge doubts among Chinese officials about whether they can ever win Tibetan hearts and minds.
It quoted a Tibet specialist, He Feng, calling for “better preservation of traditional culture during the urbanisation drive”.