dilluns, 25 de gener del 2010

Tibetans are back in town

"Early in the 18th century, Emperor Yongzheng ordered the Yonghegong Palace in Beijing to be converted into a Lama temple. The transformation of his former residence was designed to show the great importance Chinese rulers attached to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan religious society. Long after the emperor's death in 1735, Tibetans in Beijing enjoyed a prestigious status.

Tibetans in Beijing are worshiped no more. Today, they are an anonymous and small group compared with other ethnic minorities in China's capital city. Security measures for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games and last year's 60th birthday celebrations for the People's Republic of China kept Tibetans away. It was not until last autumn that their numbers began to rise again.

Dongdo is a Tibetan peddler one can find almost every afternoon at the entrance of the Dongsishitiao subway station, not far from the Yonghegong Lama Temple. He and his wife sell all kinds of traditional garments, side-by-side with two other Tibetan families. Dongdo and his wife live together with eight people in a tiny apartment in downtown Beijing.

Hailing from the northwest part of Sichuan province that is inhabited mostly by Tibetans, the couple lost their homes in the earthquake in May 2008 that killed more than 70,000 people. They didn't have money to rebuild or survive so left their hometowns, choosing Beijing to restart their lives.

Just before the Olympics, Beijing authorities sent them back to Sichuan. Dongdo says that they didn't obtain permission to resettle in the capital until last November, after the 60th National Day parade on October 1.

Statistics about the Tibetan population in Beijing are difficult to obtain. The last data available on the website of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission of the Beijing Municipal Government only reported 585,000 ethnic minority individuals in Beijing city in 2000.

The Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee says it doesn't have specific figures on Tibetans living in Beijing province. Cai Fang, director of the Institute of Populations and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), also says he has no information about the migration of Tibetan workers inside China. Cai and two other prominent CASS professors last year wrote a report for the United Nations Development Program on migration among China's rural population.

A recent study of Professor Lu Ding, published by the National University of Singapore, determined that between 2000 and 2005, the migration ratio of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) decreased by less than a 0.5%. This means that emigration from the region is slightly above immigration.

Andrew Fischer, senior lecturer in population and social policy at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, said: "Because of the economic boom in places like Lhasa [the capital of the TAR], net migration out of Tibet might not be increasing, relative to total migration, although in terms of absolute numbers I am sure there is probably some increase."

According to Dongdo and his friends, there are about 2,000 Tibetan peddlers in Beijing. This can't be the total number because experts like Fischer consider that most of the Tibetans who settle in the eastern cities of China are highly educated: "Most Tibetans only migrate to local towns and cities inside Tibet. The ones who migrate to elsewhere in China usually have high school or university education and hence Chinese fluency. There is also a regular number of Tibetans students who are sent to study in east China for high school, somewhere around 5,000 and 10,000 students per year."

The Beijing Tibet Middle School is an example of this "elite migration". Top students from the TAR - those who obtained the best marks in primary school - are sent to 26 Tibetans institutions across China. This school and another educational center for Tibetans - the only two of their kind in Beijing - are the first choice for the brightest Tibetan kids: 30 students apply for every vacancy.
Beijing Tibet Middle School has 810 pupils and 130 teachers. Just three members of the academic staff are Tibetans. Membership of the Communist Youth League of China is compulsory and students must wear a pin of the Chinese Communist Party during lecture hours. Most of these youngsters express their wish to work for the government. Luo Biao, vice headmaster of the school, said the majority of these undergraduates would become public servants.

Luo concedes he is not sure that the presence in Beijing of highly educated Tibetans helps increase understanding between the two cultures. "We help our students to interact with the local society in three different ways: we arrange cultural visits for them and sports competitions with other schools, and from time to time there are Han families that invite them to have lunch and take them out to enjoy leisure activities."

Violent and political clashes in Tibet could explain why most Han people avoid interaction with the Tibetan community. But Fischer is convinced that "not anyone would be scared of Tibetan migration in places like Beijing or Shanghai" because in these cities Tibetans are a clear minority, in comparison with places such as Chengdu, Lanzhou and Xining.

There are differences indeed. Near the Jianguomen subway station is a group of about 15 Tibetans proud of their identity - one carries a picture of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, on his cell phone. The man, who says he is from Lhasa, sells tiger paws that have been cut into small pieces. His customers are Han Chinese who believe the tiger has medicinal qualities.

Dechen Pemba, a Tibetan writer currently living in London, was in Beijing studying Chinese from 2006 to 2008. She recounts that during the Olympics, nearly all Tibetan migrants were forced to leave the capital, herself included. "Some Tibetan friends of mine even lost their jobs as a direct result of discriminations against Tibetans after the protests in Lhasa [the riots that exploded in the Tibetan capital in March 2008] ... Without jobs, and with anti-Tibetan sentiments rising high, they had no choice but to leave town."

Tibetans in Beijing live in fear and under surveillance, according to Pemba. But the number of Tibetan migrants in the city is growing, according to Mipham Jamyang, a Tibetan who leads the Lotus Center, a non-profit school founded two months ago with the aim to teach migrant workers useful skills, such as the use of computers or learning English. Jamyang says that Tibetans stay in Beijing between two to five years then return to their hometowns to invest their savings.

Jamyang takes issue with any idea that Beijing citizens dislike Tibetans and he is sure that Tibetans are treated fairly by the law and enjoy the same rights as other migrant groups. The Lotus Center opened with the authorization of the Beijing government and Jamyang will request official funds to sustain a school conceived to meet the growing needs of Tibetans flowing into the capital."

Cristian Segura, Asia Times Online. The Tibetans are back in town.