A project to modernize an historic area of Tibet’s capital Lhasa has ignited a storm of protest online and among international Tibetan support groups, with some calling the move an attempt to destroy Tibetans’ “living connection” to their past.
Tibet’s India-based government in exile, or Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), said in a May 16 statement it is “deeply concerned” about the project’s impact, saying it is transforming Lhasa’s central Jokhang temple and the Barkhor, or Old City, around it into a “superficial tourist spot.”
Meanwhile, an online petition launched on Wednesday and signed by over 200 Tibet scholars in countries around the world voiced “grave concern over the rapidly progressing destruction of much of the traditional architectural heritage of the Old City of Lhasa and its environs.”
“This destruction is not simply a matter of aesthetics,” said the petition, addressed to China’s president Xi Jinping and to UNESCO director-general Irina Bukova.
“It is depriving Tibetans and scholars of Tibet alike of a living connection to the Tibetan past,” the petition said.
“It is bringing in its wake the forced displacement of large numbers of Tibetans from their own homes, effectively diminishing the Tibetan presence in one of the most important Tibetan cultural sites,” the petition added.
UNESCO, which lists as World Heritage Sites Lhasa's Potala Palace, Jokhang temple, and Norbulinkga, has previously raised concerns about a need to protect the the cityscape.
In December, the city government launched a seven-month, 1.2 billion yuan (U.S. $196 million) project begun to revamp the Barkhor area, including upgrading water and electrical infrastructure.
Moved out from the Barkhor
Tibetan shopkeepers and traders have already been moved from the Barkhor, a traditional gathering place for Lhasa residents and Tibetan pilgrims for hundreds of years, a local resident told RFA’s Tibetan Service last week.
“On the pretext of modernizing the Barkhor, Chinese authorities have relocated Tibetan traders to the area of [Lhasa’s] Yuthok bridge, where they can barely survive on what they earn,” the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The Chinese are planning to turn the Barkhor into a tourist attraction for commercial benefit with total disregard for the area’s traditional architectural heritage,” he said.
Speaking to RFA, Columbia University Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett noted “a lack of transparency in the [project’s] decision-making process, a lack of communication, and uninvolvement with the public and with experts on what is truly an issue of great importance in terms of world heritage.”
Some of the protests voiced online and in blogs, including concerns that the Jokhang temple itself may be damaged or destroyed, appear to have been “overstated,” though, Barnett said.
“For example, there seems to be no evidence to suggest that there is any threat to the Jokhang.”
What China should consider now is whether it wants to turn Lhasa into a venue for mass tourism “where large numbers of tourists will come and leave a hugely damaging footprint,” Barnett said.
“Standardization of all the street frontages will look pretty, but after a few years people will stop paying money to go there.”
The Jokhang temple has been a symbolic center of Tibetan protests against Chinese rule in Tibet, and the Barkhor was a center of Tibetan unrest in 2008 that left at least a dozen people dead.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Tseten Namygal. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.