By Jesus Centeno
Lhasa, Tibet, Jul 21 (EFE).- Tsering Topgyal has spent his entire life making handicrafts in the highlands of Nyemo county, 140 kilometers from the capital of Tibet, Lhasa, though now his main concern is whether any of his five grandchildren will continue the trade one day.
Unable to speak Mandarin or to expand work horizons, his family taught him to produce artisanal traditional Tibetan paper, used to capture religious scriptures, a trade that has more than 1,300 years of history and uses poisonous plants to lengthen its lifespan.
Topgyal, 73, said that if the intangible culture of Tibet has been preserved it is thanks to the sacrifice of its residents, adding – as government officials looked on – that the region has also received “aid from up” to expand businesses.
“My wish now is to spread this art to the new generations,” he said, adding that his business generates up to RMB 450,000 ($62,300) yearly thanks to the growing interest that Tibet generates among Chinese customers.
An official from the county’s cultural office intervened to add that the Chinese government “indeed gives bonuses” of up to RMB 20,000 each year to those who work in this type of trade as compensation for “their efforts in preserving the culture” of Tibet.
The visit is part of a trip organized by the Chinese government for foreign journalists – the only way to access the region, to which there is no free access for the press. It’s under the premise to demonstrate that Tibet, the region to which the Chinese Communist Party sent troops to invade in 1951 is “prosperous” and “united.”
It also attempts to stymie accusations that the party restricts religious and cultural freedoms of Tibetans. They also defend practices such as the relocation of villagers that, according to the government, have been key to saving the Tibetan grasslands and helping their residents to escape poverty.
However, suspicion grows among human rights organizations that believe that these are forced or imply the inevitable loss of their traditions.
United Nations rapporteurs said some programs, presented as voluntary, are used to “control and politically indoctrinate Tibetans,” even with the opening of training centers in which they said locals are not allowed to use their language and are encouraged not to express their religious identity.
Tibet, at an altitude of about 4,000 meters, is thanks to its landscapes and culture a popular destination for Chinese tourists whose massive arrival, according to some experts, also poses a risk to its ecosystem.
However, it is also a source of income for the local population: during the visit, the fifth Tourism and Culture Exhibition of Tibet was held, in which more than 1,000 merchants participated to publicize their products. They range from handicrafts to tourism, with agreements on 60 projects worth $ 7.4 billion, according to official figures.
Among the most popular is the Potala Palace, a symbol of Tibetan Buddhism which, after months of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, again welcomed tourists taking photos and buying souvenirs as monks pay their respects and pray on their knees.
Meanwhile, in Shannan prefecture, one of the cradles of Tibetan civilization, others choose to visit the imposing Yamdrok Lake, considered sacrosanct and to which spiritual powers are attributed.
Monks still make pilgrimages there to perform their old rituals, although in nearby towns like Tashi Quden it is the red flags and portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping that have become everyday icons.
“Tibetan Buddhism must adapt to socialist society and develop in a Chinese context,” the president said one of the last times in which he spoke about Tibet, a region in which the government claims to have invested billions of dollars to build roads, airports, railways, schools and hospitals, as well as extending life expectancy. EFE