The modern Shangri-La Hotel in Lhasa, Tibet. Photo: The Australian
We were crossing the bridge from the main town of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, on our way to visit the city’s new Yak Museum, when we passed a military convoy.
Truck after truck of soldiers standing to attention, interspersed with tanks, each with a soldier standing out of the turret. On the sides of the trucks were the words “one people”. The convoy moved at a steady pace, clearly not rushing off to an emergency, a camera on the bridge recording their progression.
“Maybe they are practising for the National Day parade,” said one of our guides, breaking the silence in our minibus. Chances are they were preparing for celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region on September 1.
The convoy was the only sign of troops we saw in the streets of Lhasa during our three-day visit — apart from those standing guard outside official buildings, often behind perspex.
This month The Weekend Australian and several other news outlets were invited to Tibet as part of the Chinese government’s commitment to promote the country’s poorer western regions.
Visits by foreign journalists to Tibet are rare. The journalists are escorted by officials. The homes we visited were decorated with posters of Chinese leaders, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping.
To outsiders, Tibet, sometimes known as the roof of the world, is a remote, exotic, underdeveloped region, with a hostile climate, about 4000m above sea level, and the former home of the 14th Dalai Lama, who fled Lhasa for India in 1959.
But in our three days in the capital it was clear that while thousands of tourists and believers are visiting its historic and important temples each day, including the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s one-time home, Lhasa is becoming an increasingly modern Chinese city.
It doesn’t have the bright lights of the big east coast cities, or many of their up-market department stores, but it has many wide freeways, traffic lights, a new dam, a major apartment construction program, a new sports stadium, the Yak Museum and a complete mini-city emerging around the train station from the adjacent province of Qinghai.
New Sinopec petrol stations appear at regular intervals on the dusty main highway out of town to a modern industrial estate.
The city lacks the chaos of India or Nepal and its shop houses look in good condition, opening onto modern, well-kept roads. The shops have Tibetan and Chinese signage, although the Chinese lettering is much bigger.
“Foreigners think Tibet should be a museum but everyone wants a better life,” said a Chinese official.
It is clear that not only does China regard Tibet as well and truly part of its domain (as does Australia), it continues to pump capital into the area, funding new infrastructure and providing subsidies and assistance, including free education, to many of its population. The funds come from Beijing and other wealthy provinces. Some of the big streets are named after the particular Chinese province that has provided the funds.
While China’s economy has slowed to an annual rate of 7 per cent this year, Tibet’s has been growing at more than 10 per cent annually for more than a decade.
The region has some mining and resources and is expanding its industries in hydro and solar power. But a lot of its economic growth is financed from outside the region. The state-owned China Nuclear Power Group is investing $3 billion in wind and solar power projects.
At an industrial estate on the edge of the city, we tour a shiny new brewery, built with state-of-the-art German equipment, which uses malt from Australian barley to make its beer.
“Australian barley is the best in the world,” says our guide.
The Tibet Tiandi Green Barley Company brewery, which has three production lines using minimal staff, was built with a mixture of private and government capital and serves an increasingly affluent local population with quality beer.
The railway, which opened in 2006, from Qinghai has dramatically improved links with the rest of China, while Tibet now has five airports. More than 15 million tourists visited last year, up by 20 per cent from 2013.
We have dinner with an official from the Tibetan information service, Jigme Wangsto, a Tibetan who tells us what has become a familiar refrain in our meetings.
His parents were dirt poor and illiterate, the poor were “slaves” before Tibet’s “liberation” by China and that the bulk of the people now enjoy much better standards of living and the benefit of state-supported education.
Canberra recognises Chinese sovereignty over Tibet but a spokesman from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said this week that it “remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation”.
There were protests in Lhasa in early 2008 ahead of the Beijing Olympics and there have been reports of self-immolations by Tibetans living in other parts of China, some of them monks or former monks. We see nothing of this, of course.
But what is clear is that Tibet is modernising and opening up. The old days are not coming back.