Monday, January 20, 2014

Tibet on Fire

My article on the two recent fires in Tibet appeared in The Statesman today.

Here is the link...

The   authorities   believe   that   it   is  unlikely the blaze was deliberately started;  Xinhua  said  that the possibility of arson has already been ruled out, though an investigation is still under way. Suspicions arose after some local people questioned the slow speed of the response of emergency services.  These two fires have a common feature, they symbolise the 'New Dream Tibet' (or Tibet with  Chinese characteristics) envisaged by Beijing ~ CLAUDE ARPI

Two recent mishaps in Tibet highlight the new policies and trends on the Tibetan plateau.
First, a huge fire broke out at the Serthar Tibetan Buddhist Institute in Larung Gar in the Kardzse (Garzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. The fire was reported at 7.30 pm on January 10 and it continued during the entire night.
Serthar is not an ordinary place of Eastern Tibet.
Remember 2001. At that time, reports poured in that Beijing had decided to expel thousands Tibetan nuns and monks from the Institute. The State wanted to tighten its grip on religious centres; the presence of many Chinese Buddhists had become 'subversive' for the Chinese State.
The South China Morning Post had then written: "Tibetan support groups and Chinese residents of a nearby town said the dismantling of homes at Serthar had started in June [2001] and many of the residents — once estimated at 6,000 to 7,000 — had been forced to leave."
Beijing’s objective was to reduce the size of the community to about 1,000 monks and 400 nuns by October 2001.
The Institute was founded by a charismatic Lama, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok in 1980 to help revive Buddhist scholarship and meditation. The increasing number of Chinese students posed a serious ideological problem to Beijing.
A year later, a serious row erupted over reconstruction of the Serthar Institute. The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) based in Dharamsala had received reports that a serious scuffle between nuns and Public Security Bureau’s officers from Kardze occurred on 25 December 2002.
At the time of the incident, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was undergoing a medical treatment in a hospital in Barkham County (Sichuan).
Though the Khenpo passed away in 2004, in the very recent years, the Institute has been rebuilt.
Between 10,000 and 40,000 monks and nuns are said to live and study today in Larung Gar, the figures vary depending on the sources.
The Communist Party seems to have selected this location (outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region) to allow religious practice to 'flourish', while the experience is carefully monitored by the authorities.
Now the Serthar Institute has been ravaged by fire.
The South China Morning Post reported: "The blaze destroyed more than a dozen buildings, which some reports said were living quarters for student monks or nuns. No casualties have been reported as yet. Authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire."
It is said that some 450 people joined the rescue operations; the microblogging site, Weibo showed people in uniforms as well as monks walking through the debris with the fire raging in the background.
This is one aspect of Beijing’s policy for the Tibetan plateau: to allow a degree of ‘spiritual’ freedom, while keeping a close tab on the activities of the Institute.
The other aspect of the Party’s ‘Tibet Policy’ is the ‘disneyfication’ of the Land of Snows, making Tibet a giant amusement park into which millions of Han Chinese tourists can be poured. No place symbolizes more this policy better than Shangri-la County in Yunnan Province.
Here too fire broke out.
The New York Times reported: “Fire blazed through an ancient Tibetan neighborhood in southwest China, destroying hundreds of wooden homes and shops that have drawn tourists to an area casting itself as the inspiration for mythic Shangri-La.”
Hundreds of firefighters, soldiers and volunteers finally managed to extinguish the blaze by late morning. Luckily, no casualties or serious injuries were reported.
The Yunnan government’s website stated: “After the fire broke out, even though many rushed to help at the first instant, the dry conditions and the speed of the blaze allowed it to spread rapidly in all directions.”
According to Xinhua, the fire destroyed 242 houses, a quarter of the old town today entirely devoted to tourism.
Previously called Zhongdian, the Chinese authorities use the name of the mythic paradise from James Hilton’s novel, ‘Lost Horizon’ to promote tourism in the area; a good marketing trick.
The New York Times said: “In recent years, growing numbers of Chinese and foreign tourists have traveled to the Shangri-La area. But numbers are typically down in January, when the area, which is more than 9,800 feet above sea level, can be bitingly cold.”
The authorities believe that it is unlikely the blaze was deliberately started; Xinhua said that the possibility of arson has already been ruled out, though an investigation is still under way. Suspicions arose after some local people questioned the slow speed of the response of emergency services.
These two fires have a common feature, they symbolize the 'New Dream Tibet' (or Tibet with Chinese characteristics) envisaged by Beijing.
A couple of days before the Yunnan fire broke out and engulfed the town in Shangri-la, China Tibet Online invited Chinese tourists to visit the spot: “Shangri-la, a place where the majority people believe in Tibetan Buddhism, is full of religious atmosphere amid the sutra streamers [prayer flags] everywhere. Shangri-la has an area of 11,613 square kilometers populated with near 130,000 people who are mainly Tibetans.”
Shangri-la is one of the main sites planned for the 'Tibet holidays’ campaign. As a result milions of Chinese visitors rush every year to Tibet in search of exoticism, clear sky and fresh air; a touch of spirituality is even added by using the name 'Shangri-la'.
Why should these two symbolic sites of 'New Tibet' burn at the same time? Probably a coincidence!
A few weeks ago, Reuters had rightly analyzed: “President Xi Jinping believes China is losing its moral compass and he wants the ruling Communist Party to be more tolerant of traditional faiths in the hope these will help fill a vacuum created by the country's breakneck growth and rush to get rich.”
Xi sees China's 'traditional cultures' or faiths such as Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism could help fill a void which has helped corruption to flourish.
This explains the grand revival of ‘spirituality’ in places such Larung Gar; by bringing millions of tourists in Tibet, the Communist Party believes that it can alleviate the poverty of these remote areas and give a boost to the traditional Tibetan culture (which is of course, sinicized in the process).
Incidentally, though it has no direct connection with the blazes, Li Chongxi, a Communist cadre who served in both Eastern Tibet’s 'burning' places (in Kartse in 1995-96 and Aba in 1996-2000) and later became one of the most powerful officials in Sichuan, has been sacked. Li was close to the former security tsar Zhou Yongkang; for Xi Jinping, Li probably represented the old approach to the Tibet question, namely repression and corruption. According to the Chinese media, Li has got the boot after being suspected of corruption. It is also seen as a move against people close to Zhou, himself under graft investigation.
Citing a statement from the Communist Party’s powerful Organization Department, Xinhua added: "Authorities are investigating his case according to procedure”.
Li Chongxi was the chairman of the provincial committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. He is the third senior official from restive Sichuan who fell ‘under suspicion’ in 2013.
A last story about 'fire': the great Indian Guru Padmasambhava, who propagated Buddhism in Tibet during the 8th century, is said to have been able to set on fire the robe of the Chinese Emperor, just by reciting powerful Sanskrit mantras.
For whatever reasons, both these mishaps have had a 'miraculous' end, no casualties were reported in Larung Gar or Shangri-la; however one may soon realize that the emperor’s new clothes (i.e. policies) have burnt.

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