August 27, 2004

Tibet: Visit to a Potemkin Village

Day 5 of our official media visit to Tibet brings great anticipation. Finally we will travel outside Lhasa to a real Tibetan Village. Yes, Tibetans do live in Gongzhong. The problem is, Gongzhong does not resemble any Tibetan Village in Tibet
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Day 5 of our official media visit to Tibet brings great anticipation. Finally we will travel outside Lhasa to a real Tibetan village. After 4-1/2 days we've eaten only cheap Chinese buffet; nothing Tibetan. We've spoken with many officials, but few locals.

But surely the fortunes of 32 authenticity-seeking journalists will change as we get to the countryside, we assume.

Our village is called Gongzhong. It's an eight-hour bus ride from Lhasa through the foggy Himalayas. Scenes outside the window roll past: Black peasant tents, each with a prayer flag above, dot the hillsides. Herds of sheep stand in the road. Children - rural urchins often in rags - are selling strings of yak cheese when we make stops.

Truth be told, few of us expect that our much-sought-after village will be a "real" one. This would be too risky for our image-conscious media handlers. What we are expecting is a reasonably genuine village: something a little dirty, slightly smoky, bags of onions strewn about - a place with a story line about an enlightened new official policy helping to overcome rural adversity.

But what we find on arrival the next day is sort of a shocker.

Yes, Tibetans do live in Gongzhong. We gather in a paved parking lot to hear that 20 Tibetan families, about 110 people, had their lives revolutionized in 1996 when telephones were hooked up. That allowed families to find work as small hauling contractors, and each family now owns a modest truck. Well and fine, but that's not the problem.

The problem is, Gongzhong does not resemble any Tibetan village in Tibet. It is a Tibet village more from Epcot Center in Walt Disney World: Small streamlets gurgle across flowered, manicured lawns. Houses are gingerbread visions like those depicted by commercial artist Thomas Kinkade. Wood piles are perfectly stacked. Tibetan prayer wheels are in high polish, but inert. In the barnyard, where dirt and hay never seem to mix, local beauties in ethnic costume practice traditional folk dancing. It is a happily-ever-after world, but one missing the pleasant bustle of ordinary life.

Undaunted, Nyima Tsering, the village chief, tells reporters that, "This is a place to see the daily life of Tibetan people." And he takes us to the nearby living room of Tsering Dorje. His wife, in traditional costume, pours tea beneath a photograph of Chairman Mao, and Mr. Tsering tells us he is the village communist party chief.

Asked if he had ever been a Buddhist - which, in Tibet, is like asking if one has ever breathed oxygen - Tsering pauses, then says, "I can't remember."

At this point, our media group begins feeling a slight insurrectionist sentiment. It is dawning that we have been driven deep into Tibet to visit a model village, a virtual fake. Reporting from Tibet is give and take: Our stories from here help China since they suggest Tibet is open and stable. But in exchange, we need to see something reasonable. Some authenticity is required. If we are to get an imaginary garden, to borrow the poet Marianne Moore's phrase, there should at least be some real toads around.

ABC producer Mark Litke, a 20-year veteran in Asia, tells his cameraman to shoot the media confrontation with officials. Mr. Litke later comments that, "It has been awhile since we've been taken to a so-called 'model village' from the 1970s. We've gotten used to more and more freedom in China. It goes to show you how sensitive Tibet still is."

"In the 70s, a lot of us were fooled. Some Potemkin villages with happy peasants were located near people who didn't have enough food. That is no longer the case. But why take us to this place?"

"This place is a Han [ethnic Chinese] idea of what a Tibetan village should be like," says one ethnic Chinese reporter for an overseas firm.

Efforts to locate some Tibetans for casual conversation are fruitless. At an empty community center, village chief Nyima shows us photos of Chinese leaders. Party meetings are held downstairs, functions upstairs, he says. A large chart on the wall shows a monthly evaluation of each family in five different categories, with stars pasted on for good ratings. Categories include: patriotic spirit, family unity, sanitation, family planning, and "using scientific knowledge to get rich."

Outside, Nyima says that in Gongzhong, "Believing in Buddhism is allowed, but believing in the Dalai Lama is not. Dalai Lama wears the clothes of a Buddhist, but he is a splittist wolf who doesn't love the motherland."

Eventually Tibetans will have to decide, Nyima says. "No one can have two masters. You can't be a Buddhist, and a member of the Party."

Source: Phayul