XIAHE, China — Buddhist monks in flowing burgundy robes hurried along the dirt paths of the Labrang Monastery, trying their best to ignore the scrum of Chinese tourists following their every move, many with cameras fit for paparazzi.
Pilgrims and those less spiritually inclined wandered through the ornate complex here in the mountain town of Xiahe to gaze upon towering Buddha statues bathed in incense. Some tourists held back to indulge in distinctly unenlightened pursuits, smoking cigarettes and pouting at their smartphones in the high-tech vanity ritual known as the selfie.
One of the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism, Labrang presents an idyllic picture of sacred devotion that is carefully curated by the Chinese government, which hopes to convince visitors that Tibetan religion and culture are swaddled in the Communist Party’s benevolent embrace.
But behind closed doors, many of the monastery’s resident monks complain about intrusive government policies, invisible to tourists, that they say are strangling their culture and identity.
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“Even if we’re just praying, the government treats us as criminals,” said a young monk, who like others interviewed recently spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid government repercussions.
Such frustrations, many monks say, are what have driven more than 120 Tibetans to set fire to themselves since 2009, including 13 in the Labrang area, in a wave of protests that has gone largely unreported in the Chinese news media.
International human rights advocates say that rather than address the underlying grievances — including Beijing’s deeply unpopular campaign to demonize the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader — Chinese authorities have responded with even harsher policies that punish the relatives of those who self-immolate and imprison those who disseminate news of the protests to the outside world.
Exile groups and analysts say Labrang and a handful of other monasteries across the vast Tibetan plateau in Central Asia have become showcases for Beijing’s strategy, which seeks to stifle dissent in well-trafficked tourist sites without scaring away visitors.
Monks here describe a largely unseen web of controls that keep potential troublemakers in line: ubiquitous surveillance cameras, paid informers and plainclothes security agents who mingle among the busloads of tourists. Hidden from the throngs are the political education sessions during which monks are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama. Stiff jail sentences await those who step out of line. “If we don’t obey, it will be terrible for us,” the monk said.
A flood of tourists
Founded in the early 18th century, Labrang Monastery is tucked into the dusky hills of northwestern Gansu province. Each day, hundreds of Chinese tourists arrive to spin colorful prayer wheels lining the monastery perimeter and sip tea at hotels designed to resemble Tibetan nomadic tents. Along the town’s main street, they buy turquoise-encrusted amulets, dress up in monks’ robes and take turns trying on the ceremonial yellow hats that resemble mohawk-style haircuts. Officials hope that a recently completed airport will draw even bigger crowds.
In a monastery courtyard surrounded by whitewashed mud walls, a Chinese family from the provincial capital, Lanzhou, knelt down to pray to Buddha. “If you ask nicely, he’ll make your wish come true,” said the mother, Ming Yang, who acknowledged that her understanding of Buddhism ended there.
With an eye on the lucrative prestige of a UNESCO World Heritage listing, the central government is giving the monastery a $26 million face-lift. Around 1,000 monks and 65,000 volumes of Buddhist scripture are housed in the sprawling complex, which local officials say is in dire need of structural improvements.
Yet locals complain that much of the construction is aimed at increasing tourism, rather than benefiting Tibetans. “It looks fancy, but in reality all the improvements are for Chinese people,” one said.
Tourism reshapes Tibet
Tourism is rapidly reshaping much of the Tibetan plateau. According to the Xinhua state news agency, 6 million tourists visited Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, in the first eight months of this year, a 20 percent increase over the same period in 2012. The boom has attracted several international hotel chains to the city, which is under de facto martial law.
In May, Tibetan exile groups started a boycott campaign against the InterContinental Hotels Group, which is building a 2,000-room luxury resort next to the historic residence once occupied by the Dalai Lama.
In the wake of violent anti-Chinese protests that swept Tibet in 2008 and the wave of self-immolations that followed, security forces have tightened their grip. The crackdown reaches deep into the folds of Tibetan spirituality. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, officials have posted notices in Tibetan areas declaring it illegal to pray for self-immolators or to show solidarity “by burning incense, chanting religious scriptures, releasing animals from killing and lighting candles.” At least two monks have been jailed for praying on behalf of self-immolators, the group said.
Exile groups say such tactics only alienate Tibetans further. “Even lighting a butter lamp or incense stick becomes an act against the state,” Kate Saunders, communications director for the organization, said from London.
Celebrating the Dalai Lama
Yet local enforcement has been erratic. Nowhere is this more clear than at Labrang, where a framed photo of the Dalai Lama sits on an altar beside a large golden Buddha. For years, the government has banned photos of the Dalai Lama and forbidden Tibetans to worship him as a religious figure. Monks at Labrang said they believed local officials had decided to quietly tolerate such photos in an effort to head off further unrest.
On the tour, few of the Chinese day-trippers seemed to recognize the older, bespectacled man Beijing has called “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The monk guiding the group made no mention of his identity, lest it threaten the ticket sales and donations needed to cover operating costs.
But being the main attraction on a Buddhist safari has spiritual drawbacks.
“Chinese tourists just barge in when we’re studying,” a middle-aged monk said as he fingered a set of prayer beads. “It knocks on our minds, but they don’t care.”
Such complaints appear to be falling on deaf ears. During a tour of the region in July, China’s top official in charge of ethnic minorities, Yu Zhengsheng, insisted that economic development was the panacea for what ailed Tibetans. In the same breath, he condemned the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” which calls for genuine autonomy in Tibet but not independence, saying it conflicts with China’s political system.
“Only when people’s lives have been improved can they be better united with the Chinese Communist Party and become a reliable basis for maintaining stability,” he said, according to Xinhua.
But local Tibetans seethe at China’s refusal to recognize their most basic aspirations. “Our hope is that the Dalai Lama can return,” said a monk, looking out for eavesdroppers while sitting at a cafe. “Without him, there is no chance our religion and culture will survive.”