A brisk wind ruffles yellow prayer flags as dozens of Tibetans, some on crutches, circle a shrine in a time-honoured Buddhist ritual. Across the street, a red banner spells out a new belief system, one being enforced with increasing fervour, of China’s ruling Communist Party.
“Xi Jinping’s new socialist ideology with Chinese characteristics is the guide for the whole party and all nationalities to fight for the great rejuvenation of China,” the sign proclaims in Tibetan and Chinese script, referring to China’s leader, who has sought to put his imprint on virtually every aspect of life across the vast county.
Lately, that has increasingly encompassed religion, both in central China and on its fringes, such as Tibet. The party is pressing a programme to Sinicise Tibetan life to separate Tibetans from their language, culture, and especially, their devotion to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s traditional spiritual leader who has lived in exile since 1959.
In the sun-drenched courtyard of the Jokhang Temple, one of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism, the head monk, Lhakpa, said the Dalai Lama is not its spiritual leader. Asked who is, he said: “Xi Jinping”.
The Associated Press joined a rare and strictly controlled media tour to Tibet highlighting what the government describes as the social stability and economic development of the region after 70 years of Communist Party rule. Stops included monasteries, temples, schools, poverty alleviation projects and tourist sites.
That appears to reflect the party’s confidence that it is prevailing in the global battle of public opinion over Tibet.
As a counterweight, Tibet rights groups continue to report detentions, economic marginalisation, a suffocating security presence and heavy pressure to assimilate with China’s Han majority while pledging loyalty to the Communist Party.
In the model village of Baji east of Lhasa, the capital, residents dressed in traditional garments told foreign journalists how poverty alleviation campaigns had changed their lives. “Time has changed, so people’s demands have changed. People needed religious beliefs as their spiritual sustenance in old times, but now we don’t,” said Tsering Yudron, 25, an accountant.
“Tibet has eradicated extreme poverty,” reads a 2019 government report on Tibet. “People now lead better lives and live in contentment. A brand new socialist Tibet has taken shape.”