China Tibetan Cultural Exchange Delegation, headed by Zhang Yun, Director and Researcher of the Institute for Historical Studies at China Tibetology Research Center, visited Finland at the end of last month holding a presentation in Aalto University and meeting with officials and academics. The delegation started its trip to Nordic countries from Denmark, where they had discussions with the Danish government, and travelled to Sweden after Finland.
Helsinki Times sat down with the delegation to ask them about their trip and the situation in Tibet today. Below are excerpts of the interview.
HT: What is the purpose of the trip?
Zhang Yun: Our purpose is to present life in Tibet from all aspects, from economics to cultural protection and cultural inheritance. Our group members come from all different sectors including administrative officers and academic researchers and we would like to share our research results with colleagues in the Nordic countries.
HT: Can you give examples of the sort of research results you have been sharing so far on this trip?
Zhang Yun: I myself focus on historical research and the culture of Tibet but we shared more about the policies and current regulations in the Tibetan society. We also show how life has changed in Tibet since the democratic reform in Tibet 60 years ago. We elaborate on the economics, society, human rights in Tibet with a special focus on culture protection in Tibet and cultural inheritance, and also Tibetan medical research.
HT: Who have you been meeting in Finland and has it been fruitful, has it been beneficial?
Zhang Yun: Yesterday we had a presentation at Aalto university, there were between 20 to 30 students and teachers. After our presentation, there was a very active discussion with students and teachers. They have a direct interest in the religions and economic situation in Tibet. The meeting lasted two and a half hours due to the time restrictions.
Due to the time limit of our visit, we would also hope there would be other groups from China and Tibet to Finland, and we also welcome the people from Finland to visit Tibet to get to know more.
HT: So can you tell me a little more about what the situation in Tibet is at the moment, regarding economy, human rights and tourism?
Zhang Yun: Before the democratic reform in Tibet in 1959, politics and religion were combined. More than 95% of local people lived without freedom and the economy was much less developed. During these 60 years, great changes have taken place in Tibet. Former serfs got liberated. From the economy point of view, there has been a huge development. Statistics show that for the previous 26 years, the increase in GDP has been in the 2-digit percentage. There are two reasons to incentivise economic development.
First are the political regulations, because before the properties and the output were owned by the owners of the former serfs, the serfs had no passion to work, to create properties. At the moment, people have their own properties so they are more motivated to work.
The second reason is that the central government, as well as other areas of China, provide a lot of support to the development of Tibet. There are 17 provinces and 18 state-owned companies in China that are providing direct support to Tibet. The development of Tibet is not an issue only in Tibet but is the entire country’s concern.
The development in traffic infrastructure, such as air traffic, road, highway and railway development it is the same as in other parts in China, in some areas it’s even more advanced compared with other parts of China.
In the human rights aspect, the most significant development is since 1959, when the serfs were liberated. Regarding the human rights of individual citizens in Tibet, language, education, culture, as well as housing services, have improved significantly. As China is a developing country we have the same and different aspects considering human rights in countries around the world. Currently, we put people’s human rights regarding life and development as a first consideration.
Under the constitution of China, the Tibet Autonomous Region has its own local regulations. There are more than 350 regulations and local laws in Tibet protecting people’s human rights in their politics, religions and language as well as their special traditions in marriage.
Besides, 80% of the financial support goes directly to the farmers, which covers the whole area to provide medical service, education and also covers environmental protection. In Finland, a very well developed country, education is very advanced. In China, a developing country, Tibet is the first region to implement 15 years of free education, including 3 years of kindergarten education and 12 years of primary and secondary education.
Next, I’ll introduce more about tourism in Tibet. Tibet is a special region in China regarding nature and environmental aspects. The altitude and climate in Tibet are very different. There are different regions with different attractions and views which are attracting not only international tourists but also tourists from inland China.
The second attraction to tourists are cultural resources. The history, culture and the society of Tibet are attracting tourists, they are interested in, for example, the traditional costumes, food, music, dance, Tibetan opera, Tibetan medicine, story of King Gesar – these are all attracting the tourists.
HT: Has there been a significant increase in international tourism in recent years?
Zhang Yun: Last year the total number of tourists was 33 million including international and Chinese tourists. The number of tourists is definitely on an increasing trend.
HT: Is there freedom of religion?
Zhang Yun: Like other regions in China, in Tibet, there is also religious freedom. There is a misunderstanding that because the Communist Party doesn’t believe in religion there isn’t religious freedom. But in fact in all areas of China, there is freedom of religion, there are different religions like Buddhism, Taoism in China as well as religions from other countries from the world like Christianity and Islam. They all have religious freedom in China.
In Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism is the largest religion, besides this, there is Islam and local Tibetan Bon religion. In Lhasa, there are two Islamic temples. Religious activities are well-protected in Tibet. All religious activities are carried out normally, there is no situation like the rumour that religious activities are strictly forbidden or managed.
HT: Generally, what are the main problems in Tibet? And how are they being tackled?
Zhang Yun: There are plenty of issues that need to be solved and tackled in Tibet. At the moment, the most important thing is economic development to get rid of poverty in Tibet. As President Xi Jinping mentioned, by the year 2020 all of China should be out of poverty, including the whole region and every individual.
HT: By 2020?
Zhang Yun: Yes, it’s soon. There are between 100,000-150,000 people in Tibet, people who are still living in poverty. It is a tough task, however from the central government to the local government everyone is working hard to solve this. Measures taken to help tackle poverty include providing education, providing medical services and providing jobs. It is a pretty challenging task. There are other issues that need to be considered and tackled as well. For example, achieving high economic development while at the same time protecting the environment and culture. It is challenging as the Tibet region is in high altitude so the environment is crystal.
HT: What sort of regulations are in place to protect the environment?
Zhang Yun: From the central government there is environmental protection law. The Tibet Autonomous Region has set up local regulations to protect the environment. If I remember correctly, there is an environmental development plan in Tibet from 2008 to 2030. We’re not only trying to protect the environment from destruction but also trying to repair and improve the environment in Tibet.
In Tibet, there are lots of national-level environmentally protected areas. The number of nature reserves are far bigger than in other parts of China. 34% of the Tibet area are environmentally protected areas, for example, the Himalayas and the Qiangtang area in northern Tibet. Besides this, the government provides a lot of work incentives to protect the environment. For example, workers who used to cut down trees before are now employed to plant trees and they receive subsidies for doing this. Also, people also get subsidies for planting grass on top of the farmland, some even get 5000 RMB per month.
There have also been improvements in the environment in Tibet, some plants were recovered in certain areas, as well as animals that gained back their living area. But there is a new issue that has appeared because of this. Wild animals have begun attacking sheep and livestock. In order to solve this, workers can send photos of the killed or injured sheep as evidence to the government, who provides compensation to the sheep owners.
Thanks to education, people in Tibet now have an active mind regarding environmental and animal protection. For example, in Lhasa people do not use plastic shopping bags anymore, they use environmentally friendly materials, which is more advanced than in some other regions in China. In Lhasa, there are also three measures taken to improve the environmental situation. One is increasing the river area to make changes to the lake. Another is growing trees in the mountain area. And in people’s homes, environmentally-friendly gas is used instead of the more traditional method of burning wood.
As President Xi Jinping said, the green water and green mountain - they are the treasure. If a project has a negative environmental impact then the project will be declined in Tibet. The people in charge of the project will have a lifelong responsibility for the environmental consequences of the project. The regulation of environmental protection is very important in the culture of Tibet.
HT: You mentioned that tourism rates are rising, are there any concerns related to the environmental impact of increasing tourist rates?
Zhang Yun: Yes. Although Tibet is a large area, the tourist attractions are located near each other. One step that we take, for example in the Potala Palace, is to limit the number of tourists per day. People have to make reservations in advance so in this way we can control the number of tourists and protect the environment and culture.
Another example is in the Himalayas where there are regulations in place to limit the number of tourists. There are limits at each level of altitude of how many climbers are allowed per level. Hikers are also reminded to bring back what they brought into the area. In Mount Kailash, besides limiting the number of tourists, there are also route planning suggestions for hikers, like which place to go first, second etc. in order to control the numbers.
The air and water quality in Tibet is one of the best in the world. But we are not satisfied with this, we are well prepared for the worst. We take a lot of measures such as trash sorting and processing. Also due to the high altitude of Tibet, people have different conditions. Although it is challenging and physically consuming to take the trash back from the area, we still encourage people to do that in order to protect the environment since it’s in high altitude so if the environment is damaged or destroyed it’s really difficult to recover.
HT: Mr Qiongbuhuofo, you are a Buddhist monk in Tashi Gephel Monastery in Zhigatse. What does life look like in the monastery?
Qiongbuhuofo: I will introduce life and study in the monastery. Here is an example of my daily life: I begin to study at seven o’clock in the morning, after breakfast, I go back to study, and after a break back to class. There are different forms of study in the morning, for example going to the teacher’s place to study or going to have a discussion, we are usually in different places. In the afternoon, it’s typically self-study and in the evening we often have discussions. This varies a bit from monastery to monastery, but at my monastery, we have a free day on Sundays.
I was born in 1991, and my living conditions and life have changed a lot thanks to the living conditions and accommodation in the temple. Also, monks are entitled to social security and medical insurance so we have a free health check annually. For me, because of my good living conditions, I think I should devote myself to studying and introducing Tibetan Buddhism to benefit other people.
HT: How many monks are there in your monastery?
Qiongbuhuofo: In the monastery where I stay there are over 50 monks and in the monastery where I study there are more than 900 monks.
HT: Do women also have their own monastery?
Qiongbuhuofo: Of course, yes. In Tibetan Buddhism, the monks and nuns are divided so there are temples for monks and temples for nuns. For example, the biggest temple for nuns accommodates around 100 nuns. Two famous temples, Canggu Nunnery and Xiongse Nunnery, are located in Lhasa. In other areas there are small temples for nuns, they’re on a smaller scale.
HT: At what age do monks usually devote themselves to the monastery?
Qiongbughuofo: This differs from case to case. Take me for example, I went to the monastery at the age of four and a half. Some monks go to the monastery at a pretty early age – from 3 or 4 years old. But in other cases, people go after they finish their 12-year compulsory education so at the age of 18 or 19. The cases are different.
HT: For all of you, what do you wish to achieve from this trip and has it been successful?
Zhu Hongli (Division Chief in the Bureau of Human Rights Affairs, State Council Information Office of China): We achieved some, we also wish that via your media more people from Finland can get to know more about China Tibet. We also wish that with more chances for communication between our two countries, people can improve their mutual understanding and improve the relationship. Two to three days is a really short time, and getting to know one another takes time.
Text and image: Maria Timko - HT