By Martin Banks
The Chinese government has always viewed the protection and promotion of the Tibetan culture as an important and inescapable duty
- Wu Hailong
Parliament Magazine talks to China’s ambassador to the EU Wu Hailong on the economic and social developments in Tibet.
Parliament Magazine (PM): In the process of modernisation, especially during fast economic development, can the Tibetan people still preserve their traditional customs and style of living? Europe has in this respect learned some hard lessons in the past.
Wu Hailong (WH): Tibet has some of the most grand and amazing landscapes with unique charm. Some in Europe refer to this part of this part of the world as the most beautiful Shangri-la. But sometimes I feel there is a stereotype in this recognition of beauty – some people feel that Shangri-la should always be as it was, that it should remain forever an escape from the modern civilisation. I have even heard people saying that the Tibet of the past is better than that of today – a rather biased view of the region. As a part of human civilisation, it is only natural that Tibet will change and develop. The world as a whole is moving forward, and so should Tibet. I wish to explain why the development in Tibet is necessary through a historical perspective.
Before 1959, Tibet was administrated under feudal serfdom, a form of social system under which only an extremely small number of people enslaved an overwhelming number of serfs. The cruelty of the system is by no means behind what happened in Europe during medieval times: the aristocrats owned all the assets, including the lives of the serfs. Not long ago, a British court ruled against a couple for intentionally enslaving others. In the verdict, the judge reprimanded the convicted as true devils. Yet such cases were not that uncommon in Tibet only several decades ago. It is obvious that we cannot allow such a social system to exist in today’s Tibet. I wish to stress that what the Chinese government intends to do in Tibet is to reform the region so that everyone could live as equals.
PM: It is true that Tibet is a Chinese territory, but the situation there is peculiar. Is it possible to give Tibet more autonomy and allow the Tibetan people to manage their own business?
Wu: I understand that many people in Europe have the same question as you. The fact is, Tibet is already a highly autonomous region. Take legislation, for example, in the years since the establishment of the Tibetan autonomous region in 1965, the regional government has passed over 250 regional laws and regulations. The Tibetan government has also formulated special implementation plans for Chinese national laws, working hours, and public holidays in line with the special cultures and conditions in the region.
On this point I wish to emphasise the difference between autonomy and political ambitions. If someone is pursuing the authority that goes beyond the autonomy defined by the Chinese constitution, we have to alert ourselves to the fact that they are not really seeking autonomy, but hidden political agendas.
PM: The Tibetan culture is rather unique compared with the rest of China. Europeans hope that such uniqueness and identity could be preserved and do not want to see the Tibetan ethnic minority lose this as a result of exchange with the rest of the world. Do you understand such concerns?
Wu: I wish to answer this question from two aspects. First, Tibetan culture is indeed quite unique. However, from a historical perspective, Tibetan culture has not been exclusive or isolated from the rest of the world. Rather, it has been inclusive and has been constantly drawing strengths from other cultures, particularly that of the ethnic Han people which account for the majority of the Chinese population. What is viewed today as the Tibetan Buddhism is in fact not native to the region.
Second, the Chinese government has always viewed the protection and promotion of the Tibetan culture as an important and inescapable duty. Take the protection of historical cultural sites as an example. In the course of last six decades, the central government has made huge investments in restoring and renovating historical and religious sites across Tibet, refurbishing a large number of temples and monasteries. Two projects have been particularly well-known, one being the renovation of the main building of the Dazao Monastery in Lhasa, the other being the massive renovation project for the Potala palace. From 1989 to 1994, the central government has invested €7bn and a huge amount of gold and silver to carry out the first-ever large scale renovation project for the Potala palace, which was later recognised by Unesco as “a miracle in the history of architectural protection, and a major contribution to the protection of Tibetan culture and even human civilisation”.
PM: In the European parliament, all formal documents are translated into 23 EU languages, the purpose of which is to protect the diversity of languages in Europe. As ties between Tibet and the rest of China continue to grow, more and more Tibetans begin to learn Mandarin in an effort to pursue more successful personal development. Will such a tendency result in the marginalisation of Tibetan language?
Wu: When the Chinese national people’s congress convenes its plenary sessions, not only are all the documents made available in Tibetan language, the meetings are also delivered with simultaneous Tibetan translation and live coverage in Tibetan language on the network of China Central Television (CCTV).
In Tibet, the Tibetan language is extensively studied, used, and promoted. We have written into laws that in the Tibetan autonomous region, equal importance is attached to both the Tibetan and Mandarin with more focus given to the former. All the laws, regulations, resolutions, official documents, magazines, newspapers, radios and TV programmes are available in both Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese. In the school system, comprehensive efforts have been made to provide bilingual education from primary school through high school. All textbooks and reference books are available in Tibetan. We have also made national and international standards for the digital input of Tibetan characters, making it the first among less spoken languages to have internationally available standards. Today, people in Tibet could use mobile phones with Tibetan language settings and apps. I wonder whether Europe could say the same for its languages of its minority ethnicity.
PM: Tibetan Buddhism is growing very fast in Europe. People here have always cared a lot about the life of Buddhist believers in Tibet. Some people worry that an atheist Communist party-led government would not support the development of Tibetan Buddhism. We in Europe have heard some stories, and are worried about the freedom of religion in Tibet. How do you react to such concerns?
Wu: In my view, the fact always speaks most eloquently. Your worries and concerns would vanish quickly if you went to Tibet for a visit. The Chinese constitution and laws protect its citizens’ rights to freedom of religion. Most European countries and other countries around the world have civil governments. This fact alone does not constitute a barrier for the development of religions worldwide.
Religious believers in Tibet are protected by the Chinese constitution and laws and enjoy sufficient freedom to carry out normal religious activities. Believers of all religions and religious sections are regarded as equals. In fact, apart from Buddhism, many others religions, including Catholic and Islamic religions, as well as the native Tibetan religion, are practiced in Tibet as well. In Tibet, there are currently over 1780 monasteries. Over 1700 are dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism with more than 46,000 monks and nuns. Eighty-eight monasteries are dedicated to native Tibetan religions. On average, there is a monastery for less than every 2000 population, making Tibet the region with the most monasteries on per capita basis. Every year, millions of religious believers went to Lhasa to burn incense in the monasteries. If you visit Tibet, you will spot religious believers everywhere.
PM: Tibet is regarded as the ‘Roof of the world’. It is also the origin of several major rivers in Asia. The natural environment of the region is very special with rather fragile ecological balance. Europeans are concerned that too fast economic growth could destroy the environment in Tibet. What is your response?
Wu: What you have said is correct. The special geographical location of Tibet has determined that it would be an important ecological defence for not only China, but others as well. The Chinese government has made it a fundamental national policy to reasonably explore and use natural resources and to protect the ecological environment. In 2009, the central government approved the protection and development plan for Tibetan ecological security. The plan is to make €1.96bn of investment through 10 major projects so as to basically establish ecological security in Tibet by 2030. Currently, there are in Tibet 21 ecological conservation areas, seven national forests, three geological parks, one national tourist attraction, and 47 regional natural conservation areas, comprising 34.5 per cent of the total land space in the Tibet autonomous region, ranking top across the nation. Over the last six decades, forest coverage in Tibet has increased to 11.91 per cent from less than one per cent, protecting more than six million hectares of wetland.