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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tibet Turning Chinese With Chinese Money

LHASA, Tibet -- Not far from Potala Palace, the hilltop fortress once home to Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, the main commercial boulevard here has become a very different symbol, of how Tibet is inexorably becoming more Chinese.

Shops offer Chinese music, DVDs and fashions. The faces on this street are mostly Chinese, too. The boulevard is even named Beijing Road, and it could pass for a street in Beijing -- which is what Chinese officials seem to want.

The Chinese government, which still describes its violent takeover of Tibet in 1950-51 as a "peaceful liberation," is reshaping Tibet with the force of China's superheated economy, pouring money and tens of thousands of Han Chinese into the region. The goal is to "modernize" Tibet's agrarian economy. But the political goal, analysts say, is to gradually secularize Tibetans and undercut political opposition with the fruits of capitalism.

For Tibetans, the question is whether this is economic development or economic imperialism. The influx of Chinese has divided cities like Lhasa into two worlds, Tibetan and Chinese. Some Tibetans say they have benefited from the Chinese strategy. But the Chinese in Tibet seem to be benefiting far more.

In late August, government officials escorted foreign reporters on an eight-day tour of Tibet. Such a trip, once unthinkable, is less rare now, perhaps reflecting growing Chinese confidence over their control of a region that once seethed with separatist anger. In fact, government officials who once closed Tibet to the outside world are now wooing tourists, particularly from China.

Cold economic reality could be found at the foot of Potala Palace. One afternoon, a Western reporter hailed cabs in search of a Tibetan driver. It took 14 tries. The driver said most Tibetans could not afford the roughly $20,000 needed to buy a cab and pay for licenses.

Not far away at the Barkhor, the ancient market surrounding Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, shopkeepers say Chinese merchants now run a majority of the stores that sell trinkets, carpets and religious items to tourists and Buddhist pilgrims.

Wang Lixiong, a Beijing author whose 1998 book about Tibet was banned in China, said the government's economic strategy had brought a measure of prosperity to some Tibetans, but he said the strategy's political goal is to make younger Tibetans more secular and less sympathetic to advocates of Tibetan separatism. He also said any appearance of a freer Tibetan society is misleading.

"It's a carrot-and-stick strategy," Wang said. "It combines the economic carrot with a political stick of continued repression."

An official at Tibet University confirmed, for example, that students face expulsion if they are caught taking part in religious activities, like Buddhist pilgrimages.