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In the Provinces, Life for Tibetans Is a Troubled Mix

In countries all over the world, protesters take to the streets to oppose Chinese rule of Tibet after demonstrations in the province turned violent. [Editor's note: The caption for an earlier version of this slideshow was incorrectly associated with a photo from Nepal. This version has been corrected.]
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 19, 2008; Page A09

XINING, China, March 18 -- In one narrow stretch of a Tibetan market in this capital of Qinghai province, a young monk begging for alms, a middle-class manager of an herbal medicine shop and a wealthy trader of yaks and sheep held divergent views about how Tibetans are doing under Chinese rule.

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But the one thing they all agreed on was their love for the Dalai Lama and their support for protesters in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, where anti-Chinese demonstrations turned violent last week.

The day-to-day lives of ordinary Tibetans here, in one of the largest provinces in China with one of the smallest economies, show that resentments rooted in ethnicity and culture are not far from the surface in towns and cities outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. While residents enjoy more opportunities here than they might in Tibet proper, many remain dissatisfied.

"Economically speaking, Tibetans are doing okay. But spiritually, we are not. Our feeling is like Chinese people's feelings when Japan invaded China," said Cairang, 27, who like most Tibetans goes by one name and who manages his uncle's medicine shop.

"It's as if you were born in a very poor family but you were taken away to live with a rich family," he said. "Although you'd be better off, which family would you really belong to?"

On most days, Cairang doesn't think about politics. He can often be found selling caterpillar fungus, dried snow lotus and a popular heart remedy made from powdered coral. After work -- he makes about $215 a month -- he heads home and reads books about Tibetan medicine. He relaxes by drinking beer with friends and in the summer joins traditional Tibetan dancers in an outdoor square.

Wearing jeans and a pale peach blazer, Cairang lit a cigarette and spoke openly in front of other vendors about independence for Tibet and the ability, until recently, to buy photos of the Dalai Lama in this market opposite Xining's bus station.

An estimated 1.1 million Tibetans live in Qinghai, more than 21 percent of the population, which also includes Hui Muslims and Mongolians as well as Han Chinese, the majority in this country. The diversity has helped foster greater tolerance of nationalities by the local government, merchants said.

And yet, Tibetan university graduates who enter government never seem to rise above deputy positions. Officials invest more money in areas where many Han Chinese live, rather than in the autonomous areas where most Tibetans (outside Tibet) live.

Then there are the assaults on their culture, Tibetans said, such as the practice of sending many Lhasa-born children to Han areas for several years to learn Mandarin, and the government's lack of respect for Tibetan literature and culture. Tibetans also cannot travel freely into India and Nepal, bases of support for the Dalai Lama.

"If a nationality has its own culture, it can stand up. Without it, it's impossible," Cairang said.

But not every Tibetan is so troubled. Some say their views have been inevitably tempered by the economic advantages of living and working with the Han Chinese.


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