Built in the 7th century, the Jokhang Temple is one of Lhasa’s most recognizable and sacred structures. The temple and its surrounding street, Barkhor Street are of historical and symbolic importance to the culture and identity of millions of Tibetan people in the Tibet Autonomous Region and now scattered around the world. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the “historical ensemble of the Potala Palace”.
Yet, the Chinese government has now revealed plans to build a shopping mall on the site, and fears that this may seriously endanger the site are escalating among the Tibetan and international community.
This is not the first time Chinese development policies have caused such concerns and outrage. The ancient city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region has become unrecognizable with the destruction of many of its historical sites. The government’s narrative then was that most of the city’s structures were faulty and vulnerable to earthquakes. This had some credibility and was especially relevant in the backdrop of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which claimed the lives of around 70,000 people. Yet today more than half of the city’s old town has been destroyed and replaced with high rise apartments and shopping malls.
The European Parliament passed a resolution calling for “culture-sensitive methods of renovation” and condemning Beijing’s past demolition of “historical buildings without considering the loss of priceless historical and cultural heritage” and “without giving priority to their preservation”.
Barkhor and Jokhang’s symbolic importance have made it the site of protests by Tibetans against the policies and actions of the Chinese government. In 2008, unrest in the region led to a crackdown by the authorities that left 12 people dead. According to reports, a self immolation may have taken place in front of the temple. Since 2009, more than 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire protesting Chinese “repression” and calling for the return of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, currently in exile in India to Tibet.
Activists now allege that the transformation of the region into a commercial zone may be aimed at preventing such movements. Further, the forced resettling of people from the region will also lead to fewer Tibetans inhabiting one of their most important areas. Currently, Han Chinese outnumber ethnic Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The Chinese government however claims that they are simply updating Barkhor’s infrastructure by building “heating facilities, removing fire hazards, improving sanitation services, regulating signs and dismantling illegally built structures.”
Still young, already the 21st century has seen the tragic destruction of ancient sites of global importance, with the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 and the more recent torching of the Ahmed Baba institute and the razing of ancient Sufi shrines in Mali’s Timbuktu by Ansar Dine being painful examples. A study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that more than 80 percent of historical sites that have been damaged in this century have been due to human action, adding “the fact that even designated UNESCO World Heritage sites are suffering neglect, damage, and loss suggests the large scale of the global crisis”.
As for Tibet, these developments are simply the latest in a series of Chinese policies that have been destroying the social fabric and cultural heritage of an ancient land and its people.