In a symbolic move, the Chinese government would appear to have made their conquest of Tibet nearly complete. Hongai village, the exiled Dalai Lama’s ancestral home that rests on a mountain peak, is receiving a 2.5 million yuan makeover in the form of redevelopment. The house where Tibet’s spiritual leader grew up is not to be spared. The structure is now surrounded by a three-meter high wall and is being watched by security cameras. The Dalai Lama’s boyhood home is the final physical spot in the mainland dedicated to the man whom Beijing calls a “wolf in monk’s robes.”
“This is not modernization but Sinofication,” Tibetan poet and activist Tsering Woeser told AFP.
Sinofication or not, Hongai (or Taktser as it is called in Tibetan) has been radically transformed by the project. The village is in Qinghai province, several hundred kilometers from the border of the Tibetan Special Administrative Region (SAR). The region has been regarded as culturally Tibetan for hundreds of years, although it lies outside the borders of the SAR.
When a spiritual search party of Buddhists arrived to identify the toddler Lhamo Dhondup as the reincarnated Dalai Lama in the 1930s, the building – now flanked by the wall and rigged with surveillance equipment – was a simple farmer’s home. While Tibetans may interpret the “goodwill gesture to visiting pilgrims” differently, the Chinese government included the radical makeover in its 1.5 billion yuan ($244 million) effort to breathe economic life into the remote region. The nearby Pingan district is set to become a center for new energy and information technology companies.
“Today, the once bleak, underdeveloped county is closer to a boom town,” local official Sun Xiuzong told Xinhua. This transition from outpost to boom town represents the loss of tradition for Tibetans. The loss was literal in the 1960s and 1970s when marauding Red Guards demolished the original home, which was rebuilt in the 1980s.
State-run Xinhua was reportedly the only media outfit allowed to explore the renovated premises. According to a report run by the government-backed source, the restored home looks as it once did, but has been freshly paved, given reinforced beams, with repainted murals. Video footage of the compound can be seen here.
Not all are sold on this official story. Upon seeing images released by AFP, Rudy Kong, a Canadian writer who visited the home in 2000, said, “The main building looks totally different, as it was quite open, but now it is filled in, and the roof was not as steep.” The current building is being overseen by the Dalai Lama’s 78-year-old nephew, Gonpo Tashi, who lives next door and allegedly said that he has “a special mission” and a “desire to protect his uncle’s old residence.”
Woeser believes the renovation could simply be Beijing’s “bait” to convince senior Tibetan monks to choose the next Dalai Lama within China’s borders. She said: “Their words are very sweet, but the real situation is very sad, and they are playing games with it.”