LHASA, China – A year after Tibetan rioters set parts of Lhasa ablaze, aiming their fury at migrants from elsewhere in China, the mountain city is divided between migrants looking to flee and locals short of work as tourism collapses.
Many workers and traders from other ethnic groups who moved to the remote region in search of a better living said they were considering leaving for good, driven away by the tourism slump and icy anger of local Tibetans.
Beijing clamped down after the violence in which 19 died, sending away many Tibetans who had settled in Lhasa without papers — and depriving local shopkeepers of many customers.
Tourism has plunged with just a trickle of Western visitors. Gruesome television footage of the riots and stories of unrest in other ethnically Tibetan areas deter Chinese visitors.
Compounding the traders’ misery, many Tibetans are boycotting celebrations of their traditional New Year, which falls around Feb. 25, in quiet defiance of the crackdown.
“Business has not been good at all. People have less money and now many of them are not planning to celebrate the New Year. They are not coming in to buy anything for the house,” said an ethnic Muslim fabric seller from northwest China who has been in Lhasa four years.
Many of the traders selling food and goods on Lhasa’s streets are Hui Muslim from nearby provinces.
The fabric seller said his uncle’s shop was gutted in the rioting and although his own was spared there have been growing ethnic tensions ever since.
“Before the Tibetans were friendly when they came in to buy things. Now it’s just about business, they don’t even want to chat,” he added, asking not to be named because both the riots and ethnic relations are politically sensitive topics.
But Tibetan-owned businesses that depend on migrant workers and tourists are struggling too.
“It has been a problem for residents in the area, because many of them had bigger houses and rented out rooms to people from other areas,” said Dorchong, head of a Lhasa neighbourhood committee, who like many Tibetans goes by only one name.
“But due to the riots fewer people have been coming to Lhasa so they couldn’t rent out rooms,” he added.
Almost everyone in Lhasa, from top officials to vegetable sellers, agrees that last year’s unrest damaged the local economy, although there is disagreement about by how much.
The government says Tibet’s economy recovered from the unrest and grew 10.1 percent in 2008, aided by a transfusion of state-spending — long a mainstay of regional growth.
The No. 2 Communist Party official for the region, Lekchok, said the worst had passed. But on the streets ethnic Han Chinese shopkeepers are haunted by their memories and complain the worst is not yet over.
“I am safe going out in the day now, but I can’t forget it. We had to lock ourselves into our house and didn’t go out for days even after we ran out of food,” said one migrant from Hubei province who sells gloves metres from the burnt-out remains of a building she says was destroyed in the riots.
“We will be leaving soon I think, I can’t live like this.”
If there are many more like her, it could change the face of a city that has become increasingly Chinese, and complicate Communist Party efforts to control it.
China has always kept a tight rein on Tibet, since Communist troops marched into the remote, high-altitude plateau in 1950.
One of the most controversial aspects of Beijing’s rule has been migration by other ethnic groups into Tibet, which critics say is encouraged by the government because it makes the region easier to govern.
The exiled Dalai Lama, called a separatist by Beijing but still spiritual leader for most Tibetans, has accused China of cultural genocide, particularly after it opened a railway to Lhasa that allowed easier access. China denies the charge.
But even traffic on that line has fallen, deputy station director Xu Haiping told a small group of journalists visiting Tibet on a tightly controlled, government organised trip.
The biggest winners may be those who moved to Tibet as officials or to work in state-linked jobs such as writing for official magazines. They are offered salaries sometimes more than twice hometown levels to tempt them to the plateau.
“For graduates we can offer 2,400 yuan ($350) a month, while in (Sichuan provincial capital) Chengdu they would only earn 1,000 yuan,” said one media worker who turns away several applicants for every job he advertises.