The View From The Roof Of The World: Observations From Five Days In Chinese Occupied Tibet

In February 2017, I had the privilege of being able to visit Lhasa, the capital of Tibet – or the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, as the Chinese have called it.

At an altitude of approximately 3,500 metres, it is one of the highest cities in the world, and takes some getting used to upon arrival. At it’s summit, the imposing, but elegant Potala Palace, which is situated in the centre of the city, stands over 4km above sea level, and is one of the highest points that I have ever been on foot. The monasteries and temples dotted among the hills that surround the city give the opportunity to go even higher.

Potala Palace, Lhasa

At such a height, and at such a time of year, unsurprisingly it got very cold, and within a day my lips were cracking due to the temperature and the lack of moisture in the air.

After what I have been told is the most expensive price-per-minute-in-the-air flight in the world – $700 USD for an hour flight there and then back – I spent the remainder of the day, and most of the night suffering from altitude sickness and adjusting to the low oxygen content. (Don’t underestimate how awkward it is for your body to adjust to such a change in such a short amount of time).

Lhasa translates as “place of the Gods” and for tourists arriving in the city, this religious affiliation is largely all that remains of the Tibetan culture and way of life. The only attractions that I was able to see during my brief time there were temples and Buddhas (not that there is anything wrong with this of course, but by the 50th Buddha statue things start to become a little repetitive.)

For those wanting to know of Tibet’s more recent history, its political struggles against the Chinese occupation, and its current Dalai Lama, I would suggest going somewhere other than Lhasa.

Unsurprisingly, due to the limited freedoms available in China, particularly relating to Tibet, there was little mention of politics, protests, and the imperialism of the Chinese state. Such topics were largely off limits and our guide (you have to have a guide to visit the Tibetan attractions) only rarely approached these issues, doing so only when he was asked, and only when we were away from a crowd of people.

Human Rights Watch state that “Tibetans continue to face routine denial of basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and movement” with blogging, demonstrations, and foreign travel largely off limits. Amnesty International support this opinion, writing that “ethnic Tibetans continued to face discrimination and restrictions on their rights to freedom of religion and belief, expression, association and peaceful assembly.” Amnesty also highlight the role of solo protesting by monks – a tactic that has resulted in three-years of imprisonment for those committing the “crime”, and self-immolation which has resulted in 146 deaths since February 2009.

In the 2017 Freedom House report, Tibet was ranked the second worst country in the world in terms of freedoms, behind only Syria. The Cato Institute and Fraser Institute 2016 publication The Human Freedom Index does not include Tibet as a separate region, but does list China in 141st place out of 159 countries.

Our tour of Lhasa and its attractions was largely religious and it has left me feeling a little unfulfilled, and though it has countered some of my ignorance towards the situation, further reading and research is needed.

Though tourism is said to be an important income for the region, there were very few Western faces to be seen. Perhaps we had come at the wrong time of the year or perhaps the hefty flight costs and daily expenditure had discouraged many others from making the same journey. During our time in Lhasa we only saw a handful of other Westerners, which was something I found quite refreshing. This did result in myself and my partner in crime being the subject of staring on the streets and being asked to stand in many photos with the locals and (what I assume were) Chinese tourists.

For three days at least, Pia and I were minor celebrities, and were welcomed, waved at, and generally treated with intense fascination wherever we went.

My observations from my time there can be broken down under five main headings: 1) Capitalism and Development, 2) Imperialism, 3) Outcomes of Imperialism, 4) Security and Surveillance, and 5) Predictions for the future.

Capitalism and Development

Ladies and gentleman, I want you all to be aware that the American Dream is alive and well, in fact it is flourishing, but rather than heading West from Europe to discover it, you need to travel East and head to China.

I am not sure what I was expecting to find in Lhasa, but the capitalism-on-steroids scene that greeted me was certainly not it.

The appearance that I was anticipating was that of humble homes, colourfully clad Buddhists, and classic monasteries and temples. A slow and peaceful existence, with only the most minor of intrusions by globalisation and capitalism.

Instead, the culture shock that I experienced was due to the clean, wide roads and highways, the hordes of shoppers and rows of stores, the bright flashing lights of advertisement hoardings, and the army of gleaming SUVs.

It was as if the Chinese government had copied a blueprint for a typical American city and pasted it into the dry, arid Tibetan landscape. As we drove down the newly-built double-lane highways, I found myself shocked at what I was seeing. John Graham, a former diplomat and now writer, thought similarly upon his arrival: “Change the language on the signs and the part of Lhasa that foreigners are supposed to see looks like a small wealthy city in Arizona. Better. Modern shops and manicured parks line the main street. The downtown is impeccably clean, there’s no congestion, and the traffic signals are high-tech marvels. Late-model cars outnumber motorbikes and most of those bikes are electric so there’s no hammering noise and choking fumes.”

Each time we stepped out of our hotel, and each time we walked down the street, all we saw were people shopping. Whether it was on Saturday evening, Monday morning, or Tuesday afternoon, the only activity conducted by the people of Lhasa, aside from the Buddhist rituals, was consumption.

The inability to access Google Translate makes for some interesting fashion choices

For a supposedly Communist country, China has really embraced capitalism and consumerism. They seem to embody the world that was painted by Aldous Huxley in his book A Brave New World. Such is the desire to consume in order to be satisfied, to be entertained in order to be distracted, the authoritarian nature of the state does not need to be so suffocating.

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude”, as Huxley put it.


A point that is raised by Noam Chomsky in his book Power Systems, which Pia had brought along with her, is that imperialism does not only deserve its title when the imperialist power has to cross a sea to reach its target. This is called the saltwater fallacy, meaning that most people only believe it to be imperialism if salt water is crossed – think USA in Iraq or Vietnam, Great Britain in India.

The imperialism that is evident in Tibet is no less worthy of the title, or our attention, simply because China did not need to cross any expanse of water in order to invade.

As we drove from the airport to the city of Lhasa, we passed high rise flats and apartment buildings that were either still under construction or were largely empty. Our Tibetan guide told us that this “city” had sprung up in the space of a decade and would house over 200,000 people. It was ethnic cleansing on a titanic scale.

The speed at which China was populating the region and expanding its settlements reminded me of the “manifest destiny” in which the United States grew across the North American continent. At that time, pioneers were encouraged to carve out a life for themselves, but what we saw in Tibet seemed to be a lot more government-led and top-down than what had happened in 19th-century North America. We were told that rural Chinese families were being provided homes in Tibet and were relocated here in a sort of Chinafication of the region, not too dissimilar to what Israel is doing with its illegal settlements on Palestinian land.

As is ever the case with such resettlement programmes, the native population was being displaced and ethnically cleansed. Their homes were now the slums of Lhasa, and their culture and way of life had been Disneyfied, no more than an attraction for tourists. With good reason, some have called this a “cultural genocide”.

Throughout our short stay in Lhasa, we made a point of only going to Tibetan restaurants and cafes where possible, giving what little support we could to the people of the region.

The view of Lhasa from the surrounding hills, the tower blocks and apartment buildings clearly visible

Outcomes of Imperialism

Unsurprisingly, the native Tibetan population had severely suffered as a result of the Chinese imperialism. And whilst the city of Lhasa looked affluent and developed, it seemed to be benefiting the Chinese occupiers more than it did the local Tibetans.

Our guide told us that unemployment for Tibetans was as high as 50%, and recent years have seen the demolition of Buddhist sites in the city, and the expulsion of the local Tibetan population. John Graham observed that “a key part of the Chinese plan has been flooding Tibet with Chinese immigrants from the east”, and that by 2011, Lhasa was “60% Chinese.”

Chinese flags flew from every other house and all the signs were at first written in Chinese, and then English. I saw very little Tibetan.

The wide roads, clean pavements, and signs of “development” had come at a price for the local Tibetan population, and they seemed largely excluded from any of the benefits that it was bringing. The destruction of their culture and their homes, the lack of jobs, and their severely restricted human rights were the price paid.

On our final day, as we travelled back along the highway towards the airport, I asked our guide how the Chinese government could afford this, and why they were doing it? He told me that for each road they built, or for each multi-km tunnel dug through the mountains, the Chinese government were likely to make ten times the cost because of the resources they were then able to extract. On their site, Free Tibet lists these resources as coal, copper, gold, lithium, and water for both drinking and powering hydroelectric dams. The precarious state of Tibet’s water, and the impact Chinese actions are having on the ecosystem, is a topic that is explored further in Michael Buckley’s Meltdown in Tibet, a book recently purchased by Pia and one I am certain to borrow in the near future.

Security and Surveillance

The surveillance of the Chinese state was not as intrusive as I thought it would have been, it was however, clearly evident once you scratched below the surface.

The degree to which our guide was hesitant to talk about Chinese-Tibetan politics or the current Dalai Lama told us all we needed to know about the situation. Who knows what was and wasn’t being monitored or watched, and who knows what would happen if we had been caught discussing these things. Though I can’t confirm it, I am fairly confident that even in the car in which we travelled there were cameras watching us (a belief that may be supported by the fact taxis are known to be fitted with security cameras in China.)

In the public squares police were present, on the rooftops of houses surrounding these squares sat more police, and within the monasteries where the Buddhist monks read and debated, Chinese police were constantly monitoring, armed with tasers and batons.

The Chinese government has every reason to be wary of the monks, and it seems that they have learned from their past mistakes. In the 2008 Tibetan uprising, it was the monks that played the lead role, and the monasteries acted as a hotbed for political thought and activity. Since that time, not only are the monasteries heavily policed, but the monks themselves are only allowed to train and practice their religion with the blessing of the Chinese government. The government has a vetting system in place where they go back three-generations in order to evaluate the character of the would-be monk in order to assess their potential level of threat. Only those who are deemed neutral or positive towards the Chinese government and occupation are allowed to become monks. In recent years there has also been a large decrease in the number of monks allowed at each monastery, with many monasteries now housing 50% fewer monks than they did a decade ago.

At all times the monks were closely monitored by Chinese police

Alongside the regular sight of Chinese flags on the rooftops of houses, another feature you will see when heading out of the city centre is the huge military presence, no doubt it to pacify the local population and remind them of their place. This tactic is part of what Human Rights Watch have called “intimidation as governance.”

Predictions for the Future

Sadly, I don’t see much hope for a free and independent Tibet. It is likely that the occupation will persist, the ethnic cleansing continue, and the natural resource extraction increase at pace. There is too much money to be made by the Chinese government and too much power at their disposal.

With a population approaching 1.5 billion people and continuing to grow, albeit slowly, even if the Chinese government had a change of heart and wanted to return Tibet back to its people, such is the critical need to supply the basics (energy, water, etc) to its own public, that it wouldn’t be able to give up the region.

Whereas the Israeli ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians is to create a pure Jewish state – more ideology than economics with the costs of the settlements outweighing the benefits, the Chinese actions in Tibet seem to be driven more by the need to sustain and if possible improve the lifestyles of their people, whilst increasing the countries GDP. In this regard the Chinese imperialism is more reminiscent of the US invasion of Iraq, with the extraction of resources (oil) needed to sustain or improve the lifestyle of its citizens and to benefit the multinational corporations participating in the activity.

Whatever the reasoning behind it, the occupation is unlikely to end any time soon, if at all, and though I would welcome the day whereby Tibet received its independence, I will not be holding my breath.

External Links:

Free Tibet
Students for a Free Tibet


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