The Chinese town where the Dalai Lama was born is undergoing huge redevelopment, and behind a mountain the exiled spiritual leader’s family home has received a makeover of its own, with a three-metre wall and security cameras installed.
The building in Hongai village, at the summit of a towering peak, is the only place in China dedicated to the man Beijing considers a violent separatist and a “wolf in monk’s robes”.
But the house has become a symbol of China’s bitterly divisive policy in Tibetan regions following its 2.5 million yuan ($400,000) refurbishment, amid concern from international rights groups over the scale and speed of Tibetan housing and relocation programmes.
“This is not modernisation but Sinofication,” Tibetan poet and activist Tsering Woeser told AFP.
Hongai, known to Tibetans as Taktser, is in an area that has been culturally Tibetan for centuries but lies deep in the western Chinese province of Qinghai, several hundred kilometres (miles) outside the boundaries of the Special Administrative Region itself.
For Tibetans the building’s transformation is a sign of lost traditions, unrecognisable from the simple farmer’s dwelling found by a search party of Buddhists who identified toddler Lhamo Dhondup as the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation in the 1930s.
Authorities who funded what appears to be a total rebuild, however, view it as a goodwill gesture to visiting pilgrims and part of a 1.5 billion yuan ($244 million) local regeneration drive.
A typically poor outpost in China’s vast and sparsely populated west, the area is beginning to share in the country’s economic explosion, with several overseas companies setting up, according to state media.
“Today, the once bleak, underdeveloped county is closer to a boom town,” local official Sun Xiuzong told the official news agency Xinhua.
But near the Dalai Lama’s house, there is little sign of opening up. “You are not allowed in,” said a neighbour on a narrow, leafy street in the eerily quiet village.
“No foreigners are allowed in. It is because of the police,” he added, as dogs — kept in many Tibetan households as protection — barked in the distance.
Local authorities declined a formal request to enter the property. “We don’t want to offer the Dalai Lama any publicity,” an official told AFP.
The future Nobel laureate was taken to Tibet from Hongai and enthroned before he turned four. He was formally recognised as the 14th Dalai Lama in 1950, at the age of 15, but was forced to flee Tibet nine years later following a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
He later founded the government in exile in Dharamshala after being offered refuge by India, and has campaigned for the preservation of Tibetan culture on the world stage ever since.
Back in Hongai, his house was reportedly destroyed by Red Guards during the decade-long Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, but rebuilt in the 1980s.
It is currently being maintained by Gonpo Tashi, a nephew of the 78-year-old Dalai Lama and former local official, who is understood to live next door.
“The refurbished compound has retained its original look, but the ground is newly paved, beams have been reinforced and murals were repainted,” according to Xinhua, who officials said were the only media allowed inside since the works.
There was no response from either the Dalai Lama’s house or the neighbouring property when AFP visited.
Locals say devotees are often allowed in to worship. The top of a large prayer flag pole and a gold temple could be seen from outside, while security cameras and modern waste bins had been installed along the perimeter.
Rudy Kong, a Canadian writer who lived in China for many years and visited the house in 2000 — one of the few foreigners to do so — was sceptical about the refurbishment.
“The main building looks totally different, as it was quite open, but now it is filled in, and the roof was not as steep,” he said after viewing AFP images.
“It looks like a total rebuild — and I certainly don’t remember a grey three-metre wall surrounding the entire site,” he added.
Tibetans fear the destruction of their culture through urbanisation and China’s relentless drive to modernise — while Beijing says its investments have significantly raised living standards.
Sophie Richardson, China director for US-based campaign group Human Rights Watch said in June: “The scale and speed at which the Tibetan rural population is being remodelled by mass rehousing and relocation policies are unprecedented in the post-Mao era.”
Hongai is a remote village of about 70 houses perched above a wide, green valley.
At the end of a sharply descending narrow road snaking between freshwater creeks and jagged, stony cliffs, the verdant landscape gives way to a large, dusty building site peppered with dozens of cranes and the skeletons of huge tower blocks awaiting completion.
Many of China’s Han ethnic majority have moved into the area as it develops, and Woeser said the local culture had been diluted over the years.
“When I last visited Taktser in 2007 a relative told me only 40 of the households were Tibetan,” Woeser said. “The relative also told me Tibetans have adopted Han ways and they don’t speak good Tibetan.”
Beijing may be using the house as “bait” to convince senior monks to choose the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama within China’s borders, she added.
“Their words are very sweet, but the real situation is very sad, and they are playing games with it.”