China rebuilds Dalai Lama's village with modern houses

All the 54 houses of Hong'Ai, the birth place of Dalai Lama in Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau has been renovated and rebuilt at the state cost including that of Gongpo Tashi, the "stocky Tibetan whose prime job is to maintain the birthplace of his uncle, Tenzin Gyatso," (the real name of Dalai Lama) state run Xinhua news agency said in a report.

Gongpo, 63 who has visited the Dalai Lama twice in India, says he has not contacted his uncle for a while. "If I call him some day, I will definitely tell him of the changes at home."

He built the new home with government subsidy even though he is among the wealthier villagers, the report said. He however is not sure the Dalai Lama will ever see the changes.

"Am I waiting for his return? Well, if he is back, all problems will be solved," Xinhua quoted him as saying. It is indeed rare to see a news story about Dalai Lama figuring in Chinese official media without any critical references.

The Dalai Lama lives in exile in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh since fleeing Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against the Chinese rule. The news item of renovation of his village laced with remarks of his nephew came just days after the Tibetan leader said in Budapest that he would return to Tibet with a Chinese passport.

"I'm an optimist, I think I will return to Tibet with a Chinese passport. A solution must be found that is good for both China and Tibet," he said. Tenzin was born in 1935 in Qinghai province which was hit by massive earthquake this year in which several thousand people were killed.

He was ordained when he was around six years old and later left for Dharmashala in India on exile in 1959 after Chinese troops moved in to establish control on Tibet. If ever he returns the noble laureate will that all the old Tibetan homes were replaced modern structure built of brick and strong timber, says Xing Fuhua, chief official of Shihuiyao Township, which administers Hong'Ai.

Xing says the overhaul took about 16 months and cost the government 2.65 million yuan (about half a million dollars). Half the sum went in subsidies to households that built new homes on schedule and in accordance with safety standards.

"Everyone was enthusiastic. They tore down the old homes," says Gongpo, a deputy head of Shihuiyao. "Many of the mud and wood homes were about to collapse, but villagers could not afford to have them repaired."

Xing says each household could receive 19,000 yuan for building new homes and have their courtyard walls and the front door installed for free, which would cost roughly another 20,000 yuan.

These two investments equal the income of a family farming 1.67 hectares of land for 20 years, says Xing. Hong'Ai remains a largely farming village with a per capita income of only 3,399 yuan last year, about two thirds the national rural average.

Gongpo's new house has few Tibetan flourishes in the design other than a framed Tibetan painting. He says he could have built the house in traditional Tibetan style with carvings and paintings on the wooden pillars, but few artists are still capable of such work.

"It is not so necessary anyway, as Tibetans here have long been living a life not so different from the Han Chinese," he says. "Tibetan was not even widely spoken at the time when the Dalai Lama was born in 1935," he said.

Gongpo, the township official who is not related to the Dalai Lama's family, says Tibetans in Hong'Ai adapted to the Han (majority Chinese race) way of life more than a century ago.

Every ethnic household was consulted for their requirements before the overhaul, says Dong Jie, head of the civil affairs bureau of Ping'An County, who oversaw the project. The renovation of rural houses is part of the central government's on-going drive to develop the country's relatively poor western regions, which have lagged behind since reform and opening up began in 1978.

In a bid to build an all-round xiaokang (well-off) society, China launched a new round of West Development initiatives in the summer. In Hong'Ai, where farming incomes remain low, the government has been pouring in funds to build roads, provide stable power and water supplies, and connect the village to the world via the Internet.

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