China Tightens Grip on Tibet's Business Class

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Armed Chinese soldiers walk past a monk during their patrol in Lhasa, Tibet, on February 1, 2009

Weeks after a prominent Tibetan arts dealer was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges his supporters say were trumped up after he crossed powerful local officials, a second Tibetan businessman has been sentenced to life in jail. Dorje Tashi, a property developer and owner of the Yak Hotel in Lhasa, was convicted of funding overseas Tibetan groups, including the office of the Dalai Lama, according to Urgen Tenzin, executive director of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, an India-based NGO. Dorje Tashi had been arrested in the spring of 2008 following deadly unrest in the Tibetan capital and was sentenced in June, although details of his case have still not been officially released.

As one of China's richest Tibetans, Dorje Tashi was an unusual target. In the past efforts by Chinese authorities to root out dissent in Tibet has focused on groups whose political loyalties were considered suspect, like monks and people who had recently made pilgrimages to India, where the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, lives in exile. Tashi ran a business conglomerate involved in hotels, tourism and real estate, and was responsible for the employment of hundreds. He was noted in the state-run press for contributing to various charitable causes, and his financial success was a symbol of the type of prosperity and modernity China wanted to promote in the restive Himalayan region.

His case has strong parallels to that of Karma Samdrup, a 42-year-old arts dealer who had also been touted in China for founding the Three Rivers Environmental Protection group. He was convicted in June of buying $10,000 worth of antiquities looted from an archaeological site in the northwest region of Xinjiang, charges that had been dropped in 1998 after Samdrup showed he was allowed to trade in relics, and denied knowledge of any crime in acquiring the objects. Samdrup's supporters allege the old charges were reinstated to punish him for attempting to help his brothers, Jigme Namgyal and Rinchen Samdrup, who were arrested after accusing local police of poaching. Rinchen Smadrup was sentenced to five years for "inciting separatism," the International Campaign for Tibet reported, while Jigme Namgyal is serving a 21-month term in a labor camp.

The arrests and heavy prison sentences of these men indicates that two years after the deadly unrest in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas, Chinese officials' suspicion of Tibetans has spread to other levels of society, including to people generally thought to be closely aligned with the Chinese state. But while China's efforts to encourage development in Tibet has helped build a class of successful Tibetan businesspeople, that prosperity hasn't built unswerving loyalty to Beijing. "It does suggest that how ever much money you pour into Tibet, you can change the physical landscape and the actual social landscape, but it doesn't change the cultural topography," says Robbie Barnett, director of Columbia University's modern Tibetan studies program. "The fact is they can create people who say this system benefits us financially, but it may not change their sense of cultural values."

The convictions come as a prominent Tibetan writer is facing trial for writing a book that questions China's policies towards Tibet. Tragyal, who goes by a single name and writes under the pen name Shogdung, was a scholar and editor in the western province of Qinghai who had previously advocated the government line and criticized Tibetans' religious bent. But in the now-banned book "The Separation Between Sky and Land," which was published this spring in Tibetan in China, he wrote that the March 2008 protests moved him to speak out, even though he fears for his safety. While not calling for independence, he asked for a review of the government's Tibet policy. His trial on charges of encouraging separatism has been delayed, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, an overseas activist group. But it seems unlikely he will avoid punishment. "I may lose my head because of my mouth," Tragyal writes in "The Separation Between Sky and Land." "But this is the path I have chosen, so the responsibility is mine."