Despite the unique importance of Lhasa’s cultural heritage and its remaining historic buildings, a Chinese state response to UNESCO, issued in November 2017, does not refer to the fundamental issue of the preservation of the remaining historic buildings on the Barkhor or the buffer zones. And in its prior submission to the Chinese state party, UNESCO does not outline its recommendations for their protection.
In the document submitted to the Chinese state party by UNESCO after the World Heritage Committee meeting in Istanbul in 2016, UNESCO even noted “with satisfaction” China’s compliance in mitigating the impact of a large shopping mall partially by “renovation of the façade in traditional Tibetan architectural style” – effectively an endorsement of China’s approach to create replicas of Tibetan historical buildings rather than preserving the actual buildings.
The priorities detailed for Lhasa in official Chinese documents obtained by the International Campaign for Tibet have alarming implications for the survival of Lhasa’s remaining heritage, and adopt a different tone to those submitted to UNESCO for discussion in Bahrain at the World Heritage Committee.
China’s Master Urban Plan for Lhasa is a central element of Lhasa’s urbanization as well as a tool for territorial control and blueprint for development of the city. In the urban plan revised in 2008 and obtained by the International Campaign for Tibet, development and tourism are outlined as the key priorities in Lhasa, with conservation scarcely mentioned. The main objective outlined in the plan is ideological rather than heritage-oriented, stating the intention of the creation of “a new Lhasa [to be] built under harmonious and prosperous socialism.”
Tibetan official Che Dalha (Chinese: Qi Zhala), one of the leading figures involved in Lhasa’s rapid urbanisation, has made it clear that the task of “maintaining social stability […] is the precondition and guarantee for the development of Lhasa”. Maintenance of stability is political language referring to the crushing of any dissent and ensuring allegiance to the CCP authorities in order for the authorities to pursue their strategic and economic objectives on the plateau without impediment.
Images included with this report show the massive expansion and transformation of Lhasa, including infrastructure projects with roads intended to be wide enough to serve as runways for military planes in line with the Chinese government’s focus on security and militarization, dramatic expansion of the new town near Lhasa’s main railway station and high rise development in the lower Toelung valley area.
In the section of the urban plan about renovation of the city for tourism, there is no mention of preservation of historic buildings, even in the section about the old town of Lhasa. Chapter Nine of the Urban Plan raises the “preservation of history and culture” but only in broad and general terms.
In the same document, the Historic Ensemble area is designated as one of the main areas for “improvement” in the “short-term construction plan”, raising concerns over possible demolitions to create more tourist infrastructure.
Under the urban plan, Lhasa has not only undergone demolition of its ancient heritage, but also its not so old buildings. Emily Yeh, a scholar who has charted Lhasa’s development, writes: “The demolition of recently built single-family houses in favor of uniform row houses and apartment blocks conjures the appearance of development, producing a developed urban landscape through a process of ‘creative destruction’ that fuels capital accumulation for coalitions of real estate development companies and local governments.”
A further document issued by the State Council on Lhasa city planning last year (2017) is more specific on plans to demolish old buildings, stating that the authorities will: “Speed up reconstruction of dilapidated housing and of support infrastructure in shantytowns, city-centre villages and in urban and rural areas.”
In an indication of ongoing construction and demolition plans in the ancient heart of Lhasa, of which little original architectural fabric remains, construction companies were invited to tender by April (2018) for implementation of an “old city transformation strategic planning project” approved by the Party Group of the Urban and Rural Planning Bureau of Lhasa.
In one of its only references to protecting culture of the city, a Chinese State Council document on Lhasa’s urban planning states not that buildings must be preserved, but that the Chinese authorities must “protect the traditional style and configuration of the city, particularly in the historical urban districts”. This is a direct reference to new buildings that have been constructed in Tibetan style.
“Very often the understanding of ‘conservation’ in Asia is the replacement of historic structures by new buildings, with little or no resemblance to the old ones regarding design, building techniques or materials,” wrote Pimpim de Azevedo and the late Andre Alexander of the Tibet Heritage Fund. “This causes substantial loss of historic buildings.” Azevedo and Alexander cited for example the 7th century Barkhor street in Lhasa, both a pilgrimage route and important market street, has been redesigned to “fit some kitsch view of Tibet that may appeal to national and international tourists. For example, streetlights resembling prayer wheels have been installed, and the street sellers removed elsewhere. Another example of this kind of attitude [in Lhasa] is the decorative red frieze usually used only in palaces and temples. In recent years, this type of frieze was applied without discrimination to any building, including hotels, public toilets, etc.”