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Smuggled Recording from Tibet Urges UN to Protect Potala from Mishandling - 2004-02-07

The Voice of America’s Tibetan Broadcast Service reported that an audio tape smuggled out of Tibet, evidently from people with detailed knowledge of the Potala renovation underway in Lhasa, urges the United Nations World Heritage Center to protect the project from being mishandled by Chinese authorities. According to the tape, Chinese authorities have given the renovation contracts to Chinese workers who are totally ignorant of the intricacies of Tibetan architectural traditions and techniques and are therefore using the Potala Palace as a “plaything.” Examples cited include the project’s replacing floors in the Potala that were originally made of a composite of marble dust and oil, with an inferior composite of concrete, hair, and glue, and the replacement of traditional tamarisk wood spacers in the building’s walls with cement and iron pieces. The tape asks the United Nations to “lend its support in real terms.”

A spokesman for UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee told VOA that the Potala Palace—the 1300-year-old residence of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa—has been on the World Heritage Center’s list for conservation and protection since 1995, and that the responsibility for its renovation lies with the Chinese Government in Beijing and the local authorities in Lhasa. But World Heritage Center of UNESCO has concerns about the conservation of the Potala Palace. The China Times of September 17, 2003 reported that the project would cost more than three million yuan, and that engineers from the China Railway Construction Company were directing the renovation. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Translation of transcribed tape sent to VOA Tibetan regarding Potala renovation

We are sending this information from Tibet. In light of the studies we have done, we request the Voice of America to broadcast this brief information about the Potala Palace to the United Nations cultural preservation agency, to Chinese officials, to Tibet, and to everyone, for if we speak in Tibet, we cannot make our point. It is not good to be ignorant of this information, because the Chinese are using the Potala Palace—which is under the protection of the United Nations world heritage list—as a plaything. That is to say, during its first renovation the Chinese authorities destroyed a section, about ten meters in diameter, of the three-dimensional mandala that was constructed by the Seventh Dalai Lama. And now it is beyond repair. In addition, the Chinese authorities say to everyone and to the world that they have spent around a hundred million yuan on the restoration of the Potala Palace. They have really given this money to hoodwink the Tibetans. Even then, during the so-called renovation work, they avoid giving renovation work to Tibetan master craftsmen. Instead, almost all of the work is given to Chinese.

The renovation work carried out by the Chinese is totally different from the work carried out by the Tibetans. The reason is that the Potala Palace, which was built using only earth and stone, has a long history of thirteen hundred years, and during the time it was built there was no cement. Now, during the renovation they use cement, so that they can finish the job quickly.

Secondly, on July 29th, 2001, at 9:15 in the evening, lightning struck at the east side of the Potala. After the lightning, around three o’clock in the morning, a part of the Phuntsok Dhunlam entrance steps was destroyed. Although it has been almost three years, still they have not been able to rebuild it.

The reason for not being able to rebuild is—at first, there was no permission from the higher authority, and then all the work was finally given to the Chinese, who did not know how to do the job anyway. That is to say, during the summer the Chinese filled up the wall and, at the end, they employed Khampas who didn’t know how to erect the wall to do the work, just to see if they could do it. The Chinese wasted all their time. And then, when winter began, the Chinese started employing carpenters and masons from the Lhokha area. The present head of the work team is a person who was only the worksite guard during the first part of the renovation job. Through this year the work has not been finished and so now they have suspended the work.

Secondly, all the work with the painting of the Potala Palace frescos and the pounding and flattening of its floors has been given to Chinese, but the Chinese don’t know anything about how to do the work. The reason is that our Tibetan arka [a composite material of pulverized marble and oil, used for making floors] has unique characteristics. We can see still point to arka floors that are more than thirteen hundred years old. The Chinese say that the Tibetan method of making their aggregate mixture is not correct and instead they use a mixture of cement, soil and hair to make the floor, which is worthless.

Since it is useless, the Chinese moved to a place where no can see and they tested the composite mixture on the floor of the Yabshi building, which is behind the Potala Palace. Everyone knows that the Yabshi building is in fine condition, but no one is allowed to go there. The floor of the building is in extremely good condition and there is no need to do repair, but they tested the composite mixture upon the existing floor. Moreover as the pounding of the floor was done in the month of November, everyone was surprised. Because the area behind the Potala Palace never receives any rays of the sun before 11’clock in the morning, the pounding of the floor in the winter is not done—in fact, no one has ever heard of it being done. Since the Tibetans do not have the right to speak on these matters, the wrong is being carried out.

Second, the Chinese test using their cement by removing the mud that the Tibetans had used in between the walls, saying it was of inferior quality.

Third, the traditional Tibetan method of erecting walls involves putting small pieces of tamarisk wood between the walls and the roof. On the Yugyal Jok (gYu rgyal lcog) and Sharchen Jok (shar chen lcog) [two of the three rooms raised above the rest of the Potala structure], the Chinese are replacing the wood with cement and iron. The workers find it impossible to appeal to the United Nations to stop this from being done. Cement has a history of only one hundred years and it will cause great hardship to the renovation. By taking out all the tamarisk wood from the wall, there is every possibility that all the materials will be damaged and become useless.

At present, even if there is a slight chance of a wall coming down, we have the means and required expertise to renovate it immediately. If cement and iron is used then it will make future renovation work impossible. This is an important issue. Therefore it would be good, if possible, for the renovation of the Potala Palace to be carried out by Tibetan carpenters and masons only, without even a single Chinese being involved. If that is not possible, then at least the work should be carried out under the supervision and direction of Tibetan experts. At present, the Chinese don’t take advice. For example, with wood, they soak very high quality dry wood in pesticide in a place in Lhasa called Drip. When we compare the quality of the wood that has been treated with pesticide to the dry wood we see that the treated wood is very inferior. For instance, if we throw the treated wood on the floor, it breaks into pieces immediately. Basically, the treatment method is incorrect.

Similarly, the roof of the room in the Potala Palace that houses the Eighth and Ninth Dalai Lamas’ tombs has been completely removed. Although it is said that a new roof will be put on jointly by China and the Lhasa renovation office, in reality only the Chinese have any actual authority. But even when the Chinese carry out the renovation, they will not follow standard techniques, which will cause further damage to the structure. They are doing this only to earn money, because there is no way they are capable of doing the renovation.

Therefore, everyone should think on these issues. Whatever work is initiated and carried out for the benefit of the Tibetan people, we request that it be done only after consulting with the Tibetan people.

And as for the Voice of America, whether you have to appeal to the United Nations or to any other organizations, we request that you do so. In Tibet, there is no way to look forward because our leaders think only in terms of losing their jobs and titles. If a Tibetan speaks out, he or she is criticized by saying that a nationalist or a separatist is raising his or her voice, so there is no place where we can speak. To put it in brief, the Chinese are playing with the Potala Palace, illustrated by the fact that when the Chinese talk of putting in a pounded floor, they use a mixture of soil, cement, hair, and, sometimes, glue.

As a result, recently when our leaders had a meeting to sign the renovation contract, they put it like this: If a Tibetan pounds or flattens the floor it will cost only two hundred yuan per square meter and it will last for seven hundred years. When we say this, the Chinese tell us it will not work. At the same time, the floor that the Chinese make costs about six hundred yuan [per square meter]. So they talk only about the price [implying that it must be better if it costs more]. The Chinese guarantee that their floor will last for five hundred years only, but since all the authorities are Chinese, we Tibetans do not have any say.

All the work of pounding and flattening the floor is given to the Chinese. Therefore even if the present work is finished, they have a plan to dig up all the floors of the Potala Palace. We fear that if they dig up all the old floors of the Potala Palace and instead put in new floors, everything will be made useless, as, for example, with the work that has been done at the Yabshi building, which everyone can see is pitiful. Therefore, if you do not appeal immediately to the concerned authorities or agencies, the Potala Palace, which was built by the hard work of our ancestors, will soon be made useless by the Chinese.

The Chinese always do the work by trial and error. We, the workers, cannot tolerate this sort of thing and so we are raising our voices.

For example, during the first renovation, the Chinese announced that they had done a great work of preservation and renovation. But, for instance, take the case of wood materials to be used for the renovation of the Potala. There were around one thousand truckloads of lumber stationed at Drip, but if we ask how much lumber did they really supply to the Potala, the answer is that they supplied only ten thousand pieces of rafter and sixty beams. That, too, they supplied as if they are giving alms to the poor. The rest of the wood they either divided among themselves or sold, because not a single piece of wood is left there [at Drip].

The planned duration for the renovation of the Potala is three years. Already two years has elapsed and only one year is remaining. Since there are no beams or rafters left, once again they had to go to Kongpo to cut some timber. The Tibetan elder generation used to tell us that, in the olden days, the lumber for the Potala renovations had to be dried for eleven or twelve years before it was ready to be used. Now, they cut the tree and immediately dry it by using electric drying machines. This process causes cracks in the wood and ultimately the wood gets ripped apart. This is one thing.

Second, since Tibetans are powerless, they can do nothing but follow the dictates and orders of the Chinese. There is every possibility that the Tibetan handicraft expertise may decline and, moreover, due to Chinese supervision of the Potala renovation, there is a definite fear that a major problem may occur.

Although UNESCO has declared the Potala Palace to be an important world heritage site, if the United Nations does not lend its support in real terms, then you all know what will be the consequences.

To say more, the present renovation work in Tibet and all other major construction projects are headed by a relative of the present head of the Tibet Autonomous Region, by the name of Yang Xumin. This person is also said to be a relative of the head of the Lhasa-Golmud railway line project. Therefore, all the work is given to him. For example, when the Phuntsok Dhunlam entrance steps of the Potala were damaged, [the head of] the renovation office raised his voice as if he had some concern, and then Yang Xumin made the decision and awarded the contract, which was worth three million yuan, to him. If that same work had been given to a Tibetan, they would not have paid him even half a million yuan.

The Chinese make group and give all the major construction work to the railway construction office, so that they could take all the money to China. All the renovation workers at the Potala Palace are brought from China and they are related to the head of the department of Beijing’s cultural preservation agency. The Chinese are well trained in cultivating relationships. We Tibetans are only good at finding one another’s faults. The Chinese regard their nationality with pride and are also well versed in emphasizing ethnic identity.

It is said that at present, without giving bribes and gifts, one will not get a job in Tibet. Take, for instance, if a Tibetan tries to get a construction job, he has to try very hard. But if a Chinese tries to get the same job, even if that person just knows the basics of that trade, they employ him, giving him a designation like “work team leader” or “Communist party head,” even though they lack the basic knowledge of how to do the work. These things create many problems.