China's bid to improve education in Tibet has produced some good results, but many of the impoverished region's children are still without basic schooling. The United Nations estimates less than a third of all Tibetan children have access to the compulsory nine years of education.
With tunes blaring from a small cassette player, women at a model village stage a traditional dance especially for a group of foreign journalists. It is part of a bid by Chinese officials to showcase what they say is the face of the new Tibet that China has forged in the 54 years since its annexation.
The village of Gongzhong, in southeastern Nyingchi prefecture, is unlike many others in the Tibet Autonomous Region. All homes have electricity. Telephones have been installed since 1996.
Streets are paved and clean, dogs are on leashes, and all children attend school. One Foreign Ministry official summarized what he thought foreign journalists should interpret as reality in the new Tibet. "This is one part of Tibet, right? This is representative of the future, and of today's Tibet," he said. "OK?"
Not far from the village is the more commonly seen face of Tibet. Scores of children dressed in rags, their faces worn by the icy mountain winds, peddle Yak cheese on strings and beg for money from tourists. Many of them say they do not know how to read and write and have never been to school.
As officials like to point out, China has made great strides in improving education in Tibet since the People's Liberation Army overran the mountainous region more than a half century ago. Back then, only two percent of Tibet's population knew how to read and write. Now, literacy is up to 95 percent following a massive Communist government campaign to build new schools.
However, Chinese and UN officials say two thirds of Tibet's children do not have access to the nine years of education that is compulsory in China. The vast majority of those deprived are native Tibetans as opposed to the children of Chinese settlers whose numbers are increasing each year.
Yu Heping, deputy director-general of the Reform and Development Committee of Tibet, told journalists basic education enrollment lags far behind that of mainland China due to cultural reasons: many Tibetans are nomadic herdsmen who live far from population centers.
"Our population is so scattered that for every square kilometer there are only two people," he said. "So, you see that it is a very difficult job to build a school and pull and draw children to it."
Mr. Yu says the government has set a three-year goal to eliminate illiteracy altogether by making sure all Tibetan children reach middle school. He offered no details on how this would be done.
The problem of child illiteracy is not confined to the remote areas. In the capital, Lhasa, a 13-year-old boy named Zhuoma spends his days roaming the streets, asking tourists for money and doing odd jobs. He says he does not know how to read or write.
"Everything costs money," he said. "In Tibet, schools have no money so they have to charge tuition and I would have to pay it if I wanted to go to school."
He says he has never inquired how much tuition would be, since going to school has never appeared to be an option for him. Like most Tibetans interviewed away from government officials or police, Zhuoma identifies himself as Tibetan and not as Chinese.
He speaks bitterly of Chinese tourists who beat him, suspecting him of being one of the many pickpockets who pounce on visitors in the Tibetan capital.
He says he was too young to remember when his father died. His mother, like many Tibetans searching for better opportunities and freedom to follow the Dalai Lama, fled to India years ago and left the boy behind.
Disenfranchised children like Zhuoma are at the heart of the work of a Tibetan woman who runs a private orphanage for Tibetan children - a risky endeavor in a place where the government seeks to have absolute control over all educational activities.
Dozens of students practice a popular Western children's song in Tibetan, Chinese, and English.
Their teacher, a Han Chinese settler, explains they learn Tibetan because it is their native language; Mandarin because it is the national language; and English because she says they need it to succeed in the age of globalization.
The orphanage director spoke to a reporter under the condition that she not be named. Others who have tried to run underground orphanages, she says, have ended up in prison.
The orphanage is a private home that is kept spotlessly clean. A peek into bedrooms off the courtyard show neatly folded blankets on bunk beds. The director says it is a welcome change for children, who would otherwise have nowhere to go but the streets.
"Most of these kids [would] go to beg on the roads," she said. "All the time they are going outside [on] the streets to beg money from the people. They have no opportunity to study. Right now, they receive classes here."
She says her family's business supports the operation with no government funding. Monthly costs run more than $1,000 which she pays out of her own pocket, and with the help of private donors - many of whom are Han Chinese.