LHASA, China – Ji Yunpeng misses hotpot dinners with his wife and daughter back in Beijing and fights insomnia caused by the high altitude in the Tibetan capital by playing computer games, and, occasionally, studying Tibetan Buddhism.
"It's just out of pure intellectual curiosity," he said, aware that genuine religious interest would be a breach of discipline in China's nominally atheist Communist Party.
Ji is in Lhasa on a three-year loan from the Beijing municipal government to oversee the school curriculum in Tibetan classrooms. In return, he gets a double salary and a shortcut up the party ladder. Nearly 6,500 civil servants like him have been dispatched to manage hefty budgets and shape Tibet's modernization.
They are the human face of top-down development that has poured more than $100 billion dollars into the region since 1952. Critics say that Beijing's obsession with social stability also has led to widespread human right abuses. But as incomes finally begin to increase across the Tibetan countryside, Chinese authorities are hopeful they can dispel international criticism over their rule in Tibet while winning the hearts of Tibetans and pulling some of their loyalty away from the exiled Dalai Lama.
"The strategy for Tibet is now shifting from the overall kind of repression that we have seen in the past to actually moving toward luring sections of the community and trying to work with those who cooperate with the authorities," Tibet researcher Tsering Shakya said in an interview from University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
For most Tibetans in exile, the region has been unlawfully occupied by China since it was overrun by the People's Liberation Army in 1951, and no material gains justify Beijing's repression. But even skeptics like Shakya acknowledge that "without its intervention, the disparities between the development in Tibet and in China would be even greater."
In a sign of new confidence, authorities this month invited a handful of foreign media organizations, including The Associated Press, on a tightly scripted visit to showcase Tibet's development, timed to the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Ji oversees the $40 million dollar Lhasa-Beijing Experimental Middle School, where many of the 2,500 students are from rural Tibet. Acting as deputy to the head of Lhasa's education bureau, Ji explains how the pupils are entitled to nine years of free schooling.
As government minders watched, a Tibetan teacher wrote in Tibetan on a chalkboard crowned by the national flag, the Communist Party emblem and a portrait of President Xi Jinping. School officials explained that all subjects are taught in Mandarin, China's official language, but that the curriculum includes mandatory Tibetan language.
In Lhasa, Beijing has also paid for housing projects, hospitals, an amusement park, an $80 million stadium and the Tibet Yak Museum, honoring the "hairy cow" of the grasslands.
"Beijing and Lhasa are still like two worlds apart," Ji says. "But in a place like this, where things are still backward, there is a sense of achievement in every step forward."
Robert Barnett, leading academic of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York, questions whether the two-decade-old policy is truly benefiting Tibetans. Economic gains of the development have for decades gone largely to migrants from China's ethnic Han minority, who make up only 8 percent of the Tibet's 3.2 million inhabitants. Only recently, he said, have they started to trickle down to the countryside.
"If you pour in money in that amount to an area that is fragile in its ecosystem and social composition and you just remove barriers for migration, you attract income seekers, with a huge negative effect and a domination of the economy," Barnett said.
MOVING IN FROM GRASSLANDS
Perfectly identical "new socialist villages" have sprouted in the countryside of the Tibetan plateau during the past decade, compelling former nomads to take on a sedentary lifestyle, but also giving them immaculate two-floor villas with running water, latrines and biogas cookers.
Dawa, a 55 year-old herder resettled in Lhoka prefecture's Gongkar county, proudly showed visiting officials and journalists how each member of the family now has a separate room. "Even in my dreams I never thought of having a house like this," he said.
When repeatedly prompted about what he misses from his old life, Dawa paused and stared at the officials seated in his living room before answering.
"We have become selfish," he said finally. "Now that living standards have improved, eating a piece of meat doesn't make me as happy as eating a potato once did."
THE INFLUX OF TOURISTS
Looking ahead, the government hopes to develop the mineral water industry, wool garment weaving workshops and factories of byproducts of traditional Tibetan medicine that will directly benefit the locals. Tourism development is, however, the biggest priority.
With plans to go from 15.5 million tourists in 2014 — five times Tibet's population and most of them Chinese — to 20 million in the next five years, the industry already is transforming Lhasa's landscape. Four huge pyramids of concrete and glass, the skeleton of a 2,000 room five-star resort, are joining new shopping malls, karaoke parlors and theme parks.
Visitors sweep through chambers of the labyrinthine Potala palace and compete for space with local pilgrims at the iconic Jokhang temple.
"There is a great deal of unhappiness and resentment among Tibetans over the way their culture and religion is being exploited," said spokesman Alistair Currie of the London-based activist group Free Tibet, which is campaigning against foreign hotel chains in the autonomous region.
STABILITY ON THE PLATEAU
More than 140 Tibetans, men and women, lay people and monks, have died since 2009 protesting Beijing's rule and demanding the return of the Dalai Lama, who fled to exile in 1959 following an aborted uprising by Tibet's elites against the Communist Party.
Tibet's security budget increased by 28 percent annually from 2007 to 2012, a similar pace as in Xinjiang, home to the Turkic-speaking and Islam-practicing Uighurs. The per capita spending in Tibet was 3.6 times the national average in 2012, said the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Tibet.
Penpa Tashi, an ethnic Tibetan party member who is the region's vice chairman, blames the tight security on unrest linked to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetans, many of whom revere him as a demi-god. "Only by remaining stable can we achieve development and improve people's livelihood," he said.
The paramilitary police who were ubiquitous following deadly riots in 2008 have retreated from the spotlight, leaving the streets in the hands of lightly-armed patrols and police stations on every block. More subtle forms of surveillance — from CCTV cameras to plainclothes agents and monitored communications — have taken the lead.
COMMUNISTS IN THE MONASTERY
The party in the past installed "special working groups" at Tibet's county levels to ensure patriotism. Those groups now have been extended to every village and every monastery, exercising an unprecedented level of control while also funneling money and resources to groups who cooperate.
In Lhoka's Tradruk monastery, the secular management office has obtained funds for the latest renovation of this 12-century-old institution, one of the earliest Buddhist constructions in Tibet. As Han Chinese workers placed the last slate slabs in a courtyard, congregation head Migmar Tsering explained how the monastery can get electricity, televisions and libraries in exchange for displaying the Communist leaders' portraits and topping the complex with the red flag of China.
In addition, monks meet once a week with the monastery's Communist Party branch to receive legal and patriotic education.
"We now enjoy complete freedom of religion," Migmar Tsering, 43, said in an interview arranged by the county propaganda office.
Shakya said the new system is actually helping to revive Buddhism throughout Tibet, although under the controlling eyes of the party.
However, other experts dispute that there has been any revival, especially given that the government has been providing the same figure of nearly 1,800 religious sites and more than 46,000 monks and nuns in the autonomous region since the early 90's.
"You can have television sets, roads and flags in monasteries but you are not allowing the number of people to grow," said Barnett, the Columbia University professor. "It's hard to have monastic life thrive if you have a cadre team overseeing them."
DALAI LAMA'S LONG SHADOW
The current, 14th Dalai Lama, who is now 80, remains the nemesis of China's interests in Tibet. Despite an obsessive vilification of the man by Chinese government and party officials, he remains immensely popular and influential among Tibetan Buddhists.
He has said he may not reincarnate, to undercut Beijing's plans to pick his successor. This has forced the atheist Communist Party to embrace a practice introduced seven centuries ago by a Qing dynasty emperor to control the selection by having names drawn from a government-controlled golden urn.
The region's vice governor, Penpa Tashi, told reporters over a dinner of yak meat that, without doubt, the 15th Dalai Lama will be approved by the Chinese government and that the 14th has been an "anomaly" who made no contribution to Tibet's development and sought only to split the region away from China.
"His attempt to split and destroy will never be realized," he said. "The 14th Dalai is just like a pustule or a weed. A pustule must be squeezed to make the body healthier, the same way that a weed must be uprooted."