March 17, 2009 / 2:57 AM / 11 years ago

China approves "modern redesign" of Tibetan capital

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has approved a “modern redesign” of Tibet’s remote and mountainous capital Lhasa, state media said Tuesday, including a limit on its downtown population.

Overseas rights groups have long complained that the Chinese government has failed to protect historic Lhasa and accuse Beijing of trying to flood the region with Han Chinese to dilute its ethnic makeup and assert greater control.

China rejects these charges, saying it has invested billions to improve lives in a region once blighted by serfdom and poverty, and is committed to protecting its unique way of life and customs. By 2020, Lhasa will become an “economically prosperous, socially harmonious, and eco-friendly modern city with vivid cultural characteristics and deep ethnic traditions,” according to a document carried on the central government’s website (www.gov.cn).

The official China Daily said the plan would make Lhasa “a coordinated and distinctive modern metropolis by 2020.”

Lhasa’s downtown population would be capped at 450,000 — the city only has 500,000 residents in total today — and just 75 sq km of land would be allowed to be used for urban development, according to the plan.

Lhasa is divided between an older, more traditional, Tibetan section, and a newer section where Han Chinese migrants dominate, complete with shopping malls and night clubs.

The urban makeover plan said local authorities should “pay great attention to protecting the historic, cultural and aesthetic characteristics” of Lhasa.

That includes controlling the number, height and even color of buildings.

“Pay attention to the legal preservation of sites of necessary religious activities (and) satisfy the needs of the religious lives of believers,” the document said.

The China Daily pointed out that when Beijing conducted its first census in Tibet in 1953, “Lhasa’s residents totaled only 30,000, and 4,000 of them were beggars.”

China has ruled Tibet with an iron hand since the arrival of People’s Liberation Army troops in 1950.

Rioting broke out in Lhasa on March 14 last year after days of protests against Chinese rule by Buddhist monks, killing 19 people and sparking waves of protests across Tibetan areas. Exile groups say over 200 people died in the crackdown.

Beijing has promised the region will be calm and President Hu Jintao has called for a “Great Wall” of stability there.

Tibet and ethnic Tibetan areas of surrounding provinces are under heavy military presence and strictly off limits to foreign journalists and even tourists. Armed police manning road-blocks have turned back would-be visitors.

A trickle of isolated protests in recent weeks, including a monk who set himself on fire at the Kirti monastery in Western Sichuan, suggest lingering discontent.

The Free Tibet group said in a statement that a monk in Lithang, a restive Tibetan part of southwestern Sichuan province, was detained last week after a one-man protest in which he shouted slogans and threw leaflets.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie

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