China preaches the material over spiritual in Tibet

Nestled in the mountains of Tibet, villagers dressed in traditional robes and jackets spin prayer wheels covered in Buddhist mantras, and plated in gold.

It's habit to draw in good karma, and purify the bad, part of the rhythm of life in a deeply religious region that's also long been stricken by poverty.

It's also one of the most politically sensitive areas in China.

Foreign tourists and journalists are only allowed on organized tours, like the one Reuters was recently invited to.

The tour was meant to showcase Beijing's efforts to eradicate poverty nationwide by the end of this year.

For centuries Tibetans lived in a feudal society devoted to their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

China seized Tibet after troops entered the region in 1950, in what Beijing calls a "peaceful liberation."

In 1959 the Dalai Lama fled China after a failed uprising.

Now, Beijing's poverty relief is tied to social control and a push away from religion.

41-year-old Sonam Tenpa is one of the few who were permitted to speak to Reuters.

"I needed to work in order to give my family a better life, that's why I don't have time to practice my faith. I can't say I've completely left Buddhism, I have forgotten it when I was busy with working, but I can't say I've completely forgotten it. As a Tibetan, I can't totally leave Tibetan Buddhism, otherwise people will say I've left my faith behind."

Sonam, a father of two, was relocated by the government 25 miles away from his high-altitude hometown.

According to government officials, the project was aimed at moving people away from areas not considered suitable for life, to lower land.

Before moving, Sonam says he was an ordinary villager with no livestock and land now he and his family make upward of $12,000 a year working various jobs.

Portraits of the Dalai Lama, once commonly displayed in Tibetans' houses, are now banned.

Hanging high in Sonam's house instead Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"I have the leader's portrait bigger than my family portraits of politeness we don't have the same rights as leaders. So, I would not dare to sit down with them. That is why I'm sitting down here, and they are sitting up there. In my heart, we are living well now because of their favor. That's why I didn't hang my families' pictures on the wall."

Among other stops on the tour: vocational schools and business schemes like a climate-controlled mushroom farm that employs Tibetans.

But critics say that while this poverty relief may boost incomes, the Chinese definition of a successful life is being imposed on an population that is ethnically and religiously different.

Sophie Richardson is with the NGO Human Rights Watch.

"Let's be clear, poverty alleviation campaign should have nothing to do with people's right to their religious freedom...I think it's very clear that Chinese authorities have seen Tibetan's religion, language, culture, traditions, ways of life as a threat primarily to the kind of political loyalty that party expects from people. And so, eradicating those ideas has become a pivotal part of Chinese communist party rule in that region."

Officials argue that once Tibetans see the benefits of a more materially advanced life, they are won over.

Lin Bei, a poverty alleviation official with the local government, says they have the Party to thank.

"Tibetans should know to thank the party, which means we should let them know what the benefits are, and where they came from. After all, they need to know who treats you well."

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