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A student paints an example of the medieval Tibetan art of thangka on Sept. 10 at the Danba Raodan art school in Lhasa.

On a rare five-night journey into a place that China has long sealed off from scrutiny, Nathan VanderKlippe finds that fear is everywhere, progress is checkered – and few things are as they seem

The artist is a budding novice at an ancient skill. In a bare, concrete room in Lhasa, he carefully sketches the outlines of a Buddhist thangka painting, a religious art form more than a millennium old. It will take four months of painstaking effort to complete, each stroke building toward a final gilding with real gold. Then the scroll will be sold into a newly thriving marketplace, where Chinese buyers are willing to spend thousands of dollars for paintings they believe will bring them spiritual blessing and business success.

Thirty years ago, this city at the heart of Tibet counted barely 40 thangka painters. Today, they number in the tens of thousands, a revival promoted by government leaders eager to demonstrate respect for local culture.

That's why I am here, with a cluster of foreign journalists on a rare trip into a place that has grown more difficult to visit, as a reporter, than is North Korea.

This is the side of Tibet that China wants others to see.

"All of our children in Tibet can freely follow artistic pursuits. And our country, China, has given great importance to this art," Danzeng Pingcuo, the school's director, tells us.

But in a place that China has sealed off from many forms of outside scrutiny – virtually no foreign academics have been allowed to enter to conduct research since 2007 – things are rarely as they seem.

Moments later, the artist whispers that he is not actually free to draw as he wants. Nor is he, a devout Buddhist, free to do as he wants. Life in Tibet is a life of restrictions, he says. But he doesn't want to say any more.

"I'm afraid," he says, in a hushed voice, his eyes darting around the room at the government officials keeping watch, before he resumes his painting.

It's a brief glimpse into the tensions that have accumulated in Tibet, amid a government clampdown after long-standing grievances erupted into riots eight years ago, followed by a series of self-immolations.

But outside the few days it opens the doors to foreign scrutiny, China has worked to fashion Tibet into a high-altitude laboratory for new methods of monitoring and control, while maintaining strict controls on local religious practice, promoting the Chinese language and overseeing a rapid urbanization that is, in a single generation, upending thousands of years of agricultural life.

The changes have been difficult to observe. Even defectors, once among the best sources of insight on Tibet, have been pinched off. As recently as 2010, more than 2,000 Tibetans fled across the Himalayas to Dharamsala, the Indian town where the Dalai Lama now lives in exile. Since then, by hardening borders and unleashing a flood of spending that has made it less attractive for many Tibetans to leave home, the exodus has slowed to almost nothing. In the most recent 12-month count, barely 60 left.

What it amounts to is that in Tibet, "the Chinese have complete mastery, complete control," says Adrian Zenz, a researcher who specializes in Tibet at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal-Munchingen, Germany. Activists call it an "invisible net of security measures" that has been thrown over Tibet and gradually pulled tighter. Locals call it a suffocating "political crisis," where the peace China is eager to show outsiders has been secured through an oppressive regime of human and technological surveillance.

"We have no right to speak about our situation. We have no right to practise our religion," said one middle-aged Tibetan man, whom I met while he was out for a walk one evening with his family. (The Globe and Mail is not publishing names of Tibetans interviewed for this article, out of concern for reprisals against them.)

And invasive security techniques pioneered here, in a region that considered itself an independent country before being invaded by Chinese troops 65 years ago, have emerged, too, in other areas less willing to bend to Beijing's dictates, including the far western Xinjiang region, with its large Muslim population.

In five nights in Tibet, I had a rare opportunity to peer inside the net, into a place normally kept strictly off-limits.

Understanding Tibet is important in part for the insight it offers into the ways China is managing and quelling dissent in its remote indigenous populations. For Canada, a country that has itself long struggled to reconcile the ambitions and needs of the government and aboriginal people, there is an element of shared experience – and the ugliness of the Canadian treatment of First Nations people offers some perspective on questions of culture, identity and development in Tibet. At the same time, there is value in a clear-eyed look at the kind of governance that Canada's second-largest trading partner is using on its own soil, particularly as the Liberal government pursues warmer relations with Canada's indigenous people.

China strictly limits what it allows others to see: I was not in control of my own schedule, and could not choose where I would travel. But I was given some freedom to speak with people in Lhasa, and their furtive accounts – often told with fear that speaking out could place them at risk of arrest – alongside discussions with academics and researchers who have spent their lives trying to understand Tibet made clear just how much different life here is from the glossy official portrait.

Normally, only tourists can enter Tibet. The journalist visa in my passport means that my only way in is on a government-organized tour, a window that has opened only a few times in the past decade, a window China deliberately occludes. On previous visits, unsanctioned interviews have been interrupted by minders, and a nighttime watch was posted in hotel hallways to bar journalists from escaping to the streets below and the unfiltered views they might find there.

'The witness to a miracle'

But during the first few days of the trip in Lhasa, the minders eased off, giving unexpected room to roam. The green light had come from the very top, officials said, with President Xi Jinping's call for more openness toward foreigners in the region. In Tibet, they pointed out, salaries are up, roads are being built, sewers are being installed and residents are being housed in well-made new concrete buildings. Officials insisted that China has nothing to hide here. They urged us to tell good stories, and cleared traffic from roads for our delegation of journalists, not a group normally accustomed to dignitary treatment in China.

The region's elderly "are smiling with happiness now, but they used to be serfs or semi-slaves in the past," said Penpa Tashi, vice-chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which encompasses much of China's Tibetan territory, in a lengthy meeting with journalists – during which he took only one question.

Under the rule of China's Communist Party, Tibet has made "a great leap from darkness to whiteness, from backwardness to progress and also from dictatorship to democracy," he said. He spoke surrounded by officials inside a large meeting room inside the Intercontinental Hotel in Lhasa, one among a raft of new luxury accommodations now open in the city as China reaches deals with foreign companies to attract tourists here. "It's no exaggeration to say that you are the witness to such a miracle."

On at least one of the measures that he cited – life expectancy – places that were once equally isolated, such as Bhutan, have made similar gains in recent decades without the presence of what some regard as an occupying power.

And inside Tibet, official assurances to the contrary, it becomes increasingly clear that below the cheery surface, discontent simmers over the increasingly deep reach of the Chinese state and security apparatus.

Lhasa is a city of stunning historical landmarks that is rapidly transforming into a Chinese Bangkok. Tourists roar into town on adventure motorcycles and crowd into restaurants, watching pilgrims spin prayer wheels on holy circuits thousands of years old. Everywhere, signs in Chinese, Tibetan and English welcome visitors to a "sacred place on Earth."

Hovering over it all is the Potala Palace, whose carmine-fronted 13 storeys constitute one of Earth's more distinctive buildings, a Taj Mahal and Nôtre-Dame joined together and perched on a hilltop from which numerous Dalai Lamas ruled the political and spiritual affairs of their people for more than three centuries. Nearby, the Jokhang Temple remains for many Buddhists the most sacred site in Tibet. Built in the seventh century, it is to here that the most devout still make an arduous pilgrimage, one prostration at a time.

In the dark before dawn, I walked alone, without minders at my side, along the pathways that surround it, listening to the quiet, shuffling sounds of the faithful. It is a powerful daily ritual rooted in tradition as old as the wooden pillars of the Jokhang itself, and an image of religious vitality that appears to match China's promises that Tibetans enjoy freedom of religious belief.

Yet, it is religion, like daily life here, conducted inside definite boundaries. "The Potala Palace can remain the centre of Tibet – as long as it pledges full allegiance to the wider Chinese nation," is how Prof. Zenz sees it.

Students practise traditional thangka painting, minutely detailed works depicting Buddhist deities or symbols, at the Danba Raodan art school on Sept. 10.

That much is visually evident as the road into Lhasa emerges from a tunnel onto a street lined with Chinese flags, an emblem that also flutters atop the Potala Palace, as well as over the Jokhang, houses in Lhasa and rural homes hundreds of kilometres outside the city.

But even this symbol of national unity is not monolithic. In one neighbourhood, two flags hung upside down over houses along a small alleyway. When I spoke with the homeowners, they said it was a mistake and, moments later, rushed to their rooftops to remedy it. It was hard not to see a murmur of dissent, though. As Tsering Shakya, an expert on Tibet at the University of British Columbia, told me when I related the incident to him, "It is inconceivable that someone would not know the flag was upside down."

The strains were more evident as I chatted with vendors who make their living in the Barkhor neighbourhood that surrounds the Jokhang, where white clouds of burning incense have wafted over decades of protest, crackdown and religious devotion.

Here, portrait-sellers display images of President Xi, but no likeness of the Dalai Lama, a man revered by many Tibetans as monarch and spiritual leader even 57 years after he fled Tibet. China calls him a dangerous leader intent on splitting the country, even though he does not advocate Tibetan independence. "We're not allowed to print that," one shopkeeper says, referring to likenesses of the current Dalai Lama. "Make one, and you will be sent to jail."

I wander into a stall selling garments for monks and nuns, its tables draped in layers of purple and burnt orange. The seller says the only Tibetan religious leaders allowed in to Lhasa are either local or specifically authorized by the government. Otherwise, monks from other parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region are not permitted to travel into the city. "If they do, they will be arrested," the seller says. For Tibetans, the seller says, life is "not good."

Steps away, I find a Taiwanese monk snapping selfies. He had come here at the invitation of the Chinese Panchen Lama, who was chosen by China to hold the second-most important title in Tibetan Buddhism, after the Dalai Lama. Beijing has been on a campaign to buttress his credentials, by making him an increasingly public figure. But he is considered illegitimate by many Tibetans and, after I took pictures of the Taiwanese monk outside the Jokhang Temple, he implored me to delete them.

After all, his presence was an uncomfortable one – he, an outsider, was allowed to travel here. But most Tibetans can't even get a passport, a local businessman told me. And in Tibet itself, "some temples do not have monks.

"If you want to hold a religious event, you must get government approval first."

'Grassroots management of people'

Signs of Chinese authoritarianism are not hard to find in Tibet: On the road into Lhasa, we see from our bus a large military convoy moving in the opposite direction. Inside the city, our bus passes by military compounds where artillery guns are clearly visible. One morning, a group of soldiers with shields and assault rifles strolls alongside pilgrims. In one restaurant, soldiers eat dinner with assault rifles on their laps.

Whereas outsiders might see a uniformed imposition of force, for China, it is all the normal and proper work of protecting an important borderland. Tibet has "been an integral part of China since ancient times," Mr. Tashi, the regional vice-chair, says.

On this claim hinge the full ambitions of Communist China in Tibet, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping. But it's at best a disputed reading of history. Even setting aside the strong military might wielded by Tibet in centuries past, the invasion of Tibet by Communist forces in the early 1950s provoked strong local political resistance. A Tibetan delegation to the United Nations pleaded that Tibetans were being "compelled by force to become a part of China against their will."

The decades that have followed were frequently marked by violence as China quashed local revolts, while Beijing-led development schemes imposed Chinese order on the local economy. In 1960, the International Commission of Jurists accused China of "genocidal" acts "to destroy Buddhism in Tibet." Only 13 of Tibet's hundreds of monasteries were still standing by the end of the turbulence and anti-religious fervour of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars say. Tibet was hit hard: Lamas and other religious leaders were marched in public wearing dunce's hats, labourers who were branded "demons and monsters" were fed human excrement, and families were told to destroy their religious artifacts. "The effect was to destroy Tibet's separate identity," Prof. Shakya writes in his book Dragon in the Land of Snows.

But as China subsequently opened up, Tibet did, too. Chinese leaders sought to alleviate local poverty. At the same time, monasteries were rebuilt and, in the early 2000s, academics were allowed in for research in a more open atmosphere.

Then, long-standing tensions between Tibetans and ethnic Chinese erupted into riots in 2008 – Beijing blamed the Dalai Lama for organizing and inciting violence; the Dalai Lama denied involvement. After deploying troops to curb the unrest, Beijing spent years constructing "an analysis of what had gone wrong, and a plan so it wouldn't happen again," says Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University.

In an interview before my trip, he warned me that the resulting changes weren't something I was likely to see firsthand, even though their consequences are profound. In a sweeping effort to broaden the reach of Tibet's police and administrative system, he noted, China has created levels of bureaucracy to extend its influence deep into local communities. "It's totally unprecedented," Prof. Barnett told me. "Tibet is the test tube for new control methods for grassroots management of people."

At the same time, heavy hiring has brought large numbers of educated Tibetans onto government payrolls, although many have been employed to bolster the government justice and security establishment.

Poring through public documents, Prof. Zenz discovered that the number of security-related jobs posted in 2012-13 was 3.5 times higher than in 2008-09. In the latter period, 34 per cent of all civil and public-service hiring was for police, court and prison positions.

"There's a running joke in Lhasa: There are no more criminals here because they all have good jobs as security staff," Prof. Zenz says. "There's a pervasive presence of multiple layers and a wide range of different types of security forces."

Authorities, meanwhile, have created new categories of serious crime. Last year, posters began to appear in one Tibetan region listing 20 "activities that were used to disguise independence or separatist" activity, UBC'S Prof. Shakya says: "organizing illegal groups and illegal movements" for language rights and environmental protection.

"The Tibetans always joke, 'The Dalai Lama is asking for one country, two systems. But we already have one country, two systems.' In China, there's a much more liberal atmosphere. Whereas in Tibet, it's much more restrictive."

China has sought to assuage some of the resulting unhappiness with money. In 2014, government subsidies amounted to 111 per cent of local GDP. Add spending on investments in new rail lines and highways, and, estimates Andrew Fischer, a Tibet scholar at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the total subsidy exceeded 150 per cent of GDP.

The scale of those figures, however, also reflect how, despite decades of trying, China has failed to make its economic growth model take root in Tibet.

Not that China has stopped trying; recent years have seen a high-speed uprooting of long-standing ways of life.

The valley floors may still be golden with highland barley, and tracked by yaks, but pastoralism is in rapid decline. In its place are copses of new apartment buildings – rectangular blocks of concrete that could as well be in any other Chinese city. As recently as the turn of this century, 74 per cent of Tibetans farmed and herded. That plunged to 54 per cent in 2010, "and in 2014, the estimated share is 44 per cent," Prof. Fischer says. "This is a dramatic transformation of Tibet. In 2000, it was the most agrarian work force in China. It has now caught up substantially to the rest of China."

'Listen – he's speaking Chinese'

It's hard to tell from the bilingual signs on streets and businesses, but the Tibetan language itself is also in decline. In most local schools, subjects are taught in Chinese, with Tibetan relegated to a single class that, in some places, is not taught until late primary school.

That means many young Tibetans today "speak Chinese very well, but cannot fluently speak Tibetan, their mother tongue," said a Tibetan university student in Lhasa, whom I met sitting on the lawn in a park, where he had been chatting with a friend. "They speak like foreigners speaking Chinese, not fluently."

Another Tibetan man out for a walk pointed to his six-year-old son on a walk in Lhasa. "Listen – he's speaking Chinese," he said.

Under China’s rule, the Tibetan language has gone into decline, with Chinese becoming the primary language used in schools.

The Chinese government has also stepped up efforts to spread standard Mandarin into ethnic and rural areas, in part as a way to "safeguard national unification and unity," state media reported in September.

Even in places where Tibetan is prominent, it's sometimes riddled with mistakes. Take those bilingual street signs: Often, the Tibetan is misspelled, small enough to be barely legible, or "sometimes it's just transliterated from the Chinese. So it's just meaningless," says Emily Yeh, a Tibet specialist at University of Colorado Boulder.

In an Internet café in Lhasa, I met a young Chinese producer who suggested that China is taking a similar approach to fomenting cultural unity. He spends most of his time in Tibet making TV shows and movies designed to promote "social stability."

For the last few years, that effort has been dug into the very landscape of Lhasa, in the form of an enormous theatre complex built into a hill south of the city. It's home to a sprawling outdoor stage several hectares in size created for Princess Wencheng, a high-budget musical spectacular. As night falls, actors dance and gallop on live horses, while a recreation of the Potala Palace the size of a small apartment building slides in and out of view on tracks.

The high-budget endeavour tells a long-ago tale of a Chinese emperor who gave one of his own, Princess Wencheng, to a backward Tibet, and through her brought civilization to a backward people. "Tang's civilization is splendid," she sings of the Chinese dynasty. "Brilliant classic books and music, illustrious ceramics and porcelain."

It's a story China is eager to recount. Not only were we as journalists brought to see the show, but Mr. Tashi, the Tibetan vice-chairman, personally intervened to relocate us to VIP seats where we could be sheltered from a chill rain and enjoy a hot tea service.

It's questionable how much of the libretto reflects historical reality; some researchers question whether Prince Wencheng even existed. But for the crafters of a modern parable, it doesn't much matter. "The message that there is a possibility of deep ethnic harmony between Tibetans and Chinese is something the government in Beijing wants to sell to the Tibetan public," says Cameron Warner, a researcher at Denmark's Aarhus University who has studied interpretations of the story.

State-subsidized happiness

How much, though, does all of this weigh on ordinary Tibetans?

Yes, Tibetans have resisted in ways quiet and loud, working to protect religion, maintain language and defend their natural environment. But China's money and ministrations have undeniably bought a measure of happiness, through universal health care and, in a first for the country, state-sponsored care for all orphans and the elderly. Many Tibetans enjoy housing so heavily subsidized that it provokes envy among Han living here.

For the region's best and brightest, too, life with China has brought new opportunities. On an enormous concrete boardwalk beside the Lhasa River, I approached a pair of Grade 10 students out for an afternoon stroll in the sunny warmth of early autumn. Both Tibetan, they had come to Lhasa from the countryside to study at an urban high school, a privilege afforded those with high marks, who can also later study at top Chinese universities. Smiling, the students said they expected their future opportunities to be every bit as good as students who are ethnically Han Chinese. "Things are fair here," said one of them.

Even the university student concerned about the state of the Tibetan language was quick to concede the benefits of learning Mandarin. "If you don't study Chinese, you won't find a job in the future," he told me. "So studying Chinese has a bearing on your whole life."

He had general praise, too, for the Chinese leader. "After Mr. Xi became President, things are okay," he said.

Just a few years ago, Tibet felt like a place under siege. Snipers were posted on rooftops; locals were subjected to constant security checks and barred from travelling outside, and even within, the region. Today, the atmosphere has grown more relaxed. Even at the most sensitive religious sites, visitors are given only casual scrutiny and local Tibetans are not asked to show identification.

"Things have been a bit loosened," said the local businessman whom I met walking among the pilgrims around Jokhang Temple.

But what is felt and what is really going on can be different things. And as I discovered one dark evening in Nyingchi, a small city 400 kilometres from Lhasa, what feels loose can snap tight in an instant.

A roadblock in the night

We had come here at the end of our trip, for an itinerary that might not be out of place in North Korea, including a visit to a pig-breeding facility.

What I really wanted to see was a monastery, and to speak with local monks. So I asked – The Globe and Mail paid for this trip, after all – and initial indications were positive. But then I was told that fulfilling my request would be impossible. A landslide had washed out the road, one official told me. What's more, said Xue Chengtao, director of the local office of foreign affairs, and the man organizing our agenda, the nearest monastery "is probably over 100 kilometres away. Nyingchi has no famous local monastery."

In fact, a quick Internet search revealed a monastery 27 kilometres from the city, parts of it built in the seventh century, and visited only weeks before by the Chinese-designated Panchen Lama.

And so, a small group of journalists decided to go on our own – and to ask questions that we wanted to ask: How free were the monks to worship and study? Under what pressures had they been placed?

In the dark of night, we set out from our hotel in a taxi. But almost immediately, we discovered two vehicles following us. We stopped and, hoping to shake the tail, found a local man who agreed to take us in an unmarked private car. We turned off phones to elude electronic surveillance.

For a few minutes, it felt as if we had succeeded. Leaving the city behind, we glided through a highway check stop without problem. No landslide blocked the road. We were headed in the right direction.

Then a taxi appeared behind us and, minutes later, pulled alongside for a few moments before resuming its position on our tail.

We had been found.

At the turnoff to the monastery, three police officers stood in the road next to parked vehicles. After we pulled to a stop, they shined flashlights inside our car and ordered us to drive to the local police station. We answered a few questions and turned back.

It was a disappointing failure, but not a complete one. What we had not told our local minders was that several of us had already travelled to the monastery that morning, arriving before the sun and squeezing in past a security gate.

Inside, we discovered a police vehicle stationed on the grounds and a large poster with a picture of Mr. Xi next to text from one of his speeches. "We must resolutely resist overseas infiltration through religious means," the President urges, and "merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture."

A few steps away, we entered a room where a dozen young monks chanted predawn prayers, heads shaved and shoulders draped in purple cloth. We beckoned an older monk to speak with us, but he waved us away – giving no indication of whether he did not want to speak with foreigners or was merely unwilling to interrupt the rhythmic incantation that spilled outside into the mist and the quiet.

Here in the peace of morning, there was a reprieve from the politics that ensnare Tibet. It's a moment that returned to me days later when I spoke with Kate Saunders, the communications director for International Campaign for Tibet, a British-based organization that advocates for human rights in the region.

"Many Tibetans believe that the essence of their religion, those truths, will outlast the Communist Party," she said. But they also have a profound fear, she said, that those beliefs "may not survive the current levels of oppression, which are very strong."