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Football and prayer wheels: views of modern Tibet
by Staff Writers
Lhasa (AFP) Jan 1, 2017

Faith has always been at the heart of Tibetan culture. As practitioners of the country's unique form of Buddhism face increasing obstacles to their worship, Beijing has sought to cultivate a different kind of true believer: the football fan.

China, which has fully controlled Tibet since the 1950s, has been accused of political and religious repression in the mainly Buddhist region.

It counters that Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and that it has brought economic growth to the area -- Tibet's heavily subsidised GDP jumped 11.0 percent in 2015.

In the regional capital of Lhasa, thousands turn up to the Jokhang temple at dawn. From young men wearing trainers to women sporting traditional turquoise necklaces to a taxi driver making a stop before he starts work, the temple is abuzz with activity as worshippers stretch out, turn prayer wheels and complete their daily rounds.

But this display of religious fervour belies the restrictions faced by Tibetan believers, with the Dalai Lama -- the head of the main branch of Tibetan Buddhism -- a proverbial thorn in the side of Beijing.

The spiritual leader, who has lived in exile in the north Indian town of Dharamsala since a failed 1959 uprising, has for decades called for more Tibetan autonomy rather than independence.

Chinese authorities maintain he is a "separatist" seeking to split Tibet from the rest of the country.

Since Beijing's forces reaffirmed control over Tibet in 1951, many ethnically Han Chinese migrants -- the country's largest group by far -- have moved to Lhasa and now make up about half the city's population.

In 2008, demonstrations by Tibetan monks in Lhasa degenerated into deadly violence targeting Han and the Hui, China's Muslim minority.

But while Beijing limits religious gatherings, it has sought to elevate the appetite for football.

The region's first soccer team, Lhasa FC, went into operation in 2015, headed by a Tibetan entrepreneur who seeks to promote "unity" with the Chinese, one game at a time.

Ninety percent of the team is ethnically Tibetan and the remaining ten percent Han Chinese, and the hope is that having a team in a national league -- even at the fourth tier -- will make Tibetans feel more integrated into China.

-- This story accompanies a photo essay by Johannes Eisele --

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