Two years ago on March 14, rioting in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa left at least 22 people dead. China's leaders have since scrambled to restore normalcy in the area. In January, Padma Choling (also known as Baima Chilin) was appointed the new chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, making him the most senior ethnic Tibetan in the regional government. Baima, 58, recently met with Newsweek's Melinda Liu in Beijing—his first exclusive interview with foreign media since his promotion. Excerpts:
Two years ago, Lhasa saw bloody rioting. Have you healed the rifts?
I saw with my own eyes the looting, beating, and burning. The [exiled] Dalai and his clique started the riots in order to realize their own political purposes. Damage was done to not only Han business owners, but also people from other ethnic groups like Tibetans and Hui Muslims. Afterward, the central government started helping by offering preferential loans to all businesspeople who were affected, regardless of race.
U.S. President Barack Obama recently met the Dalai Lama in Washington, which triggered strong objections from the Chinese government. Why do you think this meeting was so damaging?
The Dalai fled to another country 59 years ago, and has been engaging in separatism and duping international organizations [ever since]. His purpose is clear. He wants to restore the feudal serf system.
In January top Chinese leaders decided to redouble efforts to develop the region's economy as a way of stabilizing the situation. Infrastructure projects like the railway to Lhasa play a big part. Is it working?
In the four years since the opening of the railway, we've transported 5.6 million tourists and 4 million tons of goods. The railway has become a lifeline, an economic line, and a solidarity line for all nationalities in Tibet. It has also helped industrial development.
Yet some people say its main beneficiaries are Han Chinese migrant workers who compete with local residents for jobs.
I have to state clearly that there haven't been a great number of migrants coming to Tibet. The more than 5 million people who came by train were mostly tourists. Of course, among them were some migrant workers and businesspeople. But they aren't the only people to benefit from the railway.
Did the 2008 riots and last year's global economic crisis set back Tibet's economy?
The financial crisis hasn't brought such a big negative impact to Tibet [compared with] coastal areas. Even so, we did experience drought, blizzards, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. The central government has paid a lot of attention to Tibet, and last year it provided 21 billion yuan [$3.07 billion] to Tibet for fixed-asset investment. Besides this it provided 45.6 billion yuan [$6.59 billion] for subsidies of different kinds.
Tibet's ecology is extremely fragile, yet big efforts are being made to develop the economy. Can the environment survive?
Tibet is the water tower of China and the source of many key rivers. To keep the ecological equilibrium and protect the waters and mountains is our responsibility not only to China, but to the whole world. We've made the environment a very important priority.
Five years ago, another senior Tibetan religious leader, the Karmapa, left for India. Would he be welcome to return?
The Karmapa and I are mates from the same hometown; I know him quite well. When he left Tsurphu Monastery in December 1999 he left behind a letter. He said he would never betray his country, his people, or his religion. We hope he keeps his promise and does more good for the Tibetan people in his lifetime.