Tibet on fast track to development

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 March, 2010, 12:00am

Beijing over the next five years will build two new railway lines from Lhasa that will cover more than 750 kilometres and cost 36 billion yuan (HK$40.45 billion) - equivalent to 82 per cent of the region's GDP last year.

Such enormous projects, with little short-term economic return, have become commonplace as the central government pours money into China's poorest region: over the last 10 years, it has spent more than 300 billion yuan, the equivalent of 105,000 yuan for each of its 2.9 million inhabitants.

As in Xinjiang, the country's other sensitive region, the aim is threefold: integrate Tibet into the national economy, raise living standards and win the hearts and minds of its people, persuading them that life under Beijing is better than any alternative.

'Tibet had started on a new phase of development and progress,' Qiangba Puncog, the then chairman of Tibet's regional government, said in January. 'Everyone in Tibet has learnt the lesson that 'unity and stability means wealth, while separatism and chaos means poverty'.'

Last year, the region's GDP reached 44 billion yuan, an increase of 12.4 per cent over 2008; the average income of farmers and herdsmen rose 13 per cent to 3,589 yuan, the seventh year of double-digit increase.

The most important industry was tourism; last year, Tibet received 5.56 million domestic and foreign visitors and earned a record 5.24 billion yuan. A total of 42,000 farmers and herdsmen worked in the tourist industry, earning 260 million yuan.

These figures are the start of a return on Beijing's massive investments, especially the railway it completed in July 2006, linking Lhasa to Xining and the rest of China, at a cost of more than US$4.2 billion. It was Tibet's first railway; by 2020, it will have six more, including a link to Nepal, due for completion in 2013.

Such investment does not automatically mean wealth for native Tibetans, according to Tibet Information Network, an independent NGO based in Bonn, Germany.

'The tourism figures are astronomic indeed,' spokesman Thierry Dodin said. 'We are speaking here mainly about Chinese tourists. Packages are offered by agencies in Beijing or Shanghai, the transport operators are Chinese and so are most hotels and restaurants which tourists visit. There is a lot of money in Tibetan banks but it does not mean this is Tibetan money.'

He said that the 300 billion yuan invested since 2001 had benefited people in the region but many of them were not locals.

'Wherever money is spent, there will be many open hands. Experience shows that the hands of Tibetans are mostly at the bottom of the food chain,' Dodin said.

He said that trade was dominated by Han or Hui (Muslim) Chinese. 'Very few manufactured products are made in Tibet. Goods are brought from the mainland into Tibet, where they are re-sold into other provinces or exported, for example, to Nepal; traders can benefit from subsidies and special taxation policies.'

In 2008, foreign trade was US$765 million, an increase of 95 per cent over 2007: exports rose 120 per cent to US$707 million and imports fell 13.2 per cent to US$58 million.

'A large part of the growth which appears in statistics is investment into infrastructure or dubious village reconstruction programmes,' Dodin said. 'Villagers are pushed into taking loans for rebuilding their homes, entire villages are relocated on the order of the administration.

'This often destroys the social fabric and pushes Tibetans into huge amounts of debt. It does not relieve poverty but creates dependencies.

'The quality of the new construction is often poor and they are hardly adapted to Tibet's climate.

'Most of the construction firms are Tibetan-owned but employ far more Chinese than Tibetan; they have become the best local friends of the regime.'

The Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala makes similar criticisms. In a policy paper 'China's Train, Tibet's Tragedy', published last year, it compares the Xining-Lhasa route to the trans-Siberian and trans-continental railways built in Russia and North America in the 19th century and those built in China to Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.

All aimed to facilitate migration by the dominant race - Russians, white Americans and Han Chinese - and impose their economy, way of life and culture on the native people and had great success, it said.

'The increasing number of Chinese migrants after the arrival of the train has had a dramatic effect on the lives of millions of Tibetans. The majority of the Tibetan people lack both the formal and vocational training that prevent them from competing in the job market of Tibet.

'Economic opportunities created by large development projects such as the railways mostly benefit workers and entrepreneurs who speak fluent Chinese and have connections with the government officials and business networks in China. This exacerbates inequality and the exclusionary dynamics of growth, given that the majority of Tibetans have more and more difficulty accessing the state or private networks that control the sources of wealth.

'Only a small minority of Tibetans have secondary education and more than 40 per cent have no formal schooling at all, compared to China's national average of 8 per cent. The high rate of illiteracy makes them incompetent for service-oriented jobs prevalent in Lhasa and other cities.

'The growing number of Chinese migrants entering the Tibetan plateau, and especially Lhasa, will accelerate and in some cases, occasion the economic and social marginalisation of the ethnic Tibetans. As many non-Tibetans enter the region and take the jobs provided by developing businesses, the native population will find themselves excluded, fuelling ethnic tensions between the two groups.

'This is not to say that all Tibetans will be excluded. Some have done particularly well in the business and real estate boom that has occurred because of Chinese economic policies and the arrival of the railroad. These are, however, a small number of people with privileged access to channels of state-stabilised wealth.'

These criticisms have not gone unheard. In January this year, in Beijing, the central government held its highest-level meeting on Tibet for 10years and only the fifth since 1949. It aims at more bang for its bucks - a better return on its investment, in addressing the needs of native Tibetans.

'More central government funding will go to improving livelihoods and social welfare and boosting agriculture,' President Hu Jintao told the meeting.

'The contradiction between the rising material demands of the people and the poorly developed social production remains the primary problem in Tibet.'

For the first time, the central leaders considered not only the Tibetan autonomous region but also areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai with large Tibetan populations. It followed widespread unrest in these areas that started with anti-government riots in Lhasa in March 2008.

Hu said that by 2020, the income of Tibetan nomads would reach the national average and Tibetans would enjoy living standards similar to people in other parts of China.

In 2008, the average income of a Tibetan farmer was two-thirds of the national average and of the average urban resident 79 per cent of national average.

The leaders want to put their investment into programmes that benefit local people directly and not end up in the bank accounts of companies controlled in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu.

They want more investment in education, training and entrepreneurship for native Tibetans, the very areas for which the exiled government criticises them.

In its report for 2009, the regional government said that it had invested 830 million yuan in industrial development, more than in the previous five years combined, and provided 110 million yuan in subsidies.

Since 2006, it had built or rebuilt 220,000 farmer's homes and connected 110,000 farmers and herdsmen to the power grid, it said. As well as building roads and railways, it is spending heavily on airports, including the highest airport in the world, at Nagpu, at an altitude of 4,436 metres, at a cost of 1.8 billion yuan.

School's out

The percentage of Tibetans with no formal schooling: 40%