Population and Society in Contemporary Tibet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am


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Population and Society in Contemporary Tibet
by Ma Rong
Hong Kong University Press

This book is a valuable work of research for scholars, journalists and others who want facts about Tibet.

It has chapters on population, migration, the economy, the income and spending of rural and urban residents, marriage, education and the residential structure of the Han and Tibetan residents of Lhasa.

Professor Ma Rong began his research with a survey in 1988 of more than 1,300 households in the three most populated areas - Lhasa, Shigatse and Lhoka - and followed this in 2005 with a survey of temporary migrants in Lhasa and more research in 2008 after the riots in the city on March 14.

The result is a wealth of statistics about many aspects of life in the most remote, inaccessible and mysterious region of China.

Ma's research shows the Han account for three to four per cent of the population of Tibet - extremely low compared to the proportion in other minority areas such as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. 'This excludes military forces because no data is available. Estimates of the military force in Tibet vary between 14,000 and 750,000.'

This low proportion is the result of few Han farmers moving into Tibet and the fact that the Han officials, teachers, doctors and officials posted there do not want to stay because of concerns over health, education, the backwardness and remoteness from their home places. 'Its high elevation and scarcity of oxygen made many Han physically sick. Several mothers and babies died in childbirth.'

The exception is the migrant workers who go to Lhasa - an estimate in 2005 of about 200,000 in the summer and 100,000 in the winter. This is a city with a permanent population of 210,000. These migrants are businessmen, craftsmen, construction workers and self-employed service people.

While these migrants promote the local economy and services, they put pressure on public services and create serious competition in the labour market. Many Tibetans feel this mass immigration has changed the ethnic and cultural atmosphere of their holy city.

Ma finds residential and school segregation between Han and Tibetans in Lhasa. In Inner Mongolia, by comparison, Han have good relations with Mongolians and intermarriage is common.

The weakness of the book is that it does not address the place of Buddhism and monasteries in Tibetan society and the hearts of its people. Also off limits is asking people about relations between Han and Tibetans because the question is too sensitive.

Even so, this is an excellent piece of research, given the constraints Ma worked under as well as the logistic and linguistic challenges. Most of the interviews were conducted in Tibetan and then translated into Chinese.

The book provides much data that was not available before and so is an important addition to Tibetan studies.