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Beijing’s Development Policy and Tibetans


As the juggernaut of China’s Western Development Program rolls on, the worst fears of the Tibetan people are coming true. Not only has the Chinese government moved Tibetans from their homelands, but it has also brought Chinese migrants to Tibetan areas, drastically changing the economic and physical landscape, and threatening ethnic conflict.

Foreign journalists who visited the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) this year were almost unanimous in their observations that China’s development policy in Tibet was serving the interests of Chinese migrants rather than those of Tibetans. Encapsulating the journalists’ findings, Rupert Wingfeld-Hayes of the British Broadcast Corporation said the Chinese government had invited them “to see economic development” in Tibet, but “what we found was a Tibet … where Chinese immigrants and economic imperialism nurtures growing resentment from a Native population that feels increasingly marginalized in its own land.”

Ever since Deng Xiaoping unveiled the fabled economic liberalization policy in the early 1980s, socio-economic development in Tibet has bypassed rural areas, where the vast majority of Tibetans live: 97 of the population of TAR is Tibetan and 87 percent of the population in the contiguous Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu is Tibetan. Official connivance and rampant corruption have made Chinese settlers advantaged over their Tibetan counterparts in higher education and professional training opportunities. One would be hard-pressed to find even a single Tibetan among the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students sent to Western countries for higher education.

In tandem, Beijing has encouraged China’s teeming masses to move to Tibet, a so-called land of opportunity. The migrants now dominate the local economy while a pervasive sense of despair prevails among Tibetans, who see their homeland slipping away to the Chinese settlers.

“In Lhasa, the Chinese immigrants take most of the construction jobs, run most of the grocery stores and drive most of the pedicabs,” Philip P. Pan of The Washington Post reported in September 2003. Even in the Barkhor, the traditional stronghold of Tibetans, Chinese and Hui Muslims now own most of the shops.

In the nearby town of Tsethang, Wingfeld-Hayes noticed that every single shop was run by migrants. A fruit seller from Henan said she had come to Tibet because “it’s easier to do business here.” But the Tibetans Hayes spoke to said it was not easy to find work. Journalists have reported that even the railway project, which will link Lhasa (the heart of Tibet) to China and has been touted as the engine of Tibet’s development, does not have a single Tibetan among its 27,000 skilled and semi-skilled workers. Following strong international criticism, the Chinese Railway Ministry last year took on only 6,000 Tibetans as unskilled manual laborers, a surprisingly small number given that the project employs a total of 38,000 people and is being undertaken in Tibet, as the government often states in the press, “for the benefit of the Tibetan people.”

David J. Lynch of USA Today found that Tibetans work on the project as laborers, making no more than $235 a month. “That’s good by local standards, but is a fraction of the $725 to $2,400 Chinese technicians make,” Lynch reported. When he asked construction boss Huang Difu how many skilled jobs Tibetans held on the rail line, Difu replied “none.”

Although part of the reason for the imbalance may be that the migrants were better skilled and had better business acumen than Tibetans, as Chinese economist Zhang Keyun echoed the Chinese government in an interview with Dexter Roberts of Business Week, this excuse is not the whole story. For decades, the Chinese government has pursued a policy of naked colonialism in Tibet that has done nothing to empower the Tibetan people. Beijing has consistently made a drive to impose a new majority in Tibet, the policy implemented by luring Chinese settlers onto the plateau through such incentives as preferential treatments in education, jobs, and business licensing practices. The latest and biggest step toward this end is the Western Development Program.

According to Chinese official statements, the program is aimed at bringing the economies of Tibet and other minority areas on par with the rest of China. But Tibetans believe that the program’s hidden agenda envisions Chinese immigrants as its target beneficiaries. On September 30, 2003, Xinhuanet, an online news service, reported that a group of 800 officials from China, known as “personnel aid officials,” will be sent to Tibet in the summer of 2004, and that most of them will serve as leading officials of local committee of the Communist Party of China and of government departments at different levels. “Some of them are experts in enterprise management, and technicians.” This is the fourth group of Chinese officials to be sent to Tibet as part of the Western Development Program.

To make life easier for these new officials, the TAR government has reformed the residency registration policy, by which the Chinese workers can register as residents in Tibetan areas and keep their residencies in their home areas. While the move makes it easier for Chinese workers to seize job opportunities in Tibet, Tibetans continue to be subjected to the old residency registration law, which means they cannot legally move to other areas of Tibet, for livelihood or any other reason.

The new officials are more likely to concern themselves with implementing Beijing’s policy of Sinicizing the Tibetan plateau than with helping in the development of local Tibetans.

Appointed directly from Beijing, these personnel aid officials are answerable directly to Beijing and make decisions over the heads of their Tibetan “superiors” in the TAR government. Arrogant and insensitive to the problem of Tibet, they are resented with equal determination by the Tibetan cadres and public, many of whom believe that the Chinese officials’ sole function is to “invite Chinese settlers” and wipe out even the semblance of autonomy that Tibet enjoys today.

Still another component of China’s Western Development Program envisages urbanizing rural Tibet, which involves merging villages together and joining them with the nearest town, and renaming them as one administrative unit. Tibetans living in the more remote areas will be ordered to move nearer the administrative towns. This resettlement, according to the authorities, will allow the government to concentrate resources in administrative centers, thus making health and education facilities more easily accessible to adjoining rural populations. Such reasoning, according to Tibetans in Tibet, is flawed—or the policy is actually a deliberate strategy to retain more direct control on the lives of Tibetans. In a land as vast and as unyielding as Tibet, survival depends on the ability of the population to spread themselves thinly and extensively. As for health care and education facilities, they are no longer free in Tibet. If anything, they are prohibitively expensive to the rural Tibetans, the vast majority of whom live below the poverty line. So, who is going to benefit from the urbanization program?

One trend Tibetans in Tibet have told visitors they have noticed is that the Chinese migrants hate to live in sparsely populated rural areas, and tend to live together in areas where there are fairly high population concentrations. As the government invests heavily in creating employment opportunities in the administrative centers of urbanized villages, Tibetan areas will become more attractive to new settlers.

Andrew Fischer, a development economist who specializes in Tibet, reported in August 2003 in London's Tibet Information Network News Update: “This radical restructuring of the TAR economy, which has been accelerated since the beginning of the Western Development Strategy in 1999, has been away from productive activities such as agriculture and small-scale industry and into urban services and large-scale construction projects. This is despite the fact that the TAR, along with Yunnan, is the most agrarian and rural province of China.” Because the Tibetans remain “unskilled” despite more than four decades of “socio-economic development,” Beijing will once again find itself constrained to invite “voluntary skilled personnel” from China to man the service and construction projects in the newly urbanized areas of Tibet.

Although it is not possible to obtain authoritative counts of the size the Chinese population in Tibet, the presence of Chinese migrants is well-pronounced in all the towns and cities. Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping are on record as having suggested that Beijing has a deliberate policy to send Chinese settlers to the sparsely populated region of Tibet. A number of international government agencies have also testified to the existence of such a policy. A CNN report in 2001 quoted U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell: “It’s a very difficult situation right now with the Chinese sending more and more Han Chinese in to settle Tibet. That seems to be a policy that might well destroy that society.”

As well as destroying the Tibetan society, China will also one day find itself grappling with full-blown ethnic conflicts. From the Middle East to Bosnia to Northern Ireland, the common variable of ethnic tension is the transplantation of dominant groups to minority regions. These conflicts have become so intractable that political analysts grimly predict that the prospect of world peace and stability will become ever more elusive as the combatants acquire deadlier weapons.

The leaders in Beijing would do well to learn from the painful experiences of other countries and rethink their own policy of population transfer. Thus far, whenever Tibetans and non-Tibetans have voiced concerns over this policy, Beijing has reacted unrealistically by understating the Chinese population in Tibet and denying the existence of such a policy. This tactic is not surprising given that China has never shown willingness to recognize its failings as far as the issue of Tibet is concerned. What is perplexing, however, is that Beijing went out of its way to invite foreign journalists to Tibet. In August 2003, 63 journalists and camerapersons from 43 media companies participated in a government-arranged tour that visited Tsetang, Shigatse, Gyantse, and Lhasa. Certainly the Chinese leaders cannot be so simpleminded as to believe that the journalists would accept the official line at face value. But why else did the government invite them? Possibly the leaders in Beijing had allowed themselves to be completely deluded by their own propaganda about prosperous and happy Tibetans. Or perhaps, as some policy experts suggest, Beijing is not getting true reports about the conditions in Tibet from the local authorities.

By now it should be apparent to Beijing that Tibetans are not the happy and prosperous lot the smiling faces depict on government propaganda material. This realization should warrant willingness on Beijing’s part to consider at least the possibility that there may after all be something in His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s suggestion that China must look realistically at the issue of Tibet. Such a move would be a big step toward resolving the problem of Tibet, following China’s recent positive gesture to host two visits by representatives of the Dalai Lama.

As the Tibetan leadership and international Tibet experts, including Chinese scholars, have repeatedly said, lasting peace and stability in Tibet will become possible only if Beijing works with the Dalai Lama to address the real problems of Tibetans in Tibet, rather than pretending that the issue of Tibet is about the personal status of the Dalai Lama and members of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.

Tendar is the first secretary of the Office of Tibet in New York City.

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