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Tibetans Being Left Out of Boom 40 Years On

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/08/30; August 30, 2005.]

By Lindsay Beck

LHASA, China, 30 Aug (Reuters) - Tibet's capital is booming, but for Gucang Dunzhu, it doesn't much matter.

The Lhasa local government boasts 12 percent growth rates for the past four years, driven by massive investment from Beijing aimed at jumpstarting the largely agrarian economy.

But when he left his village in Tibet's mountainous hinterland and came to the city 11 years ago, Gucang Dunzhu spoke only Tibetan and knew no life beyond that of a herdsman, leaving him few skills to capitalise on the boom.

"It's not easy to find work," said the 29-year-old, who eventually found a job in a cement factory.

As China celebrates the anniversary on September 1, of Tibet's becoming an "autonomous region" of the People's Republic in 1965, it will be aiming to showcase its national integration.

But analysts say that, 40 years on, society is more fractured than ever, with Tibetans becoming an underclass lacking the skills to participate in Beijing-driven industrialisation.

Tibet has been ruled by China since the People's Liberation Army invaded the Himalayan territory in 1950. Nine years later, Tibet's god-king, the Dalai Lama, fled on horseback after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

The vast, sparsely populated region known as "the roof of the world" was designated the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1965, a gesture Beijing made to other areas with large ethnic minority populations too to give them more say over their own affairs.

At the same time, Beijing encouraged Han Chinese migration, both to underscore its claim to Tibet and in hopes that wealth generated by entrepreneurial migrants would trickle down.

Instead of wealth building harmony, though, analysts say it is contributing to a rich-poor gap that falls along ethnic lines.

"The government expansion is being driven by Beijing, it's not being driven locally. And that's creating a very polarised economy," said Andrew Fischer, a development economist at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Golden Yaks

In the centre of Lhasa, two giant golden yaks grace a roundabout, a gift from Beijing to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Tibet's "peaceful liberation" and a reminder that for centuries herding yaks and farming have been central to Tibetans' way of life. But for this anniversary, analysts say, it's not yaks or monuments that Tibet needs, but schools.

Only about 13 percent of Tibetans have secondary school education or above, Fischer said, compared with 50 percent of Han Chinese. Forty percent of Tibetans are illiterate.

That translates into a yawning income gap exacerbating the ethnic divide.

"The difference in income is there, but that's because they (Chinese and Tibetans) are engaged in different industries," said Xu Jianchang, of Tibet's Development and Reform Commission.

He acknowledged that education programmes that might allow Tibetans to move off the farm and into industries were in their infancy.

"Right now the scale is very small," Xu said, adding that about 15 million yuan (1 million pounds) per year was being allocated for training -- less than $1 for each of Tibet's roughly 2.7 million people.

Just kilometres away from his office, a gleaming white bridge spans the Lhasa river, its three arches designed to invoke the drape of a prayer shawl in a nod to deeply Buddhist Tibetans.

The bridge will carry trains from China's northwestern province of Qinghai over 1,100 km (700 miles) into Lhasa in a massive infrastructure project that railway engineer Wang Weigao says will cost more than $4 billion (2.2 billion pound). The government says it will bring prosperity to the remote region when it opens in 2007.

Railroad to Wealth

"If we finish the construction of the railway, we can realise large-scale development by groups and enterprises," Xu said.

"We can bring them to other parts of China and the farmers can get incomes from that."

But with Xu listing yaks and pigs as among products waiting for access to an export market, Tibetans are understandably wary about whether the railway will mean greater prosperity or simply a greater divide.

"Of course it will bring changes. But even we don't know what kind," said Gucang Dunzhu's 19-year-old relative, who lives with him and his wife in their two-room house looking after their schoolboy son.

Near their house, construction workers are tarring a brand new highway from the airport into Lhasa, set to open in time to whisk dignitaries into the city for the anniversary celebrations.

"They make a great symbolic show of these dates," said Tsering Shakya, a Tibet scholar at Oxford University.

"What they're trying to show is the great accomplishments and national goals of integrating Tibet with the rest of China but at another level it shows Tibet was different and still continues to be different from the rest of China," he said.

With 70 percent of Tibet's labour force working in agriculture and rural wages stagnant, that difference is only likely to grow.

"It's all farming and herding," Gucang Dunzhu said of village life.

He looks blank when asked about salaries there compared with the city.

"There is no real income," he said. "We eat what we grow."

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