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Development

China's 'Go West' Plan May Threaten Tibetan Culture

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/12/02; December 2, 2000.]

UPI, Fri 1 Dec 2000

Tibetan support groups increasingly worry that China's development plans for its backward western regions hide political goals that threaten Tibet's cultural identity. The Chinese government has embarked on an ambitious campaign to narrow the economic gulf between prosperous eastern China and the poorer hinterlands.

The 'Go West' policy was launched last year with echoes of America's taming of the Wild West in the 18th and 19th centuries. But just as that process brought wide-ranging and often negative changes to the lives of Native Americans, so too there are fears that traditional Tibetan ways of life may be trampled in the rush.

Rather than benefiting the predominantly rural populations of the west, western development likely will lead to increased migration from eastern and central China, warned the London-based Tibet Information Network in "China's Great Leap West," a book published this week. The authors raise concerns that migration and the exploitation of natural resources may have consequences as dire as Chairman Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-61).

China's western regions cover almost 60 percent of People's Republic of China territory, but the predominance of desert and mountain make them home to just 23 percent of the national population. The 280 million inhabitants, including many minority groups like the Tibetans and the Muslim Uighurs, earn less than half the incomes of people in eastern China.

While Beijing is keen to explore the west's untapped mineral wealth -- the Chinese term for Tibet, Xizang, translates as 'Western storehouse' -- more important is the region's strategic significance. In October, the vice minister of railways announced that a proposed railroad to Lhasa would "promote the economic development of the Tibet Autonomous Region and strengthen national defense". Western China's borders with India and the former Soviet Union have been troubled by skirmishes in recent decades.

Better road and rail links binding the region to China proper will facilitate swifter access for military personnel and equipment, which also could be targeted against the country's occasionally restive minorities. "The worst-case scenario -- and what we're trying to avoid -- is China fragmenting like Yugoslavia," the TIN report quotes leading Chinese economist Hu Angang as saying. "Already, regional [economic] disparity is equal to -- or worse than -- what we saw in Yugoslavia before it split." For China's Communist Party leaders, the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo was a chilling example of outside intervention. Stability therefore remains the party watchword in consolidating control of China's non-Chinese areas.

Beijing hopes better infrastructure will spur economic growth and curb idle thoughts of independence. The Chinese government still struggles to understand foreign criticism of its record in Tibet. While China ruthlessly suppresses the slightest 'splittist' tendency, authorities have in recent years permitted a basic level of religious freedom, and achieved major economic and social gains. Over the past six years, Tibet's annual gross domestic product has increased by an average rate of 12.9 percent, well above the national average, and average life span has risen to 62 from just 36 years half a century ago. Yet lobbying groups like TIN accuse China of implementing inappropriate methods of development. Sometimes this is inadvertent, such as reforestation of farmland that may deprive people of their livelihood.

Increasing numbers of Chinese migrants have given Tibet's main two cities, Lhasa and Shigatse, an increasingly Chinese look. But not all Tibetans feel threatened by the 'Go West' initiative. Many are simply ignorant of Beijing's grand plan. "Although the party cadres have all been asked to support it, most nomads and ordinary people don't understand what 'developing the west' really means," said Lhe Mo, a children's editor at the Minority Publishing House in Lhasa. "I guess it will start in other places first like Sichuan and Ningxia, and the impact in Tibet will be quite small," Lhe Mo told United Press International. "But whether people are Tibetan or Han Chinese, all of them want a better life. Maybe it will bring economic development to Tibetans, but I doubt the plan will weaken Tibetan culture. The government is paying more attention to our culture. For example, now it is forbidden to erect new buildings around the Jokhang temple in Lhasa."


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