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Development

Prosperity Isn't Universal in Tibet Towns Mon

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/08/27; August 27, 2003.]

TSETANG, China, Aug 25 (AP)- A Las Vegas wannabe in a sequined suit is shaking his hips on stage. In the audience, Chinese businessmen crack open cans of Budweiser and half-drunk Tibetan truck drivers look for dance partners.

It's a Friday night in Tsetang, Tibet's third-largest city, and times have never been so good - at least for patrons of the Longyu Nightclub, where the crowd starts to swell only after midnight comes.

"Over the past couple of years we've really seen a lot of new people come in. I think that's really great to further our future here," says Wen Qing, 33, the club's half-Chinese, half-Tibetan owner.

Like much of southern Tibet, Tsetang is booming, as money pours in under a four-year government drive to develop China's western regions. New buildings are rising as Chinese migrants stream in. Many are drawn by the chance to trade, by higher salaries or by other government policies aimed at attracting skilled workers.

Yet not all share in the new prosperity. Tibet's complicated political and ethnic issues remain just below the surface, ignored for now but still a potential source of future tension.

Many Tibetans, especially those in exile, fear the money and newcomers could erode Tibet's unique, once highly insular culture, already battered by decades of political upheaval and strong Communist Party control over its key Buddhist institutions.

Tsetang, like many other Tibetan towns, already resembles thousands of Chinese provincial towns with their faceless low-rise shop houses and nondescript office buildings of cream tile and blue-tinted glass.

Prostitution is practiced openly in dozens of tiny shopfronts with names like "Barbie Doll Hair Salon." Chinese women speaking in Sichuan accents call out to customers from doorways lit by pink fluorescent lights and rush to the curb when drivers pull up in their trucks.

Advertisements are almost entirely in Chinese, while shop signs feature Tibetan only in small print above large, usually red, Chinese characters. On the outskirts of Xigaze, Tibet's second-largest city, cookie-cutter mansions are springing up on the outskirts and help-wanted signs appear only in Chinese.

Yet the changes appear also to be furthering integration between Tibetans and Chinese from the interior, known as Han, who make up the majority of China's vast population.

"We're used to the place now. Tibetans are just like the rest of us," said Li Yingyuan, from the western Chinese province of Sichuan. He has run the Flying Dragon furniture store on Tsetang's Hero Street for three years.

Officials claim Tibetans still make up an overwhelming majority in their homeland. But Lhasa, Tibet's capital, and other cities are becoming increasingly Chinese.

Tibetans and Chinese intermarry and associate freely, as evidenced by numerous mixed couples on the streets of Tsetang, where Chinese account for up to 18,000 of the urban population of 58,000.

"More people is better, because that means the economy will get more developed and the better our lives will get," said Wen, the nightclub owner.

She greets her customers in both Tibetan and Chinese and seats them at low tables and in booths to watch Tibetan crooners, Mandarin divas, and dancers recreating numbers from Indian musicals, an entertainment staple in Tibet.

The new construction in Tsetang appears limited to government and state banks and companies. Private businesses are mostly small-time operations selling furniture, car parts and noodles.

Yet Tsetang's regional commissioner says strong growth is set to continue for the next decade, following last year's 17 percent economic expansion. Tibet remains China's poorest, least developed region, scoring lowest among Chinese areas in U.N. human development indicators such as life span and education.

Tsetang's old Tibetan neighborhoods are dilapidated and brimming with piled-up garbage. In the muddy, unpaved streets, dirty-faced children beg for pens or small change.

Beijing insists the region has been Chinese territory for more than 700 years and brooks no dissent. China repressed a 1959 uprising that sent Tibet's Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile, and swiftly crushed protests against Chinese rule a decade ago.

Caution endures. Fearing trouble with the authorities, most Tibetans are guarded in discussions about the Chinese.

"They take the good jobs and its tough for us," said a pedicab driver who gave his name as Namda.

Asked if he resented the Han presence, he shrugged and rode away.


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