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Boom in Tibet But At High Cost

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/09/27; September 27, 2003.]

The Strait Times, Singapore

SEPT 27, 2003

Change has come to Tibet - some of it good, some not so good, reports GOH SUI NOI of The Straits Times China Bureau who visited the autonomous region recently.

FOR Tsewang Lobu, 24, things have never been better in Shigatse where she lives.

The second largest city in the Tibet Autonomous Region looks like one big construction site, with new roads being laid and building sites everywhere.

It has been boom time here as well as in other key Tibetan cities in the past few years, particularly after the Chinese government began its western development programme in 1999, which included, in large part, infrastructure building.

Beijing is pouring billions into the programme for strategic reasons.

First, it wants to make growth less lopsided as coastal provinces and cities have raced so far ahead that widening income and other disparities, if not reduced, are likely to lead to envy and instability.

Second, the western regions have vast oil, mineral and other resources which are there for the tapping.

Third, Beijing believes it is imperative to develop the western regions rapidly as central and eastern China are certain to bear the brunt of attacks in the event of war breaking out over the Taiwan Strait.

Last but not least, it thinks injecting prosperity - and Han Chinese migrants - into Tibet, Xinjiang and other western provinces will help to check separatist impulses.

The resulting stability will, in turn, give the central government some breathing space and allow it to focus on its No. 1 task of economic development.

Whatever Beijing's agenda may be, Ms Tsewang Lobu, who works as a driver for a trading company, welcomes the economic fillip.

'It is good for us because with more people coming here, business is good and there are also more jobs available,' she explains.

What she has omitted to say is that while Tibetans in urban areas benefit from the economic development, they are often only marginal contributors to that growth.

Often, it is because Tibetans, who traditionally worked mainly as herders and farmers, lack the requisite skills for the jobs created, necessitating the hiring of workers from outside the region.

Nowhere is this more stark than in the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, a key infrastructure project.

Building of the 1,142km railway line from Golmud in Qinghai province to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa began in 2001, with 27,000 skilled workers and engineers hired from inland China.

It was only this year that 6,000 Tibetans were taken on, mainly for manual jobs such as carrying construction materials.

They earn 50 to 65 yuan (S$10-S$14) a day, depending on altitude, a far cry from the 6,000 to 20,000 yuan a month that non-Tibetan skilled workers make.

In running small businesses in the cities too, Tibetans are being edged out by job-hungry Han Chinese who started migrating to the region in the 1980s when China started economic reforms.

For example, taxi drivers used to be mainly Tibetans but now the majority are Han Chinese like Li Rongguo, 23, from Gansu province. He came here with the army five years ago and decided to stay on after demobilisation.

Even in markets, more and more meat and vegetable sellers are Han Chinese.

In 1999, there were 2,040 Tibetan household enterprises engaged in commercial activities, including selling groceries, hardware and electrical appliances, compared to 4,295 non-Tibetan enterprises.

Similarly, there were 185 Tibetan enterprises in the services sector compared to 900 non-Tibetan ones. Even in the traditional handicrafts sector, non-Tibetans dominate, with 340 such enterprises against 28 Tibetan ones.

Total sales of Tibetan household enterprises that year was 146.4 million yuan, less than a third of the 606.6 million yuan turnover reported by non-Tibetans.

Moreover, given that much of the economic development is in urban centres and that about 90 per cent of the 2.66 million Tibetans live in rural areas, most Tibetans are not touched by the growth.

Thus, the urban-rural income gap has remained wide, with annual urban per capita disposable income at 8079.1 yuan or 5.5 times that of rural income at 1462.3 yuan in 2002.

It has not always been like this. In the early days, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the economic and social development policies for Tibet focused on improving productivity in the traditional agriculture and animal-husbandry sectors as a way to promote economic growth and improve living standards.

However, since the 1980s and particularly after 1994, priority has been given to improving transport and urban infrastructure and services and to encouraging migration of Han Chinese entrepreneurs and semi-skilled workers, to speed up growth and modernisation.

Economist Zhang Keyun, who has done research on the Tibetan economy, says it should not surprise anyone that the better-skilled migrants earn more.

Also, he argues, Han Chinese are better businessmen than Tibetans, who, he says, lack business acumen, largely because of their strong Buddhist beliefs.The motivation to make more money is just not there, he argues.

But he thinks the Tibetans' predicament is temporary - and a necessary part of modernisation.

Tibetan scholar Zhaxi Dongzhu, of the Institute of Nationality Studies at the Academy of Social Sciences, agrees that Tibetans have to go through marginalisation as they learn the ropes.

But he disagrees that Tibetans lack the motivation to seek better things in life. 'Making merit for the future world does not mean to do nothing in this life,' he contends.

Prof Zhang also defends Beijing's emphasis on urban development over rural development, given its limited resources. But once urban areas reach a certain level of development, the spread effect will take place, spurring rural development, he asserts.

Agreeing, Shannan prefecture's Tibetan commissioner De Ji believes that by attracting certain enterprises, the value-added of the prefecture's agriculture and animal husbandry sectors can be raised.

Governor Jampa Phuntsog, while admitting that non-Tibetans pose a challenge, is persuaded that competition is good for Tibet.

'I don't think it'll do to shut Tibet up completely because it won't help raise skills level and enhance the competitiveness of the local economy,' he says.

Mr Zhaxi Dongzhu complains that not enough vocational training is being given to Tibetans.

But since 1994, the school-building programme has been accelerated and illiteracy among adults has been reduced to 43.8 per cent from 95 per cent in the 1950s.

Yes, it will be a long haul before Tibetans can catch up with the rest of China. But the prospects are there.

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