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Development

Beijing Accelerates Plans for a Modern Tibet. Critics Accuse Reforms of Bringing Vice and Corruption

[The Guardian. May 17, 2001.]

John Gittings in Shanghai
Guardian

Thursday May 17, 2001.

China has embarked on a vigorous campaign to publicise its vision of a thoroughly modern Tibet, under the guidance of Beijing, that will embrace tower blocks and apartment buildings, private enterprise and tourism.

The urban district of Lhasa, the ancient Tibetan capital, will expand by 50% in the next 15 years, its head of planning, Danba Qoida, was quoted as saying by the official Chinese news agency yesterday. The new Lhasa would be "dotted with towering buildings and dwelling houses in a distinct Tibetan style", although building heights around the Potala palace and main monasteries would be restricted.

Next week will be the 50th anniversary of the "17-point Agreement" signed between Beijing and the government in Lhasa on May 23 1951 after the Chinese army occupied Tibet.

In a news report yesterday, the official People's Daily website described how "girls dressed in fashionable styles, Lamas wearing cassocks and foreigners with big travelling bags" rub shoulders in Lhasa.

This contrasted with the past when "there were no pavements in Tibet, only rough roads running parallel to slots emitting a bad odour".

The advertising sector in Tibet, said another recent report, has taken off, with 12m yuan (1m) worth of business last year.

But Beijing acknowledges that living standards for most of the 2.6m ethnic Tibetans still lag behind the rest of China, with the per capita income of Tibet's "farmers and herdsmen" only half the national average.

The solution, say Chinese officials, is to promote a market economy which will allow private enterprise to become "the most dynamic factor in Tibet".

They urge the Tibetans to take up "simple forms of private enterprise", such as cottage industries and services for tourists, following the example of ethnic Chinese migrant entrepreneurs.

In spite of restrictions on foreign tourists seeking to visit Tibet independently, Tibet is forecast to become one "of the world hot spots of tourism".

Beijing's upbeat review of the last 50 years has not mentioned the destruction of monasteries and suppression of Tibetan customs, which reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

"Since Tibet was peacefully liberated in 1951," said the senior Tibetan communist Raidi "it has gained a great leap forward in almost all aspects of the economy and culture."

Critics of Chinese policies in Tibet do not deny that great changes have taken place but say that they are at a cost.

The reforms in Lhasa "have created a city where corruption co-exists with hard-nosed commercialism, where prostitution thrives in areas previously better known as places of spiritual pilgrimage and where citizens may own computers and widescreen TVs but not necessarily toilets or running water", the UK-based Tibet Information Network said.

A TIN report, quoting the views of anonymous Tibetans, describes Lhasa as "a frontier town and a divided city".

"No one is opposed to modernisation," says a western scholar who lived in Lhasa last year, "but they don't like the terms on which it is being delivered."


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