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Tibet Tries To Enter World Market Without Exploiting Resources

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


Published Sunday, December 10, 2000, in the Miami Herald

HONG KONG -- Bearing "tiger skin" carpets, soft spun shawls and medicine made with holy water, Tibetan businesses recently came to China's richest city in hopes of reaching world markets.

In the first such exhibition in 15 years, the visitors to Hong Kong from the remote Himalayan region put on display their choicest local products, companies and development projects in an attempt to find new markets and investors.

But when it comes to doing business with the outside world, Tibet's disputed status under Chinese rule is a handicap.

The Chinese would like foreign help in exploiting the abundant mineral wealth in Tibet and the neighboring Chinese province of Qinghai, which has a Tibetan minority. But they risk provoking lobbyists for Tibetan independence who question whether such projects benefit the Tibetan people.

Those groups are emboldened by their success in killing a World Bank loan for transplanting Chinese farmers into Qinghai. Now they have targeted Western businesses eyeing Tibet's natural resources.

"We are trying to get the word out to corporations, investors and governments around the world. Without a doubt, resource projects benefit the Chinese, using Chinese labor and causing pollution," said Stephen Kretzmann of the lobbying group International Campaign for Tibet.

Tibet remains one of China's poorest regions, with per capita rural income equal to only $220 in 1999, compared with a national rural average of $280.

The investment drive ties in with a national public-works program to promote faster development throughout China's neglected western region, including Tibet. With the country due to open its markets further by entering the World Trade Organization, Tibetan authorities are determined not to fall further behind.

"Tibet's location has made it difficult to reach out to the world. We are hoping to be able to increase exchange with other regions both inside and outside China," said Zhang Tianhua of the Environmental Protection Bureau, one of many Tibetan government departments advertising at the exhibition.

But the exhibition in the former British colony, which reverted to China's control in 1997, was under-publicized and drew few visitors.

"We're ready to go home. We came this far, and no one seems to be very interested," said Ren Qing, an exhibitor.

Glossy booklets listed 138 projects looking for almost $1.4 billion in investment. They ranged from traditional medicine and yak meat to carpet factories, industries and an amusement park for the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

Many of the exhibitors represented small businesses dealing in herbal medicines, some said to be centuries old, as well as teas and cashmere shawls.

The Tibet Xiongbalaqu Holy Water Tibetan Medicine Factory's products included the Coral 70 pill, a cure-all concocted of various herbal ingredients and water from the Xiongbalaqu spring, considered holy by Tibetans.

Also up for grabs in the investment drive are deposits of copper, boron, chromium, lithium, gold, silver and magnesium. But these provide ammunition for critics who accuse the Chinese of dominating Tibet's modernization and despoiling the environment.

Leading the campaign is the government-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet after a failed anti-Chinese uprising in 1959.

Tensions remain high a half-century after Chinese troops occupied Tibet in 1949. Beijing has acknowledged mistakes during its often harsh rule, but adamantly defends current policies. It points to programs it has set up to overcome poverty and the many monasteries rebuilt after they were destroyed in anti-religion campaigns.

In September, Tibet's government-in-exile, based in Dharmsala, India, protested state-owned conglomerate PetroChina's plans to pump oil and gas on the Tibetan plateau in partnership with BP Amoco, Houston-based Enron Corp. and Agip of Italy.

The pressure compelled BP Amoco, PetroChina's biggest foreign investor, to pledge its money wouldn't be used on a gas pipeline from a traditionally Tibetan area of Qinghai to neighboring Gansu province.

Advocacy groups are urging companies to invest only in projects that promote education, protect Tibet's indigenous culture and environment and improve living conditions. Projects that aid the transfer of ethnic Chinese into Tibet, deplete natural resources or harm the culture should be avoided or canceled, they say.

A large share of the projects proposed at the exhibition were intended to improve living standards.

A $23.7 million sewage treatment plant would be the first for rapidly growing Lhasa. New wells would bring drinking water to 1,000 remote villages.

Other projects are aimed at improving rural education and health care. A dozen environmental projects exist to protect Tibet's once pristine mountains and grasslands from further degradation and to improve conservation of rare animal species, such as the Tibetan antelope, poached for its ultra soft wool used to make shatoosh shawls.

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