Is China's development threatening Tibet?

China has announced a series of initiatives to boost development of its western regions, but this investment may come at a steep price for Tibet.

China has announced a series of initiatives to boost development of its western regions, but this investment may come at a steep price for Tibet.

Is China's development evenly spread?

No. The vast western regions an area that accounts for the bulk of China's land mass, stretching from the northern plains of

Inner Mongolia to the southern forests of Yunnan and west to Xinjiang and the disputed Himalayan region of Tibet are much poorer than the big coastal cities.

In 2005, the per capita GDP in these areas was about RMB6,000, half the national average. Moreover, as a result of the huge distances and logistical problems involved, these rural regions are not benefitting from the influx of money from overseas.

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China is a major destination for global investment, ranking behind only the US and Britain as the biggest recipient of foreign direct investment (some $70bn last year), but just 3% of that goes to the west of the country.

What's the Beijing government doing?

In 2000, China launched a Go West' drive to attract investment and migration to the western regions. It has had limited success; the region's rate of economic growth still lags behind the national average, although the gap has narrowed. In the far west, Tibet has seen continuous high growth (more than 12% a year from a low base) for the past six years, but it remains one of China's most underdeveloped areas, due to its harsh natural conditions and isolation. But it's clear that Tibet is being treated by Beijing as a special case; at the end of March, the central government announced a £6.5bn package of spending on infrastructure over the next five years some 40% more than they spent over the last ten. That includes spending on roads, drinking water, schooling, electricity and a new airport at Ngari, the region's fourth and the world's highest.

What's the current situation in Tibet?

The authorities are accelerating their campaign to make the Special Autonomous Region' fully part of China. In part, this is a political process: they have stepped up attacks on the Dalai Lama and his self-styled government and jailed growing numbers of Tibetans for possessing pro-independence literature and photos of their exiled leader. Last year, a mountaineer filmed a Chinese border guard firing on an unarmed group of 80 Tibetans fleeing to Nepal, and killing a Buddhist nun. This drew international attention to China's moves to bring Tibet to heel; Tibetans claim such deaths are commonplace. Meanwhile, alongside its political crackdown, China's recent economic initiatives seem partly designed to strengthen its control over the region.

What initiatives, exactly?

Most importantly, last July, China completed construction of the 1,250-mile Qinghai-Tibet railway, ending the region's history of isolation from the rest of China. Last month, an extension was announced taking the line a further 170 miles from the capital, Lhasa, to Tibet's second city, Shigatse. The continuous line from Beijing to Lhasa some 2,500 miles long and the world's highest passenger train makes the roof of the world' easily accessible for the first time and led to an immediate surge in Han Chinese tourists arriving from the east. In the first two months, nearly one million people visited Tibet, a sparsely populated region of just 2.8 million.

So what's the problem?

While mass tourism provides an economic opportunity, it also threatens the survival of the things that attract tourists in the first place Tibet's distinctive culture, and the unspoilt beauty of its high plateaus and mountains. According to the Dalai Lama, a tide of outsiders brought in by rail risks cultural genocide' in Tibet, especially when combined with the present wave of Han migration. Beijing claims that Tibet remains 95% non-Han, but many Lhasa residents say that their capital (population 500,000) is now half ethnic Chinese (that compares with 30,000 in 1950, of whom only a few dozen were Chinese.) The worry is not economic development, but that the development is aimed at cementing China's control and eradicating Tibetan culture.

Is there any evidence of that happening?

Ethnic Chinese are benefiting disproportionately from the boom in investment. Even on official figures, only 10% of the workers on the new railway line were Tibetan. At Lhasa's new luxury Brahamaputra Grand hotel, the management have been brought in from Sichuan and only a third of staff are native Tibetans. When the regional government expanded its staffing by 100 last October, it filled 98 of the new jobs with Han Chinese. Understandably, then, the latest announcement of new money from Beijing has been met with some scepticism by pro-Tibetan campaigners. No detailed breakdown of the £6.5bn was provided by the government, fuelling suspicion that much of it will be spent on hydroelectric dams. With the Chinese media reporting new finds of copper and iron, Tibet's role in fuelling China's industrialisation looks increasingly assured.

Why is Tibet a special case?

For decades, Tibet has been seen as a barometer of the China's record on human rights and its openness to international engagement. To Beijing, Tibet is an inalienable part of China and has been since ancient times. But in the eyes of most Tibetans, at least prior to the recent mass influx of Han Chinese immigrants from the east, Tibet is a separate historic nation. Chinese troops were sent into Tibet in the 1950s to settle the issue and the Tibetans' spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in 1959. While Tibet is absorbed into China and its traditions and autonomy are crushed, the Dalai Lama maintains a powerless government in exile' in Dharamsala, a small hilltop town in the Indian Himalayas.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.