On 1st September, T1bet celebrates its 40th anniversary of becoming an “autonomous region” of the People’s Republic of China. Earlier Chinese promises going back half a century that PLA troops would eventually leave T1bet, for good or for ill, did not materialize. Historically, China has dominated T1bet and, on occasion, T1bet has dominated China. However, history aside, what is the situation in 2005? What about the lives of ordinary T1betans? Absolutely no doubt about it, today, T1bet’s economy is growing even faster than that of the rest of China. Roads, railways, factories are sprouting up where before there was nothing, from Xinhua:
Under the correct leadership of the central authorities and with the support of the central government and the rest of the country, the people in Tibet have united as one and worked diligently to bring about world-shaking changes over the past decades, said sources closed to the meeting, held on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Tibet has witnessed rapid economic development and remarkable improvement in people’s living standards. The system of regional autonomy for minority people has been constantly improved in Tibet, where people of all ethnic groups enjoy full rights as masters of the region. The excellent local traditions have been preserved and developed, and the people’s rights in the freedom of religious belief are well respected and protected.
However, the other side of the coin comes from Lindsay Beck at Reuters:
…analysts say that, 40 years on, society is more fractured than ever, with T1betans becoming an underclass lacking the skills to participate in Beijing-driven industrialisation.
T1bet has been ruled by China since the People’s Liberation Army invaded the Himalayan territory in 1950. Nine years later, Tibet’s god-king, the D@lai L@ma, fled on horseback after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
The vast, sparsely populated region known as “the roof of the world” was designated the T1betan Autonomous Region in 1965, a gesture Beijing made to other areas with large ethnic minority populations too to give them more say over their own affairs.
At the same time, Beijing encouraged Han Chinese migration, both to underscore its claim to T1bet and in hopes that wealth generated by entrepreneurial migrants would trickle down.
Instead of wealth building harmony, though, analysts say it is contributing to a rich-poor gap that falls along ethnic lines.
“The government expansion is being driven by Beijing, it’s not being driven locally. And that’s creating a very polarised economy,” said Andrew Fischer, a development economist at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The article goes on to claim that we are seeing an income gap that exacerbates the ethnic divide:
Only about 13 per cent of Tibetans have secondary school education or above, Fischer said, compared with 50 per cent of Han Chinese. Forty per cent of Tibetans are illiterate.
“The difference in income is there, but that’s because they (Chinese and Tibetans) are engaged in different industries,” said Xu Jianchang, of Tibet’s Development and Reform Commission.
He acknowledged that education programmes that might allow Tibetans to move off the farm and into industries were in their infancy.
“Right now the scale is very small,” Xu said, adding that about 15 million yuan ($1.85 million) per year was being allocated for training – less than $1 for each of Tibet’s roughly 2.7 million people.
However, there is large stock put into the massive railway project taken on by the Chinese authorities, at great cost, linking Lhasa to the rest of China:
“If we finish the construction of the railway, we can realise large-scale development by groups and enterprises,” Xu said.
“We can bring them to other parts of China and the farmers can get incomes from that.”
But with Xu listing yaks and pigs as among products waiting for access to an export market, Tibetans are understandably wary about whether the railway will mean greater prosperity or simply a greater divide.
With 70 per cent of Tibet’s labour force working in agriculture and rural wages stagnant, that difference is only likely to grow.
As a westerner and a 15-year resident of China, I can appreciate both points of view towards such a sensitive subject such as T1bet. Indeed, some of the most intelligent comments this site has ever received were from an outstanding earlier post from Richard concerning this very subject.
However, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of T1bet’s “autonomous region” status within the People’s Republic of China, should we be celebrating or lamenting? How do T1betans feel about their anniversary? How does the rest of the country feel? What about the status of ordinary T1betans and their material lives? Are Beijing’s massive efforts and huge expense to develop the region working and improving the lives of the population as a whole? These are the pertinent questions I feel we should be asking on this historic occasion.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.