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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

A Modern, Traditional Tibet: Growth seen as counter to separatism

October 12, 2007

Friday, October 05, 2007

Second of two parts NIMA, China — Gyagetubba squats with a cell phone to
his ear near the entrance of his yak-hair tent, perhaps making a
business deal or arranging to purchase supplies.

Outside, on grassy pastureland stretching to the horizon, sits the
motorbike he uses to tend his herd, which grazes on a 330-acre allotment
in a Tibetan-populated area of China’s Gansu province.

He, his wife and his youngest daughter still dress in homespun clothes
as Tibetan herders have for centuries, but his middle daughter — a
student at the middle school in the nearby village of Nima — wears a
blue and white track suit and is learning to use the Internet.

With the advent of modern technology and education, a questioner asks,
what are the chances that his pastoral way of life will survive for an-

other generation?

“I don’t know about that,” he replies as smoke curls up from the cooking
fire in the center of his tent, a Buddhist shrine at one end. “But I am
hoping my daughter will become a doctor.”

Life is changing rapidly for Tibetan farmers and herders — both in Tibet
and the surrounding provinces, where many of them live.

The same market-based economic forces that turned Beijing and Shanghai
from medieval towns to modern metropolises in a generation are at work
in Tibet, encouraged by a development-hungry central government that
sees economic growth as the best way to quiet Tibetan separatist sentiment.

The largest and best hotel in Nima is owned by an ex-herdsman who sold
all his yaks to raise the capital to open a shop, then parlayed his
profits into a successful hotel business, local officials relate proudly.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dawadunzhu — who like most Tibetans
uses only one name — has built his Dashi Group into a $13 million-a-year
agricultural products conglomerate, employing thousands of farmers on a
contract basis.

“Economic reform has made the transition from a planned economy to a
market economy,” boasted He Benyun, deputy director of the Committee of
Reform and Development, during an interview in Lhasa, the capital of
what China calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

“Since China’s opening to the outside [world] in 1978, the market
economy system has been almost entirely established.”

Mr. He said pasture allotments like that of Mr. Gyagetubba are being
granted “on a virtually permanent basis” and that the herders are then
“responsible for what happens with them.”

In Tibet itself, new opportunities are being opened up by the completion
last year of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a 600mile rail link across the
breathtaking Tibetan Plateau that for the first time has given the
region an affordable cargo and passenger link to the outside world.

Joint enterprises

It was the opening of the railway that persuaded Hong Kong investors to
begin bottling water from a Tibetan spring fed by a glacier at more than
17,000 feet in the Himalayas, providing arguably the purest drinking
water on earth.

After one year in business, the plant is unable to keep up with demand
and is planning at least three more production lines so the water can be
marketed in the United States and other countries.

The bottling plant, at the foot of a mountain bordering a yak pasture,
already has 80 employees, many of whom used to scratch out a living as
subsistence farmers nearby. Tax breaks and other government incentives
helped get the plant in business.

It is a similar story at the Tibet Lhasa Brewery Co., a joint enterprise
owned by Hong Kong investors and the Danishbased Carlsberg Group.
Working with Tibet’s mountain water and unique barley, it has been open
for two years and employs 247 persons, three-quarters of them Tibetans.

“The foreign investors saw they could make money here,” said deputy
general manager Yu Chao, formerly a Coca-Cola manager in central China.
“For now, this is the top joint venture in Tibet, but I think more and
more will be started.”

At least some Americans are looking at opportunities in Tibet as well.
An office in central Lhasa bears a large Amway sign, and company
official Richard Holwill said in Washington that Amway hopes to expand
operations there once the TAR lifts a ban on direct-tocustomer sales.

The market-driven growth has been accompanied by a huge investment in
infrastructure, a move that Chinese officials admit is designed in part
to relieve pressure for greater autonomy or outright independence coming
from supporters of the exiled Dalai Lama.

“People say that stability will make them rich,” said Neymatsering, one
of five vice chairmen of the TAR. “The kind of instability the Dalai
Lama would bring would create disaster.”

Chinese influx

Not everyone agrees that the rapid development transforming Tibet is
good for its people, who for centuries have nurtured one of the world’s
most original and spiritual cultures.

“China is trying to promote a picture of economic progress and
development in Tibet that is a shift away from that culture,” said Kate
Saunders, a Washington-based spokeswoman with the International Campaign
for Tibet, which is associated with the Dalai Lama.

“Since China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet, there has been a tremendous
exploitation of Tibet’s wealth of minerals, oil and gas. The railway is
a part of a plan to facilitate that exploitation,” she said.

The impact of Tibet’s economic growth is obvious in the streets of
Lhasa, where modern shops and office towers are springing up around the
central Potala Palace — Tibet’s most famous landmark — so rapidly as to
prompt a complaint from the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO.

Block after block of condominiums are going up along newly paved avenues
at the western end of the capital, while along the road from the airport
a new sign welcomes visitors to the “ State- level Lhasa Economic and
Technological Development Zone.”

The growth has brought an influx of traders, construction workers and
others from inland China, alarming critics who suspect a calculated
effort to bring in Chinese settlers and eventually make the Tibetans a
minority in their own land.

Some critics say that may have already happened, suggesting that as many
as 65 percent of the people in Lhasa are Chinese. The government rejects
those claims, saying nonTibetans are only 8 percent of the population.

The truth probably lies in between. Shixiounyin, a Tibetan doctor,
estimated that Chinese made up 30 percent to 40 percent in the cities
and 10 percent to 20 percent in the countryside, where the bulk of the
population lives.

But whatever the real number, Chinese are sprinkled through key
positions in the government bureaucracy and appear to run most of the
shops and businesses. Others come in as teachers and social workers on
three-year contracts.

Uneven progress

Lhasa itself looks much like a Chinese city, with its neon lights and
official signage mainly in Chinese. Shops typically display their names
in large Chinese characters with smaller Tibetan lettering above.

Some of that is meant to appeal to Chinese tourists who, drawn in large
numbers by the railway, crowd the city’s monasteries, temples and
shopping bazaars, driving up prices for traditional hand-crafted goods.

“No doubt many Tibetans are benefiting from development — those in the
tourism trade, the hotels,” acknowledged Miss Saunders. “But the
majority are not benefiting. . . . These policies are creating an
underclass of excluded Tibetans.”

Progress unquestionably is uneven, with prosperity coming much more
quickly to the cities than to the rural areas. But Mr. He, at the
Committee of Reform and Development, said the government is committed to
training Tibetans to become entrepreneurs.

In a small village near Lhasa, the Duilongdeqing Flower and Vegetable
Association has built simple greenhouses for 105 families that had

Neymatsering, one of five vice chairmen of the TAR, said the free-market
transition in Tibet is being underpinned with a generous social safety net.

“The market economy here is complete, but the government will protect
the losers with assistance in the jobs area, housing, education, medical
care and other measures to help the needy,” he said in an interview.

Subsidized housing is springing up across Tibet, with whole villages and
towns being built — often by skilled Chinese construction workers.

Many of the homes are occupied by people like Qiangjiu, a traditional
farmer who recently moved with his wife, five children, son-in-law and
grandson into a new residence about 30 miles southwest of Lhasa. He said
he bought the house with a government subsidy of $400 and an
interest-free loan of $6,700.

His son-in-law helped him come up with $30,000 to pay the balance of the
house and furnishings — including a new television and DVD player,
which, like many Americans — he cannot operate without help from his

More controversial is the erection of large housing estates on the edge
of the region’s vast pasturelands, which are designed to provide
permanent homes for Tibet’s traditionally nomadic cattle herders.

The government describes the settlements as a great boon to the herders,
providing a place where the young and the elderly can enjoy schools,
clean drinking water and electricity while the parents are tending their
herds on faraway pastures. Neymatsering said the government hopes to
resettle 80 percent of the herders within five years.

But Miss Saunders sees something much more sinister.

“These nomads are being taken from their land and made to live in
settlements,” she said. “Then they have to find jobs in the towns, and
they develop social problems such as turning to alcohol. They also have
to compete with Chinese who have better skills.”

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