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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Reaping Tibet's Whirlwind

March 22, 2008

by Andrew Martin Fischer
Far Eastern Economic Review
March 2008

No matter how hard Beijing tries to salvage its international public
image and to convince its own domestic public otherwise, its public
relations myth that all things are calm on its western Tibetan front,
whether through military might or economic greed, has been shattered.
The international media has treated the current crisis in Tibet as if it
has happened suddenly, almost unexpectedly, out of the blue. Thus many
ask, “How did this happen?” “Why now?" Unfortunately, many of us who
have been researching Tibet for many years and have been visiting the
region regularly have been sadly predicting the current events.

monks protestingBeijing has been exacerbating conflictive tensions
throughout the Tibetan areas with its “western development” strategies
since the mid-1990s. These strategies include an all-out push for rapid
growth with massive amounts of subsidies and subsidized investments
channeled through Chinese corporations based outside the Tibetan areas;
an open immigration policy; an absence of protection of local Tibetan
employment despite severe educational lags and a severe undersupply of
education infrastructure relative to the rest of China; and an
assimilationist agenda within education policy.

In a nutshell, the very mechanisms by which Beijing has been attempting
to resolve the “Tibet Question” through the force of rapid growth has in
fact been reinforcing underlying political and social tensions due to
the marginalization of Tibetans in the face of such growth.

In other words, Beijing has been trying to convince us that the
marginally improving material conditions of the average Tibetan somehow
absolve all previous sins. Yet superficial incantations of statistical
indicators tell us little about people’s ability to control their lives
within the context of the dramatic social and economic changes that lie
behind such statistics. They tell us little about self-determination.
They tell us little about disempowerment. And they tell us little about
why people might become increasingly discontent amidst rising average
levels of prosperity.

The underlying political and social tensions are obviously related to
the fact that Tibet—all of Tibet, not just the Tibet Autonomous
Region—is an occupied territory. Disputes of political history aside,
the Tibetan areas are ruled by non-Tibetans, and this rule has been
exercised through force rather than social consent, in the Maoist past
as in the present “New China.” This is a problem that will not
disappear, no matter how much Beijing continues to assert that Tibetans
are in fact Chinese (i.e. citizens of China).

However, recent trends have sharply exacerbated this fundamental source
of contention.

The first and most fundamental has been Beijing’s fast track strategy to
“develop” Tibet through the force of massive amounts of subsidies and
subsidized investments, the newly constructed railway being one such
example. These strategies have resulted in rapidly rising inequalities,
to a level much higher than that observed anywhere else in China, where
rising inequality is already a source of great concern. Rising
inequality is not only occurring between urban and rural areas, but also
within the urban areas themselves, dismissing facile arguments that
ethnic inequalities are merely a reflection of rural poverty.

The fact that subsidies and subsidized investments have been mostly
channeled through the vehicle of (Han) Chinese companies based outside
the Tibetan areas, or else through the government itself, results in an
economic structure that rewards a small upper crust of the society,
mostly based in the urban areas. This upper crust, which includes a
minority of Tibetans, advantages those who are well positioned to access
the flows of wealth passing through the region. I have likened this to
“boomerang aid,” with the result that such aid often decapitates the
agency of its intended beneficiary.

These strategies result in strong ethnic, cultural and even linguistic
biases with growth. Those who profit handsomely possess Chinese fluency,
good connections to economic and political centers in China Proper, and
thrive in Chinese work cultures. However, only about 15% of the Tibetan
population has some form of secondary education and thus some degree of
Chinese fluency, given that Chinese-medium education generally only
starts in secondary school. As a result, the remaining 85% are poorly
positioned to integrate into the urban economic boom.

The second oft-noted trend is a corollary of the first; the in-migration
of non-Tibetans (most Han Chinese) from elsewhere in China. The railway
has increased the number of these migrants, although this is primarily
due to subsidies, not the existence of the railway infrastructure
itself. These migrants are coming to Lhasa because they can make large
profits in the midst of the abnormal subsidy-induced economic bubble,
not because they can travel more comfortably to Lhasa. This trend has
been the focus of intense disputes, although they are purely an urban
phenomenon and their importance can only be understood in the context of
the larger economic policies.

The third trend has been the abandonment of most previously-existing
mechanisms to protect local labor in the context of such out-of-province
migrant inflows. This trend is particularly important because it affects
the upward aspirations of many relatively well educated urban Tibetan
youths. For instance, the government recently ended its policy of
guaranteeing employment for local high school and university graduates.
As elsewhere in China, the old system has been replaced with competitive
exams for the coveted posts of state-sector employment, although the
exams, as elsewhere in China, are in the Chinese language. As a result,
even relatively well educated Tibetans are easily out-competed by Han
Chinese migrants, even Han Chinese migrants from Chinese rural areas.

These policy changes therefore offer insight into why Tibetan youth in
particular might feel so disaffected by current growth. For instance, in
2006 there was a large demonstration of Tibetan university graduates in
Lhasa over the fact that out of 100 jobs that the government offered in
open competition, only two were given to ethnic Tibetans. The government
has generally responded to this situation by evoking a faith in the
power of “the market” that would probably embarrass even Milton Friedman.

The fourth trend has been the tightening of political control by the
government in response to rising tensions. This has especially been the
case in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan, where increasing nationalistic
agitation over the past several years has been a cause for alarm in both
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and Beijing. National and provincial
governments across Tibet have responded by replacing existing leaders
with more hard-line leaders and more repressive strategies of political

In this context of reaction and counter-reaction, what is utterly
unprecedented in the demonstrations of last week was their duration. The
fact that they turned violent on the fifth day in Lhasa appears to have
been a popular reaction to the severity of repression carried out by the
security forces during the previous four days of nonviolent protests.

What hope does the future hold? The international response has been
muted and there is little hope for more, particularly in light of the
fact that most governments around the world have recognized Tibet as
part of China, and thus an internal affair of China. Rather, resolution
must arise from within the seat of power—Beijing.

The crisis presents two possibilities. The Central Government can
continue its fast track assimilationist development strategies that
severely disadvantage, disempower and alienate the large majority of
Tibetans, including many elite Tibetans.

Or else, after a period of looking tough and saving face, the Central
Government might take the opportunity to critically introspect its
dominant strategy of the last 20 years. Having deemed this a failure for
the purpose of achieving harmony and stability, it might then turn to a
more culturally sensitive and preferential development strategy, one
that protects local Tibetan labor in the face of disadvantage and rapid
change, and one that would be coordinated with Tibetan-medium education

This is the core meaning of autonomy. Autonomy need not represent
anything threatening to Beijing. In fact, the already-existing minority
nationality laws of China could allow for many of the latter policies
without any change to the Chinese constitution or legal regime. For
instance, the existing laws could allow for the stipulation that
state-sector employees working in minority nationality areas must have a
degree of proficiency in the respective minority language. This would
immediately give a strong competitive advantage to local Tibetans over
non-Tibetan migrants and would also bolster support for a Tibetan-medium
education system. Such a strategy would go a long way toward addressing
many of the underlying grievances driving the current protests.

Indeed, some of these policies were permitted, tried and tested in parts
of Tibet during the early reform period in the 1980s. However, Tibetan
demonstrations and Tiananmen in 1989 brought an end to such experiments
and the return of hardliners and their assimilationist agenda, this time
under the guise of market socialism rather than Maoism.

Those who are cynical often suggest that Beijing has intentionally
designed its policies to marginalize Tibetans and to assimilate them
into the Motherland in a subordinated and even racist manner, perhaps in
much the same way that the U.S., Canada and Australia had dealt with
their own aboriginal populations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Perhaps, although some of us still carry hope that an element of
humanism might reside within the socialist garb of the Chinese Communist
Party. Or does the emperor really have no clothes?

Dr. Fischer, a fellow at the London School of Economics, is the author
of “State Growth and Social Exclusion in Tibet: Challenges of Recent
Economic Growth” (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, 2005).
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