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Tibet: Pilgrims and progress

February 5, 2010

It is still repression, not development, that keeps Tibet stable
The Economist (UK)
February 4, 2010

LHASA AND SHIGATSE -- ON THE corner of Ramoche
Temple Road, a bustling alley where the ethnic
violence that engulfed Lhasa nearly two years ago
first broke out, finishing touches are being put
to a fried-chicken fast-food restaurant.
Opposite, a newly opened second-floor café offers
coffee, sandwiches and well-cushioned seating. On
the street below, five helmeted riot police --
one of them with a rifle -- stand rigid and
vigilant. Hard as it tries to look normal, Lhasa cannot quite pull it off.

The fried-chicken outlet, called Dico’s, is on
the site of a building stoned and ransacked by
Tibetan rioters on March 14th 2008. Almost every
shop along Beijing East Road, into which the
alley leads, was torn apart that day. Some were
burned. The contents of most were piled up in
bonfires on the street. Their Han Chinese owners
fled the scene, but 18 died in the conflagration
or from physical assaults. Hundreds of businesses
were badly damaged by the Tibetans. The
government said losses amounted to 280m yuan
($41m). An unknown number of Tibetans were
killed, too—most of them elsewhere, as protests
and riots flared across the plateau.

The authorities are now trying to lure business
and visitors back to Lhasa. But they clearly fear
that without the scattered groups of (Han
Chinese) riot police, and occasional patrols
through the city by armoured riot-control
vehicles, mayhem could break out again. Riot
police with guns are also stationed on balconies
and rooftops overlooking Ramoche temple and the
nearby Jokhang temple. These are the holiest
shrines of Tibetan Buddhism in Lhasa, and
flashpoints for its periodic outbreaks of
anti-government protest and racial violence. Sera
monastery, 3km (2 miles) north of Lhasa, crawls with police.

The authorities’ decision to allow this
correspondent a rare visit to Lhasa was part of
their attempt to display a bit more confidence.
So too was their decision to hold talks with
representatives of the Dalai Lama at the end of
January, the first since November 2008. It was
noteworthy that China agreed to talk at all,
given its furious denunciation of the Dalai Lama
team’s position at the previous round. But the
talks concluded with little sign of compromise by
either side. The political mood in Beijing has
turned increasingly hostile in recent months both
to dissent at home and to foreign pressure.
Shortly after the Dalai Lama’s envoys arrived in
Beijing, a senior official in Lhasa gave The
Economist an earful about the "splittist"
behaviour of Tibet’s spiritual leader.

Hundreds of Tibetans, many of them Buddhist monks
and nuns, are believed to remain in custody after
a draconian crackdown on dissent in response to
the unrest. There have been persistent reports of
torture. Officials have tightened control over
monasteries. Hundreds of monks staying
temporarily at Lhasa’s big three lamaseries (as
many are wont to do in order to further their
studies) have been sent back to their home
regions, leaving behind only those officially
classed as permanent residents. A senior lama at
Sera says 500 monks are staying there now. A
Chinese press report last year suggested there
might have been at least twice as many when the
riots broke out. "Patriotic education" of monks
-- including denunciations of the Dalai Lama --
has been stepped up. This year the government
plans to complete a drive to ensure that every
monk and nun in Tibet is officially registered.
China’s bureaucrats are past masters at keeping
files on people to control them.

But the authorities also hope to win hearts and
minds. January 18th saw China’s first large
agenda-setting meeting on Tibet since 2001, a
year before China’s president and party chief, Hu
Jintao (a former party secretary in Tibet), came
to power. The “Tibet Work Conference” predictably
called for efforts to combat “penetration and
sabotage” by Tibetan separatists. But it also
stressed the importance of "leapfrog development"
in Tibet, a goal also raised at the last such
meeting, and dwelt on the need to raise rural incomes.

The streets of Lhasa reveal why the countryside
matters for stability in Tibet. Dark-faced rural
residents throng around the Jokhang at this time
of year (the winter slack season), prostrating
themselves before it. Visitors from the
countryside are thought to have played a big role
in the riots of March 2008. In cities such as
Beijing and Shanghai migrant rural workers
sometimes protest over conditions but have little
to do with urban political dissent. In Tibet the
unifying power of religion and reverence for the
Dalai Lama give urban and rural Tibetans strong common cause.

Chinese officials have long been fretting about
the backwardness of the Tibetan countryside. Two
years before the riots they launched what they
call a “comfortable-housing project” in rural
areas. These are home to some 80% of the Tibetans
who live in the Tibet Autonomous Region (more
than half of China’s Tibetans live in
neighbouring provinces). The project has been a
huge undertaking. Late last year the government
said it had completed, a year early, its target
of building or refurbishing 230,000 houses by the
end of 2010. The programme is due to be completed
this year with the rehousing of another 40,000
rural families. By then the scheme will have
covered 70% of households, at a direct cost to
the government of nearly $500m, or as much as its
total planned spending on Tibet’s rural areas in 2010.

The impact of this is already obvious. Newly
built (or rebuilt) settlements are common along
the 300km (185-mile) road between Lhasa and
Tibet’s second-biggest city, Shigatse, to the
west. Multicoloured Tibetan prayer-flags flutter
above the houses, sometimes bunched together with
China’s red national flag. Near Shigatse,
officials display the new two-storey home of a
peasant, Bianba Tsering, who describes the
benefits showered upon him by local authorities
in the past five years: money to start a chicken
farm, land to start a brickmaking business, wood
to build his house (a few hundred metres from his
water-deprived old one). Portraits of China’s
leaders from Mao Zedong to President Hu adorn the wall of his living room.

Not all peasants, as the unrest showed, are as
happy as Bianba Tsering. As one of its members,
he enjoys the favour of the party, which has
trouble recruiting in rural Tibet because of its
insistence on atheism. Often the rehousing
project has involved moving people only short
distances, and providing better supplies of water
and electricity. But it also affected nomads. The
government says settling them in fixed abodes
helps preserve overgrazed grassland and makes it
easier to provide education and health care.
Critics allege that nomads have often been given
no choice. Robbie Barnett, of Columbia University
in New York, says that in Tibetan areas of other
provinces officials have been "especially severe" in forcing nomads to settle.

Nomadic no more

Lhasa Evening News, an official newspaper,
reported in December that 37,161 houses had been
built for nomads in Tibet by October, or 92% of
the official target. Construction was supposed to
be finished by the end of the year, it said.
Activists say an ancient way of life risks being
wiped out. But the government believes that
grouping rural dwellers together will help them
pool resources and lead to better incomes, even
though those affected, except the poorest, have
to pay some of the money for the new houses
themselves (helped by subsidised loans). In 2006
Tibet’s party chief, Zhang Qingli, said the
comfortable-housing programme and job creation in
the countryside were an essential foundation for
keeping "the upper hand in our struggle with the Dalai clique."

Figures alone might suggest that Mr Zhang (a
hardline Han Chinese) is making headway. Rural
incomes have been rising fast -- last year by
13%, the seventh successive year of double-digit
growth. But they were still only 70% of the
national rural average per person (5,000 yuan, or
$730). President Hu said at the Tibet Work
Conference that Tibet should strive to catch up
with the national average by 2020. Officials
admit this could be tough. Some of this
rural-income growth has been generated by the
spate of housing construction (Bianba Tsering’s
brickmaking business has been an obvious
beneficiary). This is coming to an end.

Road- and railway-building has been a help too.
Tibet’s infrastructure has been improving fast. A
Nepali businessman says that shoes he transports
by lorry used to take three days to reach the
border with Nepal. Now it takes a day-and-a-half,
thanks to an upgrade of the Friendship Highway,
as the China-Nepal road is called, at a cost of
hundreds of millions of dollars. Tibet’s first
rail link with inland China, opened in 2006, is
blamed by many Tibetans for a surge of migration
to Tibet by ethnic Han Chinese, an influx that
helped trigger the unrest two years ago. By 2012,
says a senior official in Lhasa, it will be extended to Shigatse.

But unlike the rest of China, where a
manufacturing boom in recent years has been the
biggest engine of rural-income growth as poor
farmers flock to the factories, Tibet has little
in the way of labour-intensive industry. Nearly
ten years after its launch, the Lhasa Economic
and Technological Development Zone is still a
mostly desolate expanse on the edge of the city.
A senior manager at Lhasa Brewery, a joint
venture with Carlsberg, a Danish brewer, says his
company might be the biggest industrial employer
in the city. It has a mere 240 workers (70% of
them Tibetans, an official proudly boasts). The
brewery is planning to open another plant in the
development zone this year, but it will be more
automated. Almost all of the beer is consumed in
Tibet. The region is much too far from affluent
markets, and still too ill-connected, for most
manufacturing businesses to think of setting up there.

There is still tourism from elsewhere in China,
rapidly picking up again after a slump in 2008
(foreigners are kept on a tight leash lest they
foment unrest). Last year tourism provided 42,000
jobs for rural Tibetans, compared with fewer than
35,000 in 2007, according to official figures.
Service industries produce more than half of
Tibet’s GDP and Han Chinese are likely to be the
biggest beneficiaries of the growth. Despite the
destruction of Han businesses in 2008, many if
not most of the city’s shops, even in the old
Tibetan quarter around the Jokhang, are run by
Han Chinese. One Han grocery shop owner says he
is glad there are still riot police stationed
around the area because there would be no time to
call the police if there were more unrest.

Another technique the government is adopting to
make rural citizens happier is to give them big
discounts on household electrical appliances. A
similar scheme was spread nationwide last year,
but in Tibet peasants enjoy subsidies of 20%
compared with 13% for the rest of the country. At
a white-goods shop in Lhasa, a manager predicts
Tibetan farmers will soon be snapping up
discounted freezers. This is because the shop is
about to apply the subsidy to a supersized model
“that could accommodate an entire yak”.

Let them eat yak

It will take a lot more than a handy supply of
frozen yak-meat, however, to keep Tibet stable.
In public, at any rate, officials have yet to
undertake any critical re-examination of how
their policies went wrong in 2008. China’s
official news agency, in its report on the Tibet
Work Conference, described these policies as
“totally correct”. An official in Lhasa professes
the belief that foreign analysts are quite
mistaken to think that the unrest might have been
fuelled by the economic marginalisation of
Tibetans amid an influx of Hans. Rather, it was
the "Dalai clique" that used a "very small group
of people" to mislead the public into rioting.
Unwilling to acknowledge the depth of Tibetan
resentment, China looks doomed to repeat its mistakes.
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