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Rethinking China's Tibet Policy

March 23, 2009

Ben Hillman
Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus
March 21, 2009

Both official Chinese and exile Tibetan responses
to the protests that broke across Tibet last
month followed a familiar, worn-out script. For
the Tibetan exiles and their international
supporters, this was a last gasp for independence
by the victims of cultural genocide. For the
Chinese government this was premeditated mayhem
orchestrated by the "Dalai clique" and "criminal
elements" bent on splitting China. Both sides have it wrong.

Certainly, Tibetan exile flags and "free Tibet"
slogans were features of Tibet's biggest and most
violent protests in decades, but it is simplistic
to see the widespread discontent on the Tibet
Plateau as a bid for freedom by an oppressed
people. Protests in Lhasa began with Tibetan
monks using the anniversary of the Dalai Lama's
flight into exile (March 10, 1959) to peacefully
demonstrate against tight religious controls,
including patriotic education campaigns and
forced denunciations of the Dalai Lama, but they
were soon joined by ordinary Tibetans who used
violence against non-Tibetans and their property.
Victims included Muslim traders as well as Han Chinese.

Tibetan monks in Dharamsala, India pray for
demonstrators in Tibet, March 18, 2008

As an initial media blackout turned into a media
avalanche focused on the violence, many Chinese
became confused and angry. Some enraged Chinese
bloggers demanded Tibetan blood in return, but
most Chinese were simply baffled by what they saw
as Tibetan ingratitude for years of central
government financial transfers that have resulted
in rapid growth in the region's economy and a surge in incomes.

Indeed, state transfers to Tibetan areas in
recent years have been astronomical in proportion
to the size of the local economy. Before
completing the world's highest railway in 2006,
China announced 180 other major infrastructure
projects for the Tibet Autonomous Region worth
77.8 billion yuan (around $10.2 billion) to be
constructed during 2006-10. The scale of these
investments becomes apparent when measured
against the TAR'S GDP, which was 29.1 billion
yuan in 2006. In fact, state subsidies account for around 75% of the TAR'S GDP.

Giant injections of state capital in major
infrastructure projects have been driving growth
in Tibet in recent years, with GDP rising an
average of 12% per annum since the launch of
China's Western Development Scheme in 2000.

This plan is to expand infrastructure (and
markets) to redress growth imbalances between
China's eastern seaboard and the impoverished
hinterland, including Tibet. In 2007, the TAR'S
GDP grew at a staggering 14% over the previous
year. Reportedly, incomes have been rising, too,
with double-digit growth recorded in household
incomes for both rural and urban residents.

Qinghai-Tibet railroad

Because of the rosy picture painted by official
statistics and the state media, most Chinese are
unaware that Tibetans have been among the big
losers in the course of China's economic miracle,
and that within Tibetan areas (both the Tibet
Autonomous Region and Tibetan autonomous
prefectures in the neighboring provinces of
Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan), the pace of
economic modernization has polarized Tibet's
economy. While a minority of Tibetans have been
rewarded with state jobs, the majority of
Tibetans, who are poorly equipped to access new
economic opportunities, have been marginalized.

Tibetan farmers ploughing with yaks

Tibetans are mostly subsistence farmers and
herders. They make a living in an upland rural
economy that is much less diversified than other
parts of rural China. Further gains in the
productivity of staple crops are unlikely without
major technological innovation. The already
fragile mountain ecosystem is under further
pressure from a population that has doubled since
the 1950s. [1] In response to these pressures,
the state has imposed tough new environmental
laws restricting traditional practices such as
grazing, hunting and, for a time, logging, all
cutting sharply into Tibetan incomes.

Despite the boom in investment, most Tibetans
have very limited access to off-farm employment.
Unlike China's eastern regions, surplus
low-skilled rural labor is not readily absorbed
by secondary industry. Distance and isolation
make landlocked Tibetan areas a poor choice for
the industrial activity that has been the engine
of growth in other parts of rural China. This is
true not just for the Tibet Autonomous Region,
but for much of China's western hinterland,
including areas populated by Tibetans.

Most of the off-farm employment opportunities
created by the boom in state investment are
concentrated in the service sector (e.g.
administration and tourism) in addition to
construction. This has attracted large numbers of
economic migrants, who are increasingly free to
travel under China's liberalized labor migration
policies. Economic migrants to the cities include
Tibetans from rural Tibet, but most are Han
Chinese migrants from other provinces.

Most Han Chinese migrants stay only for a few
years, save money and return home, but since the
1990s there has been a constant stream of new
arrivals. In Lhasa the non-Tibetan population now
outnumbers the Tibetan population. Even Tibetan
employers in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas
admitted to me that they hire non-Tibetans
because they are more skilled and more willing to
work regular hours for a wage. Many Han Chinese
have worked in other Chinese towns before trying
their luck in Tibet's booming urban areas.

So while there is no state-sponsored migration of
non-Tibetans to dilute Tibetan culture as Tibetan
exiles sometimes claim (more than 80% of Tibetans
live in rural areas that have attracted almost no
non-Tibetan migration), increasing numbers of Han
Chinese are out-competing Tibetans in urban labor
markets. Not surprisingly, unemployed rural
Tibetan migrants are reported to have been behind
some of the worst violence of the protests.

New air and rail links to Tibetan areas have made
possible explosive growth in tourism, but even
when this tourism is largely based on growing
interest in Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism.
[2] it has not necessarily translated into
opportunities for Tibetans. In one large hotel in
an ethnically Tibetan area outside the TAR, hotel
managers reported that over 90% of their staff
were non-Tibetans recruited from other areas.
When I asked for an explanation, the managers
cited Tibetans' dearth of skills, lack of
experience in working fixed hours, and a cultural
disposition not inclined to obediently comply
with hotel guests' wishes. Even in the
housekeeping department, more than 80% of staff
was hired from outside the Tibetan autonomous prefecture.

In a more striking example of how the boom in
tourism is bypassing Tibetans, when I visited
Lhasa's Potala Palace a few years ago, I was
surprised to find a young Han Chinese man dressed
in Tibetan costume selling tickets. When I
queried him, he laughed and said, "tourists don't
know the difference anyway." In some places
'Tibetan' song and dance troupes sometimes
consist of non-Tibetan performers. Tourists
mightn't know the difference, but Tibetans do,
and daily experiences like these are sources of a deep and growing resentment.

Potala Palace

The reasons why Tibetans are being left behind by
the rapid pace of economic development are
complex, and do include cultural and language
differences. Non-Tibetans have access to wider
networks, capital and better information. But
there is no systematic discrimination of Tibetans
by employers-in fact Tibetans are accorded
preferential treatment in state jobs. [3] The
labor market, however, operates according to
market principles and the most skilled people are
getting the jobs regardless of ethnicity. My
frequent contact with service industry leaders in
Tibetan areas indicates that local employers
(Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike) would happily
hire Tibetans if they could do the job.
Unfortunately, most Tibetans, especially rural
Tibetans, simply do not meet employers' needs.

A central problem is the high rate of illiteracy
among Tibetans. While rates vary between the TAR
and other Tibetan prefectures, and between urban
and rural areas, ethnic Tibetans remain among the
most illiterate in China. While enrolments have
been rising, only a small minority of the total
Tibetan population has some degree of secondary
education. The national curriculum is highly
academic, demands strong Chinese literacy, and is
poorly adapted to rural and regional labor market
needs. High school drop-out rates reflect the
grim reality that investment in education is not
rewarded by jobs, except for a tiny elite that
are clever enough to continue to university and
state jobs. More than 40% of Tibetans have no
formal schooling at all, compared with China's national average of 8%. [4]

Tibetan school children at Jiangjia. School reconstructed with Finnish funds

State investment in primary education has
increased since 2000, triggering an increase in
literacy. But investments in rural education
primarily target school construction and wages.
The quality of teaching remains poor, as the most
capable teachers are reluctant to accept jobs in
remote posts. Despite accusations to the
contrary, the Chinese government has made
increasing efforts to sponsor bilingual
education, but this too is a double-edged sword.
In many Tibetan primary schools Tibetan is used
as the medium of education in the first few
years. But because Chinese literacy requires a
huge investment in time, students need to switch
to Chinese early to have a chance of competing
with other Chinese students in higher level
entrance exams. Many Tibetans simply never catch up.

The situation is slightly better in urban areas
where there are more and better-quality schools
and where more Tibetans speak Chinese. In Lhasa
many educated Tibetans choose to send their
children to Chinese medium primary schools not
only because it provides an edge in Chinese
language instruction, but also because students
at these schools take English as a second
language. At the Tibetan medium schools, second
language studies are devoted to Chinese. Some
have suggested that bilingual policy be extended
to require that non-Tibetans in Tibet learn
Tibetan before being recruited to state jobs.
However, there has been little progress in this
direction. It should be noted, too, that outside
of Tibet's monasteries and an urban elite, levels
of Tibetan literacy among Tibetans can be as low
as, or lower than, levels of Chinese illiteracy.

Perhaps the biggest current challenge for
education policy and investment in Tibet is the
lack of access to vocational training -- the kind
of training that will allow Tibetans to compete
with migrants from the east in construction,
tailoring, food preparation and a host of other
jobs in the dynamic service sector. The
underinvestment in vocational training is evident
in China's official statistics. While the Chinese
government spends twice the national average per
capita on education in the TAR, and
teacher-student ratios are comparable to those
elsewhere, there are half as many secondary
schools per capita and only one quarter of the
national average of vocational training schools.
While there are variations across Tibetan
prefectures outside of the TAR, opportunities for
vocational training outside of major cities are
similarly low or non-existent. [5]

As migrants move in to take advantage of the
state-led boom, illiterate and semiliterate
Tibetans with few skills suited to off-farm labor
become marginalized in their own economy. This is
not just a Tibetan problem. Across China
inequality is closely linked to skills
differentials, as wage increases among highly
skilled workers outstrips increases among lower
skilled workers. China's Gini coefficient -- a
measure of income inequality where "zero" is
perfect equality and "one" is perfect inequality
-- stands at 0.47 making China the most unequal
country in Asia after Nepal. The figures reflect
not only differences between skilled and
unskilled workers but also between workers and
farmers, and between rapidly developing coastal
areas and poorer inland regions. This is a
profound departure from the situation in the
1970s, when China was among the most equal
countries in the world. Rising inequality overall
has leveled off somewhat in recent years, but it remains at high levels.

While recent evidence suggests that
inter-regional inequality may be narrowing,
inequality is increasing within many regions,
especially between urban and rural households.
According to Chinese statistics, urban incomes in
the TAR are up to five times higher than rural
incomes. Several researchers within China and
abroad studying Tibet's economic development over
the past few years have observed with alarm the
increased polarization. In 2003 I cofounded the
Eastern Tibet Training Institute, a vocational
training center in an ethnically Tibetan region
in northwest Yunnan province. The training center
provides job skills training for impoverished
youth from the countryside. By designing courses
in consultation with local employers and industry
groups, the institute's success rate for
graduates finding wage employment has been above
90% during four years of operations. It confirms
anecdotal evidence from local employers that
Tibetans and other minorities can get jobs if they have the right skills.

Tibetan artisan at work

While the Eastern Tibet Training Institute is
small, its founders hope it can serve as a model
for the sorts of education policies needed to
achieve inclusive economic development in Tibet
and other parts of west China. The institute has
received strong encouragement from local
state-linked bodies such as the Federation of
Commerce and Industry, and it offers a model for
fruitful vocational training. But until the
Chinese government itself puts serious resources
behind vocational training, the impact of the few
available programs will be severely limited.
Central government policies already call for more
vocational training, but only limited resources
are allocated to it, especially in rural areas,
and local governments are not given incentives to
invest in it over the long term.

Crafts produced at the Eastern Tibet Training Institute

Even granting Tibetans the opportunities that
exist elsewhere is probably not enough. China
does have affirmative action policies for
minority nationalities, which afford these groups
preferential access to education and state jobs,
but it is insufficient. Because Tibetans have
already fallen so far behind, only vigorous
affirmative action can help them catch up. To
reduce inequality, secure livelihoods and prevent
future unrest, Tibet should have four times the
number of vocational schools as the rest of
China, not the present situation of only one
quarter the national average. This demands a
redesign of development strategies to focus more
on people, rather than infrastructure.

China's policy makers have failed to appreciate
the importance of investing in people as part of
the Western Development Strategy. Their approach
has been to expand markets and to encourage more
"advanced" migrants to lead the way. The policy
assumption is that once Chinese migrants from
central and eastern provinces will move into new
markets, open small businesses, work on building
sites, drive taxis (most taxi drivers in Lhasa
are non-Tibetan), Tibetans will watch and
eventually copy them. That approach is not working.

China's leaders need policies that foster
Tibetans participation in e conomic development,
including assistance to Tibetan enterprise and
targeted vocational training for Tibetans. There
is a potential role for international NGOs here,
but because of the internationalization and
politicization of the Tibet issue and the broad
sympathy the free Tibet movement enjoys in the
West, Chinese leaders are highly suspicious of
foreign activities in Tibet. In recent years,
there have been increasing restrictions on
international NGO operations in Tibetan areas.

China's leaders desperately need to take a fresh
approach to Tibet, and acknowledge that unequal
development is an underlying cause of social and
political tension. This could serve to
depoliticize the Tibet problem, and refocus the
debate on practical solutions. While the recent
protests have exposed policy failures in Tibetan
areas, there is as yet little sign that these
protests will trigger a significant change in
China's Tibet policy. Since the last major
protests in March 1989, the policy has been
carrot and stick-state investment for development
on the one hand, and zero tolerance of dissent on
the other. As I returned from Tibetan areas at
the end of March, Chinese authorities were
emphasizing the second prong of this policy.
Armed police reinforcements were sent to all
ethnically Tibetan areas, including those free of
protest. At the same time, the official media
went on a publicity offensive, attempting to
convince the world that Tibetan rioters were nothing but violent criminals.

This publicity blitz included more than the usual
heated vitriol against the Dalai Lama, who
Beijing accused of orchestrating the mayhem in
order to split China. The approach worked well in
China where the ethnic nationalist propaganda was
unforgiving, and the majority of the Chinese
population rallied behind their government. But
the approach backfired on the international
stage. In late March, foreign journalists taken
to Lhasa to inspect the carnage were mobbed by
monks crying and begging for recognition of their
grievances. Nevertheless the Chinese leadership
seems intent on hiding its policy failures behind
nationalistic propaganda. The nationalist card is
played to foster internal unity among Han
Chinese, but it also fosters ethnic hatred. If
Chinese policy makers and media coverage continue
to treat Tibetan protests as seditious acts by
violent criminals, and if they fail to understand
its roots in deepening Tibetan-Han inequality, it
will only serve to fuel the growing resentment of
ethnic Tibetans toward Han Chinese and of Han
Chinese toward ethnic Tibetans. China must also
end its policy of demonizing the Dalai Lama. How
will Tibetans ever feel at home in a country that
brands their most revered religious figure an outlaw?

Recently, a group of public intellectuals led by
Beijing-based writer Wang Lixiong circulated a
petition urging national authorities to engage
with the Dalai Lama and to take a more open
approach to policy deliberations on Tibet.
Referring to the recent protests, the petition
states, "In order to prevent similar incidents
from occurring in the future, the government must
abide by the freedom of religious belief and the
freedom of speech explicitly enshrined in the
Chinese Constitution, thereby allowing the
Tibetan people to fully express their grievances
and hopes and permitting citizens of all
nationalities to freely criticize and make
suggestions regarding the government's
nationality policies." This is a promising
impetus for a fresh approach to Tibet policy.
Nothing like this could have appeared in the
public domain following the last Tibetan protests of 1989.

Ben Hillman is a lecturer at the Australian
National University's Crawford School of
Economics and Government and chair of the Eastern
Tibet Training Institute. Readers interested in
supporting vocational education for rural youth
in China's western provinces can contact him at or visit the ETTI website <> .

This is a revised and expanded version of an
article entitled "Money Can't Buy Tibetans' Love"
that appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review 4 April 2008.


[1] Family planning policies since the 1980s have
not been applied as strictly in Tibetan and other
ethnic minority areas as they have been in majority Han Chinese areas.

[2] Han Chinese patrons are an important and
growing source of financial support for Tibetan
Buddhist temples and sacred sites. For more
detail on the growing interest in Tibetan culture
among Han Chinese, see Ben Hillman and Lee-Anne
Henfry, "Macho Minority: masculinity and
ethnicity on the edge of Tibet", Modern China
(32) April, 2006, 251-272. Since the protests,
Tibetan areas have clearly fallen out of favor
with Chinese tourists. Tour operators in Diqing
Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province
report that arrivals in May, one of the busiest
times of the year, are only one third what they were one year ago.

[3] In Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in
Yunnan Province, law requires senior heads of
local government to be ethnic Tibetans, and while
it is an unwritten rule, local officials
acknowledge that heads of major government
agencies are mostly reserved for Tibetans.

[4] For these and other comparative education
statistics in China, see the Chinese government's
official statistics web site,

[5] Andrew Fischer has done the most detailed
analysis of socioeconomic indicators based on
China's official statistics to assess the degree
of marginalization. See State Growth and Social
Exclusion in Tibet: Challenges of Recent Economic Growth, NIAS Press, 2005.

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