Ti­bet’s two tracks

Re­gion must em­brace moder­nity while pre­serv­ing unique traits

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By ANDREW MOODY in Lhasa an­drew­moody@chi­nadaily.com.cn Zhang Zhao­qing, Zheng Jin­qiang and Wang Keju con­trib­uted to this story.

With the high­est al­ti­tude on Earth and moun­tain­ous ter­rain mak­ing all but sub­sis­tence farm­ing im­pos­si­ble, the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion has of­fered the great­est chal­lenge for the de­vel­op­ment model that has de­liv­ered spec­tac­u­lar re­sults for the rest of China over the past 35 years.

Re­mote, with lit­tle ac­cess to mod­ern in­fra­struc­ture and hav­ing a rel­a­tively small pop­u­la­tion of just 3 mil­lion, it was never go­ing to be a part of the Made-in-China man­u­fac­tur­ing suc­cess story.

Based on de­vel­op­ing new sec­tors such as hy­dropower, agribusi­nesses and, in par­tic­u­lar, tourism; and also ben­e­fit­ing from both the gov­ern­ment’s strat­egy to de­velop west­ern re­gions as well as the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, the re­gion’s eco­nomic for­tunes are, how­ever, chang­ing.

In the first half of this year — along with Chongqing, China’s west­ern in­dus­trial pow­er­house city — Ti­bet was the coun­try’s fastest grow­ing area with GDP ris­ing at 10.6 per­cent, nearly 4 per­cent­age points ahead of the na­tional rate of 6.7 per­cent.

One of the most tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits has been the 83 bil­lion yuan ($13 bil­lion) in­vest­ment poured into trans­port in­fra­struc­ture over the past 20 years.

This in­cludes the 2,000-kilo­me­ter Qing­hai-Ti­bet rail­way, which opened in 2006 and is the world’s high­est al­ti­tude rail route that links Ti­bet with its neigh­bor­ing prov­ince. This is to be ex­tended a fur­ther 540 km to the bor­der ar­eas of Nepal by 2020.

Work has also al­ready be­gun on the even more spec­tac­u­lar 1,629-km Sichuan-Ti­bet rail­way that will link Chengdu and Lhasa and of which 1,000 km will be in Ti­bet it­self. It is ex­pected to be com­pleted in the early 2030s.

Mean­while, there has been a ma­jor ex­ten­sion of the road net­work, en­sur­ing that many of Ti­bet’s most re­mote ar­eas will have some ac­cess to the main high­ways.

The need for con­nec­tiv­ity as well as other chal­lenges fac­ing the re­gion were the fo­cus at the re­cent Fo­rum on the De­vel­op­ment of Ti­bet in Lhasa.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of academia, think tanks and the me­dia from more than 30 coun­tries en­gaged in two days of de­bate at the In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Lhasa Par­adise Ho­tel.

Jim Stoop­man, pro­gram co­or­dina- tor at the Brus­sels-based Euro­pean In­sti­tute for Asian Stud­ies, who was a par­tic­i­pant in the fo­rum, said bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture is a vi­tal is­sue.

“This is of cru­cial im­por­tance. En­hanced con­nec­tiv­ity in Ti­bet is al­ready vis­i­bly de­creas­ing the travel time be­tween re­mote vil­lages and the ma­jor pop­u­la­tion cen­ters,” he said.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive winds its way through Ti­bet. The north­west is con­nected with the Silk Road Eco­nomic Belt and in the south, the 21st Cen­tury Mar­itime Silk Road, aim­ing to in­crease greater com­mer­cial links with its South Asian neigh­bors, in­clud­ing Nepal, Pak­istan and In­dia.

“The Belt and Road project brings clear ben­e­fits to ur­ban ar­eas,” added Stoop­man.

“The chal­lenge for Ti­bet, just like other re­gions along its path, is to en­sure that en­hanced con­nec­tiv­ity spills over and ben­e­fits ru­ral ar­eas.”

Although the ma­jor trade op­por­tu­ni­ties for Ti­bet are likely to be in South Asia, trans­port links open up the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­port­ing goods to Europe.

A freight train left Qing­hai for Brus­sels on Sept 8 car­ry­ing 44 con­tain­ers with prod­ucts like Ti­betan ta­pes­tries and goji berries. It was the first train from the Ti­betan plateau (although out­side the au­ton­o­mous re­gion it­self ) to Europe and the 12-day jour­ney took in Kaza­khstan, Rus­sia and Poland.

Gang Ji, part­ner at Roland Berger Greater China who is based in Shang­hai, said in­fra­struc­ture is the cat­a­lyst for Ti­bet to up­grade its econ­omy.

“Find­ing new mar­kets is im­por­tant for Ti­bet since its own do­mes­tic mar­ket is quite lim­ited be­cause the pop­u­la­tion is small and rel­a­tively poor,” he said.

“It needs not just to sell raw ma­te­ri­als but fin­ished goods through food pro­cess­ing or de­vel­op­ing agribusi­nesses and bet­ter trans­port is vi­tal to that. The Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive should en­able it to ex­ploit its unique nat­u­ral re­sources.”

One of the cen­tral is­sues is whether there is an in­evitable con­flict be­tween the fast pace of some of the re­cent eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and pre­serv­ing tra­di­tional Ti­betan cul­ture.

So­nia Bressler, the French writer and au­thor of three books on Ti­bet in­clud­ing Voy­age au Coeur du Ti­bet ( Jour­ney to the Heart of Ti­bet), who spoke at the fo­rum, says this is an is­sue that ab­sorbs West­ern­ers more than it does Ti­betan peo­ple.

“For cen­turies, we have placed Ti­bet in a per­fect bub­ble. It has be­come a myth­i­cal place where we can come and recharge our bat­ter­ies. As West­ern­ers, we al­ways see de­vel­op­ment with an evil eye claim­ing that it will de­stroy Ti­betan cul­ture,” she said.

“We have to ask our­selves, what ex­actly is Ti­betan cul­ture? Is it only Bud­dhism? Is it no­madism? In Ti­bet, there are many eth­nic groups, in­clud­ing Zang, Nu and Du­long, as well as other re­li­gions such as mus­lim and it has been this way for cen­turies.”

Bressler, who has trav­eled ex­ten­sively in re­mote ar­eas of the au­ton­o­mous re­gion and lived among lo­cal peo­ple in aus­tere con­di­tions, said Ti­betan peo­ple want to live a mod­ern life like any­one else.

“Ac­cess to wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and ed­u­ca­tion is what we re­gard in West­ern so­ci­ety as es­sen­tial. Why should it be dif­fer­ent in Ti­bet? ”

Al­bert Et­tinger, a Lux­em­bourg­based Ti­bet his­to­rian who also spoke at the fo­rum, said there is a lot of myths about Ti­bet.

He be­lieves the im­age of it be­ing a Shangri-la par­adise was in­spired by the 1933 novel Lost Hori­zon by Bri­tish nov­el­ist James Hil­ton.

“He never ac­tu­ally went to Ti­bet. In the 1950s. It was a feu­dal and very un­equal so­ci­ety, rid­den like In­dia to some ex­tent with a com­plex caste sys­tems.

“There were nine cat­e­gories (sta­tus lev­els) of peo­ple. If you were some­one of high stand­ing and you killed some­one of lower stand­ing, the worst pun­ish­ment you would have would be to pay some repa­ra­tion. If you were of lower stand­ing and stole some­thing from some­one higher up, you would have your hand am­pu­tated. Hav­ing your eyes gouged out was also a nor­mal pun­ish­ment.”

The au­ton­o­mous re­gion still has ma­jor chal­lenges. Some 700,000 of its cit­i­zens still live in ab­so­lute poverty on less than 2,300 yuan ($345) a year.

With­out sup­port from Bei­jing its econ­omy would col­lapse. Over the past 35 years, 90 per­cent of its fis­cal ex­pen­di­ture has been met by cen­tral gov­ern­ment.

“In many years, sup­port from the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has sur­passed the au­ton­o­mous re­gion’s ac­tual GDP,” said Yang Tao, se­nior re­searcher in the Re­search In­sti­tute of So­ci­ety and Economics at China Ti­betol­ogy Re­search Cen­ter in Bei­jing.

“Last year, aid from cen­tral gov­ern­ment was nearly 100 bil­lion yuan, ex­ceed­ing the to­tal out­put of the econ­omy. The fi­nan­cial sup­port goes into two main ar­eas, in­fra­struc­ture and im­prov­ing peo­ple’s liveli­hoods. So not much of it goes into eco­nomic pro­duc­tion and the ef­fi­ciency of it is not as high as one might ex­pect.”

This level of cen­tral gov­ern­ment sup­port has meant it has been able to pur­sue a dif­fer­ent de­vel­op­ment model from the rest of China, which re­lied on agri­cul­ture first and then built a man­u­fac­tur­ing base.

“Ti­bet can­not de­velop from an agri­cul­tural into an in­dus­trial so­ci­ety be­cause it lacks peo­ple and, in par­tic­u­lar, peo­ple with tech­ni­cal skills.

It also has high trans­porta­tion costs be­cause of its re­mote­ness. Man­u­fac­tur­ing re­lies heav­ily on raw ma­te­ri­als and the trans­porta­tion of raw ma­te­ri­als is very costly,” adds Yang.

“It does not need to fol­low the eco­nomic the­ory of trans­form­ing from agri­cul­ture to man­u­fac­tur­ing and then to ter­tiary in­dus­tries. It can move di­rectly from ba­sic agri­cul­ture to de­vel­op­ing tourism.”

Rob­bie Bar­nett, di­rec­tor of the Mod­ern Ti­bet Stud­ies Pro­gram at Weather­head East Asia In­sti­tute at Columbia Univer­sity, be­lieves what the au­ton­o­mous re­gion needs is more peo­ple-cen­tered de­vel­op­ment.

“I think we need to look se­ri­ously at other mod­els apart from the GDP growth model,” he said.

“You get this huge fo­cus on ma­te­ri­al­is­tic re­sults. It is all about num­bers, what is be­ing built and other quan­ti­ta­tive achieve­ments. You need to look more at who is ben­e­fit­ing from the eco­nomic shift, what kind of eco­nomic change peo­ple want and at what pace it should be.”

Andrew Fis­cher, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of so­cial pol­icy and de­vel­op­ment stud­ies at the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of So­cial Stud­ies at Eras­mus Univer­sity Rot­ter­dam, said one of the chal­lenges for Ti­bet’s de­vel­op­ment is that if peo­ple want to get out of mainly sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture, they have no choice but to move to the cities.

“The prob­lem is that when you move out of agri­cul­ture, there is not a lot to do in ru­ral ar­eas. Un­like in neigh­bor­ing Sichuan or in Xin­jiang, there are not a lot of eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties in ru­ral ar­eas. As a re­sult, the de­vel­op­ment model of Ti­bet has been much more ur­ban­iza­tion-fo­cused.”


Qing­hai-Ti­bet rail­way opened in 2006 and is the world’s high­est al­ti­tude rail route that links Ti­bet with its neigh­bor­ing prov­ince. It will be ex­tended to the bor­der ar­eas of Nepal by 2020.

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