Tibet’s two tracks
Region must embrace modernity while preserving unique traits
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.