Telling the truth about Tibet

Construction cranes, it has been said, are the new national bird of China – and Tibet certainly has its share. Economic development also conceals what is happening under the surface.

December 1, 2005
10 min read

Tibet may be associated in the popular imagination with remote temples and flying lamas, but Glyn Ford, Labour MEP for Southwest England, was struck by other features of the landscape during a visit there this summer. ‘The number of construction cranes,’ he wrote in an article about his trip, ‘shows that the economy is booming.’ Ford noted that Tibet’s gross domestic product has grown 15-fold since 1965 and that Beijing has contributed 1 billion euros for infrastructure and services in the past ten years. And the monasteries and temples, he added, ‘are full of worshippers with no obvious impediments to religious freedom’.

Ford’s comments illustrate the deep divide in perceptions of the Tibetan issue, and perhaps in left-wing politics in general: whether the bottom line should be the achievement of economic progress or the defence of idealistic notions like freedom and cultural identity, which have been deployed by many politicians to conceal anti-China agendas of their own. Ford chose to count the cranes rather than the political prisoners in Tibet, and to focus on the blitzkrieg of modernisation rather than on China’s record of authoritarian government there.

Tibet can indeed be said to have benefited hugely in the last 15 years as a result of Chinese governmental policies. The economy is booming, the capital expands at the rate of several suburbs each year, hi-tech stores line the main streets offering computers and solar-powered heating, and there are new town houses by ornamental lakes in walled communities. I see more newly constructed hypermarkets in Lhasa when I go to work there each summer than exist in the area of Manhattan where I live.

Beijing is proud of these achievements. But it is not confident: it still resorts to threats or force to deter foreign visitors from publishing critiques of them. Two journalists who have published mild critiques of China’s policies in Tibet were refused entry this October, and in May Chinese consular officials in the US told a Tibetologist that he would not be allowed to enter Tibet if he failed in future to ‘tell the truth’.

But no-one needs a degree in economics to see that the new economy of Tibet is designed for certain people, pre-eminently those who can afford to buy luxury commodities and houses. The ‘Tibet’ that is said by less cautious writers to benefit from Beijing’s policies doesn’t mean the whole Tibetan region or all the residents – it means the ones who are reeling in the new wealth.

The details of how this boom works have been studied by a researcher at LSE, Andrew Fischer, in his book State Growth and Social Exclusion in Tibet (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, 2004). The urban-rural gap is widening alarmingly, he found, and the boom economy is subsidy driven, mainly tertiary and perilously unstable. And most of the subsidies go into strengthening administration rather than the welfare of the locals – with strengthening administration in this case including building massive headquarters in Tibetan county towns for local Communist Party officials.

Fischer’s analysis was not well received in London, where he was accused by some Tibet supporters of failing to denounce the communists, or in Beijing, where a key official told me that Fischer had been judged a counter-revolutionary, a term of extreme severity supposedly abandoned from official parlance eight years ago. No one, however, has denied the evidence of radical inequities in the development in Tibet that he and others have described. These (and they exist in other parts of China too, especially its west) are implicit in the efforts of young Tibetan developmentalists within China to propose policies that will generate income (rather than infrastructure and service industries), develop human capacity (rather than imported labour) and boost rural areas (rather than towns, which have largely Chinese populations).

The new proposals are a discreet nod in the direction of what we might call a Tibetan-centered model of development, rather than the reckless catch-up-quickly-with-Shanghai version currently in vogue. But we cannot call these new proposals progress, since most had already been introduced in early 1980 when China’s then party secretary, Hu Yaobang, ordered the running of Tibet to be handed back to Tibetans. Hard-liners shelved his initiatives some 15 years ago, just when they were starting to work, and have struggled vigorously to keep them out of sight since then – to the extent that since 1992 even mention of them has been outlawed, at least in the media. Even if one puts aside the decades of ultra-leftist destruction of the culture and economy before the 1980s, praise for Beijing’s recent economic turn-around is thus, to put it politely, deeply ahistorical, if not simply upside down.

Everyone welcomes increased prosperity and access to resources. But their side effects need managing, and in Tibet the one that matters most (and is the least discussed) is the problem of booming immigration from inland China. The migrants, mostly poor labourers-cum-petty entrepreneurs, have major advantages over locals in skills, capital, language, connections and market access. The new Tibetan railway, completed this October, may be a technological feat but most Tibetans dread the prospect of the settlement surge that has historically accompanied railway lines in China, just as it did in north America 100 years ago.

Not many will be convinced by the conviction of the Chinese leaders in Tibet that the railway will not bring migrants to Tibet because ‘the weather is unsuitable’. Phuntsog Wanggyal, a famous Tibetan, now 84 and too senior to be returned to jail, finally allowed a US scholar last year [2004] to publish his views that soon ‘only the Potala Palace will be left in Lhasa as “Tibetan”’ and that ‘there is a danger of … minority nationalities being assimilated into Han Chinese society [with] only their names left, but no cultural identities’. Since he was for several years the highest ranking Tibetan in the Communist Party, and was offered the governorship of Tibet in the early 1980s, his opinions deserve attention. But so far no other Tibetan in Tibet or China has dared to raise the immigration question because, rightly or wrongly, they fear ostracism or imprisonment if they do.

Those commenting from outside China have no excuse for avoiding the issue. Indeed, China in its own past history (except for about six months in 1910) never viewed Tibet’s status as being the same as its ethnically Chinese areas. It never was a Chinese province, which is why the Communist Party later declared it and other ‘nationality’ zones beyond China’s traditional inner borders to be ‘autonomous’, a term that presumably included the option of regulating entry. Even now the party insists that it wants Tibetans to run the place. But the deeply contradictory praxis of party rule in Tibet and other nationality areas means that the more that is said about autonomy, the less is in practice granted. Monolithic forms of current development are monuments not to socialist nirvana but to deeply embedded political failure, with all its historic implications.

These are not matters of academic niggling. They are the signifiers for deep but unspoken sources of political discontent within Tibet, whether it be the Tibetan autonomous region or, though possibly to a lesser extent, the other Tibetan-inhabited areas in China. Few if any Tibetans dare raise issues that in western countries are deemed explicitly political. The monasteries and the temples, for example, may look full to locally illiterate tourists on flying visits, but the only permitted congregants that these visitors see are people from the countryside and from the still rare private sectors of the economy. No Tibetan in any form of government employment, whether a leader or a gate-attendant, has been allowed since 1995 or so to have religious practices or possessions, irrespective of any party affiliation.

This rule, which is illegal in Chinese law and so is nowhere written down, is not enforced consistently, but it is applied to schoolchildren and college students too, even though they are not government employees. I am careful not to research such things, since I have colleagues there, but as far as I can tell my Chinese students at the university don’t even know of this otherwise omnipresent regulation: it is communicated only to Tibetans.

Like numerous similar restrictions, this may be more than an archaic whim of reckless authoritarianism. It stems from the same ideology that promotes infrastructurally dominated, elite-creating development: a presumption that secularity and material self-interest are core ingredients of modernity, and of modern state construction. Thus those who are forbidden religious practice by means of whispered menaces are the same Tibetans whose salaries were enlarged in recent years and who are now able to frequent the video-game parlours, the plush hotels and the walled communities of New Lhasa.

Presumably this reflects a calculated decision to replace what is culturally and politically absent by what is economically present. If so, this has brought benefits. The ultra-rapid consumerist development in Tibet has created a new, enriched Tibetan middle class, and it may well be, as some Chinese scholars have openly advised, that this sudden wealth will anaesthetise their taste for political disobedience and dull any recollections of earlier independence.

In fact, it’s not clear that the decades-long effort to induce political amnesia were necessary: it’s unlikely that even 20 years ago many urban Tibetans thought that there was much chance of regaining separate identity as a nation. As Hu Yaobang had no doubt sensed, they would probably have settled for a deal if Beijing had let them run the place, have their own leader back, develop their own culture and control migration. Like the exiled Dalai Lama, whose representatives have held four rounds of discussions with Beijing since serious talks resumed in 2002 after nearly two decades, they appear to focus on pragmatic issues, such as who should manage the local economy, culture and environment, and who should decide what kind of development is suitable for Tibet.

So far these issues are barely open for discussion. Seeing construction cranes and temple visitors as signal benefits therefore does more than pose questions about the credibility of contemporary left-wing analysis – it glosses over the deeply problematic roots and consequences of currently favoured models of imposed and disempowering modernity.

As for the new Tibetan middle class, many may choose to watch their plasma TV screens, forget to teach their kids Tibetan, and let their memories soften into nostalgia. But just as the pleasures of rapid and uneven economic growth did not keep even all the new elites of Europe acquiescent in the 19th century, neither do they offer any guarantee of long-term silence on issues of acute demographic, developmental and cultural contradiction in Tibet.Robert Barnett is a lecturer in modern Tibetan studies, Columbia University, New York, and has been visiting Tibet regularly over the past five years. His latest book Lhasa: Streets with Memories (Columbia University Press) is due out in March 2006


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