Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Unease in Tibet Over Influx of China’s Money and Migrants

July 27, 2010

The New York TImes
July 24, 2010

LHASA, Tibet -- They come by new high-altitude
trains, four a day, cruising 1,200 miles past
snow-capped mountains. And they come by military
truck convoy, lumbering across the roof of the world.

Han Chinese workers, investors, merchants,
teachers and soldiers are pouring into remote
Tibet. After the violence that ravaged this
region in 2008, China’s aim is to make Tibet wealthier -- and more Chinese.

Chinese leaders see development, along with an
enhanced security presence, as the key to
pacifying the Buddhist region. The central
government invested $3 billion in the Tibet
Autonomous Region last year, a 31 percent
increase over 2008. Tibet’s gross domestic
product is growing at a 12 percent annual rate,
faster than the robust Chinese national average.

Simple restaurants located in white prefabricated
houses and run by ethnic Han businesspeople who
take the train have sprung up even at a remote
lake north of Lhasa. About 1.2 million rural
Tibetans, nearly 40 percent of the region’s
population, have been moved into new residences
under a “comfortable housing” program. And
officials promise to increase tourism fourfold by
2020, to 20 million visitors a year.

But if the influx of money and people has brought
new prosperity, it has also deepened the
resentment among many Tibetans. Migrant Han
entrepreneurs elbow out Tibetan rivals, then
return home for the winter after reaping profits.
Large Han-owned companies dominate the main
industries, from mining to construction to tourism.

"Why did I come here? To make money, of course!"
said Xiong Zhahua, a migrant from Sichuan
Province who spends five months a year running a
restaurant on the shores of chilly Nam Tso, the lake north of Lhasa.

A rare five-day official tour of Tibet, though
carefully managed by the Chinese Foreign
Ministry, provided a glimpse of life in the
region during a period of tight political and military control.

Tibet is more stable after security forces
quelled the worst uprising against Chinese rule
in five decades. But the increased ethnic Han
presence -- and the uneven benefits of Han-led
investment -- have kept the region on edge.

Some Chinese officials acknowledge the
disenfranchisement of Tibetans, though they
defend the right of Han to migrate here.

"The flow of human resources follows the rule of
market economics and is also indispensable for
the development of Tibet," Hao Peng, vice
chairman and deputy party secretary of the
region, said at a news conference with a small
group of foreign journalists. But the current
system “may have caused an imbalanced
distribution,” he said. “We are taking measures to solve this problem.”

The government bars foreign reporters from
traveling independently in Tibet. Journalists on
the tour were brought to several development
projects by ministry officials, but were
occasionally able to interview locals on their
own. Tibetans interviewed independently expressed
fear of the security forces and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

One high school student complained that Tibetans
could not compete for jobs with Han migrants who
arrived with high school diplomas. "Tibetans just get low-end jobs," he said.

Chinese officials say Tibetans make up more than
95 percent of the region’s 2.9 million people,
but refuse to give estimates on Han migrants, who
are not registered residents. In the cities of
Lhasa and Shigatse, it is clear that Han
neighborhoods are dwarfing Tibetan areas.

Resentment of the Han exploded during the March
2008 rioting -- Tibetans in Lhasa burned and
looted hundreds of Han and ethnic Hui shops; at
least 19 people died, most of them Han civilians,
the Chinese government said. Han security forces
then cracked down on Tibetans across the plateau.

Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet at Columbia
University, said the goal of maintaining
double-digit growth in the region had worsened ethnic tensions.

"Of course, they achieved that, but it was
disastrous," he said. "They had no priority on
local human resources, so of course they relied
on outside labor, and sucked in large migration into the towns."

Now, a heavy security presence is needed to keep
control of Lhasa. Around the Barkhor, the city’s
central market, paramilitary officers in riot
gear, all ethnic Han, march counterclockwise
around the sacred Jokhang Temple, against the
flow of Tibetan pilgrims. Armed men stand on rooftops near the temple.

Limits on religious freedom have been a major
cause of discontent. In the Jokhang itself, and
in the Potala Palace, the imposing white-walled
winter fortress of the Dalai Lamas, images of the
exiled 14th Dalai Lama have been banned. Pilgrims
carry the Dalai Lama’s photograph in hidden
lockets or amulets. As the pilgrims circle the
Potala, a loudspeaker in a small park blares
Communist Party propaganda: “We are part of a
Chinese nation contributing to a great future — we are Chinese people.”

Development programs are sometimes well received,
and sometimes they create resentment. Since 2006,
the Tibetan government has mandated that Tibetan
farmers, herders and nomads use government
subsidies to build new homes closer to roads. New
concrete homes with traditional Tibetan
decorations dot the stark brown countryside.

But the base government subsidy for building the
new homes is usually $1,500 per household, far
short of the total needed. Families have
generally had to take out multiple times that
amount in interest-free three-year loans from
state banks as well as private loans from relatives or friends.

"Though the government assures that villagers
have not borrowed beyond their means, many
villagers around Lhasa have expressed pessimism
about their ability to repay these loans,
suggesting that the degree of debt for the new
houses is beyond what they are comfortable with,”
said Emily Yeh, a scholar at the University of
Colorado at Boulder who has researched the
program. “This should become clearer over the
next few years as loans start to become due.”

In the model village of Gaba, right outside
Lhasa, residents leased out their farmland for
eight years to Han migrants to pay back the
loans, which mostly ranged from $3,000 to $4,500.
The migrants grow a wide variety of vegetables to
be sold across China. Many of the Tibetan
villagers now work in construction; they cannot
compete with Han farmers because they generally know how to grow only barley.

"Renting out the farmland was suggested by the
bank," said Suolang Jiancan, the village head.
"It would be a guaranteed income to pay back the loans."

Among the Han, it is not just farmers who are
profiting from the land. Large companies from
other parts of China are finding ways to tap Tibet’s resources.

On July 19, China National Gold Group, the
nation’s largest gold producer, began work at a
polymetallic mine whose daily output is expected
to reach 15,000 tons. Tibet has more than 3,000
proven mineral reserves, including China’s
biggest chromium and copper deposits. China
Daily, an official English-language newspaper,
quoted a Tibetan official in March saying that
mining could make up at least 30 percent of
Tibet’s gross domestic product by 2020, up from 3 percent now.

A prominent mineral water company called 5100
that is registered in Hong Kong but managed from
Beijing has set up a factory in Damxung, on a
grassy plateau three hours north of Lhasa, to
collect glacial runoff and bottle it as high-end
mineral water. Last year, the company, named
after the altitude of the glacier, produced
almost two million gallons of water. The water is
shipped out on the Qinghai-Tibet railway.

The water that is collected would otherwise flow
through wetlands where yak graze. It is unclear
how the factory’s work has affected the
ecosystem. Jiang Xiaohong, the factory manager,
who moved to Tibet three years ago, said the
company did an environmental assessment before
starting operations in 2006. “There’s no impact on the wetlands,” she said.

Because the company employs Tibetans, it receives
government subsidies, Ms. Jiang said. About 95
percent of the 150 or so workers are Tibetan, and
the average salary, including housing subsidies,
is about $740 a month, a small fortune on the
Tibetan plateau, she said. But ethnic Han are the
company’s managers and owners, and the ones who ultimately profit from it.

Mr. Hao, the regional vice chairman, said the key
to making Tibetans more competitive in business
"is to enhance Tibetan people’s skills through education and training."

The government has encouraged wealthier Chinese
cities to finance school construction in Tibet.
In the city of Shigatse, four hours from Lhasa,
the Tibet-Shanghai Experimental School was
completed in 2005 with an investment of $8.6
million from the Shanghai government. The
principal, Huang Yongdong, arrived in January
from Shanghai for a three-year posting. Nearly
1,500 students, all Tibetan, attend junior and senior high schools here.

A portrait of Mao hangs in the lobby. All classes
are taught in Mandarin Chinese, except for
Tibetan language classes. Critics of the
government’s ethnic policies say the education
system in Tibet is destroying Tibetans’ fluency
in their own language, but officials insist that
students need to master Chinese to be competitive. Some students accept that.

"My favorite class is Tibetan because we speak
Tibetan at home," said Gesang Danda, 13. "But our
country’s mother tongue is Chinese, so we study in Chinese."

On a blackboard in one classroom, someone had
drawn in chalk a red flag with a hammer and
sickle. Written next to it was a slogan in
Chinese and Tibetan: "Without the Communist
Party, there would be no new China, and certainly no new Tibet."

Xiyun Yang and Helen Gao contributed research.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank