May 26, 2008

Tibet: Economic Roots of Disenfranchisement

Sample ImageThe disillusionment that prompted protests in Tibet in March 2008 had been simmering for years and now need urgent addressing.

Below is an article written by John Garnaut and published in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Australian officials were recently stunned to hear a senior Chinese policy maker give an honest diagnosis of why China's Tibet policies had gone so badly wrong. At that point four weeks ago [Week 18, 2008] it was hard to find clear-eyed analysis anywhere.

Chinese leaders were railing against Tibetan terrorists, foreign provocateurs and an "evil" Dalai Lama. Tibetan exile groups and their Western supporters were accusing China of cultural genocide. Both groups talked in simplistic dichotomies that largely overlooked what was actually making those rioting Tibetans so angry.

But the Chinese official departed from the script to argue Tibet was an economic development problem. He told Australian diplomats and academics in Beijing that rivers of money from the Chinese Government had ended up with ethnic Han migrants, leaving an angry class of unemployed Tibetans.

Huge infrastructure investment had not been matched by education spending, leaving migrants from elsewhere in China in a better position to snaffle the jobs and business opportunities.

While Chinese Government subsidies account for 75 per cent of Tibet's GDP, and Tibet's GDP grew 14 per cent last year [2007], the Chinese official said the region's ethnic and rural-urban inequalities were getting worse and the challenge of multi-culturalism had not been effectively addressed.

Later, members of the Australian audience agreed the Chinese official had drawn on an article in the April [2008] edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review. The article, "Money Can't Buy Tibetans' Love", was authored by Ben Hillman, one of the stars of the Australian National University's new China Institute.

Hillman had spent much of his time in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the northwest corner of Yunnan province. The region is relatively prosperous thanks to its long exposure to trade.

Diqing had hosted the only road to Tibet for more than a thousand years until the People's Liberation Army bulldozed new ones in the 1950s. It is also the place where three of Asia's great rivers, the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze, tumble out of the Tibetan plateau towards Burma, Vietnam and eastern China. One town became an instant tourism haven after changing its name to Shangri-La.

And yet even in this opportunistic corner of the Tibetan plateau, ethnic Tibetans were missing out on the tourism boom that had taken off since the late 1990s. Hillman's rough survey of half-a-dozen new hotels found that four in every five jobs had gone to non-Tibetan Chinese.

Hoteliers told him it was a question of skills rather than deliberate discrimination: "We're open to hiring Tibetans but they can't do the job."

Tourists were coming to see Tibetan culture. But Hillman found it was Han Chinese who were dressing up in Tibetan clothes to sell tickets at Lhasa's Potala Palace, hawk fake Tibetan barley cakes and take all the service industry jobs.

Seen in this light, Tibet is not so different from colonial and post-colonial development problems the world over, including in Africa, East Timor and indigenous regions of Australia.

Partly it may be a question of cultural attitude. "Tibetans are fiercely independent," says Hillman. "In many cases, they'd rather be poor on the farm than shine someone's shoes."

But it is also about skills and education. Forty per cent of Tibetans have never been to school and only 15 per cent have had any secondary education. Tibetan schools teach Tibetan languages but perhaps this has only exacerbated the challenge of connecting Tibetans to China's roaring economy.

The Chinese Government is plastering railways and highways and sticking mobile phone towers all over the Tibetan plateau. But these have mainly encouraged and served hundreds of thousands of new migrants from elsewhere in rural China. "It's a revolving door of Han Chinese migrants who come, make some money and leave," says Hillman.

"In the past there wasn't really direct competition between Han and Tibetan elite. It's a different dynamic now, of lower-class Han Chinese out-competing Tibetans in urban areas. It's simple economics - Tibetans don't have the skills and they have no way of getting them. There is no official recognition of this problem."


But effective policies may still be a while away if, as argued by Hong Kong scholar Willy Lam in the same edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, President Hu Jintao bears too much personal responsibility for the underlying problems to seriously address them.

Hillman's influence also hints at the potential of ANU's China Institute. ANU is home to one of the strongest concentrations of world-class China scholars outside China.