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China's Economic Power on Display in Tibet - 2004-09-01

China's rising economic power appears to have become a valuable tool in its struggle to further consolidate control over the Himalayan region of Tibet. Chinese leaders say their large investment into the once-isolated kingdom is raising living standards of deeply impoverished Tibetans. But critics say Tibetans are not seeing any benefits despite the huge influx of money. Workers labor feverishly to put finishing touches on 536-unit housing complex, with artificial lakes, Doric columns, and plenty of glass and concrete - a scene that is very common in China's eastern cities amid a continuing economic boom. However, this is Bayi, a garrison town of 30,000 people that lies between the eastern Himalayas and the Heng Duan mountains near the border with Burma.

Yi Xiang Hui, director of the local construction bureau, explains to a group of foreign journalists the complex is being built largely with funds from richer provinces of China.

The government of wealthy and industrialized Guangdong Province, he says, is footing more than $2 million dollars of its cost.

The complex is one of many building sites visible in parts of Tibet where Chinese Foreign Ministry officials ushered a group of foreign journalists who would otherwise not be free to travel to this tightly controlled region. The purpose of this annual government-controlled tour was to show foreign media that Tibet, under Chinese rule, is prospering along with the rest of China.

Mr. Yi says the occupants of this particular housing complex will be mostly government workers, many of whom are of the Chinese Han majority ethnic group who are transplanting in Tibet at a high rate. They are coming largely as technical workers but also as businesspeople. Although government officials say Bayi's population is 54 percent Tibetan, one look around the city indicates an overwhelming majority are Han.

The same observation could be made of other cities, including Tibet's capital, Lhasa, where longtime residents say the city's Tibetan west section is shrinking as more Chinese businesses set up and more migrants move in. Picture books once showed the massive Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama - Tibet's highest spiritual leader now in exile - surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It is now largely overshadowed by concrete and glass buildings flashing Chinese writing in neon lights.

Business for many of the Chinese merchants appears to be booming. Boutique windows boast western fashions worn by Chinese women, but no Tibetans can be seen working or shopping inside. Outside one of these shops, a beggar sings in Tibetan, seeking alms from tourists and other passersby.

His name is Luduo. He says he is 37 years of age, although his weathered face, gray hair, and hunched back make him appear to be much older.

He tells a reporter he does not work, but rather spends his time praying in the streets. He says he cannot even begin to think of finding a job because he does not speak, Chinese and he is illiterate.

Cases of Tibetans, like Luduo, do not draw much sympathy from business owners in Lhasa.

Two blocks away, Chinese and foreigners sit at a smartly decorated cafe, listening to Western music and sipping imported beer. The owner is a 27-year-old long-haired musician who came from eastern Shandong Province with his girlfriend to start this business this year. All the employees at the cafe are Chinese. He explains why there are no Tibetans working for him.

"This place is short of human resources. Many people are not educated. Some cannot even write their names," he said.

Later in the conversation, he voices a stereotype held by a number of Han businesspeople in Lhasa.

"Begging for money is a part of the local culture and Tibetan people do not want to work," he said.

Chinese Communist troops marched into Tibet in 1950 believing they were coming to help the Tibetans overcome poverty and isolation. Communist leader Mao Zedong vowed to bring progress in the form of roads, hospitals, and schools, to what Beijing officials have long considered China's most backward province.

The café owner says he too is on a mission of mercy. He donates a large part of his business' proceeds to a private orphanage that tends to Tibetan children. He says he does this because he says education is their only hope.

However such sentiments are the source of growing anger among Tibetans who are wary of patronizing attitudes, and fearful a growing tide of Chinese workers will eventually make them a minority in their own land.

Despite tax incentives and low-mortgage loans to settlers, the government denies there is any organized movement to facilitate migration of Chinese to Tibet. One official said that if Han Chinese dominate the business landscape in the region it is because of "natural market forces." International pro-Tibet activists charge much of the new Chinese investment is going to help Han Chinese settlers more than it will native Tibetans.

Not far from Lhasa, government officials show reporters a construction site where a massive bridge is being built as part of a new railway line that will link the Tibetan capital with China. Chinese officials tout the line as one that will bring more tourists and investment to Tibet.

For many Tibetans and overseas activists, however, the new line brings new fears that an onslaught of outsiders may mean further marginalization.