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Western Development Worries China's Minorities

China is now into the second year of its Great Western Development campaign, to stimulate these lagging vast regions. But many ethnic minorities, such as Tibetans, say the campaign is causing their culture to be further marginalized in Chinese society.

At the Hayihai primary school for Tibetan children in China's far western Qinghai province, 35-year-old schoolteacher Zhuoma asks her class, "do you all want to learn Chinese?" Half a dozen children reply in unison, "yes." Zhuoma asks why, and the children respond, "because if we learn Chinese, we can go anywhere we want."

But try talking in person to the 60-odd Tibetan children at this school, and almost none speak any Chinese at all. And without language or other specialized skills, these children - and indeed entire Tibetan communities - are likely to lose out in China's Great Western Development campaign.

Western provinces like Qinghai, which borders Tibet, have lagged behind China's booming coastal areas for decades. So China has for the last two years has been pouring investment into its poor western regions.

The big ticket infrastructure projects now underway in Qinghai include a $3.3 billion railway to connect the province with neighboring Tibet and a $340 million fertilizer plant.

Yet many minority Tibetans are afraid of the impact these projects will have on their dwindling culture as more and more Chinese move into the region to take advantage of the development money.

As the sun sets in Qinghai's capital, Xining, an unemployed young Tibetan woman who identifies herself only as Tsering talks with sadness about what she says are the deteriorating conditions of her people. Tsering herself cannot speak Chinese, and has to rely on the translation of an older Tibetan woman.

"We have no culture left," says Tsering, putting down her heavy bundle, as she waits for a train going to her hometown near here. She says western development will only bring more Han Chinese to this area. "Our land now belongs to China's leaders," she says. "They do whatever they want, and we have no say."

Government officials insist that western development will be a boon for everyone living in the region, not just for majority Han Chinese.

Xia Jiaxiang, vice-mayor of Golmud city, where the railway to Tibet is under construction, says that more money will be invested here in the next five years than there has been over the last 20. Mr. Xia predicts that the population of this sleepy desert town - now at 200,000 - will almost double as a result of that investment.

But this is precisely what frightens many Tibetans, who comprise about 20 percent of Qinghai's overall population, but only two percent of cities like Xining and Golmud, where most of the government plans to pour its money. Kate Saunders of the London-based Tibet Information Network says that western development will make Tibetans even more of a minority in their traditional homeland.

"Tibetans already face economic, social and cultural marginalization," she said. "And with the influx of Chinese migrants which is encouraged by western development, competition for employment will inevitably increase."

Ms. Saunders says that since Han Chinese from other parts of the country possess language skills and other training that Tibetans lack, they reap most of the rewards from western development.

Hundreds of people come every Saturday to a labor market in downtown Xining hoping to find work.

But a manager here who calls himself Mr. Zhang says western development hasn't made it any easier for Qinghai residents to find a good job. He says companies taking part in the government's campaign are only looking for highly-skilled graduates with advanced degrees, most of whom come from outside Qinghai. He says employers look down on local graduates.

The bleak outlook for jobs means that many Tibetan parents lose hope for their children even before they start high school, and enlist them to help with farming or herding animals instead.

Tibetan schoolteacher Zhuoma says that less than a third of Tibetan students continue education past the ninth grade. Girls in particular lose out. She says high school is a waste if they can't find a job, because they haven't learned how to do chores at home either.