LHASA, TIBET — Construction crews are busy shoveling dirt and hammering nails to erect blue-glass office buildings all over Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. New banks and government bureaus sport the impassive faades as a sign of modern style and protection against high-altitude glare.
Tibet, though still awaiting the political independence from China that many here wish for, has enjoyed a relative economic boom in recent years.
Government authorities hope the progress will lessen sentiment for independence. But backers of political freedom say the changes may ultimately have the opposite effect.
"The more people are better-off economically, the more they want freedom," says Rinchen Dharlo, spokesman for Tibet's exiled religious leader, Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso.
Whoever is right, the road of economic growth is a long one. Isolated by mountains and by Chinese restrictions on the press, Tibet remains economically backward even by Chinese standards.
Tibetans have traditionally worked as farmers and nomadic herders, and are only slowly adapting to industrial work rhythms, says one foreign businessman here. "They work, wander off for a tea break, come back for a while, take two hours for lunch, then come back and work late into the evening," he says with some exasperation.
Electrical blackouts hit the old quarter of Lhasa every night, phone service is poor, and incomes don't promise any consumer boom. Rural residents earn the equivalent of $66 per year, versus $145 in the rest of China, government statistics show.
Still, economic reforms that have long promoted growth in China are now beginning to affect Tibet. Making peasants responsible for farming their own land has increased agricultural production. Tibetans can buy high-quality food in free markets.
Officials of the Tibet Autonomous Region are seeking capital investment from both Chinese and foreign businesses. "Tibet is opening to the outside world," says Dun Zhu, vice chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region. "We welcome all kinds of investment, no matter what kind of ownership. We welcome foreign capital. We want businesspeople to help develop our natural resources."
Tibet has major, but largely untapped deposits of chromite, lithium, copper, gypsum, and other minerals. "But conditions here are primitive," says one foreign businessman. "And authorities lack experience." He tells how one French investment banker left in disgust after officials hand-wrote a joint-venture proposal. So far only a handful of adventurous foreigners have invested here, mostly in small industries such as rug-weaving and hotels.
Foreign aid workers and businesspeople agree that few Tibetans outside the monasteries engage in open dissent these days, something they attribute to both the improved standard of living and government repression. The central government spends more per capita in Tibet than in any other province. But Tibetans in exile say sentiment for independence remains under the surface.