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Beijing boasts of 'leapfrog development' in Tibet

Despite $45.4 billion in investments since 2001 and more than a decade of double-digit economic growth, some observers question whether Tibetans have benefited as much as Han Chinese.

By Contributor / January 25, 2010


The Dalai Lama says Tibet is “hell on earth,” but China’s central government is boasting that $45.4 billion in aid to the region over the past nine years has helped “boost Tibet’s leapfrog development” and achieve “lasting stability.”

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The announcement came during a high-level planning conference on Tibet from Jan. 18 to 20, attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Whether Tibet is currently stable now, or will remain so, is of course a hotly contested topic. In 2008, rioting erupted in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, after the arrest of Tibetan monks seeking to commemorate a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Last April, China executed two Tibetan men for participating in that riot.

But China is claiming phenomenal economic growth in the region. “Tibet has been able to maintain double-digit growth in terms of GDP for 17 straight years, outpacing the national average,” reports official Chinese news agency Xinhua. Tibet’s GDP was expected to top $5.85 billion in 2009, up 12.1 percent year-on-year and up 170 percent from 2000, according to Xinhua.

This emphasis on economic development, reports The New York Times, “indicates that Chinese leaders still see the solution to the problem of Tibet as one of supplying creature comforts.” But the issues of cultural suppression and political restriction must be addressed to change Tibetan attitudes toward the state, says Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York.

"As far as one can tell," he wrote by e-mail Monday, "Tibetans certainly appreciate improved economic conditions and greater opportunities for consumption and commodities, but this doesn't explain why Tibet has to have mass tourism, widespread mining, unrestricted migration of non-Tibetans, or religious and cultural restrictions."

Ethnic Han Chinese civilians today outnumber Tibetans in Tibet's capital, Lhasa. Longtime Han migration to the region sped up in 2006 with completion of a $4.2 billion railway linking Lhasa to Beijing, leading some observers to question whether Tibetans or Han Chinese have benefited more from the region’s economic growth.

“They're developing the territories they have conquered. No one would dispute that,” says Ganden Thurman, executive director of Tibet House, a New York-based organization dedicated to preserving the country's cultural heritage. “The point is that ... it’s not being done to help the Tibetans. It’s being done to exploit the natural resources of the area.”

Mr. Thurman cited the bloody riots that broke out in Lhasa in March 2008, sparked by the police suppression of monks protesting to mark the 49th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising in 1959.


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