Widespread poverty in Tibet shatters the vision of a Shangri-La

One of the ironies of modern-day Tibet is that it is a rich country full of poor people. "There is plenty of chrome, copper, iron, lead, zinc, borax -- even gold; and all this is almost untapped," says Losang Qicheng, vice-chairman of the Tibetan autonomous region. The exact amounts involved are a state secret, but the chinese have had enough geologists in the area to indicate the potential wealth.

But even Mr. Losang concedes, "Poverty is a reality in Tibet; over 100,000 persons [nearly 6 percent of the ethnic Tibetans] do not have enough to eat."

Anyone coming to Tibet expecting visions of Shangri-La is in for a rude awakening. Lhasa today is not the Lhasa of yore. A visitor coming to see the famous Jokhang temple may well find his pilgrimage interrupted by the sight of beggars on the temple steps, of a woman offering her baby girl for sale, or even of a woman giving birth on the sidewalk.

After three decades of direct communist rule it is amply clear that Peking's policies in Tibet have been an unmitigated failure.

Why did China fail to develop the region's potential riches? Foreign observers blame the Chinese contempt for Tibetans, resulting in callous neglect of the region. The Chinese now admit some of their past mistakes. Yin Fatang, the Communist Party chief in Tibet, told our group of journalists, "The 'gang of four' wreaked havoc in Tibet during the so- called Cultural Revolution."

Mr. Yin, who has been associated with most of the tough policies in Tibet since the 1950s, added that whenever he went to Peking to complain about the 'gang of four', "He was severely chided by Kang Sheng," Mao Tse- tung's secret-service hatchet man and an adviser to the radical quartet.

On the contrary, central leaders in Peking have been claiming that the plight of Tibet continued to be misreported to them even after the fall of the gang of four in late 1976.

The Chinese also take shelter behind history for their fiasco in Tibet. Before the communist armies reached Lhasa in early 1950, Tibet was a feudal society divided into masters and slaves. The 5 percent of the population who were religious prelates, the nobility, or government functionaries were the rulers. Over 80 percent had become monks in Buddhist monasteries to escape serfdom. The elite 5 percent owned more than 70 percent of the land.

Admittedly, the Chinese changed all that, freeing the slaves after the Dalai Lama fled to India in the wake of an abortive revolt in 1959. And as the People's Liberation Army built roads and bridges and laid telephone and telegraph lines, Tibet got the first glimmer of the 20th century.

Land reforms and freed slaves did improve production in the early 1960s, but the situation since then deteriorated as the whole traditional social fabric had been ripped apart. An average Tibetan today eats little better than he did 15 years ago.

The per-capita food output in Tibet, at 230 kilograms, is one-third less than the average for the rest of China. Malnutrition and disease are more common outside Lhasa, as the plight of pilgrims flocking to the Lhasa temples clearly shows. Deaths from starvation, reported by recent visitors to remote areas, make a sad commentary of China's neglect of the Tibetan minority.

Old Tibet hands used to say that the only wheels that turned in Tibet were the prayer wheels, there being little industry on the roof of the world. Now even the Chinese say that industry has declined since 1960. The per- capita industrial output of Tibet went down from 87 yuan ($58) in 1960 to 81 yuan ($54) last year. On the contrary, China's per capita indistrial output has shot up from 191 yuan ($127) to 470 yuan ($313), a rise of 1 1/2 times, in the same period.

Tibetan industry is headed for a further decline. Many of the factories started by the Chinese, which have been idling and inefficient, are earmarked for closure by early next year.

In spite of this dismal record, Peking has subsidized Tibet's economy for 500 million yuan ($330 million) a year, the authorities claim. However, a closer look reveals that about a third of this subsidy is spent in paying the salaries of Han chinese cadres and workers. Most of the balance goes to maintain communications network and the regional administration, which is of little solace to an average Tibetan.

A mere 1 percent of Tibet's gross domestic output comes from the service sector, with 70 per cent from agriculture and animal husbandry and 29 percent from industry.

To the ordinary Tibetan such macroeconomic percentages mean little. For him the reality is poverty. Mr. Losang, the vice-chairman says that "30 percent of the farm communes are worse off today, while another 30 percent are stagnant compared with mid-'60s." In the face of a 50 percent growth in population, it means some inevitable starvation.

The underlying truth is that the Han Chinese totally disregarded the traditional ecosystem of Tibet.

A Tibetan subsists on barley and yak. He eats barley bread, yak meat and yak dairy products. His clothes are made of sheep wool and his tents of yak skin. This subsistence economy on bare craggy hills is so marginal in the inhospitable climate that if the hardy barley crop fails, or yak herds die in cold winter, it leads to human starvation.

Instead, what the Chinese did was to impose on Tibet's nomadic economy their own ways of settled agriculture organized on the communist commune system. They wanted to make Tibet a pale copy of China. "And that is where we failed," admitted Mr. Yin Fatang. Images of 19th-century America settling the Indian tribes into reservations come to mind.

Forcing the Tibetans to grow more wheat, in place of their traditional barley , and to eat the wheat, has also lead to farm failure. the Chinese began growing winter wheat on Army farms in Tibet in early 1960s. Wheat grew well in the virgin soil of the farms and they decided to make Tibetan communes grow more of it. Last year, nearly a quarter of land under grain grew wheat.

Four-fifths of the available chemical fertilizer, itself a novelty to tibet, was allocated to wheat. But extensive cultivation of wheat for years, without any regard to crop rotation, drained the soil of its nutrients. Wheat yields began to decline since 1977 and by last year bad weather took its own toll, resulting in a famine and a grain output down by 18 percent.

Chinese scientists in Lhasa now claim that they had warned the officials what a disaster wheat would prove in tibet. Why did the authorities overide stubborn Tibetan resistance and disregard Han scientific advice? Vice-Chairman Losang blandly responded, "That was our mistake: an arbitrary order." He added that the area under wheat would be gradually reduced and land would be allowed to lie fallow as long as necessary.

Better late than never, recent reforms have allowec the peasants to sow more barley. They have been promised bigger private plots of land, private cattle and interest-free loans. with the abolition of compulsory state levies, the peasants can also sell their grain on their own, in order to earn more cash income.

But hard cash forms an insignificant part of the economy in the pastoral Tibetan countryside. Until the Tibetans can be assured of enough barley and yak , market-related measures will have little impact on the people's livelihood.

Next: What kind of future?

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