Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Political Economy of Boomerang Aid in China's Tibet

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Political Economy of Boomerang Aid in China's Tibet

Article excerpt

While large-scale demonstrations were still fanning out from Lhasa to the rest of the Tibetan areas in March 2008, the usual developmental alibi were being laid out by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Beijing argued that the "riots" (in reference to the riot in Lhasa on 14 March) were due to political meddling and manipulation from abroad, particularly from the Tibetan exile community and their Western supporters; given that the region had been experiencing ample development and rising prosperity, local Tibetans had no valid cause for grievance. This line was supported by the regular collection of Western scholars and commentators who, at the extreme, tended to interpret the events as the covert handiwork of U.S. neocons.(l)

Indeed, absolute economic and human development indicators offer little insight into the reasons why Tibetans might have been so aggrieved. Poverty rates had been falling, average household incomes rising, and levels of educational attainment moderately improving. Were it not for some restrictions on cultural or religious practice, or the worrisome rise in inequalities, many argued that the government had been tending well the disadvantaged position of Tibetans in China. Many Chinese commentators went so far as to conclude that Tibetans, lavishly coddled by central government subsidies to a far greater extent than any other minority nationality in China, are quite simply spoilt, complaining with their stomachs full.<2)

This simplistic developmental discourse unfortunately ignores how the manner by which western development strategies have been implemented in the Tibetan areas since the mid-1990s has itself been a key factor exacerbating the unresolved contestations of Chinese rule in these areas. Within a context of continued political disempowerment of Tibetan locals, these strategies have channelled massive amounts of subsidies and subsidised investments (relative to the local economy) through the government itself or else through Chinese corporations based outside the Tibetan areas. This has accentuated the already highly externalised orientation of wealth flows in the economy, resulting in a socio-economic structure that rewards a small upper stratum, which includes a small minority of Tibetans and a large proportion of nonTibetan migrants, mostly concentrated in urban areas and well positioned to access the flows of wealth as they pass through the region with increasing velocity.

Subsidisation strategies thus result in a form of "boomerang aid." Subsidies largely return to their sender while debilitating indigenously-oriented forms of wealth creation and accumulation in most sectors of the economy outside agriculture. This reinforces a situation of extraordinary inefficiency and extreme dependence, as well as strong cultural, linguistic, and political biases that derive from axes of advantage stemming from characteristics of the dominant cultural and political group, such as Chinese fluency, Chinese work cultures, and connections to government or business networks in China Proper. These biases are most evident in the context of competition with non-Tibetan migrants from other parts of China, which I have discussed elsewhere.<3) Nonetheless, it is important to note that the in-migration of non-Tibetan (and Tibetan) outsiders is itself driven by the polarising implications of these development strategies.

This is an important distinction from the argument that ethnic inequalities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas are the result of spatial inequalities (i.e. that Tibetans are mostly rural and poor, hence ethnic inequalities reflect urban-rural inequality).(4) Rather, inequalities differ from elsewhere in China in that they are instituted through the special treatment accorded to the Tibetan areas by the Chinese state, which results in a progressive appropriation of ownership in the local economy by outsiders, placing local Tibetans at a disadvantage despite the profusion of subsidies. …

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