21st Century Comes to Tibet; Locals Embracing Modernization, but China's Critics Wary of Motives

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 4, 2007 | Go to article overview

21st Century Comes to Tibet; Locals Embracing Modernization, but China's Critics Wary of Motives


Byline: David W. Jones, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

LHASA, Tibet - First of two parts

Tibet, for centuries a Himalayan kingdom lost in time, is lost no longer.

China's shift to a market economy and its relentless drive for development have brought the region storming to the cusp of the 21st century, and in some places over the edge.

Ancient Buddhist temples, primitive agriculture and herders in yak-hair tents still are commonplace, but they exist alongside modern highways and bridges, satellite television and gleaming electricity pylons that march across the mountainsides.

Horse-drawn carts are outnumbered by new sport utility vehicles; Buddhist monks surf the Internet; and yak herders tend their cattle while on motorbikes with cell phones in their pockets.

None of this is happening by accident. While hard figures are hard to come by, the central government in Beijing clearly is pouring billions of dollars into modernizing Tibet's infrastructure.

The centerpiece is the Qinghai-Tibet Railway - an engineering marvel stretching more than 600 miles across the permafrost-bound "Roof of the World" - which for the first time permits the easy flow of goods and tourists in and out of Tibet.

Millions of dollars more have been spent on high-quality highways slashed through breathtaking gorges, bringing electricity to remote rural areas and a cell-phone network that covers a remarkable 80 percent of Tibet's rugged landmass.

In the few substantial cities, landscaped avenues with modern traffic signals are lined by rows of new condominiums. In the countryside, grazing areas are fringed by sprawling "settlements" of single-family homes for herders and subsistence farmers. In many towns, the largest building is a new school.

Recently, work was completed on a highway that bridges the broad Lhasa River, tunnels half a mile through a mountain and then crosses another river. The purpose? To reduce the drive time from downtown Lhasa to the airport ahead of an expected tourist influx after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Why is China spending so much on a region whose population of 2.8 million is barely 0.2 percent of China's total?

Officials said they pay special attention to a region that covers one-eighth of China's land mass, lies near an occasionally hostile neighbor - India - and whose fragile, high-altitude ecosystem feeds the great rivers that sustain Chinese agriculture.

But after their sometimes brutal suppression of the separatist movement that developed around the Dalai Lama, Beijing appears to be trying to win the loyalty of the Tibetan people by cutting them in on China's new prosperity.

Critics see threat

"When the farmers, the herdsmen ... feel the benefits of development, they feel in their hearts that this kind of social system, the ruling party, does them good," explained Neymatsering, one of five vice chairmen of the Tibet Autonomous Region who, like most Tibetans, uses only one name

Critics of China's rule in Tibet acknowledge the large sums being spent on infrastructure and development, but see that as a threat rather than a boon to the region's people.

"The current form of infrastructural, GDP-oriented ultra-rapid growth is very dangerous, probably unsustainable, likely to damage local resources and environment, and encourages outside migration and profit extraction," argued the International Campaign for Tibet in a briefing paper for a Congressional Research Service team that recently visited Tibet.

"If current patterns persist over the next decade, Tibet will be integrated into the Chinese and global economies, but will not benefit. By 2020, most Tibetan nomads will have been forced off their land."

Speaking in the Washington offices of the International Campaign for Tibet, Kate Saunders said there is "nothing wrong with economic progress and development. …

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