By all measures Tibet’s economy is booming. In the past 30 years its growth rate has outstripped the rest of China’s, 10.4 percent to 9.8 percent year on year. The result is that the vast majority of Tibetans have been pulled out of deep poverty.
Simultaneously a massive investment in soft and hard infrastructure had the central government pick up 93 percent of the bill. Education had expanded from virtually nothing in 1951, when the Communists took over, by 92 percent at the completion of a nine-year-education program. A new university campus for 9,000 students has opened, and Tibet has achieved the per capita national average for doctors and hospital beds.
On the hard side, the Qinghai-Lhasa railway has opened — Tibet was the last province to join the network — and thousands of kilometers of new roads have been built with a new airport planned for western Tibet.
Yet the new prosperity has been a problem as much as a solution. While indigenous Tibetans have done well, incoming Han Chinese have done better in terms of income, jobs and status.
The social structures of centuries have broken down, leading to alienated, under-employed urban youth — all coupled with a government in exile demanding “autonomy” in the name of the Dalai Lama. Which translates to “independence” for the Tibetan Youth Congress.
March 14, the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 and just five months from the Olympics, saw organized, initially peaceful, demonstrations by monks rapidly turn into “race riots” when up to 10,000 mainly young Tibetans took to the Lhasa’s streets, burning shops and cars, schools and hospitals.
Their targets were Han Chinese and Muslims, whose shops and residential areas were attacked. One of Lhasa’s two mosques was damaged. In the ensuing mayhem, 18 civilians died, three of whom were Tibetans, with up to 400 injured.
The response from security authorities came over hours and days. Rioters were driven off the streets of Lhasa as well as other towns and cities of Tibet and other provinces with high Tibetan populations. In Lhasa, 365 people were arrested and 170 placed on a wanted list. Officially no one was killed, but the word on the streets of Lhasa was that several dozen died.
At the same time the Dalai Lama panicked as events seemed to be spinning out of control and called for an end to violence with the threat of resignation. It almost certainly helped to calm the situation, as did the Chinese government’s desire to take the minimum measures necessary in the runup to August’s Olympics.
Lhasa is now calm, but tense with police on the streets and checkpoints in the center of town. The teaching monasteries have been temporarily closed and the monks sent home.
The extent of the damage is still obvious with burned out shops punctuating many of Lhasa’s streets. The direct economic cost is estimated at $32 million. Yet this is inconsequential compared to the indirect costs. Growth and investment have halved this year, while the number of tourists has dropped by two-thirds as Han Chinese are frightened and Westerners forbidden.
What’s to be done? If China has filled the pockets — to a degree — of Tibetans, it clearly hasn’t filled their hearts and minds. It looks to Tibet’s aristocrats in exile in India for solutions. What is necessary is additional autonomy that lets Tibet make its own decisions, within some kind of national framework, on education and culture, low-level policing and future immigration.
For example, at university, Tibetans should be able to take subjects like medicine, physics and chemistry in their own language, while schools should not have four to six hours of compulsory Chinese for Tibetan students, and two hours of English — but no Tibetan — for its Han Chinese pupils.
Although the Chinese won’t want to hear it, the Dalai Lama maybe their last best hope for a long time. While seemingly in excellent health, he is in his 70s and the lack of progress over what will have been 50 years of self-imposed exile next year means that the “young Turks” in the Tibetan Youth Congress — many of whom have never been in Tibet — are losing patience. This time he exerted control, but that won’t be the case indefinitely.
China’s military believes the three biggest threats they face are secessionism, extremism and terrorism. The first two already exist in Tibet, and the third will surely follow if the situation remains stalemated.
At the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace in Lhasa, there is a wall painting of the history of creation with Darwinian — and Engelian — overtones of monkeys being transformed through labor into men. More important, its final frame portrays the 1956 meeting of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama with Mao Zedong in Beijing.
Maybe it’s time to get together again and make an offer he can’t refuse, or that would put him clearly on the the wrong side of international opinion if he did refuse.
Glyn Ford, member of the European Parliament (Labour, Southwest England), has just returned from a four-day visit to Lhasa. His visit was the first by a Western politician since the events of March 14.
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