Leapfrog growth

Print edition : September 19, 2014

Labourers working on the Tanggula section of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, on June 20, 2006. Photo: Joe Chan/REUTERS

A Tibetan family moving into their new house built as part of a government subsidised housing project in Kunggar Town of Maizhokunggar County in Lhasa, on February 11, 2009. Photo: Purbu Zhaxi/Xinhua

Delegates to the 2014 Forum on the Development of Tibet. Photo: By special arrangement

Data presented at the “2014 Forum on the Development of Tibet”, held in Lhasa in the second week of August, show that Tibet has been undergoing transformational growth, narrowing the developmental gap with the rest of China.

LHASA, the capital of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), was the venue of the “2014 Forum on the Development of Tibet”. More than 100 delegates from China and all over the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom and India, participated in the two-day conference held in the second week of August. Losang Jamcan, chairman of the Tibetan regional government, in a keynote speech, said that the “leapfrog” development the region was witnessing would soon bridge the existing gap in living standards between Tibet and the rest of China. He said that the impressive growth rate the region was witnessing would be maintained, but, at the same time, care would be taken to protect and preserve the region’s fragile environment.

“Tibet will never develop at the expense of the environment,” Losang Jamcan emphasised. “To protect Tibet’s environment is the biggest contribution we can make to the nation and even humankind.” Tibet, called the “third pole”, has a fragile ecosystem. The plateau and its surrounding mountains cover five million square kilometres and hold the biggest quantity of ice outside the South and North Poles. The impact of global warming is already being felt here. A report jointly released by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the government of Tibet in the third week of August stated that the Tibetan region was getting hotter, wetter and more polluted. Lhasa, however, remains the least-polluted city in China.

Cui Yuying, vice head of China’s Information Office, said that some people would still like to see Tibetans to continue “riding yaks and living in tents”. Tibet, she said, was on an “irreversible path of development”. This correspondent saw first-hand the progress the Tibetan hinterland was making, on a road trip from Lhasa to Nyingchi, near the border with India. Work on the railway track, which is being built on difficult mountainous terrain, was progressing well. Bridges over fast-flowing rivers looked to be on the verge of completion. Visits to towns like Lulang and Bayi, nestled in areas abounding in breathtaking beauty, reinforced one’s view that the fruits of development had reached remote corners of Tibet.

At the end of the conference, the delegates signed a document called the “Lhasa Consensus”, which stated that Tibet enjoyed sound economic growth and social harmony. The participants noted that ordinary people were living a contented life and that traditional culture continued to thrive. Religious freedom, the participants concluded, was evident all over the TAR. “Prayer flags, pilgrims and people burning aromatic plants for religious purpose can be seen easily on the streets of Lhasa. The temples are crowded with worshippers and pilgrims,” the participants at the Forum stated. The Lhasa Consensus statement also said that the situation on the ground in Tibet was radically different from the one that was being portrayed by the Dalai Lama.

American historians are fond of saying that it was the coming of the railways that opened the hinterland of the U.S. for development. The Herculean efforts of Chinese railway engineers to connect the TAR, “the roof of the world”, to the rest of China has given a similar fillip to the local economy and the wider region. The Qinghai-Tibet railway, one of the greatest engineering feats of this century, has contributed significantly to the rapid growth of the Tibetan economy in recent years. Tibet was the only autonomous region in the People’s Republic that was not linked by rail. The railway, built at a cost of $4 billion and completed in 2005, reaches an altitude of over 5,000 metres and is the highest railway in the world. About 550 km of the railway is built on permafrost.

Now, the railway is being extended from Lhasa to Xigase, near the border with Nepal. The line is being further extended to Nyingchi, near the border with India. The railway will be connected to the inland port of Yadong, situated 300 km from Thimphu and 600 km from Dhaka. This will further expand trade between Tibet and South Asian countries. (With the Indian Railways also having ambitious plans to extend its network to the north-east, the time may soon come when people and goods from India can reach Tibet by train.) The short-term goal is to connect the whole of Tibet to the major cities of China by the year 2020. Among the tracks planned are the ones to the Nepalese and Indian borders from Xigase. The 253-km Lhasa-Xigase line became operational in the third week of August. A total of 116 bridges and 29 tunnels account for 46 per cent of the length of this new railway line, which passes through scenic alpine valleys and mountains.

Tibet has been witnessing dramatic changes since the early 1990s, when the Communist Party leadership in Lhasa started seriously implementing the kind of economic reforms that had already been initiated in the rest of China since 1978. The Central government in Beijing had set an ambitious goal for the development of Tibet, which until then was among the least-developed regions in China. At the same time, the Communist Party leadership was mindful of the local conditions prevalent in Tibet. Great care was taken to ensure that the ambitious infrastructure projects like the railway did not cause any environmental problems or radically upset the traditional Tibetan way of life. The Chinese Constitution and the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy guarantee the rights of Tibetans to use and develop their own language. The Central government has promulgated tough laws aimed at protecting the religious relics and monuments that dot the Tibetan plateau. The magnificent Potala Palace has been restored to its old glory with help from the Central government in the form of cash, gold and technical expertise.

The Chinese Communist Party had acknowledged the fact that the Tibetan economy, despite reforms introduced in the late 1970s, was relatively backward in comparison with the developed regions in the south and the east of the country. In July 1992, Tibet introduced a set of policies and regulations to “deepen reforms and increase the degree of openness” while encouraging investment in Tibet, not only from other parts of China but also from outside. Border trading posts, including those along the border with India and Nepal, where barter trade had historically existed, were reopened.

The Chinese Communist Party has been formulating special measures for Tibet since its peaceful liberation. These measures included heavy subsidies for the Tibetan economy. Large amounts of funds were allocated from the Central budget to revitalise the Tibetan economy. In the 1990s, more than a billion yuan were spent on a comprehensive agricultural project in Tibet. The untapped agricultural, water, mineral and other resources were successfully harnessed for developmental purposes. As a result, Tibet, like the rest of China, has also been witnessing impressive economic growth since the early 1990s.

In Tibet, urban and rural growth has complemented each other. Most of the population is confined to rural areas. It should not be forgotten that at the time of the peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951, the region was among the poorest in the world. It had virtually no industries to boast of at the time.

The region is well endowed with mineral resources, which are estimated to be worth more than $96 billion. The Tibetan plateau has enormous reserves of copper, gold and silver. The many salt lakes in Tibet have an abundance of rare minerals such as lithium, boron and caesium. According to the Chinese authorities, meticulous planning is done before mining operations are commenced so that minimum damage is done to the fragile environment.

Agricultural and industrial output has been recording an upward growth every year. In the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10), the state increased its spending on agriculture substantially. In the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15), Tibet has continued to focus on agricultural scientific research for the production of high-yield crops, livestock breeding and food processing. Agricultural income, because of increased output and better transportation, registered a double-digit increase in the last decade. In recent years, the Central government and the Tibetan local government have implemented preferential policies for crop cultivation, along with subsidies for livestock breeding and forestry. Farmers are urged to plant crops according to the needs of the market. Last year, Tibet’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 13 per cent. Statistics show that the average income in the poorest rural areas has risen substantially. Better roads and railways have made consumer goods available to all Tibetans.

Education and the propagation of Tibetan culture have also been given due importance. The literacy rate, along with school attendance rates, has risen dramatically, despite the fact that many Tibetans still follow a nomadic and pastoral lifestyle. The “three guarantees” of free food, accommodation and tuition offered by the Central government is an attractive incentive for the youth. Hundreds of new Tibetan middle schools have been set up since the 1980s. By 2020, Tibet is expected to be close to the national average in terms of educational development.

Medical services and hospitals are now within easy reach in the large but sparsely populated Tibetan plateau. The immunisation rate for children is almost 100 per cent and the average life span has now exceeded 65. Tibetans having a job and those living in urban areas have medical insurance, though they have to contribute a small percentage of their salaries to avail themselves of this benefit. In farming and pastoral areas, the people are entitled to free medical care. By the end of the last decade, the number of hospital beds increased to 8,338. In 1959, when the Dalai Lama left Tibet, the number of hospital beds available was only 480.

The Tibetan population, which, before liberation, was experiencing negative growth, has now been registering steady growth. According to the sixth national census conducted in 2010, the region had a population of over three million, more than double what it was in 1951. Better health facilities and improved standards of living have obviously contributed to the growth. Tibetans engaged in pastoral activities such as livestock breeding and agriculture are exempted from the strict family-planning norms most Chinese nationals are subjected to. The growth rate of the Tibetan population is higher than the national average in the People’s Republic.

A mass housing programme completed this year has provided comfortable and permanent shelters in the form of modern Tibetan-style houses to more than 2.3 million Tibetans, many of whom live in semi-nomadic conditions. The Chinese authorities argue that these are moves that will help the average Tibetan to transit from traditional agricultural practices and animal husbandry to a modern market economy.

Today, according to available indicators, the developmental gap between Tibet and the rest of China has considerably narrowed. The Chinese Communist Party has maintained that the development of Tibet is crucial to the overall development and progress of China.