This week’s post will elaborate on the history behind the modernization plans spearheaded by the Beijing government throughout the western provinces of China for the past three decades, which then directly leads to the widespread environmental and social justice problems Tibetan traditional society is facing.
Today, the global media ubiquitously discusses about the miraculous rapid growth of the Chinese economy under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping inside the last three decades. This growth is actually centered mostly in the Southern coastal cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. If you take a look at the earnings across the different Chinese provinces per capita in the website linked in the end of the post, you will notice that while the Southern provinces with its heavily manufacturing based economy, prosper as the richest ones in China showing drastic signs of alleviation, the provinces in the Western parts of China, Xinjiang, and Tibet, have not made any significant economic improvements in the past three decades.
According to Beijing government’s population distribution statistics, Western provinces of China make up 75% of the ethnic minority population, mainly consisting of Uighurs, Mongols, and Tibetans; these areas also include 85% of the grasslands of China.
In order to have the Western provinces ‘catch up’ to the Eastern provinces, in 2006 led by then-Premier Zhu Rongii, launched the Beijing government launched a campaign called Xibu da kaifa, ‘Open up the West’. This was a huge initiative taken up by the government to get the Western frontiers populated by ethnic minorities of China, Xinjiang and Tibet, to catch up to the rapid modernization that was taking place especially in the rest of China. The rest of the post will be mainly focusing on the modernization taking place in Tibet.
The Beijing government’s initiative mainly involved heavy investments in the development of infrastructures such as hydropower plants and transportation. In the name of modernization, traditional cities have been razed and replaced with “modern” ones. Also, while the official State rhetoric mentions the increase of employment opportunities for Tibetans, these jobs are service sector ones directly linked to building modern infrastructures and that do not have much mobility and and are sustainable.
The most controversial of these infrastructures is the railroad built from China to Lhasa, Tibet, because it severely harmed the natural ecosystem by directly running through breeding grounds and the migration patterns of animals such as the endangered Tibetan antelope.
In addition to heavy investments, the government also provided many economic incentives such as advertising for job abundance so that Hans from the rural parts of China would migrate to the Tibet. Dr. David S G Goodman, Chinese History professor at the University of Sydney, interpreted this mass migration of Hans into western China as similar to “internal colonization”, in terms of subjugating the locals and having the dominant power favor its own people.
In 2003, Beijing released a statistic, revealing that Tibet’s GDP was 28% higher than it was in 1978. While the government’s initial formal intention for the modernization of the West was to “reduce the socio-economic inequalities and to ensure the socio-political stability in these non-Han areas,” in reality according to an article by BBC, the Han Chinese migrants dominating the economy are the ones who reap major benefits from these growths.
A 2001, New York Times article quoted then President Jiang Zemin stating “Some people advised me not to go ahead with this project because it is not commercially viable. I said this is a political decision, we will make this project succeed at all costs, even if there is a commercial loss”.
The quote from former President Jiang is significant because it reveals that even though on the surface level the intention of heavily modernizing Tibet may have been for socio-economic advancement, in reality, it was for the political incorporation of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities into the dominant mainstream Han society. This then sets the pathway for the Tibetans to abandon their traditional lifestyles in the grasslands. Dr. Emily Yeh, Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, further elaborates on this point by positing that the future grassland management law of Tuimu Huancao, literally translated as “retiring the grazing to the grasslands,” is supposedly the sustainable development component of the “Open up the West” policy in Beijing’s rhetoric. Tuimu Huancao policy will be further explored in my next week’s blog post and it will elaborate on how it is the main source of grassland degradation and its social affects on the traditional Tibetan nomadic lifestyle.
(NOTE: All the statistics the author mentions in this article will be available in detail on the official People’s Republic of China government’s National Bureau of Statistics of China’s webpage)