After 30 years as an 'autonomous region', Tibet is once again suffering a Chinese invasion. But this time the forces of the market, not Marx, are responsible
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After 30 years as an 'autonomous region', Tibet is once again suffering a Chinese invasiion. But this time the forces of the market, not Marx, are responsible. By Teresa Poole

JUST occasionally, a Chinese cadre lets the motherland down. Zhao Fuqing, the vice-mayor of Xiaoshan city, in the fast-growing eastern province of Zhejiang, was one such sorry specimen. In April this year, his local Chinese Communist Party organisation selec-ted him to work in Tibet. The party hoped Zhao could "make his contribution to promoting national unity and developing the Tibetan eco-nomy". Zhao decided otherwise. On the "pretext" of ill-health, he refused to go. For this lack of party spirit, Zhao was sacked as vice-mayor and removed from the city's party committee.

For the Chinese government, this act of insubordination was particularly galling. The official line on Tibet is that young Chinese are falling over one another to be chosen for service there. In reality, most Han Chinese (the ethnic majority that accounts for 92 per cent of China's population) will tell you that Tibet is a "backward" region - "an unhealthy place without oxygen". With economic reform providing a wealth of money- making opportunities in China's booming cities and coastal provinces, no ambitious young graduate or government official wants to be posted to Tibet, even with the higher salaries and perks that are on offer.

Willing or unwilling, however, regular quotas of "volunteers" are still dispatched to the "roof of the world", in an immigrant tide that the Dalai Lama has described as posing "an increasing threat to the very existence of a distinct Tibetan national and cultural identity". The Chinese deny this, pointing to the official statistic that the 66,300 Han account for just under 3 per cent of Tibet's 2.32 million population. But the published figures appear designed to mislead. Most of the registered Han live in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, which has an official population of just 116,000, or in other big towns; furthermore, the figures take no account of the tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers stationed in Tibet. Most importantly, they ignore a human wave of Chinese migrant workers, peddlers and traders who, encouraged by Chinese policies, have flooded into Tibet's towns over the past three years seeking their fortune. These people are not included in the population data, but even the government admits that there are at least 40,000 Han migrants in Lhasa. In fact, Chinese in the capital now easily outnumber Tibetans.

ON 1 September, celebrations will be held in Lhasa to mark the 30th anniversary of the creation by the Chinese government of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). China imposed what it calls its "liberation" of Tibet in 1951, and in 1959 violently put down an anti-Chinese up-rising, but it was not until 1965 that the formal administrative structure of the TAR was created. Hotels in Lhasa have been block-booked for the hundreds of Chinese government leaders, officials and VIPs who will fly in for the anniversary. Security will be tight, just in case not all Tibetans share Beijing's sense of celebration. Linked to this jamboree is a parallel event this weekend aimed at foreign businessmen; the "Lhasa '95 Economic Trade Talks", which will "recommend many projects for overseas investors", and woo them with promised "preferential policies... involving income tax, customs duty, usage of land, and so on".

China boasts that the 30-year-old "auto-nomous system" has "brought social stability and prosperity to Tibet", aided by billions of yuan (equivalent to hundreds of millions of pounds) in subsidies. But many Tibetans see things differently - and not just because of China's appalling and well- chronicled human rights record in the region. Local people argue that Tibet is still governed by the Chinese, for the Chinese; that China has operated a policy of assimilation in an attempt to erode Tibetan culture; that any prosperity has enriched the Chinese more than it has the Tibetans; and that too little of China's subsidies is spent on basic needs such as healthcare and education.

Despite the much-vaunted "autonomy", Han influence is disproportionate. Nearly 40 per cent of Tibet's leading government officials at the provincial, prefectural and county level are Han Chinese; overall, 30 per cent of all government cadres' and workers' jobs are held by Han. At Tibet University in Lhasa, a third of the 1,000 students are Chinese. But it is the hold which the "floating" Chinese population has recently gained over the commercial life of Lhasa which is the most striking, and the fastest-growing cause of resentment.

In 1992, in the wake of Deng Xiaoping's exhortation to China to accelerate economic development, Tibet's government leapt on to the bandwagon of economic reform. Small private shops proliferated in Lhasa as Chinese traders, peddlers and itinerant workers moved in, many trying to escape from rural poverty and unemployment in China's under-developed western and central provinces. There was money to be made by catering for the large number of Chinese cadres and military personnel stationed in Tibet. Hundreds of restaurants selling Chinese food opened up, all owned by Chinese, while a horde of free-wheeling traders and small businessmen settled in Lhasa to exploit every commercial opportunity.

Tibet's retail trade is now almost wholly controlled by Chinese. One Chinese cadre I spoke to estimated that in Lhasa, Han Chinese own 70 per cent of the small businesses; some surveys put this as high as 90 per cent. The Han operate most of the restaurants, the food industry, and clothes retailing, leaving the Tibetans to concentrate on transportation, processing, and small stores selling religious items from India.

The commercial Han invasion is officially encouraged; a common complaint is that the Han obtain their business licences far more easily than the Tibetans. In November 1994, the powerful Chinese party secretary in Tibet, Chen Kuiyuan, urged Tibetans to "have an open mind and welcome the opening of various restaurants and stores by people from the hinterland [China]." His argument: "Under a socialist, mar- ket economy, Tibet develops its economy and the Tibetan people learn the skills to earn money when a hinterlander makes money in Tibet." Tibetans do not agree; for them, unemployment in towns is becoming a major problem, while the "hinterlanders" take the profits.

The effects of the influx of Han have not only been commercial. Lhasa now suffers from all the vices that have swept the rest of China in the past decade. In May this year the authorities admitted as much when the provincial government launched a campaign against gambling and prostitution. "Gambling is spreading like a plague," warned the Tibetan vice-secretary of Tibet's Communist Party Standing Committee, "and even law-enforcement personnel are involved. Many prostitutes are organised into gangs to do their dirty business with the help of businessmen, state officials and government employees who are secret whoremasters."

YOUNG urban Tibetans lead very different lives from those their parents lived and, to Western eyes, may seem to be abandoning their heritage. Like urban youth all over the world, they want to wear new, fashionable clothes (even if these are sold by Chinese traders), and to tune into global popular culture. It might offend Western romantic sensibilities, but young Tibetan men adore kung fu movies and karaoke. And this summer, trendy Tibetan women have been wearing Chinese-made double-breasted jackets, trousers and high-heels, all of which are sure to be seen at the hottest nightspot in Lhasa - the "New York City Disco". Only a block away from the main Jokhang temple, the disco plays Western music (rap is the favourite) until 1am for young Tibetans who can afford the pounds 2 entrance fee.

In the summer evenings, Tibetan men enjoy a game of pool, and tables are plentiful. Lhasa's cinemas show the same films that can be seen in Beijing. Across town, karaoke bars have sprung up, some offering songs in Mandarin and patronised by Chinese, others catering for locals with Tibetan and Hindi music. For Chinese residents, bars and dancehalls abound, most with their quota of imported Chinese "hostesses".

It is arguable that Tibet needs modernisation, and perhaps some erosion of traditional culture is inevitable. What is at issue is whether Tibetans have any say in the region's social and economic development, and whether China is forcing Tibet to change at an unnaturally fast pace to suit its own agenda. China's current policy for the region was set out in July 1994 at the Third National Conference on Tibet - held in Beijing. The meeting resolved to "accelerate development while maintaining stability", jargon for fast-track economic growth combined with a new crackdown on religion and what Beijing calls "splittist tendencies". For this anniversary year, Tibet's economy is supposed to grow by 10 per cent, and 62 major projects, costing pounds 183m, have been approved. Yet, so far, the billions of yuan spent on Tibet have failed to win the hearts and minds of Tibetan people. Even in Lhasa, neither propaganda nor legislation has managed to eradicate such customs as giving money to monasteries, or the main prayer rituals; most Tibetans are determined to keep their religious culture. China has been unable to achieve stability in Tibet; even the official figures admit that twice as many people were arrested in 1994 as in 1993 for alleged "counter-revolutionary activities".

Nor has China's policy rescued the region from poverty, especially in the rural areas in which 86 per cent of the population lives. Growth rates have been among the slowest for China's provinces - not least because, in practice, much of Beijing's money is spent on military and bureaucratic methods of control, rather than on raising living standards. Tibet still has 480,000 farmers and herdsmen - about a fifth of its population - living below the poverty line. Average per capita annual income for Tibetan farmers and herders is just 817 yuan (pounds 63), two-thirds of that for rural China.

Even for urban Tibetans, living conditions can be primitive. In Lhasa, the Chinese authorities have demolished swathes of Tibetan-style housing and moved people into purpose-built blocks. But while Tibetans might welcome modern accommodation, the pre-cast concrete and large windows have proved ill-suited to the harsh climate. Nor have facilities improved; one survey of housing built in 1993 found that the number of people sharing one water tap had doubled to 87. Healthcare also remains basic; between 1990 and 1993, the number of hospital beds and doctors per capita actually fell.

Tibetan academics stress that, for prosperity to spread throughout the population, education must be given high priority. In June 1994, China Daily said that 120,000 school-aged children were not in school, and another 100,000 had to stand in class because of lack of chairs and desks. Tibetans are not even adequately learning their own language: the illiteracy rate is three times China's national average.

Promoting the language is seen by Tibetan intellectuals as a link between economic development and cultural survival. Business and official meetings are usually conducted in Chinese. "There is a great danger of a slow disintegration of the Tibetan language," said one Lhasa academic. Efforts are being made to standardise the spoken language - which has three broad dialects - into a common Tibetan tongue. Lexicographers are compiling dictionaries of new words necessary in a technological world. It is hoped that, with a stronger language, the level of education for Tibetans will improve. Then they too will reap the benefits of reform.

Speaking with unusual candour, one Tibetan academic said: "If there is no general improvement in the educational level of Tibetans, who does it [economic growth] really benefit?... Who does it benefit - the masses, or those who hold the reins of power?" !