09/01/2005, 00.00
CHINA – TIBET
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Economic development on the backs of the people of Tibet

Beijing may praise equality and economic progress in Tibet, but the reality is that indigenous Tibetans are increasingly cut off from economic and social progress.

Lhasa (AsiaNews) – China is celebrating today the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region in 1965. Official pronouncements aside, many observers have noted how in these 40 years Tibetan society has become profoundly fractured with indigenous Tibetans increasingly marginalised, turned into a lumpen-proletariat and excluded from the Beijing-driven modernisation and industrialisation of the territory.

Tibet has been ruled by China since the People's Liberation Army invaded the Himalayan territory in 1950. Nine years later, Tibet's god-king, the Dalai Lama, fled on horseback after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Since then, Beijing has encouraged the immigration of ethnic Han Chinese, both to underscore its claim to Tibet and in hopes that the settlers would eventually take over the country.

For many observers, the central government has failed to help the native Tibetan population, who are mostly farmers, in their quest for economic, social and cultural development. Instead, it has favoured Han Chinese. This has contributed to a rich-poor gap that falls along ethnic lines, creating a divide between Han Chinese and Tibetans.

Tibet's capital Lhasa is booming. The local government boasts 12 per cent growth rates for the past four years, driven by massive investment from Beijing. Tens of billions of yuans have poured into the country, mostly to the benefit of Chinese who settled from other regions thanks to incentives such as residence permits and business licences.

In Tibet's main cities modern buildings are going up, five-start hotels are opening, new stores are showing their wares, but little is done to modernise agriculture.

Mandarin is the only language allowed in schools whilst teaching Tibetan culture, language and religion is banned until students reach the age of 18.

"The government expansion is being driven by Beijing; it's not being driven locally. And that's creating a much polarised economy," said Andrew Fischer, a development economist at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Only about 13 per cent of ethnic Tibetans have a secondary school education or above, Fischer noted, compared with 50 per cent among Han Chinese. Forty per cent of Tibetans are illiterate and this translates into a yawning income gap that exacerbates the ethnic divide.

About 70 per cent of indigenous Tibetans work in agriculture and their future looks bleak.  "We eat what we grow," farmers said to explain the gap between their life and that in the cities.

By contrast, the government's showcase is the new, 2,040 Km railway from Xining (Qinghai province) to Lhasa due to open in 2007 that came with a US$ 4 billion price tag.

For Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan, the railway will favour tourism and official sources claim it will provide employment to farmers. Tibetans fear instead that it will open the floodgates to Han Chinese who will monopolise all new business.

Some observers point out that the grand celebrations marking Sino-Tibetan unity and common interests only show how much Tibet was and is different from the rest of China.

Since 1950 more than 2,000 Tibetan monasteries have been destroyed. Buddhist monks are under strict control. Dozens of them have been incarcerated; the death penalty is frequently applied and torture is commonplace. Last year, two monks were sentenced to 11 years for publicly displaying the Tibetan national flag.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11-year-old whom the Dalai Lama recognised as his successor in 1995, has been held incommunicado. Since then, nothing has been heard about him or his family. Instead, Beijing has appointed a different Panchen Lama.

Last July, Jampa Phuntsok, the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, said if the Dalai Lama were to die in exile his successor would be chosen according to Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the most important of which was approval by the Chinese central government. (PB)

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