Once famous as the cradle of Tibetan civilization, the dusty city of Tsetang today looks more like an outpost of Chinese culture. The People's Liberation Army maintains a base here, and Chinese characters elbow out Tibetan script on signs. Most shops, guest houses, and restaurants in Tsetang are run by Han Chinese immigrants -- even though a majority of residents are Tibetan. "All these shops are run by Chinese. There aren't any Tibetans working here," grumbles a 36-year-old Tibetan pedicab driver as he trundles down Tsetang's Gesang Road. "The Chinese have connections in the government, so they get the jobs."
He should get ready for even more competition. China wants to wean Tibet's backward, subsidized economy from its dependence on agriculture while developing tourism and trade. Economic development, Beijing hopes, will defang Tibet's long-lived separatist movement. The linchpin of that plan is a 1,142-kilometer railway to link Tibet with the rest of China, scheduled to open on July 1, 2007. Along with development, though, the railway is certain to bring even more Chinese immigrants. "It is unimaginable to maintain a high economic growth rate in Tibet without this railroad," says Jampa Phuntsog, deputy party secretary of what Beijing calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region. "It will help us intensify contacts with the rest of the world."
China has big plans for Tibet. The central government has already poured some $5 billion into everything from highways and power plants to sports stadiums in the region, and it expects to invest an additional $10 billion by 2005. And Beijing offers Chinese companies that invest in Tibet free land and a three-year tax holiday. "Tibet's economy today is a blood transfusion economy -- it is extremely reliant on the rest of China," says Zhang Zhirong, a Tibet scholar at Beijing University.
Few would say that Tibet couldn't use a hand. Infant mortality rates are nearly twice the national average. Independent health organizations estimate that as many as half of Tibetan children are malnourished, and diseases such as goiter and tuberculosis are rampant. Only about half of Tibetans are literate, compared with a national average of 90%. Manufacturing industries are almost nonexistent, and foreign investment has totaled less than $10 million over the last five years. Meanwhile, the meager urban incomes in Tibet are more than five times those in rural areas, and the gap is getting larger.
Beijing believes better infrastructure is the key to improving Tibet's economy -- and to strengthening China's hold over the region. In addition to the $3.2 billion railway, Tibet will see thousands of kilometers of new and improved highways by 2005. Bridges and tunnels are being built to link cities and towns to the railway route. And Beijing intends to further develop the rich hydropower potential of the mighty rivers that originate in Tibet, including the Brahmaputra, the Ganges, the Mekong, and the Yangtze.
Why should Beijing care so much? For starters, Tibet is a big black eye for China internationally. After invading Tibet in 1951 -- the Chinese call it "peaceful liberation" -- the Chinese army quashed an uprising in 1959, killing thousands and forcing the then-24-year-old Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and political leader, into exile. Then Red Guards destroyed hundreds of monasteries during the Cultural Revolution. Today, as Beijing takes a larger political and economic role in Asia, Chinese leaders need to convince the world that being part of China is in Tibetans' best interest. Furthermore, Tibet borders Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Burma. New border crossings that are in the works will make the region China's "passageway to South Asia," says Phuntsog. "We hope to use our advantageous position to benefit stability and economic development in the region."
Convincing the world that conditions for Tibetans are improving may not be so easy. Despite Beijing's largesse, most Tibetans believe the Dalai Lama is their true leader. So far, Beijing has struck an often uneasy balance between allowing some growth in the practice of Buddhism, but with limits on the number of monks, rules prohibiting religious practice by government officials and university students, and a ban on displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama. Even so, most Tibetans are deeply religious. "Our biggest problem is that the Dalai Lama is not here with us," says a 22-year-old monk in a monastery in central Tibet.
Much of the economic development, meanwhile, does more to benefit Chinese immigrants than native Tibetans. Locals often lack the education of the newcomers, don't speak fluent Mandarin, and face discrimination from Han employers, scholars and NGOs say. So it's much easier for Han Chinese to get ahead. Even the railway, which already provides work for some 38,000 people, is largely being built by Chinese. Sure, the project employs some 6,000 Tibetan laborers, but of the estimated 27,000 semi-skilled workers and managers for the railway, "basically none are Tibetan," admits Huang Difu, chief commander of the project. The reason, he says, is that most work has been subcontracted to enterprises based elsewhere in China.
That's not to say that all Tibetans have been left out. Deputy party chief Phuntsog, for one, is Tibetan. He is one of a small group of elite Tibetans who joined the Communist Party early and have been carefully groomed for power. Phuntsog even studied at the party school in Beijing in the 1980s. Now 56, he also serves as the nominal chairman -- effectively the governor -- of the Autonomous Region. But Phuntsog must answer to the real boss: Guo Jinlong, a Han Chinese who serves as party secretary of Tibet.
And some Tibetans, albeit a minority, are even prospering in business. Tsering Wangqing, a 38-year-old Tibetan from Sichuan province, has opened popular Tibetan restaurants in Lhasa, Beijing, and Kunming. His restaurants feature traditional Tibetan furniture and décor and performances by folk musicians and dancers. "China's overall economy keeps getting stronger," says Wangqing. "And as Tibetans, the larger environment of China gives us lots of opportunity."
Clearly Wangqing is an exception. But Beijing hopes that economic development will make more Tibetans accept Chinese rule, which is a reality that's unlikely to change. Despite his high profile abroad, the Dalai Lama is now 68 years old and appears increasingly eager to strike a deal with Beijing. He has scaled back his demands for independence and now only asks for some form of cultural autonomy for Tibet. And even as Western officials continue to meet the Dalai Lama and voice their concerns about Chinese human-rights policies in Tibet, few would let the issue scuttle their trade with China. That means China will likely have a free hand in taming the mountainous region, regardless of what Tibetans think.
By Dexter Roberts in Lhasa