After the deadly riots that engulfed Tibetan areas in 2008, one might have expected that the Chinese government’s first high-level conference on Tibet policy since 2001 would generate new ideas. Instead, it offered more of the same. Blaming outside forces for the ethnic unrest, the leadership promised to “fast-track Tibet’s development” to achieve “lasting stability”—Communist Party speak for “throw more money at the problem” and “come down hard on unrest”.
Over the last decade, the Chinese government has invested massive sums of at least $46 billion in Tibetan areas. But the rivers of money have also created problems. Massive public spending has attracted an unprecedented number of Han Chinese migrants to Tibet. With skills better suited to work in new industries, the migrants are outcompeting ethnic Tibetans for the best-paid jobs.
For years, the Chinese government has argued that such migrants can “lead the way” while ethnic Tibetans catch up, but rising inequalities within Tibetan areas and the highest levels of ethnic violence in decades strongly suggest this trickle-down approach has failed. Many Tibetans have never been to school and have only basic literacy in Chinese—the language of commerce and administration. Very few have the skills needed to participate in new economic opportunities.
The problems are not just economic. The historically unprecedented movement of non-Tibetans into Tibetan cities and towns has fuelled Tibetans’ insecurity about the future of their homeland’s ethnic distinctiveness. Their fears are compounded by national and local government policies that seek to curtail the influence of organized Tibetan Buddhism by placing restrictions on religious practices and monastic life—a cornerstone of Tibetan cultural identity.
At the fifth Tibet Work Conference in Beijing last month—the first of its kind since 2003, China’s leaders pledged additional $60 billion to Tibet’s development over the next five years. Unfortunately, more public investment is likely to exacerbate ethnic tensions unless there is a qualitative shift in the way funds are spent. While policy documents increasingly refer to “human development”, “fast-tracking” Tibet’s development typically means only one thing in Chinese government circles—double-digit gross domestic product (GDP) growth. At local levels, GDP growth is the main indicator used to assess local leaders’ performance. To achieve growth targets, leaders tend to prioritize large-scale public works over investment in people. And because they need the job done in double time, Han Chinese contractors and their migrant crews are often preferred.
The Chinese government will not achieve lasting stability in Tibetan areas if GDP continues to be policymakers’ primary obsession. Beijing should be much more concerned about the economic marginalization of Tibetans. Low Chinese literacy means Tibetans struggle to compete academically, especially beyond elementary school when many drop out. As the economy grows and changes, rural Tibetans desperately need to learn new skills. At present, they have little or no access to vocational training programmes.
In Beijing last month, China’s leaders called for “development with Chinese characteristics adapted to Tibet’s regional conditions”. This sounds a lot like the failed policies of the past. China’s policymakers should be thinking about how to realize “development with Tibetan characteristics” where the emphasis is on socially inclusive development rather than social control. The achievement of “lasting stability” in Tibet—the Chinese government’s ultimate goal—will demand a more sophisticated policy.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Ben Hillman is a lecturer in comparative government at the Australian National University and chair of the Eastern Tibet Training Institute. Comment at email@example.com