Globalization to Tibet
By Tashi Tsering, September 2002

issue : AT n°1 - 2006
author : Tashi Tsering
file : Geopolitics
other language: French

November 30, 1999 marked a turning point in global history. Tens of thousands of ordinary people took to the streets of Seattle to stop the second round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference. This event made one thing clear-people representing various interest groups, the globalized, are increasingly critical of the management of globalization. This incident also marked an historic event for Tibetans-they took part in the demonstrations, which marked the first time they had joined a global revolt against globalization. Why would Tibetans, economically one of the poorest and least globalized peoples of the world, oppose this global phenomenon?

China's race to globalization

Unlike what the neoliberals say about globalization's   impacts on sovereignty, Chinese leaders see it in highly state-centric and state-empowering terms. Globalization (quanqiuhua) can safely be argued to be one of Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji's main longterm geo-economic and, by extension, geopolitical strategies to make China rich and strong. Beijing has made an uncodified deal with the Chinese people, a social contract, to deliver economic growth in return for the single party's (Chinese Communist Party) unquestioned rule. Behind China's "miraculous" economic growth since the "opening" (late 1970's) lies a different, less told reality. Although China has been undertaking a series of "reforms" and restructuring of its economic system to be more compatible with rapidly changing global markets and other forces of globalization, deep structural imperfections abound in China, hindering its transformation to an efficient "market economy with Chinese characteristics". Although it would be an exaggeration to say China is on the brink of a social revolution, its leaders no doubt have far more serious problems to handle than the misperceptions of Western businesses and Realists. To ensure long-term "stability" the Chinese leaders launched the Western Development Campaign in June 1999. Jiang Zemin explicitly said that the campaign "has major significance for the future prosperity of the country and the Party's long reign and perennial stability." Chinese strategists see the campaign as a means to reduce regional economic disparities and consolidate its control over Tibet and other politically sensitive and strategically important inner regions. The launch of this campaign can be seen as opportune in light of China's WTO accession: China's plan to 'develop' its west is an old one which heretofore could not be implemented mainly due to lack of capital and technology. It now aims to do that in collaboration with Western businesses, or more appropriately, by using their capital and technology. And Tibet is the key focus of the campaign.

The objectives of "developing" Tibet

From the Chinese government perspective, based on economic statistics, there has been incredible economic "development" in Tibet since their military invasion in 1949. Official statistics show Tibet Autonomous Region's GDP growth averaging 12.8% per annum from 1994-1995, with a rapidly expanding tertiary sector. What is little known is the tradition of manufacturing favorable statistics in Chinese bureaucratic politics - manipulation of statistics by officials trying to advance their careers is a common practice. Also little known is the fact that a substantial part of TAR's GDP figures are investments on large scale infrastructure and fixed assets, which are not based on local needs. What is really needed are investments in education and health services - TAR's human development index (including life expectancy index and education index) is the poorest/lowest among China's 31 provinces. Similarly, the dichotomy between Chinese government's rosy picture and the exiled Tibetan government's refutation that the benefits of these "development" projects do not go to the Tibetan people is also little understood. How and where does all the money that is being pumped into Tibet go if not for the development of the Tibetan people ?

Beijing's primary economic objective of investment in Tibet is to exploit its rich natural resources. The Tibetan Plateau - the geographical span of which (2.5 million square kilometers) roughly constitutes Tibet - is rich in mineral resources. For example, just in the central and western areas of Tibet, Chinese experts have estimated mineral reserves worth US$ 81.3 billion, and the Chinese government is investing US$ 1.25 billion in prospecting and developing these resources. Among the more recent concerns expressed by the exiled Tibetan government include the Chinese government's increasing exploration and extraction of Tibet's oil and natural gas reserves, and the construction of a railway line connecting Beijing to Lhasa. They have already started constructing pipelines to transport oil and natural gas to energy-thirsty East China in collaboration with Western companies. Almost all of these projects facilitate a supply of raw materials (and fuel) to meet the growing demands of China's mammoth economy. Functionally, China uses Tibet as a resource extraction colony. The political objective of "developing" Tibet is to assimilate Tibet and its people completely into the Chinese "motherland." Tibetans are a distinct people, and despite Chinese government's relentless efforts to sinocize their identity, Tibetan people continue to resist and adhere to their cultural and national identity. Amdo (Chinese Qinghai) Tibetans, for example, are most deeply exposed to an overwhelming Chinese cultural, economic, and political infiltration due to geographical proximity to China. Tibetan people's resilience, and the growing international support for their peaceful struggle, have become a political embarrassment for Beijing, perceived as a serious threat to the integrity of the "motherland." The "final solution" for the "Tibet issue," then, is to make Tibetans insignificant minorities in their own land by transferring millions of ethnic Chinese to settle there. The Great Western Development Campaign, which encourages Han Chinese to "go west," thus, is a perfect umbrella program to further this end. The Chinese government prefers to view "development" from a statist perspective, concerned with making the "motherland" strong and stable, even at the cost of "ethnic minorities." The Tibetan people's opposition comes from a nationalistic perspective, as they struggle under an oppressive regime, whose "developmental" policies are a death warrant to their national and cultural identity.

The globalization as another framework for exploitation

The Chinese word for Tibet, Xizang, means the "western treasure house." Despite China's unrestrained attempts to take advantage of the "treasure house," Tibet's harsh geographical conditions and paucity of human labor, transport infrastructure, modern technology and capital have made it extremely challenging and expensive to exploit its resources profitably. These conditions have kept most of Tibet economically isolated except for certain areas of northeast Amdo. Therefore, Tibet is one of the few places of the world today that is not integrated into the global economy. However, the trends in recent decades show that the Chinese government may now be successful in what it has always wanted to do - to put Tibet on the escalator to becoming a profitable resource colony. What goes on in the name of "development" in Tibet, like in many economically poorer countries around the world today, is a direct result of decisions imposed by foreigners, based on their economic and political interests. The absence of control over policies that sculpt their short and long-term prospects, or even forums for free discussion of government policies, is perhaps at the heart of Tibetan people's opposition to the so-called "development" that is sweeping their land. Neither Chinese law nor free trade rules ensure Tibetans any rights to discuss and debate policies, or negotiate terms of agreements with foreign investors. To the Tibetans, globalization represents another framework for exploitation, imposed upon by China, without their approval or knowledge. This phenomenon will further constrict their opportunities for economic, cultural, and political development by compounding the severe inequalities of power and resources already in place. Globalization comes to Tibet at Chinese invitation and under Chinese terms to fulfill Chinese goals. Tibetans in Tibet are forced to be silent witnesses as big Western companies like British Petroleum (BP) and Exxon plan to invest in Tibet under "free trade" rules to do business with dummy corporations like PetroChina, which are created and run by the Chinese government to give a privately owned appearance for Western investors. These observations have important policy implications for the Tibetan government-in-exile. Perhaps it should reassess its proposal for "genuine autonomy." Under the framework of "genuine autonomy" that the exiled government has proposed to China (and later made non-binding), Tibet's foreign affairs and, by extension, the terms of international trade, would be under Chinese control. Such an arrangement would not bring any change to some of the broader concerns expressed here. Therefore, this argument supports the request made by the Tibetan delegation at the Asia Pacific People's Assembly that their government "strengthen its position regarding negotiation with China and claim its legitimate right to fully control its foreign affairs and to choose its economic model."


*Tashi Tsering : Director of Environment and Development Program at the Tibet Justice Center.
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