The article by Chet Nath Acharya, published in Nepali in the Annapurna Post on July 6, 2014, and translated into English and made available on www.lalitmag.com, depicted Tibet as a paradise of progress and comfort, and suggested Nepal has much to learn from China’s development policies there. But the comparison is flawed from the outset. Unlike Nepal, Tibet under Chinese rule is not a democracy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the only party. Everyday people do not have a single say in anything that the government does. It can (and does) silence critics, put down protests and skew statistics to give the appearance that its policies are having a positive effect. So Acharya’s claims that “Tibet has made astonishing results in every sector”, including social education, standard of living, culture and tradition should be treated sceptically. Indeed, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recently raised major concerns about all these areas. China’s so-called development of Tibet is deeply problematic. Rather than a blueprint to aspire to, a closer look at the reality behind the statistics almost provides a “what not to do” guide for Nepal’s development. It also raises the question of why the comparison with Nepal is being made in the first place.
China’s involvement in Tibet’s development started in 1950, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Lhasa. Acharya’s description of Tibetans prior to the occupation as “serfs” evokes a Stalinist version of history that was used to justify the CCP’s imposition of change in Tibet. His article’s version of Tibetan history ignores the fact that the CCP’s own policies caused much damage in Tibet from 1950 onwards, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which saw hundreds of thousands of Tibetans killed by Chinese cadre or dying from state-perpetuated famine (www.rangzen.net/2012/09/14/the-body-count-2). This narrative also glibly ignores the fact that the Chinese occupation was an interruption of Tibet’s own development which, experts such as development economist Dr Andrew Fischer say, would very likely have been in a similar vein to developing countries worldwide at that time if it hadn’t been occupied by China.
Such manipulation of fact is a running theme throughout Acharya’s piece, and indeed the Chinese government’s own propaganda on Tibet. Since 2000, development carried out in Tibet has been part of China’s wider “Western Development Strategy”, ostensibly aimed at improving the economic standing of the impoverished western regions, including the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), and other Tibetan areas. Fourteen years on, it is clear the strategy’s actual aims are to exploit the resources of the western regions, support an economically and politically dominant Chinese migrant population into the urban areas, and exert further control over the Tibetan and Uyghur populations – none of this for the benefit of Tibetans.
Acharya’s use of statistics is often inaccurate, and very close to the Chinese Communist Party line – which of course has the power to manipulate numbers to give a desired impression. Acharya’s tourism employment data, for example, cannot be anything but exaggerated: 300,000 is over half of the total urban employment figures for the TAR, but separate employment figures for hotels, catering and transport – the main categories of employment related to tourism – come to far lower than that.
A proper look at the basic markers of development that Acharya mentions – infant mortality rate and life expectancy – undermines the theory that Nepal is far behind Tibet. Acharya claims that Tibet’s infant mortality rate is at 0.31 per cent, but this measure is only for the first 45 days. Using the globally recognised measure of Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) as deaths of babies in their first year, China was ranked in 2012 at 1.2 per cent by the World Bank. China’s own statistics (www.unicef.cn/en/index.php?m=content&c=index&a=show&catid=198&id=793) show the IMR in Tibet at over 2 per cent, making the Tibetan Autonomous Region the most dangerous place to be born in all of China. It is very difficult to cross-check government numbers on IMR in Tibet, as access is denied to researchers. But the anthropologist Sienna R. Craig, in her 2009 article on pregnancy in Tibet, cites a range of sources that suggest the actual IMR figure in Tibet could be anything between 4.9 per cent and 30 per cent! Children born in Nepal (IMR 3.4 per cent) and Bhutan (IMR 3.7 per cent) fare much better in comparison. Life expectancy in Nepal is better too. In Tibet, according to the article, life expectancy is at 67 years, whereas the World Bank has Nepalis living a year longer on average.
School enrolment rates in Tibet may be impressively high on paper – 99.95% for primary and 92% for secondary, according to Acharya’s article – but, as Fischer points out, rural schools tend to be “poorly-funded, low-quality and often overcrowded”. Some teachers are paid so little that they run shops rather than stay in the classroom. Added to this is China’s recent attack on the Tibetan language, which now means that all higher secondary classes in the TAR are only in the Mandarin language. Tibetan students struggle with learning Mandarin to proficiency in order to pass their final exams and compete in the job market. Thousands of Tibetan school children bravely protested this policy in 2010 and again in 2012, but were met with either state silence or violence. The knock-on effect of this is that the millions of urban-dwelling Han Chinese migrant workers in Tibet are far more able to get jobs, leaving Tibetans as a disenfranchised community in their own land.
Statistics are not the only things used in the false narrative of China’s positive development of Tibet. Large-scale projects carried out in the TAR such as mining masquerade as development, but negatively affect the local Tibetans in terms of access to land, employment, water sources, and access to religious sites, such as sacred mountains. These projects frequently spark protests from local Tibetans, which are then swiftly – and often brutally – put down by authorities desperate to maintain total control and an appearance that everyone is happy. In January 2014 over 30 Tibetans in Lhatok, Chamdo, TAR, were reportedly arrested and suffered torture in detention for collecting signatures on a petition against the mining. In May, in nearby Tongbar region, a 32-year-old man stabbed himself in protest at the mining, sparking further protests, which were met with force (www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/launched-05132014165746.html).
China has put a large focus on ecological conservation, which sounds commendable, but again all is not right on closer inspection. The Annapurna Post article gives the impression that China is investing massively in reforestation, with grand plans to be achieved by 2030. Yet reforestation has been patchy, relying more on dropping seeds from aeroplanes rather than employing local communities as forest stewards and guardians of the vulnerable saplings. And in a bid to apparently “protect the grasslands”, 2.5 million Tibetan nomads and rural residents have been or are being resettled from their ancestral grasslands to isolated concrete settlements. The nomads there are labelled and monitored, as they while away their lives, stripped of their sources of livelihood, cultural connections, and community ties. Despite expert advice from Chinese, Tibetan and Western environmental experts, such as Liu Shu Run, Daniel Miller, Dr Katherine Morton, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Food, that this policy is detrimental to both the land and the people and should be stopped, the large-scale eviction of more than a third of the entire Tibetan population in China continues.
It begs the question, if not conservation or improvement of quality of life for the people, what on earth is this so-called “development” for? The answer is depressing – security and resource exploitation, for the benefit of the state and big business. In his book Spoiling Tibet, Gabriel Lafitte notes that when nomads were moved off their land in the Gyama Valley, mining operations replaced them, a pattern emerging across Tibet. Tibetans have been marginalised in their own land, turned into an underclass that is not served by government development policy, and made poor and disempowered by China’s exploitation of their land and resources, all under the pretext of development.
Looking at China’s attacks on Tibetan culture – where all monasteries in the TAR are now closely monitored, and many monks and nuns detained – it seems that this is not an accident, and not just neglect or the product of unrecognised discrimination. Far more insidiously, China is purposefully seeking to take the land, livelihood, religion, language and community spirit from Tibetans so that they are no longer a separate people.
All of this of course flies in the face of theories around sustainable development, which stress the need for dialogue and group work in order to improve conditions in ways that power and progress can be shared. Such an approach necessitates recognising that everyone has rights, and allowing everyone concerned a voice in the process. As a democracy, Nepal is far, far better placed for this than China. In Nepal, citizens can speak freely and form community organisations without fear of state crackdown. They can protest and change the way they vote to hold their political leaders to some sort of accountability. There continues to be vigorous debate about how power and resources should be shared throughout the country.
Acharya started his article by stating that Tibet is the hare and that Nepal has been the tortoise in terms of development. But the end of that famous story is that the tortoise – being clever and steady – ultimately wins the race. The road might be long, but it is open. Nepal, by taking an inclusive, democratic, localized approach to building the country’s future, could one day provide lessons that China would do well to learn.
This begs the question of why such an unhelpful comparison is being made in the first place. China has been particularly concerned about the public image of Tibet since 2008, when thousands of Tibetans protested against Chinese policies there. China’s response has been to silence its critics, rather than address the underlying causes (many of which are the issues I’ve mentioned above). On the inside, Tibetans continue to face severe government crackdowns. On the outside, China massively upped the ante on its global PR campaign on Tibet, positioning itself as a benevolent power that is bringing untold economic riches to its westernmost region. It’s a narrative that Acharya seems to have either bought into himself or been bought into.
That so many pro-China articles on Tibet are appearing in the Nepali press show that China sees Nepal as strategically important in its bid to maintain total control over Tibet. But Nepal must be aware of China’s rising influence in Nepal’s own political and social sphere. Rather than be distracted, or belittled, by things like this unhelpful comparison, the key questions we should be asking are how do Nepalis want to develop, on Nepali terms, and how can Nepal keep China’s own interests – which are so detrimental in Tibet – as far away from that as possible?