Last fall, a small bipartisan delegation of staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Inhofe's office visited Tibet to meet with officials and assess current conditions there.
The delegation was impressed by the scale and scope of the economic transformation that is obviously underway in Tibet and other parts of Western China.
Chinese authorities report that Tibet has enjoyed sustained double digit economic growth over the past decade. Officials told us that the central government provides 93 percent of the budget of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Rapid developments and changes can be detected from various aspects of Tibetan's life.
Indeed, members of the delegation who had traveled to Tibet multiple times over the past 25 years saw ample evidence that, although Tibet still lags behind most provinces of China in GDP per capita and other economic benchmarks, the region obviously has enjoyed high growth rates for many years. The growth is spurred by massive central government subsidies and investment.
The region's transportation infrastructure has been transformed over the past decade, as a massive investment by the central government has produced thousands of miles of new highways, hundreds of bridges and tunnels, dozens of airports, and most significantly for the future of Tibet, the Qinghai-Lhasa rail link (soon to be extended from Lhasa to Xigaze in Western Tibet).
These large-scale infrastructure projects have spurred economic development throughout the region, allowing goods to and people to reach markets.The Chinese central government's investment has not been limited only to the transportation sector.
According to Chinese authorities, the government has completed 80% of roughly 225,000 units of "safe and comfortable" housing, designed ultimately to provide modern accommodations for 1.2 million Tibetans.
Now the government is building a huge number of houses in the small towns to encourage Tibetan nomads to move into market towns. In many areas the number of new houses equaled or exceeded the existing town housing stock.
The delegation was taken to a village a short drive outside of Lhasa, where they felt an important undiminishable underlying truth: average Tibetans are better housed today than before.
Moreover, Tibetans said they were grateful to have housing that is warm and has electric power, running water, and modern appliances. Members of the delegation were able to confirm both the extent of this massive housing initiative, and the generally appreciative Tibetan attitude about it, both in the TAR and in other Tibetan regions.
Housing built by the government to settle Tibetan nomads in small towns throughout the plateau is evident. Tibetans say they welcome the subsidized housing for use in the winter months.
Religious tourism appears to constitute an important source of income in the towns surrounding important monasteries.
Noting the large new stupas under construction, a lama at the Wudunsi Monastery in Qinghai stated that the money came from private donations, not government subsidies.
Another lama at the Labrang Monastery stated that lamas were allowed to keep all of the proceeds from admissions tickets, and use them to repair and rebuild facilities. In the easier-to-reach monasteries within a day's trip of an airport, they encountered groups of well-off Buddhist pilgrims from Taiwan, Guangdong, and Japan.
The rising popularity and prices of a traditional Tibetan medicine called caterpillar fungus is also increasing the incomes of Tibetans living in some of the most isolated areas.
The fungus, which grows on a caterpillar host and is only suitable for harvest during a few weeks in late spring on the Tibetan Plateau, is recognized internationally as a "natural Viagra." Retail prices in Xining currently range up to RMB 150 (USD 22) per "stem," and average about RMB 40 (USD 6) per small unit.
A Tibetan economic development specialist told us that a good collector could gather at least 50 caterpillars per day at the height of the eight-week collecting period. He explained that this trade was providing important supplemental income for herders.
New Life of northern Tibetans
Most Tibetans outside the northern edge of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (historically called Amdo Tibetans) are still poor, nomadic herders or subsistence farmers, but are reaping some of the gains of economic development, "enjoying some of the benefits of economic development and increased government spending".
New roads stretch across the valleys, power lines thread over high mountain passes, and cell phone wielding yak herders watch TV soap operas from the comfort of their tents (the traditional round tent made of wool used by Tibetan nomads for hundreds of years).
Higher prices for agricultural goods, central government subsidies, religious tourism, and soaring payments for locally harvested "caterpillar fungus" are bringing new sources of income to the region.
A lama at the large Labrang Monastery in Gansu explained that the monastery supports lamas and students from families that are too poor to provide basic subsistence funds, but in recent years such community support was almost completely unnecessary since all of the surrounding nomad families “were not rich, but no longer poor.
Nomads interviewed on the high plains without exception confirmed that they were feeling some of the benefits of economic progress. A Tibetan nomad residing in the Zeku Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture said that his 16-person family had 50 head of yak, and the 4 adult women in the family each had several gold-capped teeth.
Most nomadic family groups visited boasted similar herds, and teeth! Almost all had invested in a small solar panel and generator sets which provided enough power for a small TV. We saw families traveling between grazing sites with all of their possessions packed on the back of yaks, including the solar panel and generator charging their modern camera equipped cell phones.
Throughout the region, numerous road was noted, housing, and hydropower projects. Particularly in the areas designated as Tibetan autonomous prefectures, the roads were new and remarkably well-maintained. National and local state-owned power companies were investing in a large number of new mini hydro-electric plants and small-scale solar energy plants designed to power local communities. Electricity and telephone wires stretched over 3700-meter-high passes, and public electric power reached up valleys to lone permanent dwellings.
Over the course of our brief visit to Tibet and Tibetan regions of western China, staff found that the situation defies simple explanation.
Rapid economic development has produced real improvements in the quality of life, lifting hundreds of thousands of Tibetans out of poverty and bringing new opportunities to most of the residents of the rooftop of the world.
Infrastructure improvements not only serve Chinese national security needs, but also allow goods to travel to market, students to reach schools, and doctors to treat the sick. Hydro and solar power plants are electrifying the Tibetan plateau, giving humble yak herders access to satellite television and cell phones with digital cameras. Tibetans are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives.
As Tibet is integrated into modern China, Tibetans are enjoying new opportunities in China and even abroad, and many are seizing them.
From: China Tibet Online
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