China Is Good for Tibet

President Obama's controversial meeting with the Dalai Lama this week has already infuriated China and stirred up Tibet advocates who thought it should have come sooner. China says Tibet is part of its territory, and that the meeting represents an unwanted intrusion into its domestic affairs. But most Americans still see the Dalai Lama as the representative of a people oppressed by Chinese rule. Tibetans feel chafed by the restrictions on their political and religious freedoms; many are dissatisfied with Chinese rule, and this has led to widespread rioting over the past few years. They want self-determination; fair enough. But that seems to be the only story about Tibet that is ever told. The other story is that, for China's many blunders in mountainous region, it has erected a booming economy there. Looking at growth, standard of living, infrastructure, and GDP, one thing is clear: China has been good for Tibet.

Since 2001, Beijing has spent $45.4 billion on development in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). (That's what the Chinese government calls Tibet, even though many Tibetans live in neighboring provinces, too). The effect: double-digit GDP growth for the past nine years. About a third of the money went to infrastructure investment, including the train connecting Beijing to Lhasa. "A clear benefit of the train was that it makes industrial goods cheaper for Tibetans, who, like everyone else in the world, like household conveniences, but normally had to pay very high prices," said Ben Hillman, a Tibet expert from the Australian National University's China Institute. The train also provides an opportunity for Tibetan goods to be sold outside of the region and for a massive increase in number of tourists, reaching more than 5.5 million in 2009—up from close to 2 million in 2005, the year before the train. The Chinese government's Tibet tourism bureau expects the numbers to keep climbing. While Tibetan independence groups like Free Tibet raise sustainability concerns about the increase in tourism, Hillman points out that "tourism is an important industry that can benefit local Tibetans."

Infrastructure improvements have not only helped grow the economy but also have aided in modernizing remote parts of the Tibetan plateau, an area with 3 million people about twice the size of France. Paved roads allow herders easier access to hospitals and the capital, where they sell handicrafts. "Cellphone service in parts of western Tibet is better than in parts of New Jersey," said Gray Tuttle, an assistant professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

Since 2006, the Chinese central government has been shifting its Tibet development strategy from funding massive infrastructure projects to programs intended to bring greater benefit to individual Tibetans. While Han migrants may compete for jobs with Tibetans in urban areas, diffusing the benefits more broadly among Chinese, the net per-capita income of rural residents was $527 in 2009, an increase of more than 13 percent from the 2008 figure and the fourth year in a row where growth exceeded 13 percent. While still low, it represents an increase in wealth creation at the lowest levels. Although Chinese statistics on Tibet, like Chinese statistics in general, are impossible to verify, it seems clear that material living standards among the 80 to 90 percent of the population living in rural Tibet are rising rapidly.

"I was amazed at the amount of money actually being spent in these villages," said Melvyn Goldstein, codirector of the Center for Research on Tibet at Case Western Reserve University. Through extensive rural fieldwork in the TAR, Goldstein found that "health-insurance plans are getting better, bank loans are now more accessible, schooling is free for primary school and middle school, and access to electricity and water is improving." At the improved schools, students learn Mandarin, which gives Tibetans access to work opportunities in government offices in Tibet and in companies throughout China.

Last month, President Hu Jintao held the Communist Party's fifth Tibet planning conference, the first since 2001, to strategize on the upcoming years. He said that Tibetan rural income will likely match China's average by 2020. And he stressed the need for Tibet, beset by the "special contradiction" of the Dalai Lama, to develop using the "combination of economic growth, well-off life, a healthy eco-environment, and social stability and progress."

It's true that, so far, all the money has failed to buy Tibetan loyalty. Beijing won't deal with the Dalai Lama, even though Tibetans revere him, nor will it let his monastic followers build any power or voice any nationalist sympathy. Instead, the government is offering Tibetans the same bargain it has offered the rest of the country: in exchange for an astronomical rise in living standards, the government requires citizens to relinquish the right to free worship and free speech. The Chinese government has kept its end of the deal. Even if Tibetan residents never signed the contract, they have benefited from its enforcement—a fact Obama might keep in mind when he meets the Dalai Lama.