This is an era of change. Barack Obama launched a successful election campaign with change as its centerpiece to become the first black president of the US. The world is changing. People are changing, and so are countries across the globe.
China, too, is changing. But some Western politicians and media refuse to change their outlook. They still want to believe China is an oppressive and negative power, especially when it comes to the Tibet autonomous region.
Does that mean China should change its administrative method in Tibet? Or is it time for the Western politicians and media to change their way of thinking on Tibet?
Fifty years ago, the Tibet autonomous region rid itself of the shackles of serfdom and theocracy. Almost 95 percent of Tibet's population was freed from the bondage of their feudal masters. The former serfs emerged from the shadows of local administrative officials, aristocrats and high-ranking lamas in monasteries to begin a life of equality and enlightenment. They began enjoying education, free movement and jobs. And their average life expectancy increased from 35.5 years in 1959 to 67 years at present.
On the economic front, Tibet's GDP increased 65 times, with the annual growth rate being higher than the national average since 1994. The economic boom attracted huge investments in infrastructure, massive rise in farmers' and herdsmen's earnings, higher disposable incomes for urban dwellers, decent housing and a preliminary social safety net both in cities and rural areas. It was impossible to even dream of such achievements in what the West loves to call "the good old days".
But these facts mean nothing to some Western countries and people. Instead, alleging that Tibet's culture is under threat is still their favorite pastime. What they love to ignore is that China's central government has been doing everything possible to preserve the Tibetan way of life.
According to the 2009 White Paper on the Situation in Tibet, Tibetan is the most important language in the region. Traditional Tibetan festivals such as the Tibetan New Year, Sour Milk Drinking Festival, Butter Lamp Festival, Bathing Festival, Ongkor (Bumper Harvest) Festival and the Damar Festival are still celebrated in the time-honored fashion. Heritage structures such as the Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery and other monasteries and temples have been turned into preservation centers. Tibetan folk literature, drama and music are still being collected and collated. But these are not enough to make the West change its stance.
Another Western obsession is the so-called influx of non-Tibetans, especially ethnic Han people, into the region. Some Westerners even allege that the central government is encouraging non-Tibetans to settle in the region to turn the Tibetans into a minority. But facts speak otherwise.
First, the Tibetan population has seen a rapid growth in the past 50 years, and according to national census figures ethnic Tibetans account for more than 95 percent of the region's population. The region's birth rate has been above the national average since 1970 because of a lenient family planning policy. Eighty percent of Tibetan farmers and herdsmen are free to have as many children as they want. Only urban Tibetans have to follow a two-child family planning policy.
Second, some non-Tibetans have moved to the region because of its fast growth. Tibet offers huge opportunities to people to fulfill their economic dreams. Adam Smith, the father of political economy, described this as the pull factor of the economy. Despite all this, only a handful of non-Tibetans have moved to the region because of the harsh climate and low oxygen level.
Third, inter-racial integration has always been a feature of Chinese culture. So if some Western people today see the government's hand in the assimilation of ethnic groups, tomorrow they could question the real intention of hundreds of thousands of Chinese who have migrated to the Americas, Europe and other parts of the world.
In his Even-handedness and the Politics of Human Rights, Prof Eric Heinze, of the University of London, says human rights can easily become a political football and that perceptions of a manipulated human rights discourse awaken when condemnation for abuses appear to be unfairly "selective". Tibet is a good example of such selective reporting. The abolition of serfdom, Tibet's economic success, the extensive rights enjoyed by the people, efforts to preserve Tibetan culture, favorable policies for Tibetans and other government policies implemented in the past 50 years rarely find mention in the Western media. Instead, they are preoccupied with the demand of a handful of Tibetans.
As human beings, we have the right to believe in whatever we want. But if we focus only on a tiny part of a big picture, we risk losing the chance to appreciate the whole truth. People who overlook the ambitions and aspirations of the majority of Tibetans should go through the 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, which says China (including Tibet) has the best record of citizens' satisfaction among the 24 countries surveyed. China's record is far better than Germany, Britain, France and the US.
As long as the West sees Tibet through blinkers it will never be able to tell the truth from the lies. And China will continue taking steps to boost Tibet's economy and ensure that Tibetans keep enjoying their rights, whether the West accept the truth and see the positive changes the region has gone through in the past five decades.
The author is a doctoral scholar with the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, School of Law, China University of Political Science and Law.
(China Daily April 11, 2009)