Tibet: From Isolation to Openness

"No tap water, no power supply, no sewerage system, no highway transportation, no decent towns...." Until the early 1950s, the Chinese and foreign media so described Tibet. Certain foreign scholars even compared life in old Tibet to that of the European Middle Ages. At that time, apart from Qomolangma (Everest) and other mountains that connoted a remote and mythical image, Tibet was synonymous with backwardness and isolation. It is little wonder that members of a foreign tour group, on arriving at Lhasa's Gonggar Airport, eagerly expecting a Middle Ages scenario, were completely unprepared for the star-rated hotels, large supermarkets, bars, Internet cafes, Sichuan restaurants, and the stock exchange that they found. Lhasa is now no different from any other city in the interior area.

To this, Radi, chairman of the Standing Committee of the People's Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region, says, "I have experienced both the old and the new societies of Tibet, and witnessed the tremendous changes that have taken place here. Since its peaceful liberation Tibet has advanced from backwardness to progress, from poverty to prosperity, and from isolation to openness."

Narrowing the Gap

It is possible that, in the whole world, it is only Tibetans that live at an average altitude of 4,000 meters above sea level. Due to its high altitude, cold and harsh climate and lack of oxygen, Tibet's local economic foundation was, prior to liberation, extremely weak, and feudal serfdom stifled human creativity, causing the local economy to stagnate. Serfs led a miserable life, some poverty-stricken to the extent that their entire possessions consisted of a Tibetan robe and a wooden bowl. The Kashag government at one time longed for industrial civilization similar to that of the outside. In the late 1940s Great Britain gave the 14th Dalai a car, which had to be dismantled in order to be shipped to Lhasa, and could only run on the two-km dirt road between the Potala Palace and Norbu Lingka. It was finally abandoned due to a lack of highways.

The Democratic Reform of 1959 in Tibet ended feudal serfdom, and opened the door to the "roof of the world." In order to narrow the gap between Tibet and the interior areas, and to help the one million emancipated serfs there live a prosperous life, the central government gives financial subsidies and allocations to Tibet.

The central government is also constantly searching for more effective ways of promoting Tibet's economic development. After 1959, the central government built a number of factories in Tibet, but its geographical conditions, poor infrastructure, lack of energy resources, high transportation costs, and lack of skilled workers hindered its economic development.

In February 1984, the CPC Central Committee Second Forum on the Work of Tibet decided that nine provinces and municipalities (including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangdong) and relevant ministries and commissions of the State Council should jointly aid Tibet in building 43 medium-sized and small projects. Later, in 1994, the Central Committee also initiated 62 aid-Tibet projects as a means of intensifying Tibet's modernization drive.

The Lhasa-Xigaze optical-fiber cable, one of the 62 projects, is the first of its kind in Tibet. Before the mid-1980s, the telephone service between Xigaze and Lhasa was reliant on outdoor telegraph wires. Many entrepreneurs who had planned to invest in Tibet hesitated due to its backward telecommunications facilities.

To rectify this situation, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications invested 30 million yuan in building the 340 kilometer-long optical-fiber cable. In the initial period, nearly 2,000 long-distance telephone lines were added, which reduced the shortage of lines between Lhasa and Xigaze.

"The 62 aid-Tibet projects have been helpful in changing Tibet's backward infrastructure, increasing the production capacity of its industry, agriculture and animal husbandry, developing advantageous industries, and improving living standards," says Gyaincain Norbu, former chairman of Tibet Autonomous Region. Since their implementation in 1994, these projects have brought great benefits to areas related to the local people's life and work, such as energy resources, transportation, posts and telecommunications, agriculture, culture and public health.

In 2000, on completion of Tibet's largest water conservancy project -- the Manla Water Conservancy Project, all 62 aid-Tibet projects were accomplished. The 62 aid-Tibet projects, involving culture, city transformation and industry, were concentrated in Lhasa. According to Zhaxi, chief architect of city planning, "Completion of these projects will further consolidate Lhasa's status as the political, economic and cultural center of Tibet, enabling this ancient city to march toward modernization."

New Life, New Concepts

Charles Bell, the British Governor of Sikkim, wrote in his book "Selected Materials on the History of Tibet" that for the eleven months from November of 1920 to October of 1921, when he was a distinguished guest of the 13th Dalai Lama, he had no vegetables to eat. The situation of ordinary Tibetans can only be imagined. For many years the low yield of crops and scarce fruit and vegetables was attributed to the harsh conditions on the plateau. Today, however, at the annual Horse Race Festival held on the Qangtang Grasslands in Nagqu Prefecture, all kinds of vegetables and fruits may be seen on a typical participant's dinner table, as well as various kinds of seafood. At markets, whether in Lhasa or in remote northern Tibet, there are mountains of rice and wheat flour, and the dinner tables of the common people bear sumptuous dishes. Local people know that this is the result of one aid-Tibet project -- the Vegetable Basket Project.

This improvement in living standards has caused a change in the local people's ideology and concepts of consumption. They long to go out of the plateau and see the outside world.

Bangdar Village, located at the confluence of the Yarlung Zangbo and Nyang Qu rivers, used to be called the "beggar's village." Now Como, a 17-year-old Tibetan girl, has a dream of being enrolled in a medical school and becoming a doctor. She says, "A doctor can cure people's diseases. I hope to make them healthy and happy."

Baizhoin is a doctor in Lhasa City. In her spare time she likes to travel, and since the 1980s she has traveled extensively in China. In 1999 she toured Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. When a local tour guide heard that she came from Tibet, he asked her many strange questions, stemming from his numerous misconceptions. Baizhoin says that outsiders know very little about Tibet. It is obvious that there are insufficient exchanges between Tibetans and outsiders.

According to statistics from the Statistical Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, in 2000 the per capita disposable income of urban residents in Tibet amounted to 6,448 yuan. In earlier years, local people wanted to buy furniture and domestic electric appliances with the money they had earned. Now, however, many families have already purchased refrigerators, color TV sets, air-conditioners, and even private cars, and want to travel. Jigmei, chief of the marketing department of the Tibet Tourism Administration, told this reporter that 565,000 tourists toured Tibet in 2000. Although the number of Tibetans traveling to the interior area and abroad is not large, there has been a marked increase.

In Lhasa, expenditure on education is increasing. Some families save money for their children's future education, and many parents invite teachers to their homes to teach their children when school has finished, or send their children to after-class training courses. Attention is being paid to improving the overall quality of students. The Lhasa City Children's Palace has opened music classes on holidays, with an enrollment of nearly 200 children.

Characteristic Economy

The central authorities are intensifying their efforts towards aid for Tibet. In early July of 2001, at the Fourth Forum on the Work of Tibet, the central authorities decided to establish 117 state-invested projects with a total investment of 31.2 billion yuan in Tibet. These projects mainly involve agriculture, animal husbandry, science and technology, education, facilities for grassroots governments, and ecological and environmental protection. In addition, the meeting confirmed 70 coordinated aid-Tibet projects, with a total investment of 1.06 billion yuan.

Tibetans will not wait for the central government and fraternal provinces to "donate modernization" to Tibet. They realize that the "blood-transfusion" mode of aid cannot ultimately solve Tibet's problems. Instead, they should increase their self-development capabilities by strengthening "blood-forming" functions. Therefore, the government of Tibet Autonomous Region has decided to develop six pillar industries (tourism, agriculture and animal husbandry, Tibetan medicine, ethnic handicrafts, green products, and mining), to nurture new economic growth points.

"Tibet has unique advantages in its resources," says one leader of the autonomous region. "It has the plateau, snowy mountains, grasslands, lamaseries, folklore, spectacular sights and numerous mineral reserves. Meanwhile, Tibet, called the 'third pole' of the earth, contains countless geological riddles and rare species of flora and fauna, making it an ideal place for scientific exploration and adventure tours." When considering the historic opportunities provided by western development, he remarks excitedly, "Tibet is like an athlete on the same starting line as other provinces and autonomous regions, or a basketball player in the same field."

Last year Tibet's GDP broke the 10 billion yuan barrier. It has built its own industries, and created its own famous brand names, such as Qizheng Tibetan medicines, Shengdi mineral water, and Qomolangma motorcycle. Tibetan medicine is very popular among consumers, and 25 kinds of Tibetan medicine have been included in medical insurance programs. One of them, the Nuodikang painkilling plaster, has won an international gold award and is exported to more than 20 countries, including the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Breaking through isolation to make contact with the outside world has become a common desire among the Tibetans, and developing an export-oriented economy is an attractive choice for Tibet as regards selecting a characteristic economy. In October 2000 Tibet Autonomous Region held an investment and trade fair in Hong Kong, announcing 138 projects open to overseas investment at a total investment of US $1.5 billion. On the same day, Tibet and Hong Kong signed two tourism cooperation agreements. The people of Hong Kong appreciated the Tibetan "opening awareness," and praised highly the Tibetan speakers who were fluent in English and Chinese. Moreover, Tibet has realized the advantages of its long border, and has actively developed trade with Nepal and Thailand.

In 2001, the State Council approved construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the longest and the highest railway in the world. Some experts have pointed out that this railway has epoch-making significance in promoting Tibet's economy, and will turn its development mode from "blood transfusion" to "blood forming."

Tourism circles hail the event, saying that Tibet is one of the destinations that most fascinate tourists from all over the world. Construction of the railway will put an end to the belief that "entering Tibet is more difficult than going abroad." Tourists can take the train to Tibet, and by making a gradual ascent of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, altitude sickness may be avoided. The railway will bring more tourists and therefore a larger income to Tibet's tourism industry.

Like the tourism industry, Tibet's mining, special plateau products, green drinks, farm and livestock products, and ethnic handicrafts will also benefit from the railway. Large quantities of plateau products and brand names will flow to the interior area through the railway, bringing Tibet's potential into full play.

Losang Gyaincain, mayor of Lhasa, says, "In the past, it was the Qinghai-Tibet Highway that broke the isolation of Tibet; today, construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will bring Tibet into modern civilization, to realize greater development."

Aiding Tibet: Blending with Modern Civilization

Aid to Tibet from all over the country reflects the centripetal force of the Chinese nation, and also the respect of inhabitants of the interior area for Tibetan culture.

Some say that the Tibetan ethnic group absorbs and blends well with outside advanced cultures. More than 1,000 years ago, Tibetan King Songtsan Gambo opened Tibet to the Tang Empire, the strongest empire in the world. He married Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty, achieving a momentous chapter in Tibetan-Han exchange.

This cultural interchange has continued to this day. At one exhibition booth of the 2000 Tibet Investment and Trade Fair held in Hong Kong, an elderly Tibetan woman said to a Hong Kong visitor, "Please buy a Tibetan Opera mask. It is an excellent souvenir, and represents a little of the long history of Tibet and its legends." This shows how the Tibetan people long for understanding from the outside world. Such openness can be traced through Tibet's historical development. From a typical Lhasa scenario, where Tibetan robes and Western suits mingle in the crowd, and motor vehicles drive past prostrating pilgrims, the meeting and blending of traditional and modern civilizations is startlingly obvious. The Tibetans are preserving their own culture, while opening to the outside world with a brand new outlook.

At the National Exhibition of Achievements Made in Aiding Tibet, held in 2001 in Beijing, visitors' concern for Tibet's present situation and their keen interest in Tibetan handicrafts were plain to see. While drinking mineral water from the Himalayas and inquiring about the effect of the Nuodikang painkilling plaster, the visitors expressed their feelings of fraternity, and the sincerity of their longing for mutual understanding. Tibet needs the interior area, and vice versa. Tibet advances toward the future amid these needs.

(Beijing Today 09/19/2001)

In This Series

Surf Tibet on the Web

China to Invest Billions in Tibet’s Weather Forecasting

Highway Network on the Rooftop of the World

Tibet Through Eyes of Foreigners

Tibetans Are Living Longer

Full Text of Speech By Hu Jintao at Tibet's Peaceful Liberation

50th Anniversary of Tibet Peaceful Liberation Hailed

Women in Tibet Enjoy Equal Rights

Official: Progress in Tibet Impressive



China's Tibet

50 Years in Tibet

Web Link