(Photos: Yang Danxu, unless otherwise stated)
A portrait of China’s top leader hangs in the most prominent spot in the living room of Suolang Qupei (索朗曲培), 62. But go past the corridor between the living room and the family room and another eye-catching poster comes into view.
With images and both Tibetan and Chinese words, the poster explains what it means to be electrocuted, along with a warning that “electricity is also a dangerous thing”.
At the end of last year, from their home in Shuanghu County, Nagqu city, which stands at over 5,000m above sea level, Suolang Qupei and his family relocated nearly 1,000km away, to the government-built residential area in Senburi, Gonggar County, Shannan on the north bank of Yarlung Tsangpo.
Suolang Qupei’s new two-storey Tibetan-style abode with a courtyard — provided free-of-charge by the government — has modern facilities such as a television, washing machine, water heater and flush toilet.
As he comes from a long line of ancestors who have lived a nomadic life on the plains, moving from one pasture to the next according to the seasons, Suolang Qupei is unfamiliar with modern living facilities and appliances. He is clueless about appliances that many consider commonplace, and only learnt how to use a gas stove under the guidance of the village cadres.
He says, “In the past, we could only get water from the rivers. When the surface of the rivers froze in winter, we had to chisel the ice to get water. Now, we have tap water; it’s so convenient.”
Sitting in his living room decorated in the traditional Tibetan style, Suolang Qupei, who can only speak Tibetan, tells us through the village cadre/interpreter that he is very satisfied with his new home. Located at a lower altitude, the oxygen levels here are much higher. Moreover, he can have a good sleep at night and does not have to worry about brown bears invading his home.
It is mid October. Approximately 30 Chinese and foreign reporters are here on a government-organised tour of Tibet. The autonomous region does not grant easy access to foreign media. This occasion though, was arranged to showcase the immense changes that have taken place in Tibet under the government’s poverty alleviation policies.
Due to its inherently unfavourable natural conditions including an extremely high altitude, harsh climates, and barren lands, Tibet is China’s toughest battleground in absolute poverty eradication. It is an area with the highest incidence and most severe cases of poverty. In fact, it is the only provincial-level concentrated “contiguous destitute area” in China.
At the end of 2015, all 74 counties and districts of Tibet were listed as “poverty-stricken”. Tibet’s poverty incidence rate also stood at 25%, which was nearly 20% more than the national average.
A rapidly changing Tibet
The government has poured in some 75 billion RMB (S$15.3 billion) of poverty alleviation funds into the region since 2016. As of the end of last year, 628,000 registered poor people living in Tibet have been lifted out of poverty and their average annual income has risen to 9,328 RMB. This is more than double China’s national standard of extreme poverty, which is based on a per capita income threshold of 4,000 RMB per year.
More persuasive and impressive than these figures is the rapid modernisation that greets us the moment we step onto the snowy plateau.
An official candidly tells us in private, “We’re very confident about Tibet. Inspect the place as you please.”
Poor households have come to own cars in Tibet. In fact, driving is the skill that people want to pick up most; Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, is beset by traffic woes the way it is in big cities. Well-paved and wide expressways weave through tunnels, shortening the distance between mountains, while railroads, bridges and other massive infrastructure are under construction. At the foot of a glacier over 5,000m above sea level, it is not a Tibetan teahouse offering sweet tea that welcomes tourists but a westernised cafe…
In this most remote corner of China, various manufacturing activities are also keeping up with the times. For example, through a business model that combines an enterprise, cooperative, and a farm, the prefecture of Xigaze (the “Granary of Tibet”) provides high-quality baby chicks and mushroom spawns to farmers and herders to rear and grow, and also teaches them the skills involved in rearing them. The local government then purchases the produce back from the farmers at a higher price to drive the development of modern agriculture and increase the income of the local residents.
The prefecture is also driving innovation in the traditional highland barley industry by spearheading the development of new products such as highland barley biscuits, beers, vermicelli, and so on, instead of just producing tsampa (roasted barley flour). In this way, greater economic profits can be reaped from the traditional highland crop, providing greater benefits for the farmers who plant them.
These changes are the reasons why officials are very confident about letting foreign media scrutinise this extremely sensitive ethnic minority autonomous region. An official candidly tells us in private, “We’re very confident about Tibet. Inspect the place as you please.”
The officials did not set restrictions about us roaming around the areas near our hotel, or dining and interacting with the locals. However, the tight itinerary also does not permit many of such opportunities.
Tibetan youths dream of modern civilisation
If poverty assistance efforts have pushed elderly Tibetans to keep up with the times, young Tibetans are full of hopes as they embrace a rich, modern civilised world.
“I never went to a city before and didn’t know what it was like. Now I know how good the city is.”
Danzeng Duoji (旦增多吉), 20, was born to a farming family. He tells us that he has no plans to go back to the farm, and his family’s 25 yaks have been given to relatives.
Danzeng Duoji receives us at his new two-storey home, dressed casually in a cap, sweater, ripped jeans, and tinted glasses, which would not be out of place in any big Chinese city.
Four years ago, Danzeng Duoji and his family moved out of their farming community into a relocation area in Toelung county, Lhasa. The government arranged a job for him as a railway guard — after food and necessities, his take-home pay is nearly 5,000 RMB.
This location is on the way from Lhasa to Namtso, and under the “work-where-you-live” and “poverty alleviation in-situ“ policies, they have allowed a poverty alleviation agency to manage the rooms on the second floor as a guesthouse, where they earn nearly 10,000 RMB in rental each year.
Danzeng Duoji is not too good at speaking Mandarin, and even throws in a bit of English during our chat. Is he uncomfortable with strangers moving in and out of his home? Danzeng Duoji laughs, “No, if there are guests, we host them, and it’s OK.” The “OK” comes out in English.
He keeps in touch with his friends on WeChat, and in his free time enjoys scrolling through Douyin, learning popular dances, and posting video clips online, just like young people in other parts of China. Recently, Danzeng Duoji and his friends have been thinking of starting an online store. He says, “My income is not bad, but I can’t be working for others all my life.”
China provides 15 years of free education in Tibet, from kindergarten to high school, covering food, lodging, and school fees. The aim is to break the cycle of poverty through education.
Young Tibetans yearn to leave mountains
Leaving the mountains and plains is an increasingly common dream among the next generation of Tibetan farmers.
At the Nyingchi Vocational Technical School, ethnic Tibetan students take courses in mechanics, cooking, tourism management, and e-business, as well as upmarket Western skills such as brewing hand-drawn coffee and making cocktails.
18-year-old Luo Zhuo (罗卓) shows us a cup of hand-brewed coffee. In recent years, cafes have sprung up in Lhasa and other places, and coffee-brewing has become a popular skill. In halting Chinese, Luo Zhuo tells us that she wants to work in a hotel in Lhasa after she graduates: “I don’t want to take care of cows and dig for worms.”
Luo Zhuo is not talking about real “worms”, but cordyceps, whose Chinese name translates literally to “winter worm summer grass” (冬虫夏草), a parasitic fungus valued for its use in Chinese medicine. From the age of six, she has gone with her parents to the mountains to dig for cordyceps, which is a traditional source of income for many Tibetans. Large-scale cordyceps picking has led to a serious ecological crisis, and with volatile cordyceps prices, the authorities do not encourage locals to engage in this work that is so dependent on nature.
Conversely, the authorities strongly support learning new skills that can earn a stable salary in a modernised society. The government has set up vocational training schools all over Tibet, to allow the children of farmers who did not make it into regular high schools to learn a skill, and to offer short-term skills training for the public.
China provides 15 years of free education in Tibet, from kindergarten to high school, covering food, lodging, and school fees. The aim is to break the cycle of poverty through education. The children of poor families do not pay to go to school, and even get food and other supplies from the school when they go home during the holidays.
Some educated young Tibetans dream of going to Lhasa or beyond.
Doilungdeqen Middle School third-year student Ciren Yangjin (次仁央金) says she hopes to enrol in a class or school for Tibetans in mainland China next year, and she wants most to go to Shanghai.
Two years ago, through government assistance, this girl from a poor single-parent family moved from her home in Nyêmo County — 4,500 metres above sea level — to a location just 10 kilometres from Lhasa’s city centre.
The school arranged for her to be interviewed by Zaobao as a student representative. Facing the camera, she rattles off a spiel in Chinese about her background, the help the government has given to her and her family in moving, employment, and education, how their lives have changed with the poverty alleviation efforts, and her gratitude to the school and government. She is clearly prepared, and emphasises of her own accord that “this is not forced”.
“I particularly like Shanghai — its architecture, museums.” Despite never stepping outside Tibet, she excitedly describes her admiration for the most developed city in China.
Ciren Yangjin is filled with hopes and dreams of modern life. She is a public announcer in school, and tells us in private that she likes watching CCTV and dreams of being an anchor for the station.
German researcher Adrian Zenz described this as “a coercive lifestyle change from nomadism and farming to wage labour”.
Changing mindsets the biggest challenge for poverty alleviation work
Officials and the people in charge of poverty alleviation enterprises across various regions in Tibet all agree that the biggest challenge of poverty alleviation is in changing the people’s mindsets.
Deji Baizhen (德吉白珍), 36, is a village cadre at Damxung County’s Yangbajain, some 100km away from Lhasa city. This resettlement site for centralised relocation is equipped with hot spring facilities for treating arthritis, and mainly admits poor nomads who used to live at high altitudes and who have been plagued by arthritis.
Deji Baizhen vividly remembers a “group escape” which took place soon after she started her tour of duty at the village three years ago.
For villagers who have been living on the plains and herding animals for a living, finding a job when they relocate to a new environment can be a very difficult task. To give them a stable income, Deji Baizhen did her best to persuade a beverage factory in Lhasa to employ 50 villagers to work as dockers.
The job neither requires specific skillsets nor a diploma, and pays 5,000 RMB a month. Deji Baizhen thought that it would be a great fit for the 30-somethings in the community. But to her dismay, a day after she sent the villagers over to the factory, they quit and went back home.
“They were only willing to herd sheep and cows then. They did not have a concept of time and hated to be restricted. They were simply unable to adapt to working in a factory,” says Deji Baizhen.
After quite a bit of persuasion and guidance, the locals now view employment completely differently. Deji Baizhen says that the young people who previously “escaped” from the factory are all employed now. Some of them are even helming the service sector at a nearby geothermal tourist destination, while others are drivers at cooperatives.
Labour transfer policies are changing nomadic and farming life
What brought this change? Did the Tibetan farmers and nomads leave the plains and enter the marketplace voluntarily?
In a report published in September, a Western think tank criticised China for chasing an increasing number of Tibetans out of the villages and into newly-built military-style vocational training centres where they would be turned into factory workers. German researcher Adrian Zenz described this as “a coercive lifestyle change from nomadism and farming to wage labour”.
Chinese officials do not deny the fact that they are rolling out labour transfer programmes in the villages and encouraging farmers and nomads to work at modernised factories. They also consider this arrangement as a successful policy that helps locals earn more. Relevant authorities have also set quotas for such mass transfers: for example, they aim to enrol a total of 630,000 farmers in labour transfer programmes by the end of 2020.
... the farmers and nomads would compare who donated more money to the temple. Now, they compared who earned more money, bought more luxurious cars, or whose children made it to university.
However, Chinese officials are adamant that they are not coercing Tibetans to take part in these programmes, emphasising that Tibetans are instead very willing to participate in skills training. Tibetans are also slowly forming the mindset of wanting to earn money and get rich.
A Tibetan official tells us that in the past, the farmers and nomads would compare who donated more money to the temple. Now, they compared who earned more money, bought more luxurious cars, or whose children made it to university.
To international media reporters’ questions about whether the Tibetans are indeed forced into labour camps, a poverty alleviation official retorts, “If you’ve gotten used to the colourful world outside, will you still be used to life with the cows and sheep? When you’ve already come into contact with so many people and with so many modern things, and you now go back to your herding life with no form of communication and no proper place to sleep and eat, can you still stay there? Put yourselves in their shoes and think about it.”
In several Tibetan homes, I see banners with the words “Leader in becoming rich (致富带头人)” or certificates with the words “Became rich by participating in labour transfer programmes (转移就业致富)” proudly displayed in the most visible corner of the living room.
Of course, we do not know if these “leaders” are representative of the Tibetan population. Neither do we know the exact proportion of these “leaders” in the population. Most of the Tibetans granting media interviews are either party members themselves, or have family members who are party members. If not, they hold party or government positions in the local village.
Forty-three-year-old Wang Zha (旺扎), is one such example. His living room, expectedly, is filled with various skills training completion certificates. This former herder is now a security guard at a kindergarten and earns 2,000 RMB a month. He has also learnt how to drive and owns a car worth 40,000 RMB.
Northern Tibetan Plateau unsuitable for human survival
His wife used to suffer from serious rheumatism and could not stand. After moving to the new residential area centrally arranged by the government for arthritis patients, she underwent treatment and can now take care of herself. She is also being trained at a women’s weaving society and will earn 1,700 RMB a month when she gets hired.
This Chinese Communist Party member who has been in the party for 12 years tells us through a village cadre/interpreter that he is very disciplined about downplaying the role of religion in his life. He would also tell his neighbours that their current improved standard of living is all thanks to the party and the country’s good policies.
... based on the official stance that reshaping the mindsets of the people is still unfinished work, the concept of “walking out of the plains and into the marketplace” is still not widely accepted yet.
. . . . . .
After the trip, we contacted the director of the Institute for Social and Economic Studies at The China Tibetology Research Center, Zha Luo. He said that the pursuit of health and convenience that comes from a modern life are the reasons why locals are willing to accept change. Foreign criticisms of such relocations and training programmes, on the other hand, stem from the outsider’s ignorance of the actual situation in China.
He explained that some residents who relocated from Tibet had originally lived at high altitudes on the northern Tibetan Plateau where living conditions are extremely harsh and oxygen saturation levels are extremely low. It is windy all year round and local residents reported higher rates of arthritis and cardiovascular diseases, with a life expectancy of less than 60 years. On the contrary, residents living at lower altitudes reported a life expectancy of over 70 years, which showed that “relocation policies are generally welcomed among residents”.
However, in the process of the campaign-style poverty alleviation work, grassroots officials would also attempt to indoctrinate residents and put social pressure on those who are unwilling to change.
For example, at regular general meetings with the villagers, grassroots officials would openly call out and educate “lazy villagers” who are unwilling to work in front of the whole village, pressurising them through village regulations and the effects of an acquaintance society.
Some poverty alleviation enterprises that have hired Tibetans also conduct ideological mobilisations to help Tibetans change their traditional habits and adapt to collective management. For example, all workers are to wear work uniforms instead of traditional Tibetan clothing. Every week, they also have to attend flag-raising ceremonies and sing the national anthem.
It is difficult to determine the general attitude that Tibetan society has towards the downplaying of religion and the emphasis on getting rich based on the limited time and interactions I had when I was there. But based on the official stance that reshaping the mindsets of the people is still unfinished work, the concept of “walking out of the plains and into the marketplace” is still not widely accepted yet.
Chairman of Tibet Autonomous Region Qizhala (齐扎拉) said during a press conference on poverty alleviation: “There are some old practices in Tibet, mainly negative religious influences, such as prioritising the afterlife, which weakens one’s pursuit of inner happiness in the present life.
“Therefore, we need to look after the mind, just as we look after the stomach; we need to nourish the mind, just as we nourish the stomach.”
Preserving tradition or pursuing modernisation?
Poverty alleviation is a key marker of China’s efforts to build a moderately affluent society, and a solemn promise from the CCP to the people, but Tibet’s unique political and geographical situation gives the poverty alleviation efforts there an added political function of strengthening minority groups’ sense of identification with the CCP, and maintaining national unity.
Tibet is the door to China’s southwest frontier, with a land border of 4,000 kilometres connecting to India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Currently, there have been months of tensions on the China-India border, highlighting Tibet's strategic importance.
Associate Professor Andrew Fischer pointed out that modernising and promoting materialism are different. Beijing’s promotion of materialism is in fact a powerful way of instilling greater discipline, obedience, and loyalty to the country among Tibetans...
Associate Professor Andrew Fischer of the Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam has long studied Tibet’s economic development, and noted that Beijing's efforts in Tibet are significantly greater than in other provinces. One consideration is that Tibet is located where China and India meet, and a militarised area where a lot of costs and investments have strategic and geopolitical significance.
Allen Carlson, an associate professor in Cornell University’s Government Department and director of Cornell’s China and Asia Pacific Studies programme, noted that the ethnically Tibetan areas in China are poorer than other areas and economic development is an urgent need, but Beijing’s assistance to these areas is driven more by political factors.
He said, “China’s leaders feel that improving the lives of Tibetans will increase their loyalty to the country and reduce objections to Chinese rule, which is frequently seen in these areas.”
Fischer also pointed out that modernising and promoting materialism are different. Beijing’s promotion of materialism is in fact a powerful way of instilling greater discipline, obedience, and loyalty to the country among Tibetans, because unlike mainland China, Tibet’s state-owned agencies pay well but it is rare to find high-paying jobs in other sectors.
“... the government gives them (Tibetans) so many perks, everything is free, nobody would want to stir trouble.” - A Han person who runs a supermarket in Nyingchi
In 1951, the Chinese central government signed the Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet — or the 17-point agreement — and quelled the 1959 Tibetan independence uprising. Tibet’s spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama escaped to India. Over the years, preventing Tibetan independence and maintaining stability has been the top consideration in Beijing’s policies towards Tibet.
In Tibet’s poverty alleviation relocation area, each household has two pictures hanging: one is of China’s five generations of leaders, and the other is of current President Xi Jinping shaking hands with Tibetans, captioned: “General Secretary Xi Jinping is of one heart with the peoples of Tibet.” On the roof is the Chinese national flag.
On expressways in Tibet, every few kilometres there are prominent slogans of yellow text on red backgrounds, disseminating messages from Beijing such as “Governance of the country calls for governance of the borders, which calls for stabilising Tibet”, as well as praises for China’s top leaders and the CCP, to strengthen Tibetans’ sense of belonging to the central government and CCP.
A Han person who runs a supermarket in Nyingchi said in his ten years or so there, this is the safest and most stable that Tibet has been, and “the government gives them (Tibetans) so many perks, everything is free, nobody would want to stir trouble”.
Strengthening governance through economic development may not be ideal
However, Beijing has been transplanting its method of strengthening its governance through developing the economy — an accepted approach in the mainland — to Tibet, which some Western academics feel is worth discussing.
Carlson says that since the start of the 1950s, China’s policy on Tibet has faced a dilemma where Tibet does need to modernise and most Tibetans yearn for a better quality of life and more inclusive education system, but the modernisation imposed on Tibet by Beijing is also seen by some Tibetans as a Trojan horse to homogenise the region.
He mentioned that a common concern is that the authority’s modernisation policies in Tibet — including the changes in population structure following the influx of Han people — may lead to Tibetans becoming more sensitive to the erosion of their culture and religion, which would not make Tibetans more inclined towards Beijing, but might widen the gap between Tibetans and other regions in China.
In busy cities such as Lhasa and Nyingchi, we came across many Han people who moved from mainland China to Tibet to work. They came from places like Sichuan, Hubei, and Shandong, to run grocery stores and eateries, or to be cab drivers. Some sell Buddha figurines, commonly seen in Tibetan homes.
Fischer also feels that the authorities moving Tibetan farmers to cities to compete with Han people for jobs in its effort to alleviate poverty may exacerbate social discrimination and marginalisation against minorities in China.
Other criticisms of China’s governance of Tibet are focused on Beijing’s handling of religious issues, especially its approach of substituting materialism for religion.
At the seventh Central Symposium on Tibet Work held in August this year, there was special emphasis on actively guiding Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to a socialist society and promote the sinicisation of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetan children are not allowed to carry out religious activities in school, and poor households assigned to government housing are asked not to turn any rooms into a prayer hall.
A Tibetan official told us that the official policy on religion was not to increase the number of monks, temples, or religious activities, and maintaining the status quo was “the greatest inclusivity”, because religious beliefs would “definitely clash” with modernisation.
He believes that with economic development and income shifts, even if the government does not step in, religious influence will get smaller. He said, “In the past, when I got sick I prayed to Buddha for a quick recovery. Now there are hospitals, and there is no need for Buddha. I go to the hospital and I get better with treatment.”
But so far, the government is still actively stepping in to weaken religious beliefs in Tibetan areas. Tibetan children are not allowed to carry out religious activities in school, and poor households assigned to government housing are asked not to turn any rooms into a prayer hall.
When asked his views of the Dalai Lama, he apologetically answered, “I’d rather not say.”
During our trip, it was clear that the exiled Dalai Lama is not a casual topic for conversation.
Apart from the guide who introduced Potala Palace (the residence of generations of Dalai Lamas), not one official or interviewee — arranged by the authorities — mentioned that name. When asked about the Dalai Lama, the ordinary Tibetans interviewed said politely that they did not know much about him.
On Barkhor Street near Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple a young Tibetan who declined to be named told us about his and his sister’s clothing business, and showed us where they pray to Buddha for blessings and good business. When asked his views of the Dalai Lama, he apologetically answered, “I’d rather not say.”
Progress has to be based on people’s own choices
A quickly modernising Tibet is becoming increasingly like China and the rest of the world, but Western academics are still focused on the opposition between modernisation and tradition. They cannot understand how China, which suffered under Western civilisation and was “forced” to modernise during the last century, can be so strongly caught up in a sincere pursuit of modernisation and progress — they brought modernisation to the Tibetan region truly thinking that is a necessary approach to improving the lives of Tibetans, and many Chinese cadres have made enormous efforts to this end.
“... but we should not see Tibet as a museum, forever staying the same.” - Zha Luo, director of the Institute for Social and Economic Studies, The China Tibetology Research Center
Zha Luo made the keen observation that all societies will face concerns about the impact of external cultures and the loss of traditional cultures, “but we should not see Tibet as a museum, forever staying the same”.
He said, “Milan’s fashion also includes a Tibetan series, and it is normal for Tibetans to get to know and accept other cultures.”
Perhaps Fischer put it best when he said that whatever policy the government adopts, Tibetans will change, but everyone should have the right to choose whether to hold with tradition or pursue modernisation. “The best progress has to be based on what people do on their own, and not others imposing modernisation on them.”
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