New Internationalist

Money talks

November 2008

China uses free trade to dominate Tibetans

James Low
Promises, promises – but who is really benefiting? James Low

It’s official: neoliberalism is claiming the clouds. Tibet, one of the highest and most spiritual countries on Earth, now has its very own ‘free trade strip’ offering special economic benefits to investors who develop there. On the road leading to Lhasa, the traditional capital of Tibet, a banner spans the width of the highway: ‘The developing zone is very promising.’ But the question is: for whom?   

The Lhasa Economic and Technical Development Zone (LETDZ) offers investors an attractive discount on tax rates. Strips of land such as these are booming throughout China and the LETDZ is no exception. In the first six months of this year 21 new companies registered in the LETDZ, bringing the total number of new businesses to 115 and investment to 1.6 billion yuan ($235 million).

Qiangba Puncog, chair of the regional government, insists that the people of Tibet are ‘the real beneficiaries’ of this economic expansion. Tibet’s gross domestic product has risen by over 12 per cent every year since 2000, reaching 34.2 billion yuan ($5 billion) in 2007.

However, the Dalai Lama has warned that such ‘progress’ poses a serious threat to Tibet’s ancient heritage. Rights groups in Tibet have expressed a similar concern. There are a range of reasons for this. The LETDZ is situated just 10 kilometres west of Lhasa, whose rich culture has already been diluted by the migration of Han Chinese workers into Tibet. Such groups claim that increased investment is likely to attract more outside workers, perpetuating Chinese cultural dominance.

In addition, Chinese – already the dominant language in schools – has become the language of the economy. Those not fluent in it find it difficult to get a job. In order to adapt to the shifting job market young Tibetans typically speak a more vocational blend of Tibetan and Chinese. Nevertheless, many locals still fail to secure work and are forced to make a living through prostitution – an industry that has thrived off the back of a predominantly male migration of soldiers and construction workers to urban Tibet.

Then there is the privatization of the expanding construction industry. One Tibetan living in Lhasa expressed his frustration: ‘In the 17th century we built the Potala Palace, but now we must rely on contractors to build our homes, which we cannot afford.’ Asked about the problems holding back his people, the Tibetan replied: ‘Fear – even if one person tries to disagree, others do not dare.’

The bulletholes from Lhasa’s March riots have now been filled. But the armed soldiers remain – a constant reminder of the consequences of getting in the way of the fulfilment of China’s economic promise.

James Low

This column was published in the November 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 417

New Internationalist Magazine issue 417
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