Tibet: When "Sustainable" Development Goes Awry

tibet sustainable development protests riots china

Though the government's news black-out has kept information scarce about what's really happening in Tibet—making it more difficult than usual, for instance, for your correspondent to do research—certain things are clear.

Many, including the Chinese government, have described the unrest as largely politically motivated, a "surprise" attack by the "Dalai clique" and his "splittists." Some have harped on the issue of religious freedom. But from watching just state television's depiction of the violence in Lhasa and elsewhere, one sees something else in these ragtag groups of rioters who assembled on the anniversary of a 1959 uprising: sheer anger.

It's not hard to see where Chinese Tibetans' anger comes from. Consider that as Chinese modernization threatens Tibet's culture and ecology, it is also failing to deliver on its economic promises. The cost of food is soaring, for instance, as wages remain steady. It is a sad twist that rising food prices are a result of the global warming that is melting glaciers on the Tibetan plateau (a connection that Chinese officials admit). It would be wrong to call these environmental protests. But to ignore the impact of Tibet's environmental problems on its fragile political and economic situation would be even worse.

Tibetans' resentment toward Han Chinese (who make up 90 percent of the region's population) isn't just political. It was the product of the frustration of a disenfranchised group whose land and culture have been tarnished by the force of China's modernization. It was a sobering example of the link between damaged environments and broken policies, scary evidence of development gone bad.

The most obvious example is the impact of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which opened in 2006 and continues to be described as both as an economic necessity and an ecological danger. With the railway has come the tourists and workers who are mining Tibet, figuratively and literally. (The train is also considered crucial for quicker ferrying of soldiers to China's most delicate province.) The Tibetan government in exile has a long list of environmental grievances, including the desecration of sacred land. In a highly symbolic move, last year the government paved a road to Mount Everest (from which it has lately restricted climbers, citing "environmental reasons" ahead of the politically sensitive Olympic torch relay on the mountain). And then there are those melting glaciers on the Tibetan plateau, which regulate water supplies, and in turn, food costs, for hundreds of millions in Asia.

Local culture is also part of the environment, and it's falling to pieces. In a good article at the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra argues that communism is a straw man in the Western imagination of Tibet; the real threat to Tibetans is the "capitalist modernity" that China has ferried in to Tibet like a wolf in sheep's clothing. And they're definitely not alone.

Tibetans are not much more politically impotent than the hundreds of millions of hapless Chinese uprooted by China's Faustian pact with consumer capitalism. The Tibetans share their frustration with farmers and tribal peoples in the Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa, who, though apparently inhabiting the world's largest democracy, confront a murderous axis of politicians, businessmen, and militias determined to corral their ancestral lands into a global network of profit...

Deng Xiaoping's post-Tiananmen gamble - that people intoxicated with prosperity will not demand political change - failed in Tibet. Like predominantly rural ethnic minorities elsewhere, Tibetans lack the temperament or training needed for a fervent belief in the utopia of modernity - a consumer lifestyle in urban centres - promised by China.

Whether or not ethnic minorities "are ready" for urban modernity, the fact is that Deng's promise of economic development isn't exactly working on the country's ethnic majority either. Outside of Tibet and its cultural and ecological concerns, the country already sees thousands of protests a year over official land seizure, corruption and pollution. And those are only the protests on the books.

It's worth noting, as Mishra does, that China's brand of capitalist modernity is not much different from that of 19th century U.S., as it made its own expansions westward into Indian American territory. One difference now may be that China's own modern foray westward is underwritten not only by a secretive government eager to bring up the standard of living for millions, but by the world's most powerful engine of development: globalization.

And then there's the issue of simple information. Before the problems can be fixed, the basic facts need to be known. But the facts have been drowned out by the Chinese officials and netizens who have rallied against foreign media for coverage they call biased. And it may be, but the government's prevention of foreign reporters from going to Tibet only hinders fair and balanced coverage. A government may complain about media bias, but it can do little about bias as long as it wages its own attacks on the truth. And as long as the government ignores reality, the real problems in Tibet aren't going anywhere, no matter how much police or propaganda or nationalist sentiment are thrown at them.

The same rule applies to environmental protection. Yes, the truth can be hard to swallow, especially for a government keen on keeping an already angry populace at bay. But green campaigners and officials alike know that without good environmental reporting, without accurate statistics or a willingness to accept the truth, environmental clean-up is impossible. Rather than constant complaints over the ways that China is polluting the world, for instance, we need more careful reporting on how that pollution comes about, and thus how it might most effectively be stopped.

Calls for Tibetan independence, despite Bjork, are not realistic. Instead, we might recognize that China is not leaving Tibet anytime soon, and that Tibet does need China's help and involvement to continue to develop. But development that doesn't respect the freedoms and rights of locals to exercise their political rights, practice their own culture and enjoy their local environment is barely development at all.


See also (blocked in China): Tibet Environmental Watch and "Chinese Development in Tibet: A Tibetan Perspective"

Tibet: When "Sustainable" Development Goes Awry
Though the government's news black-out has kept information scarce about what's really happening in Tibet—making it more difficult than usual, for instance, for your correspondent to do research—certain things are clear. Many, including the

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