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Little things make life better in Tibet

Chuck Chiang
Updated: Sep 29,2014 1:24 PM     China Daily

The steady growth in tourist arrivals has boosted the local economy in Tibet. Beijing has offered $40 million to help Tibet’s rural, urban people.[Photo/China Daily]

In July, I had the opportunity to visit the Tibet autonomous region at the invitation of officials from Beijing and the regional capital, Lhasa. The five-day trip left me cautiously optimistic about its future.

I did not see enough of its religious life to speak on the state of its temples and monks, but it was obvious that huge sums had been invested in improving the lives of Tibetans, especially those living in rural areas. In my five days there, I saw very few signs of the military or police, even in the city’s allegedly more sensitive public areas, such as the Potala Palace and Barkhor Square, where the media had reported unrest in 2008.

Residents appeared content to simply go about their daily lives, and the mood was calm. I also noticed a lot of people from other parts of the country, a clear sign that tourism is flourishing and remains very much a pillar of the city’s development strategy.

Jimy Wangtso, director-general of Lhasa’s government information office and an ethnic Tibetan, told me that maintaining the old, undeveloped Tibet was unrealistic, and that improving the basic quality of life is a top priority. “You can’t expect people to continue riding ox carts everywhere just because you, as a tourist, want to take photos of it,” he said.

“Progress in people’s livelihood is important. The West has progressed to a point where you don’t have to worry about food and shelter as a basic necessity. For us, human rights mean the right to a better quality of life.”

It was a cloudy morning when we visited the village of Apei, nine hours from Lhasa. With 149 residents, it sits like most settlements in Tibet at the foot of mountains facing a river that cuts through a lush, green valley. While officials directed our attention to residents dressed in traditional Tibetan outfits, welcoming us with their signature salted butter tea, I wandered the back streets.

What I remember most distinctly were the houses-some new, some old, but all built in the colorful look of a traditional Tibetan home. Regardless of shape, every one sported a solar water heater on its roof. Many had satellite dishes.

It was mid-July, but temperatures still barely reached 20 C, and at an altitude of 3,000 meters, I quickly realized how valuable hot water is here, something those living in developed nations like mine-Canada-take for granted.

According to official figures, Beijing has offered the equivalent of about $40 million in living allowances to help Tibet’s most needy rural and urban residents. Officials say the region’s per capita GDP has grown from about $25 in 1951 to just over $4,000 in 2012, and secondary industries like textiles and medicine production have grown into multibillion-dollar industries.

Evidence of major investment in modern infrastructure was everywhere. There are already two five-star hotels in Lhasa, and another is nearing completion-its distinctive white triangle designs jutting skyward reminiscent of the nearby snowy peaks.

The new complex is on the north bank of the Lhasa River, which is now linked to the city by a spanking new four-lane highway bridge.

It is 400 kilometers from the southeastern Nyingchi county to Lhasa, and expansion work on the highway that links the two will cut the drive time in half, to four hours. Lhasa’s airport was upgraded a decade ago into a modern glass-and-steel structure, and it is now connected to the city center via a meticulously manicured 62-km expressway.

We visited factories producing traditional medicines and beer from local green barley-a treasured crop-that sported the most modern of European machinery. Beer poured off the lines at 36,000 bottles an hour, and can now reach markets quickly using the 1,956-km Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

While these huge infrastructure projects were much-heralded by administrators, I couldn’t help thinking that it is the solar heaters and other everyday utilities like water, electricity, television and Internet that are making the real difference in people’s lives here.

Of course, during press trips you are always going to be presented with villagers who are happy with their lot. But I noticed, beyond these adult faces, smiling, happy children wandering into view, dressed in warm clothes, carrying decorated lunch boxes-a far cry from the tents and huts that their older relatives experienced growing up.

Back in Lhasa, another thing I noticed was the water. In Beijing, bottled or drinking water is the norm. Here I could drink ice-cold water from the tap.

A lot of Tibet’s ongoing environmental measures are subtle. As our hosts touted the ban on heavy-polluting factories and imposition of strict logging laws, the souvenirs I bought were packaged simply in a red fabric pouch and others were wrapped in paper-there wasn’t a plastic bag in sight.

That fact escaped me until I was back in Beijing, during an interview with Zhang Yun, a professor at the China Tibetology Research Center, which is devoted to the academic study of the autonomous region and all aspects of its life. Lhasa banned the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags in 2005, and the result, Zhang said, is a city free of the “white stuff”, as locals call the bags.

“We visited Taiwan last year, and their standards were also very, very high, almost European-like. It’s an area that I think we here in Beijing can do much, much better. We can learn from Lhasa,” he says.

Tibet’s environmental rules are in sharp contrast to the outside image of China, where air and water pollution regularly make international headlines. Beijing is learning that pollution cannot continue unabated as it is damaging China’s economic attractiveness globally and increasing the government’s healthcare costs.

In addition to a national strategy of tree planting and commitments to limit coal use, China has banned highly polluting industries from its southwestern parts. In Tibet alone, Beijing says it invested more than $3.5 billion in 2012 in ecological and environmental initiatives.

The economy there is concentrated on agriculture, Tibetan medicine, utilities and, of course, tourism, which has exploded in recent times. The numbers are staggering: In 2012, 10.6 million tourists visited Tibet, driving revenues to 12.6 billion yuan ($2.1 billion), a rise of 30 percent from the previous year. Retail sales jumped 16.3 percent as a result.

Commercialization is everywhere. A family of Tibetan herders recently paid the equivalent of $3,500 to operate at a scenic spot along the highway. They charge visitors for horse rides, photos, and even the use of the bathroom, which costs 1 yuan.

Villagers in Apei told me they have around 20,000 tourists staying a year.

Zhang said the majority of those involved in tourism are ethnic Tibetans, meaning the money arriving from outside stays there, supporting local cultural initiatives. One of those is at Tibet University in Lhasa, where free education in the Tibetan language is offered.

Zhang added, however, that academics are concerned about the ever-rising level of commercialism, and its impact on Tibet’s cultural preservation.

“To say we are destroying Tibetan culture is ludicrous,” he added, “but there has definitely been an impact.

“We must find a solution. Foreign researchers we interact with agree this is a challenge, and we are all looking for the best solution.”

The author is a journalist from the Vancouver Sun, a Canadian newspaper. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.