The Chinese Communist Party’s Sixth Work Forum on Tibet has just wrapped. Like the previous high-level conclaves, it will take time to find out what its real significance is, such as new policies or strategies. These filter out slowly, often as neibu (insider-only) documents strictly for senior party members.

We may discover sooner rather than later, if there are any dramatic departures from long-standing policy, for example, vigorous encouragement of marriage between Han Chinese and Tibetans, or a mass influx of lowland staffers, or an acceleration of the program to depopulate rural pastoral districts by shifting former nomads to concrete settlements on urban fringes. Such moves, already well under way in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, may be tried (again) in Tibet.

All the indications are that neither Xi Jinping nor his circle have fresh ideas, still less the somewhat more liberal approaches that make a decade ago, or three decades ago in Tibet seem a much more relaxed time.

What we do know is the official version, which, as with the Fifth Work Forum in 2010, embraced all Tibetan areas, whether in Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu or Yunnan. The party’s ongoing recognition that a unified policy is needed towards all Tibetan areas, irrespective of provincial boundaries, is in many ways the highlight. This is a strategic decision, in no way a recognition of the 150 counties designated as Tibetan in those five provinces as constituting in any way a legal entity. Such strategic choices are easier to make in a meeting convened not by the government but by the party.

What has been released so far is entirely predictable: earnest commitments to development and to stability, the latter meaning unrelenting struggle against the Dalai Lama, who is to blame for any backwardness and underdevelopment in Tibet, despite China’s best efforts.

The language is familiar, and standard: “This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The region has witnessed rapid development during the half century.” 

Yet such language perhaps reveals more than it intends to. Saying that Tibet “has witnessed rapid development” is not just  slightly roundabout English. To witness is to be on the sidelines, observing what is going on. Tibetans have indeed witnessed the rapid development of a Chinese economy, with many Chinese characteristics, imposed from above, with very few linkages to the existing rural Tibetan economy of crop farming and pastoral livestock production. The farmers and nomads have witnessed a new economy of administrators, security staff, surveillance monitors, infrastructure constructors, hotel builders, contractors, miners and real estate developers all descend on Tibet; while the economy of rural Tibet has been neglected.

Official media, sticking to standard phrasing, make it seem as if the development Tibetans have witnessed is of, by and for Tibetans: “The central government has attached great importance to the work related to Tibet and adopted numerous policies and measures targeted at this region to promote its development and stability. In particular, a series of significant initiatives taken over the past decades have led to profound changes to the region, with local people’s living conditions improved considerably.”

Now two economies sit alongside, but unconnected: a largely urban economy of immigrants financed by bottomless central subsidies enjoying incomes comparable to Beijing and Shanghai; and a neglected, under-invested rural Tibetan population whose comparative advantage in producing huge surpluses of wool and dairy products has never been plugged into the Chinese economy.

A simple way of illustrating this is to turn to another announcement of 26 August 2015, the same day the party Work Forum on Tibet wound up. The 5100 Corporation, marketer of bottled water from Tibet (taken from a spring at 5100 meters) announced its profits for the first half of this year, in a detailed announcement released by the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, where 5100 shares are listed.

Trading on Tibet’s reputation for purity, 5100 products –not only water but now also beer- appeal to the new rich who are understandably concerned at China’s food safety, and want nothing but the best for their one child. 5100 says: “Consumer recognition of the high quality and purity of mineral water from Tibet has become increasingly prominent both in and outside China and this trend is expected to gain further pace in future. The Group, through establishment of state of the art manufacturing plants in Tibet and through development of a strong product portfolio combined with execution of its sales and marketing strategies, has succeeded in leveraging on the “Tibet Water Trend” and has succeeded in establishing its brand in a leading position in this segment in China, with continued strong growth. The Group continues its development of new products and new sales channels and markets.”

One of those sales channels is China Rail: if you have taken the train to Lhasa, you have drunk 5100 water. This is but one of the profitable franchises 5100 has built. This is exactly the “development” that Tibetan have witnessed, since the “state of the art manufacturing plants in Tibet” employ almost no Tibetans, the resource is free, and the profits accrue to management and shareholders.

The company’s six-month sales were RMB 427 million, of which RMB 141 million was profit. Most of the company’s spending is not on production but on marketing and brand building. Looking ahead, the company says it will focus on elite outlets: “six major distribution channels, namely (i) department stores and supermarkets; (ii) hotels; (iii) high-end restaurants; (iv) entertainment venues such as night clubs and bars; (v) golf clubs and private clubs; and (vi) others, including cinemas, specialty shops at airport and tourist attractions etc., across different regions in the PRC to promote 5100 Glacial Water and the highland barley beer.”

From China’s perspective, this is definitely development, but it does nothing for Tibetans. Even though Tibet is famous for its barley varieties bred over many centuries by Tibetan farmers for plateau conditions, the barley used to make factory beer is an imported Chinese variety.

Another 26 August announcement revealed the creation, by a consortium of investors from Chongqing, Xinjiang and elsewhere, of a new property insurance corporation to be based in Lhasa: “State-owned Tibet Autonomous Region Investment Co. Ltd and other investors have gained approval to set up a nonlife insurance company in Tibet, according to the China Insurance Regulatory Commission. The new company, to be named Everest Property Insurance, will have registered capital of 1 billion yuan (US$144 million), said the CIRC in a statement. It will be based in Lhasa, and be set up in one year. A total of 11 companies from Tibet, Sichuan, Chongqing and Xinjiang are investing in the establishment of Everest Property Insurance.”

What does Everest Property Insurance do? It collects premiums and occasionally pays out if one of the endless new apartment blocks springing up in Tibetan cities such as Lhasa, Xining, Shigatse, even Rebkong and Yushu, never find tenants, crumble and fall. Everest Property Insurance assures the new rich rentier landlords their investments are risk free, or at least hedged against risk.

Again, does any of this benefit ordinary Tibetans? Or even employ any Tibetans? Yet it all counts as part of the magnificent “development” that Tibetans witness.




Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.