Thubten Samphel, the official spokesperson of the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE), is a busy man — quick to say hello and goodbye, but when discussing Tibet, Samphel’s voice lingers, combing through words, carefully and cautiously, weaving together the kind of narrative usually suppressed in Tibet.
In fact, Samphel is based in Dharamsala, also known as Little Lhasa, home to both the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan community.
Tibet has largely remained impenetrable, during even the heyday of the Mongol and Manchu empires.
Tibet, prior to the invasion of Chinese Communists in 1950, was a state mired in economic injustice, wealthy monastic institutions drawing sustenance from the people via tithes, propped up by an archaic feudalist system complete with inherited serfs. Due to its geographic location, Tibet has largely remained impenetrable, during even the heyday of the Mongol and Manchu empires.
Tibet remained a loosely independent state under both these empires, operating via a patron-priest relationship, with Buddhist leaders providing ‘spiritual” guidance to Mongolian nomads-cum-emperors, who required only that Tibet remain free of an army and thus, a potential threat. At the fall of the Mongols, the Manchus stepped in with much the same requirements; China unfortunately was directly occupied by the warrior nomads that lead both these empires. Modern-day China denies ever having been conquered by nomadic peoples such as the Mongols and the Manchus, claiming instead that both these distinct ethnic groups are “Chinese”.
China often propagates the poverty of Tibet, a result of the feudalist system, as one-half of the justification concerning the invasion and appropriation of Tibet under the guise of “progress”; trotting alongside the narrative of the “primitive, tent-living yak-loving Tibetans” is China’s fallacious premise that Tibet, since inception as a national construct, has always been a vassal state or subject. Conversely, it was China who was the occupied subject, not Tibet.
“I can’t proclaim to know the reasons why China occupies Tibet,” says Samphel. “But our minerals are being carted off to China. Tibetans have no control over any affairs, everything is controlled by Beijing and we are autonomous in name only.”
What sort of minerals?
“Tibetans have no control over any affairs, everything is controlled by Beijing and we are autonomous in name only.”
“The First Secretary of the Communist Party in China said that Tibet has the largest uranium reserves in the world. They have been mining for uranium since the 1970s but we don’t know the details because it is kept from us.
“Tibet has large quantities of copper, coal, chromite, tin, gold and iron amongst many other minerals; the Chinese have resettled skilled Han migrants in these areas, Tibetans are not employed.”
Ben Carrdus is the Senior Researcher at the International Campaign for Tibet; on the subject of mineral resources, he writes, “There are huge amounts of copper, water, gold, silver, zinc, molybdenum, coal, and oil and gas in modest though significant quantities.
“The precise location and verified quantities of uranium deposits in Tibet is unknown, their size and location is not public information — one of thousands of state secrets in Tibet and China.
“At the moment,” he continues, “the line extends into Lhasa from mainland China. Plans are afoot to build an extension to Shigatse, west of Lhasa, a line which government officials are already claiming will go all the way to Nepal.”
The line Ben refers to is the Qinghai-Lhasa railroad, connecting mainland China to Tibet; it is said to be world’s most astonishing technological feat, built at an elevation of 16 000ft, or 4 900m, and 1 952km long, and completed three years ahead of schedule, the railroad is considered by China to be one of their greatest achievements.
Yet all is not dandy — one month after the launch of the railroad in June 2006, Beijing scientists discovered fractures in the foundation. Tibet is known as the critical barometer charting global warming, the region melts twice as fast as any on earth; Tibet is also characterized by shifting grounds on the plateau, destabilizing the permafrost or frozen ice on which the railroad was built, beneath a layer of cooling agents to stabilize the tracks.
China’s perception of Tibet is revealed in the labelling, — Tibet is known as the Western Treasure House, with the Chinese Constitution stating that “all Tibetan resources belong to China” [Article Nine].
The report issued by the TGIE states that Tibet is the “pillar industry” of China’s economy, accelerated by the railroad.
To what extent, I asked Samphel, has the railroad facilitated the influx of skilled migrant workers? Is it the conduit through which China militarizes the region, extracts resources and expands her empire?
“The railroad has definitely deployed Chinese troops. The resettlement policies, excess Chinese population, ethnic tensions have all contributed to strife and unhappiness,” he says.
“We can say the economic boom has only created a wider gap between rich and poor, especially for native Tibetans. Our whole culture has been physically assaulted, the migrant Chinese and the forced use of Chinese language has driven a wedge between us and made Tibetans very resentful.”
The latest report from the TGIE states: “According to the 2006 International Labour Organisation [ILO] report, China’s economy grew by a stunning 50% between 2000 and 2004, yet there was only a 5% rise in the number of jobs available.”
The report goes on to say, “Compared to its rate of GDP growth, the number of jobs being created in China has slowed down tremendously. In Tibet also there has been dramatic economic growth without the corresponding creation of new jobs.”
Yet it is in Tibet that Chinese migrants will find jobs paying the equivalent of Beijing salaries — at the expense of Tibetans.
Mary Beth Markey, the vice-president for advocacy at the International Campaign for Tibet, tells me: “The railway is proving to be an unfolding disaster for the Tibetan people, it is the centerpiece of China’s policies to try to reinvent Tibet in a ‘modern socialist’ image, without serious consultation with the Tibetan people about what they want or what is best for them.”
China’s policies towards Tibet can be summed up in the campaign entitled Western Strategy Development, or Xibu da kaifa; the literal definition of the term kaifa is “to exploit”.
“Nomadic families are being taken off the land and ‘settled’ by the hundreds of thousands, which is not only wiping out a way of life integral to much of Tibetan identity, in terms of sustainable development on the plateau, it also flies in the face of current understandings about land management,” says Mary.
On the subject of Tibet’s nomad pastoralists and farmers, who comprise 80% of Tibet’s population, she states, “Tibetan farmers, already the poorest people in the PRC according to official figures, are now having to deal with a huge influx of wealthier, healthier and better educated people arriving in their thousands each day on the railway.”
But China’s “slash-and-strip” policy has not only affected Tibetans; extraction of uranium, (China has eleven nuclear bases with 93 missiles, according to some sources, denied by the PRC), coal, gold, chromite as well as logging have resulted in the contamination of water sources that are fundamental to 85% of Asia’s downstream population and 30% to 45% of the world.
“Tibet is referred to in some circles as the ‘world’s water tower’ — the Tibetan plateau is home to vast reserves of glaciated water, the sources of 10 of the largest rivers in Asia, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween, Hindus and Sutlej among others. By some estimates, the Tibetan plateau is the source of fresh water for fully a quarter of the world’s population,” says Ben.
China aims to harness the Tibetan watershed via hydropower, diverting the water to China’s main industrial regions.
The TGIE report states: “The purpose is not to provide electricity to rural Tibet, but to supply the smelters, heavy industries and distant cities of the [Chinese] plains below.
“This would seriously decrease the water supplies of India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma, as well as the Yangtze River basin as far as Shanghai, especially in drought years. Meanwhile, rural Tibetans continue to suffer high rates of hepatitis, water-borne infections and back pain because they are forced to fetch water from far down the valley due to inadequate village water supplies.”
What has been the response of the Dalai Lama and the TGIE with regards to these policies, I asked Samphel.
“China has not responded in ways that fulfill needs, they have not critically evaluated their policies, some of which are very bad.
“we are asking for six million Tibetans to be led under one administration, of our choosing.”
“We are not asking for or demanding independence,” he says, “but we are asking for six million Tibetans to be led under one administration, of our choosing. Let us formulate Tibetan policies, education, pastoral regulations, healthcare, economic development and resources, and we say to China, when it comes to foreign policy, you handle it.”
What geostrategic position does Tibet — the roof of the world — hold? “Tibet was once an integral part of the ‘Great Game’ of the mid-tolate-19th century, where the British and Russian empires vied for influence and control throughout Central Asia,” Ben writes in an email.
“At that time, Tibet was seen as a crucial buffer against Russian designs on India, and today it is still regarded as a buffer, although now between India and China. China’s militarization of the Tibetan plateau — aided in no small measure by the new railway — has enabled the Chinese military to project its reach well beyond former constraints, mostly towards India.”
How has the Dalai Lama responded to the situation?
“Without doubt,” says Ben, “the Dalai Lama has been an exemplary ambassador for the Tibetan people and their struggle for freedom. His insistence that the struggle should remain non-violent has given the movement an enormous amount of credibility, and made it the model for numerous other struggles around the world, including Burma, Aceh, etc.”
But there are those who claim that genuine autonomy is a pipe-ream and that independence is the only way towards freedom.
Samphel says: “We want to be integrated with China. It is the only way forward. The Dalai Lama has urged us to ignore history and become a part of China. But the solution cannot be given from Beijing without consulting the TGIE; there is much sensitivity involved, including our value system. They need to find out the concerns of the Tibetans and other minorities.
“There needs to be a fundamental refocusing of China’s policies in Tibet — a ‘Tibetanisation’ of policies — to direct the benefits of China’s policies towards Tibetans.”
“Tibetans simply cannot compete,” says Mary.
Khadija Sharife is a 22-year-old freelance journalist, musician and the Deputy Director of the Phoenix Environmental Institute. She writes in her own capacity.