'Roof of the world' rises to new heights
China Daily

United States entrepreneur Shaun Rein, left, Xinhua News Agency journalist Miao Xiaojuan, second left, and US economist David Blair, right, talk with a farmer at his house in Nang county, Tibet autonomous region, on May 23 while Miao holds the farmer's son. XU YONGZHENG/XINHUA

Tibet makes far-reaching progress on many fronts

There are few places on Earth where humanity transcends the boundaries of race and nationality, where people can go beyond the human perspective and understand that they are at one with the universe.

Tibet autonomous region is one such destination.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet. On May 23, 1951, the central government of the People's Republic of China, then still in its infancy, signed an agreement with the local government of Tibet on the peaceful liberation of the region, helping the people of Tibet break free from the fetters of imperialist invaders for good.

Democratic reform in the late 1950s abolished theocracy and feudal serfdom in Tibet. These significant changes, as noted in late United States journalist Israel Epstein's 1983 book Tibet Transformed, "were profoundly emancipatory, physically and mentally, for the overwhelming majority of Tibetans."

With strong support from the central government and the rest of China, and boosted by the efforts of people from ethnic groups in the region, Tibet is catching up with other parts of the country in terms of socioeconomic development.

A new modern socialist Tibet that is united, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful is taking shape, underpinned by sustained stability and rapid development.

Xinhua News Agency's China Chat show brings its international audience firsthand experience of the lives of everyday Tibetans, local socioeconomic development and the real face of the new Tibet, possibly one of the most misunderstood places in the world.

Living in China for most of the past 24 years and first traveling to Tibet in 2001, Shaun Rein, founder and managing director of China Market Research Group, feared his return to the region would be a journey back in time to the Tibet of old, to an area left behind by the rest of the country.

"Tibet was so poor when I visited it the first time," Rein said, recalling long bumpy journeys along winding dirt roads.

Pilgrims circle Barkhor Street in Lhasa, Tibet, on May 19.  XU YONGZHENG/XINHUA

Pleasant surprise

Before he returned to Tibet, Rein planned for the worst and told his team members they would probably not be able to reach him due to a lack of access to phone signals or the internet.

However, he was in for a pleasant surprise. Today, highways connect Lhasa, the region's capital, to smaller cities, while cellphone towers dot the landscape, providing impressive internet speeds.

Rein was amazed by the changes in Tibet's transportation sector over the past 20 years, even if they paled in comparison to those witnessed by Epstein as he took a grinding 12-day trip by jeep and truck convoy from Chengdu, Sichuan province, to Lhasa in 1955.

"Even that seemed wonderfully speedy then," Epstein wrote, recalling his first visit to Tibet in his book. "For thousands of years, the only transport had been by yak or mule caravan-six months being considered a good time for the trip."

Since 1951, Tibet has gradually built a comprehensive transportation network comprising highways, railways and air routes.

According to a white paper issued by the State Council Information Office in May, 118,800 kilometers of highways have been built, providing access to all administrative villages in the region. Some 94 percent of towns and 76 percent of such villages now have direct access to asphalt and concrete roads.

Dong Gengyun, a Beijing official sent to Lhasa on a three-year assignment to support Tibet's development, said building and repairing roads in the region can be extremely costly, and many of them are underused due to low population density in the more-remote areas.

"But we have to do it, because we're not here for sightseeing, but to help develop the local economy and improve people's livelihoods," Dong said.

David Blair, vice-president and senior economist at the Center for China and Globalization, which is based in Beijing, regards infrastructure spending as critical because it allows people to run businesses. In Tibet, he saw people setting up homestays and even innovation centers.

"In many remote areas of the United States, you cannot get high-speed internet either wireless or wired, and there's no incentive to provide it," Blair said, adding that he was amazed by the "great 4G connectivity in a little village in the middle of Tibet."

A student from Lhasa Middle School sings Vagrant, a herdsmen's song, on May 21. XU YONGZHENG/XINHUA

Modern school

In old Tibet, there was not a single school in the modern sense of the word. The illiteracy rate exceeded 95 percent and there was a complete lack of understanding of modern science and technology.

Founded in 1956 with only 20 to 30 students, Lhasa Middle School in the downtown area of the city is the first modern and standard school of its kind in Tibet.

Tang Yong, the school's principal, said, "At present, we have 3,018 students, with those from Tibet accounting for about 62 percent." Most of the students want to attend college, Tang added.

From 1951 to last year, the central government invested 224 billion yuan (about $35 billion) on education in Tibet. The region has established a modern educational system which includes preschool, primary and middle schools, vocational and technical schools, and higher learning and special education institutions.

Gong Xiaotang, Party secretary of Lhasa No 2 Secondary Vocational School, said Tibet has taken the lead nationally in providing students with 15 years of publicly funded compulsory education.

Students at the school have a wide variety of courses to choose from, including cookery, traditional Tibetan clothing and medicine production, thangka painting and other disciplines. It also teaches hotel management, accounting, advertisement design and drone operation.

Blair said: "I was impressed by the kids. They were learning a skill that was going to make them money, and they seem to understand that at a very young age. I was amazingly impressed by how much these kids knew, how hardworking they were, and how dedicated they are to building their futures."

He was also captivated by a center in Lunang, Nyingchi city, where primary school students are taught to use computers and 3D printers.

"They're creating a spirit of dynamism in the young kids, and that's going to pay off," Blair said, noting that these young people will grow up dreaming of being innovators, building businesses and taking advantage of economic opportunities.

Barkhor Street, which circles the Jokhang Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site and part of the historic Potala Palace, is the best-known pilgrim circuit in Lhasa and is always packed with pilgrims from across the region. The faithful complete the circuit clockwise, spinning their prayer wheels in the same direction.

There are more than 1,700 sites for Tibetan Buddhist activities, with 46,000 monks and nuns in the region, where traditional religious activities are carried out regularly in accordance with the law.

Jorden, director of the Potala Palace administrative office, said large sums are spent annually by the government on renovating and maintaining the landmark to ensure that pilgrims have a safe environment where they can practice their religion.

Blair said, "We saw that many people still retain their religious ideals, while at the same time, they don't want to be poor because of that."

This sentiment was echoed by Rein, who found that the religious beliefs of locals in Tibet have been no obstacle to achieving economic prosperity. "I don't think there's a disconnection or conflict between the two," he said.

Last year, per capita disposable income in Tibet was double the figure in 2010. Average per capita disposable income of rural residents has seen double-digit growth over the past 18 years, while that of urban residents last year reached 41,156 yuan, a year-on-year rise of 10 percent.

Rein thought the most impressive part of the trip was seeing the rise of the middle class in Tibet, as a growing number of locals have emerged from poverty. "When you have a vibrant middle class, you have a vibrant, sustainable and successful society," he said.

Dawa, deputy general manager of The Tibet Yougecang Enterprise, an incense producer with fewer than 60 employees, said it has received a 50 million yuan line of credit from Agricultural Bank of China.

Having seen the implementation of Beijing's policy supporting small businesses and encouraging mass entrepreneurship in Tibet, Rein and Blair were optimistic about the development of the region and the Chinese economy.

However, Blair said finding a viable business model remains the greatest challenge for Tibet, so that the region can ultimately wean itself off support from the rest of the country.

Miao Xiaojuan, second left, and Shaun Rein, second right, are photographed with locals and tourists after dancing at a bonfire party in Lunang town.  XU YONGZHENG/XINHUA

Great importance

While Epstein wrote of a rekindled enthusiasm and passion for life among ordinary Tibetans since democratic reform, Rein and Blair observed a Tibet far removed from its portrayal in Western media.

They saw the bilingual signs and software used by doctors to write out diagnoses for patients at the Tibetan Medicine Hospital of Tibet Autonomous Region, as well as students learning the Tibetan language at Lhasa Middle School.

"It was very clear that the government is doing a pretty good job at protecting Tibetan culture and the Tibetan language," Rein said.

China attaches great importance to the protection and development of traditional Tibetan culture, with the study and use of the Tibetan language protected by law. The region now has 16 periodicals and 12 newspapers in the Tibetan language, and has published more than 40 million copies of 7,185 Tibetan-language books. In addition, the language is widely used in the health, postal services, communications, transportation, finance, and science and technology sectors.

Meanwhile, the population of Tibet has risen from 1.23 million in 1959 to 3.5 million in 2019, with ethnic Tibetans accounting for more than 90 percent of the region's total. Last year, average life expectancy in Tibet reached a record high of 71.1, double the figure in 1951.

The disconnect between the region's flourishing cultural scene and its depiction in Western circles was described by Albert Ettinger, a researcher of Tibet from Luxembourg, in his 2015 book Battleground Tibet as "stories from wonderland." These "tall tales" seek to conflate unprecedented population growth with "genocide" and a cultural renaissance with "cultural genocide."

Wherever the China Chat Studio team went, young Tibetans appeared to be the most optimistic among the different segments of society, thanks to the great advances made in the quality of life for locals.

At the Zam Hydropower Station on the Yarlung Zangbo River, the largest plant of its kind in Tibet, the team witnessed the balance struck between development and environmental protection.

Liu Feng, who is in charge of operations at the hydropower plant, said it provides 30 percent to 35 percent of Tibet's energy needs, saving about 400,000 metric tons of diesel oil every year. In addition, hundreds of millions of yuan has been spent to ensure fish can safely bypass the facility and swim back upstream.

"If people's livelihoods are to be improved, the region needs to have sufficient electricity," Liu said. "People should not demonize the utilization of hydroelectric energy."

Since 1978, when China launched reform and opening-up, the Communist Party of China Central Committee has held seven national meetings on Tibet, making major decisions and plans for the region.

China began providing "pairing-up support" for Tibet in 1994. Central government departments, provinces and equivalent administrative units, along with centrally administered State-owned enterprises, offered assistance through 6,330 projects, representing total investment of 52.7 billion yuan by last year. A total of 9,682 outstanding officials were selected and sent to help the region.

Rein said these policies show that the entire country has been trying to progress and work together to build a strong China.

"You don't see in the US a wealthy state like California sending some of its tax money to poor states like West Virginia," he said. "And that's why they are falling further and further behind under the income level."

In comparison, Rein noted that China "doesn't want to leave any areas behind".

Xinhua's China Chat Studio exclusively for China Daily.

A vehicle travels along a road in Tibet, where people's lives have been improved and the population is rising. XU YONGZHENG/XINHUA