The Chinese government's unflinching stand has been that the Tibet autonomous region should implement tailor-made development policies.
In the late 1950s, Tibet went through democratic reforms that ended serfdom in the territory. In the 1990s, the region embarked on a massive afforestation and environmental protection drive.
Today, natural reserves cover nearly 40 per cent of Tibet’s territory, compared with just 15 per cent in the rest of the country.
Thanks to the central authorities’ financial assistance, Tibetan people’s livelihood has improved continuously without falling prey to polluting industries.
Perhaps this is what prompted Losang Jamcan, head of Tibet autonomous region’s government, to say at the 2014 Tibet development forum in Lhasa that “the residents of Tibet are enjoying the best housing, medical care, schooling and transportation in history”.
Co-hosted by Tibet’s regional government and the State Council Information Office early this month, the occasion was the first forum when Chinese authorities turned to groups of foreigners for suggestions on Tibet’s sustainable development model.
From 1952 to 2012, the central government’s funds accounted for 96 per cent of the Tibet government’s expenditure.
Striking a balance
Tibet’s economy has increased six-fold in the past 10 years. But unlike the eastern and central parts of China, it has not compromised its environment for the growth. It has been spared the “pollution first, clean up later” growth model.
To some extent, the scarcity of modern manufacturing industries has helped Tibet to strike a balance between economic development and preservation of nature.
The disadvantages of economic growth become advantages when development is defined in a different paradigm, which emphasises preservation, not production.
Tibetans’ belief in the power of nature, environmentally-friendly way of life and a people-oriented local government make it much easier to drive home the message that happiness is not decided solely by money, a trait rampant in better-off regions of the country.
The national consensus in China is that Tibet’s environment should be protected. Mahayana Buddhism, which has a deep influence on Chinese culture, shares similar values with Tibetan (or Vajrayana) Buddhism.
The 40-odd ethnic groups living in Tibet love the snow-capped mountains, clean water, forests and grasslands on the plateau as much as they love themselves.
About 13 million tourists from home and abroad visited Tibet last year, that is, more than four times the size of the region’s population.
The natural landscape, culture and religion of Tibet have made it an increasingly popular tourist destination. Tourism, if well planned, should be able to generate enough revenue to better protect Tibet’s ecology, and improve the region’s infrastructure and its people’s livelihood.
“The revenue from tourism and central authorities’ funds should always be used to increase the poor farmers’ and herdsmen’s disposable income, and especially their housing conditions in the mountains,” said Pat Breen, chairman of the Joint Committee of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland at the Tibet development forum.
“Modern agriculture, [animal] husbandry and Tibetan medicines should also be key industries for Tibet, as it is for Ireland. The other industries, however, must be developed very carefully and properly.”
Tibet is rich in mineral and forest resources, and hydropower, so it is very attractive for state-owned enterprises.