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Tibet’s Development through Personal Progress
By Email[Wednesday, April 22, 2009 13:45]
by Tsewang Namgyal


The world is currently in one of its worst recession in the last 50 years. International trade is forecast to fall by more than 13% in 2009 and the world’s economy is expected to reduce by 2.7%. All this means loss of millions of jobs. The key questions in world leaders minds (if not many of ours) are how deep is this recession, how long will it last and what is going to be the changed political economic landscape once normalcy returns? History has shown that every downturn opens up opportunities. This period opens up a unique window for every Tibetan to empower ourselves both intellectually and financially.

This is important because it would increase our chance of success to come to a political agreement but more importantly will allow us to have the strength to implement it. This is ultimately both to Tibet and Peoples’ Republic of China’s (“China”) benefit. If not, the subsequent violations of the agreement we are working hard to finalize will be the cause of the next phase of our conflict. We should be mindful that an important lesson of the Seventeen Article Agreement that our government officials were forced to sign on May 23, 1951, was that it was violated. Here I would like to humbly share some thoughts on how we can empower ourselves in case aspects of it would be of some use.

(i) Anticipated Hyperinflation

There is a school of thought that indicates high probability of inflation (if not hyper) with the United States $787 billion stimulus package. The reason is with the printing of billions of dollars it would depreciate the US dollar. This in turn would lead to other exporting countries like China to weaken their own currency to make their exports more competitive. All this would lead to inflation. This in turn would mean increase of commodity prices such as food. The pain of inflation will in particular be felt by people on fixed and low income. I note at the time I write this article the United States is facing a deflationary period and the stock market has been on the rise.

It is speculated that one of the reasons for the recent large purchase of copper by China is to act as an inflation hedge. A friend of mine, who is in the commodity business, mentioned that their strategy is to buy food growing land around the world. The logic is when inflation comes into effect; the cost of commodities will increase. With food growing land they will have a natural hedge and will be able to profit from it. In other words, as cost of food and other commodities goes up, their revenues will also increase.

How does this apply to our community? Many Tibetans depend on their livelihood on fixed income and small time trades. We also have a sizeable farming community but this is quickly decreasing both in Tibet and India. Many Tibetans prefer to lease their land out and look for other career opportunities. It is critical to let our family and relatives who are in farming to reconsider before they sell or lease their land since they may under value these assets. At least in the near term, farming appears to be a more reliable source of income than other trades.

This diversification of having agricultural as an important component of our economy is beneficial both at an individual and at a macro level. Besides the economic factor, a strong agriculture sector will promote the health of our population. History has shown that equal (if not more) indigenous populations under occupation have died due to starvation and disease than guns. Farming is not only a healthy out door occupation and food is something that one can eat unlike most other produce.

(ii) Mining in Tibet

According to an article in Fortune (February 21 2007), “In 1999 more than 1000 researchers divided into 24 separate regiments and fanned out across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, geologically mapping an area the size of California, Texas and Montana for the first time ever. Their findings: 16 major new deposits of copper, iron, lead, zinc and other minerals worth an estimated $128 billion, according to articles published last week on the website of the China Tibet Information Center, a government-run portal.” It is now argued by many that one of the Chinese government’s key objectives of building the $4 billion railway project to Lhasa was aimed in tapping Tibet’s natural resources.

Past demonstrations by Tibetan organizations on investments in this sector may have delayed large-scale investments in the region and bought valuable time for Tibetans to understand this sector. The current financial crises and reduction in demand has greatly put pressure on metal prices compared to early part of 2008. This decrease in price may also have some effect in slowing developments. However, as China gains more experience in the mining sector and is more capitalized it would be difficult to have much effect in the future.

What can we do? I believe there is not much we can do to stop the large size natural resource developments in Tibet. It is true mining has its problem in particular water pollution if not developed properly. However, the political and economic factors appear to be too strong even if instead of Tibet we were dealing with any other Chinese province. Metal analysts anticipate that the world will require about 200,000 tons of copper each year for the next ten years. Even in developed countries such as the United States that are sensitive about the environment are forced to open up for development (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123956992993011751.html). Besides I believe since we ourselves are users of metals it would be little hypocritical to call for a total boycott of the sector. The realistic goal I believe should be on how the extraction would have (i) minimal negative impact on Tibet’s environment and (ii) how Tibetans can benefit from it.

Having said the above, this is not an encouragement of large scale resource extraction. I believe unless we discuss what is already happening it would not allow us to think of proactively and find practical solutions to the problem. In addition, I believe at a practical level and to hedge our bets activist organization should continue to remain engaged. I believe in the event of large scale investments protests could give more leverage to Tibetans and make investors more mindful of local impact. However, I believe it is important that we slowly change this debate from less of a Tibet and China issue but into a good versus bad project. If we politicize it or have an extreme goals this will give more leverage to shady business investors who are able to use the Tibet political card to stamp out criticism. If we are able to make this into a human issue, I believe we will be better able to form strategic alliances with Chinese environmental organizations, get better media sympathy especially within China, mitigate environmental risks and bring more real benefits to the local Tibetan population.

There is currently an extraordinary opportunity for young Tibetans who want to become wealthy and also do good to study, get experience in the mining sector (through work and buying shares in it) and join reputable mining companies. Not all mining companies are the same. There are many reputable mining firms that abide and meet stringent regulatory standards. There are also many reputable International Banks who abide by the Equator Principle guidelines (http://www.equator-principles.com).

As Tibetans, our value addition is our knowledge of the land and people. Once the projects are developed we will lose this competitive angle and will have less ability to change the nature of the developments. I am not aware of even one Tibetan who has worked or experience in a large natural resource company while we sit on reserves worth billions. I do understand there are few Tibetans in Tibet who work in mom and pop mining firms. Mining is a very complicated business and unless one has experience in it, this would be difficult to give real concrete suggestions on project structure that would bring benefit to the effected people.

For those Tibetans who have interest in the mining sector, there is a number of mining consulting firms whose sites share information related to the trends in the sector and offer industry training programs. Here I would like to recommend two: http://www.ame.com.au and http://www.dolbear.com/ for those who may have interest.

(iii) Hydropower in Tibet

In November 2008, China’s State Council announced a stimulus package of $586 billion. Much of this is planned to be spent on infrastructure developments. It is likely that large portions of this would be used toward financing “China’s Western Development” strategy including exploiting Tibet’s hydro potential.

As we know, many of the major rivers in Asia flow from the Tibetan cultural areas including the Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and Mekong. This has been viewed by China as a way to meet its power requirements and fresh water source for the interior. To put things into perspective the size of this potential one only needs to look at Tibet’s southern neighbor – Bhutan. The country’s largest revenue earner is its sale of electricity (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsq65VhiYhE).

The size of the projects considered under development in Tibet is even larger than those in Bhutan. Bhutan’s largest hydro plant is the 1020 MW Tala Hydroelectric Project Authority. The biggest of the planned projects in Tibet is the Yarlung Tsangpo Hydroelectric and Water Diversion Project that is expected to generate 40,000 MW (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yarlung_Tsangpo_Canyon). According to Wikipedia, “The size of the dam in the Tsangpo gorge would exceed that of Three Gorges Dam …It is feared that there will be displacement of local populations, destruction of ecosystems, and an impact for downstream people in India and Bangladesh… Analysts think that the livelihood of up to 100 million people could be at stake and therefore voice fears that the completion of the water diversion component of the project could spark an Indo-Chinese water war if no proper management is taking place.”

Independent studies have shown that large dams are in particularly harmful to downstream communities with rivers running dry, hurt fish population and could be catastrophic in the event of earthquakes (http://www.dams.org/). However, run of the river dams have proven to be a good renewable source of electricity.

As projects continue to be developed in Tibet, here again it would be important while we protest the negative aspects of the developments we should also consider the opportunities this opens in particular for young Tibetans. The reason why I believe young Tibetans should look at this as a career opportunity is that this would allow one to have a deeper understanding of it and potentially shape the direction of the development. The alternative is that we will have no control of it at all and in the future it will be even more difficult to penetrate in the sector. Probably more than mining, hydro electricity development has the potential to have the largest impact on the Tibetan population and generating regional tension.

(iv) Retrain

In this modern globalized economy one needs to continuously learn new skills or update otherwise one will lose one’s competitive edge. Many Tibetans in Tibet are currently in professions like subsistence agriculture and nomadism. Occasionally we equate this as part of our cultural preservation. I believe this attitude needs to change just as we do not consider sticking to selling sweaters in exile. Of course this is not to endorse the Chinese government’s policies to force Tibetan farmers to grow certain types of crops or use this pretext to forcefully resettle Tibetan nomads. However, I believe if there are NGOs who are qualified and sensitive to our community we should support their efforts to help our people adapt to the changing economy. I believe it is in particular important to teach our subsistence farmers and nomads on occupations where they can best leverage their skills sets or do better in what they are currently doing.

For example with the degradation of Tibetan grasslands and increase in population there is much pressure on grazing land. Friends who live in the region mentioned that Tibetan nomads even kill each other in disputes over grasslands. There maybe opportunities for NGOs and socially conscious entrepreneurs to develop sectors such as eco tourism which would be a natural fit for Tibetan nomads who know the land and will be great guides to tourists. Such shifts in occupations for interested nomads should be welcomed or at least different options should be offered. Similarly our farmers can be given sales advice to get a higher premium for their products in the towns, improved farming technique to increase produce or make value added products for exports.

In the early 1900s if one was a skilled maker of carriages probably if one stuck to ones forefather profession one will be having a difficult time making a living. With the recession and globalization it is becoming even more important to adapt and retool oneself. Adaptation will prevent us from becoming marginalized and give more confidence in dealing with immigrants.

(v) Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE)

TGIE is the backbone of our freedom movement. Future success of Tibet’s freedom struggle will depend much on the organization’s ability to continue to attract the best minds. Through my father, I have seen the personal challenges that our officials have to endure. Even though my father had a relative senior position in TGIE and relatives/friends abroad that supported him, I remember he was very frugal of his personal expenses. My mother helped supplement the family income through spending parts of some years selling sweaters in the streets of India. She mentioned that my father was very mindful of what he ate to make sure that when we came for our vacations we had a good time. From here it is easy for me to imagine the material difficulties of families those who are relatively junior to him and do not have the family support network.

As a community, there is a subtle glorification of poverty for those who serve as symbol of dedication. I believe we slowly need to change that culture. This effort of ours is not a religious exercise where we necessarily need to sacrifice or feel the pain. If our public servants (including all our activists and supporters), without abusing their power or corrupt means, is trying to take care of themselves or their family we should assist them. Less our public servants are worried about their personal needs or their obligations to their family the better they will be able to serve the Tibetan people.

In short, if we can create a culture where our entire public servants serve out of appreciation for the opportunity and our community genuinely honors them for their service this would create a very healthy environment. If we drive them all to poverty this would both reduce their effectiveness and in the future make it more difficult to attract new talents.

Related to this I believe in order to maximize the returns of our efforts it is important to constantly think how we can minimize our cost. One way I believe this can be done by each individual focusing on where they can bring most value in terms of (i) expertise (ii) time (iii) money or (iv) a combination. Many a times our focus tends to be on time and money contribution. However, we should be mindful that without expertise it could be a fruitless effort. The reason why I mention this is that I feel occasionally young Tibetans who have experience maybe overlooked or they may not volunteer due to lack of time. It would be important to think of ways we can still benefit from their knowledge and value their contribution. Many a times experts lack of time and money is because they have spent much of it in order to become experts. In sum, I believe if we all focus on our respective areas and our leadership tactically leverages them we will be able to maximize our returns.

(vi) Development of the Private Sector

In the area of economic development in Tibet or exile I believe this can best be achieved through private efforts with support from NGOs and the government. Private Sector must be encouraged to take the lead. I am aware that we do not have much control over Chinese government policies. However, we or NGOs need to reward and help successful ethical Tibetan entrepreneurs or social conscious investors to become successful profitable ventures. I understand from my contacts in Tibet that during this period of recession China is trying to develop/win goodwill in the Tibet areas.

In addition, we also need to facilitate healthy competition among our entrepreneurs so that they will continue to improve on products, price and community benefits. Most important we must empower the private sector to create jobs and bring up the rest of the community. I believe only through this we will be able to create an economically sustainable Tibetan society. If we become an economy that is dependent on government subsidies and non profit type run businesses this would hinder our entrepreneurial spirit, discourage innovation and reduce hardwork.

I am mindful that I propose a capitalistic economic model. This is a model which creates an instinctive apprehension in our community due to our influence of Buddhism and socialist ideology. Personally, although I propose a regulated capitalistic model for our community, probably I would not be considered a capitalist myself. For me there is no monetary gain to spend much time thinking, analyzing, sharing my thoughts and occasionally sticking out my neck (both in the Tibet and China world) in my opinion pieces. However, I believe one must focus on results.

Capitalism through the development of the private sector has proved most effective in the world to bring people out of poverty by creation of jobs. Through the focus on profits it has also brought efficiency. Yes it has also created social and environmental problems. Communism and socialism has proven to be equally disastrous. Having said that I believe in education and healthcare sector results appear to indicate that the public sector is more efficient and fair.

(vii) Understanding China

Tibet and China are linked both in fate and our geographic proximity. We do not have much of a choice. There are many in our community who view the economic and political rise of China as a threat but I feel we should view it positively. Firstly as our teachers remind us it is good for our minds to rejoice at the success of others. Secondly, China’s difficult period during the Mao era did not give Tibetans any more freedom (if not less) than the current situation. Thirdly, there is much opportunity for us to leverage on the rise of China’s economy. If we view this pessimistically we will not see the opportunities.

TGIE has made and continues to encourage our community to reach out to the Chinese population. In order to benefit from China and execute TGIE’s objective it is critical we understand China better. Having said that I believe SFT and other organizations tactical actions to target China’s brand image for their occupation is a smart move. This dualistic approach of wishing China well but also criticizing her mistakes is an important tactic. True friendships can only be built on honesty otherwise it is not friendship.

I know within our community there are many China experts who have a much better appreciation for the region than me. For those who are not, personally I found besides reading books (in particular China, A New History by Fairbank, John K. and Merle Goldman) and traveling to the region, listening to personal stories of Chinese friends very helpful.

One story in particular sticks out in my mind is a friend I met at school. His father-in-law happened to be one of the PLA Officers who was part of one of the first groups that entered Tibet. My friend said that unlike his wife’s family his father was more critical of the Chinese government policies. He mentioned that his father had once jokingly mentioned to his friends when USSR and China was close that the Russians had really not much to give the Chinese people except ice. One of these putative friends reported this comment to the authorities, and my friend’s father was arrested. Shortly after his release he died. My friend’s aunt quickly adopted my friend, and changed his family name. If she had not done so, he would not have had the opportunity complete his education in China.

Through my Chinese friends I have been mindful that besides Mao’s leadership in the brutal occupation of Tibet, he was also involved in the (i) the Great Leap Forward launched in 1958 through formation of large communes, (ii) the Anti-Rightist Movement launched at the end of the Hundred Flowers movement in July 1957 and (iii) the Cultural Revolution launched in 1966.

To expand a little further the Great Leap Forward is reported to have created the world’s largest famine in human history killing tens of millions of people through starvation. In the Anti Rightist Movement it is believed over 500,000 Chinese people were persecuted. The Cultural Revolution destroyed much of China and Tibet priceless monuments, destroyed a number of important texts and killed thousand of living national treasures. Until I heard the stories of my Chinese friends it was difficult to truly comprehend the suffering they endured because the numbers by itself after sometime does not appear to carry much weight.

(viii) Closing the gap

In the spirit of intellectual empowerment, I believe one area we tend to overlook is learning from each other (even among relatives). A casual conversation, with a cousin who spent his early life in Tibet helped drive this most into me. My cousin had moved to India in the 1980s and then left for the United States around the same time as myself. Soon after he got his US citizenship he decided to go back and see his immediate family members who are based around Lhasa. Since he had not been back for a number of years he bought many presents to take back. I asked him out of all the presents what he felt his younger relatives would appreciate the most. He responded by saying binoculars. I was surprised by his answer because I assumed the response would be more thick jackets or brand name sneakers.

On further inquiring my cousin mentioned that when he lived in Tibet he herded yaks. He said he used to take the animals out into the hills and it was common practice of the villagers to let the animals loose in the hills. He said in the evenings they herded the animals and took them back home. My cousin recalled that many a times his animals roamed into distant hills. He remembers looking for the stray yak and sometimes climbing hills to find that this was not his animal. He said now with the binoculars they will not have to waste their energy.

Similarly, there are a number of Tibetans in Tibet who appear to have a misunderstanding on Tibetans in exile. There is one intellectual Tibetan lady who confided in me that she believed the Chinese government propaganda that TGIE officials were living large due to the generosity of the West. When I explained to her the dedication of the TGIE officials she expressed much surprise. She later suggested to me that we need to bring awareness about this especially to young Tibetans in Tibet.

When I travel to Tibet, many recognize my accent as someone from exile. Tibetans in Tibet and those in exile share many things in common like our respect for His Holiness but our different experiences have naturally shaped our viewpoints. Through simple talking and listening I believe there is much we can learn from each other. Reducing the gap in our knowledge would better allow us to serve Tibet and benefit from the region. If not in the future this could create future misunderstanding and problems.


His Holiness and our teachers often remind us on the preciousness of human life. Karma bought us together and will soon separate us all. We are aware that the possibility in our next life that we will be fortunate to be reborn a human being is very slim. The chance that we will be born a Tibetan, exposed to our teachings, is even more unlikely. It is clear from the ephemeral nature of our existence the importance to lead a meaningful life. As Tibetans, we all have a moral obligation to help protect our rich cultural heritage.

Our elders and teachers have also given us the opportunity and resources to learn from the outside world. They would not have done this if they felt our culture provided all the answers. Their goal, I believe, is that we can get the best of both worlds and contribute further to our community’s development and enrich the world at large. History has shown that indigenous communities that were not able to adapt when applicable, organize and take calculated risks perished. An empowered Tibetan population grounded in one’s culture I believe will allow us to gain the respect of China and the world at large. Through mutual respect, I believe one day we will be not only able to negotiate a just agreement with the Chinese government but more importantly execute it.

The author is an MBA graduate (Beta Gamma Sigma Honor Society member) from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and currently works in the Investment Banking field in New York City. Besides his regular work, Tsewang has traveled extensively throughout the three provinces of Tibet and provided consulting and voluntary services to a number of Tibetan organizations. He can be reached at densang123@yahoo.com

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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