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Overview of the Tibetan population in the PRC from the 2000 census
TIN[Saturday, October 04, 2003 10:30]
TIN has produced a summary overview of the Tibetan population in the PRC, derived from the 2000 population census. The data available to TIN is aggregated at a provincial level only, which makes the analysis of eastern Tibet, where Tibetans make up only a very small proportion of the provincial population more difficult. However, it still reveals much of the current demographic situation of Tibetans, as well as of the changes that occurred since the last census of 1990.

As expected from numerous informal field reports, the census statistics show that Tibetans remain overwhelmingly rural in all of the five Chinese provinces that incorporate the traditional Tibet (87.2 percent living in rural areas overall), much more so than either the Chinese or Chinese Muslims (Hui) living today in the same regions. Within the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) the rural areas are almost exclusively Tibetan (97.6 percent of the TAR rural population). Chinese residing in Tibetan areas, are predominantly urban and are mainly concentrated in larger towns. The Chinese Muslims are also more urbanised than the provincial averages, mostly concentrated in Lhasa in the TAR, with the remainder spread out between cities and towns in eastern and northeastern Tibet. In contrast, non-Tibetan ethnic groups living in autonomous Tibetan areas in Eastern Tibet, such as the Qiang and the Yi, are even less urbanised than the Tibetans.

In terms of the changes in population between the 1990 and 2000 censuses, both Tibetan and Chinese populations have been growing in the Tibetan regions, Tibetans through natural increase (births minus deaths), and Chinese through natural increase and net migration. The rate of natural increase of Tibetans is one of the highest among all of the ethnic groups in China, much higher than current Chinese rates, and so changes in the ethnic shares of the population depend on whether the net migration of Chinese compensates for differences in the natural increase rates. In the TAR, the Chinese population has been growing faster due to migration, but from a small number, reportedly from 80,000 to 160,000, or from four to six percent of the population. In eastern and northeastern Tibet, Tibetans and other minority populations have been growing faster than the Chinese, even after migration is considered.

Attention to population shares, however, overlooks important qualitative issues. The urbanisation rates in 2000 suggest that most of the changes in the composition of the population in the Tibetan regions have been taking place in the urban areas. While Tibetans have remained predominantly rural, most of the rapid urbanisation has been as a result of Chinese and Chinese Muslim migration, whether from within each province or from without. Because the towns and cities hold the levers of economic and political power, the key issue is not whether the population balance has shifted towards Tibetans or Chinese. Rather it is that economic and political dominance has shifted towards the Chinese because they have become increasingly concentrated in the cities and towns, regardless of their overall position in the population balance.

In contrast, the low rate of urbanisation among Tibetans suggests that they are poorly integrated into the rapid development that has been taking place in the region over the last decade, which has a strong urban bias, much stronger than elsewhere in China (see http://www.tibetinfo.net/news-updates/2003/0804.htm). Chinese Muslims are much better positioned in this regard, with other minorities such as the Yi and Qiang appear to be even less integrated than the Tibetans.

It is therefore important to distinguish between increasing population on the one hand, and actual changes in the population shares of each ethnic group on the other. It is possible that the dominant group, i.e. the Chinese, might be increasing at a slower rate than the Tibetans or other subordinate groups, while at the same time consolidating economic and political power. In this case, an increasing proportion of Tibetans in the population may simply mask their emergence as a marginalised rural underclass in a society in transition; a majority in all regions higher than 3000 metres, but a majority stuck in rural areas with few means or resources to enter into or compete in an urban environment.

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