World Summit for Social Development Copenhagen, 1995
Population Transfer and Development in TibetSunday, March 19, 1995
[Speech by Michael Wills (Tibet Support Group UK) at the "Social Development: A Tibetan Experience" Conference, Copenhagen, 9 March 1995]
For the past eight months, Tibet Support Group UK has been working on a research paper looking into the population transfer of Chinese to Tibet. What I propose to do today is to present some of the initial findings on the nature and extent of the Chinese presence, some thoughts on patterns of migration, and offer some preliminary conclusions on the relationship between the current influx of Chinese and economic development in Tibet.
Perhaps it is best to begin by looking at what we mean by the term population transfer. The UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has defined population transfer as: "involving the movement of people as a consequence of political and/or economic processes in which the state or state-authorised agencies participate."
This participation can be either active or passive in nature. A definite stated policy of population transfer is therefore not necessary for it to exist. If evidence of systematic, deliberate and coercive movement of population exists on the ground, a finding of population transfer can be made.
Turning now to determine whether this general rule is applicable in the case of Tibet, evidence from Tibetan sources (both from Tibetans inside Tibet and those living in exile) suggests that population transfer is a grave problem. Many recent demonstrations in Tibet have made some reference to the Chinese presence - calls for the Chinese to go home, attacks on Chinese-owned shops and businesses, and so forth. The Dalai Lama himself has spoken of population transfer as perhaps the greatest threat facing the Tibetan people today.
Evidence from fieldwork undertaken in the summer of 1994 suggests that there is a obvious and growing Chinese presence in Tibet.
Lhasa, the capital, provides a striking illustration of this. Lhasa has seen extensive growth since the Chinese occupation. In 1959, the city had a population of 30,000, but by 1989 this had risen to 140,000 (plus a floating population of about 100,000) and is expected to reach some 200,000 by the end of the century. Much of this growth has been Chinese in character. The old Tibetan quarter of the city is now totally surrounded by Chinese concrete blocks and wide avenues. Since the reassertion of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in 1992, there has been an acceleration in growth. Lhasa has witnessed extensive construction work, much of which appears to be undertaken by Chinese labourers. Many economic activities are also increasingly falling under Chinese domination. Counting at the Tromzikhang Market in July 1994 revealed that over 70% of businesses were run by Chinese traders.
If Lhasa is an example of the Chinese transformation of a Tibetan city, the town of Bayi is an illustration of exclusive Chinese urbanisation in the middle of the Tibetan countryside. Bayi was constructed as a military-industrial town in the 1960s, and now has a population that is around 80-90% Chinese. There are only a handful of Tibetan shops in the entire town.
The countryside presents a somewhat different picture. In central and western Tibet, there was no real evidence of a permanent Chinese population in rural areas. The few Chinese who were found were military personnel or temporary construction workers. But in market towns in rural areas, a similar pattern of Chinese domination of the retail trade and service sectors was found.
In eastern Tibet, on the other hand, there were signs of a Chinese presence in the countryside. In Chabcha county in Amdo, there was a considerable number of Chinese farmers, state farms and factories and labour camps which had expanded onto land traditionally used by Tibetan nomads. And once again, the pattern of Chinese dominance in trade was found.
In the course of our research, we came across two main patterns of Chinese migration into Tibet. The first came closest to the popular understanding of the concept "forced population transfer", and was the involuntary resettlement of Chinese government officials, scientists, engineers and so forth. This form of transfer was the most common between 1950 and 1979, and although there was a brief respite in the early-1980s following a visit to Tibet by Hu Yaobang, the general-secretary of the Communist Party of China, recent signs are that it is intensifying once more. In February 1995, the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, announced that another one thousand Chinese cadres and experts would be sent to Tibet.
A second pattern, and one that is perhaps more dangerous for Tibet in the long-term, is the voluntary migration of the Chinese floating population into Tibet. This has been an increasing problem since the reforms of the 1980s, with thousands of unemployed migrants drifting into Tibet looking for work.
This second pattern raises the question of how responsible are the Chinese authorities for migration into Tibet. The case is clear in the first instance - staff would not be transferred to work placements in Tibet without government involvement. But the party and government are just as responsible for the influx of the floating population. Economic and administrative reforms have enabled the floating population to migrate across the People's Republic of China, removed checkpoints on travel into Tibet, and made access to employment and the acquisition of business licences much easier.
It is worth noting that both forms of migration are intrinsically linked to current Chinese policies for the economic development of Tibet. The emphasis during the past few years has been on rapid economic growth in Tibet, raising it out of its "backward" state and bringing it into line with the other provinces of the PRC. The consequence of this is that the modernisation of Tibet is taking place according to Chinese social and economic patterns and serving Chinese political and economic ends. The focus of this modernisation, moreover, is urban areas of Tibet - towns and cities where economic activities are now dominated by the Chinese and Chinese Muslim (Hui) population.
I would just like to wind up with a brief look at the response of the Chinese government to charges of population transfer. In the late-1980s and early-1990s, the authorities used to argue that there was no such thing as Chinese immigration into Tibet, and claim that the Chinese population in the region was only 4-5%.
Statements which have been emerging over the past twelve months indicate a changing attitude. The existence of population transfer is no longer denied, but the party leadership now claim that such migration is necessary for the successful introduction of the market reforms. The Chinese migrants are praised for bringing expertise in the market system into the region. In a speech given last December, the then party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Chen Kuiyuan, declared that Tibetans should not be concerned about Chinese coming into Tibet and taking Tibetan jobs, because the Tibetan people would learn modern economic practices from them and gain in prosperity.
In fact, we would suggest that the current influx of Chinese is a huge problem for Tibet. In terms of numbers of Chinese, it is still very difficult to get an accurate picture. It is possible, however, to get an idea of trends of migration. In eastern Tibet, bordering China, there has been an expansion of Chinese in both urban areas and the countryside. In western and central Tibet, where there was minimal Chinese presence before the invasion, the countryside is still predominantly Tibetan. In towns and cities, however, there is evidence of increasing Chinese control over the economy.
In conclusion, then, there is now overwhelming evidence that the general pattern of Chinese-style urbanisation is taking place at an increasing pace. This development is moreover, happening above Tibetan society - with Chinese towns having little real connection with the Tibetan countryside around them. This leaves an impression of colonialisation of Tibet through Chinese domination of the urbanisation process.
The real danger of current Chinese development in Tibet is that it will lead to the social, political and economic integration of Tibet with China. The cost, though, will be increasing social and economic marginalisation of the Tibetan people, with the danger that they will be consigned to live as second-class citizens in their own country.