How Xi Can Solve The Tibet Problem
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How Xi Can Solve The Tibet Problem

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In every political culture — even in ones with a premium on stressing continuity, consensus and unity — at some point, newly appointed leaders will want to respond to the urges of their egos. Leaders eventually want to promote policies they feel are their own, rather than inherited from their predecessors. A few years ago, when working as an advisor for a local government in the UK, I spoke to a local politician about the area leader. I suggested that the leader was simply a “puppet” for the predecessor, who had stepped aside after reaching the limit of his terms in office but who still remained active behind the scenes. “I think you will find,” the politician told me, “that while people start off like that, once they are in power they always soon want to act on their own behalf.” In that sense, human nature is truly universal.

Policy continuity was the name of the game at the start of China’s leadership transition in late 2012. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang would not have wanted to march out in their first weeks in office and dismantle the policy framework of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. But now, there are clearer and clearer signs of policy differences, whether it be in foreign affairs, in the ways the Party communicates its core message, or the emphasis being placed on social justice and bureaucratic accountability. The anti-corruption campaign is only the most dramatic of these key changes.

Despite this, the real test of Xi and Li’s leadership will be if they challenge (or fail to challenge) the most entrenched policies. And none at the moment is more striking than the issue of how to handle Tibet. Immolations tragically continue, a sign that discontent has not ebbed. A new Party Secretary initially showed a little more flexibly than his predecessor, but still the parameters set out during the 2010 central meeting on the management of the Autonomous Region remain very much in place. The existing formula for Tibet is to support economic development and let that cure all the other issues in the region.

Xi’s recent actions seemed to embrace the logic of decentralization, granting more fiscal powers to provinces while also creating a more loyal, cleaner and more reliable cadre of provincial leadership. The same ideas were upheld by the Third Plenum in November 2013. Under this strategy, there might be an opportunity to address some of the profound resentments caused by centralized rule in the autonomous regions (with Tibet and Xinjiang being the most challenging) by allowing more local leadership and devolution of powers. The framework for this is in place, and the intellectual justification for it is strong. Efficient administration surely demands more fiscal empowerment of local officials, and more decisions being made close to the areas they affect. Creating efficient state owned enterprises too plays a role here — the SOEs are an important part of the Tibetan economy, and a national reform effort will surely affect how these companies operate in Tibet.

In Taming Tibet, a superb new study of Tibet’s economy by Emily Yeh of the University of Boulder, Yeh points out one of the fundamental challenges of any policy that looks to “normalize” the region using the new potential for decentralization. Her extensive and meticulous field research shows that central government subsidies to the region, which account for over 80 percent of Tibet’s revenue, are largely siphoned off by outsiders coming into Tibet to work. These workers, many of them from Sichuan province, end up sending much of the money back out of the area again. Construction workers and service sector workers, the sort of migrant laborers we see across China, are also present in Tibet, often seasonally. These workers have been the main recipients of the money generated by central government grants and projects, even if this is by accident rather than design.

With this sort of recycling of capital, central policy makers are looking not at a complex political or ethnic issue, but a much more functional one:  how to deploy capital more efficiently in an area where, at the moment, investment is simply ending up elsewhere. GDP growth in Tibet, by Yeh’s account at least, is skin deep, because the growth largely benefits people who do not settle in the region. This should be a worry for the central government. Put bluntly, at the moment Beijing’s subsidies are being utilized in ways which do not fulfill their stated intention of bringing longer term sustainable growth (and less of a dependence on subsidies) to the region.

Does the central leadership have the political imagination to address an issue like this, and to create more sophisticated policies than exist at present? A better fiscal regime would ensure that economic activity is targeted at the very people who are most strongly expressing their feelings of disenfranchisement. It would also be a powerful counter-move against some of the fiercest critics of central government policy in the region. The simple fact at the moment is that the current policies are not working and need to be revised. The question is whether the central government has the resources and ability to bring some fresh thinking in this area. After all, in terms of  fiscal structure and efficiency of economic decision-making, the issues in Tibet are not the traditional problems of ethnic conflict and political discontent. Rather, the problems are related to social justice and policy stability – precisely the areas that the Xi and Li leadership say they want to address.

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