In what is a politically sensitive month, Beijing is moving to counter world opinion on its rule over Tibet, which has seen 127 incidents of self-immolation over the past four years in protest at what Tibetans see as oppression. As exiled Tibetans and their support groups around the world mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the March 10 Tibetan National Uprising against Chinese rule and the anniversary of the deadly 2008 Lhasa riots, China has been releasing statistics demonstrating the progress that has been made on the remote Himalayan plateau.
The Chinese government recently announced that the economy of Tibet in 2013 grew 12.1 percent, according to official data released by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission on February 27, 2014. “The growth rate was 4.4 percentage points higher than the country’s average. The gross domestic product (GDP) of Tibet reached 80.767 billion Yuan (13.19 billion US dollars) in 2013, almost double that of 2009, according to the bureau,” the Chinese state media reported.
The report further quoted Liu Baicheng, head of the regional statistics bureau saying, “It is the first time that Tibet has ranked at the top with growth speed within the 12 western provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions. Moreover, Tibet was ranked on top nationwide.”
The announcement coincided with the annual session of the China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), the first since Xi Jinping was confirmed as president, which featured a 10-day session with around 3,000 legislators from delegations across China.
Also in February, China’s tourism authorities announced that the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) witnessed booming tourist numbers in 2013, with a record 12.91 million visitors. “The total number of tourists visiting the region surged 22 percent year on year with a rise in visitors from overseas. And, more than 223,000 overseas tourists visited the region in 2013, up 14.5 percent year on year,” the Xinhua reported, quoting Wang Songping, an official with the regional tourism bureau.
Beijing also noted an upsurge in the number of Internet users in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), with 2.03 million online at the end of 2013. “This means 67.5 percent of Tibet’s 3 million population have access to the Internet,” according to the head of the Tibet Communications Administration.
Tibet is one of China’s most sensitive areas, with Beijing frequently the target of foreign condemnation for its human rights record. It is an emotive issue in the West, where high-profile celebrities and other opinion leaders have thrown their support behind the exiled Tibetans.
Apart from the March 10 Uprising, the month of March is particularly sensitive: the Tibetan New Year, or Losar, was on March 2, while March 14 is the anniversary of the deadly anti-government riots that took place in Lhasa in 2008. It frequently sees the Himalayan region closed to the outside world and an upsurge in surveillance by Beijing.
Tsering Woeser, an award-winning Tibetan poet and political blogger, recently wrote in an op-ed “Tibet’s Enduring Defiance” in The New York Times, “The New Year celebrations had been muted, as Tibetans privately remembered those who had suffered in a harsh Chinese crackdown on Tibetans a year earlier — all of those who were murdered, jailed or disappeared.”
Thus, the positive numbers released by Beijing seem timed to counter marches and vigils by exiled Tibetans seeking to tarnish China’s image internationally. Although the West has lambasted China over its human rights record, Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of the top advisory body to parliament, recently observed that China has time to win over Western opinion on Tibet and Xinjiang. In a lengthy article, he wrote, “As China becomes more involved in international affairs, and as Tibet and Xinjiang further open to the world, more and more Westerners will have an understanding of Tibet and Xinjiang that better accords with reality.”
Meanwhile, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), the largest pro-independence group, staged a month long “Tibetan Uprising March” to the Indian capital New Delhi from the de facto capital of the exiles in Dharamsala. Hundreds of exiled Tibetans also protested in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. In the past, members of TYC group have held marches and vigils about the Chinese embassy in New Delhi and Western capitals.
According to these rights groups and exiles, Beijing tramples on the freedoms of Tibetans and employs brutal methods to enforce its rule. Exiled Tibetans believe Beijing’s announcement of positive numbers is merely a tactic to conceal the real situation inside Tibet, where they say religious freedom and movement are controlled for commercial interests.
“The issue is no longer ‘China-Tibet,’ but global trade at the cost of the survival of the Tibetan nation and its culture. The arrogance of the Chinese entrepreneurship has completely undermined the Tibetan people’s aspiration by China trying to misrepresent their commercial adventures as Tibetan people’s aspiration,” Tenzin Tsundue, an exiled Tibetan poet, writer and noted activist for Tibet freedom told The Diplomat.
“The mindless bombing of mountains and digging minerals in Tibet can never be Tibetan people’s idea of development. Any tourist of little conscience can discern the truth from underneath the facade tinted glasses that the Tibetans are on the periphery and they are minority in their own country,” he added.
Some analysts also give little credence to Chinese government reports, also seeing them as an effort to sway world opinion on Tibet even as the crackdown that began in 2008 persists.
Speaking with The Diplomat, Prof. Dibyesh Anand, Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at London’s Westminster University and an expert on Tibet, observed “When it comes to statistics the Chinese government produces about Tibet, it should always be read with a healthy dose of skepticism. For instance, according to the Chinese census, the proportion of Tibetan population in Tibet has remained unaltered over more than a decade though all observers and researchers have pointed out the growing Han-ization of Tibetan cities. Most of the growth in tourist numbers is actually domestic. Chinese are encouraged to go to Tibetan areas in order to give a sense of normalcy and in order to dominate the Tibetan landscape.”
He continued, “There is no economic or cultural activity in Tibet that escapes the Chinese efforts to control Tibet and to represent Tibet as ‘China’s Tibet’ to the domestic as well as international audience.”
Beijing’s concept of a unified motherland in which Tibet is an integral part allows for no external meddling. The latest high-profile meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who also met with other top U.S. officials, provoked strong condemnation from Beijing, which sees the 78-year-old as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The Sino-Tibetan relationship is likely to remain turbulent, with no evidence of any breakthrough in the four-year impasse between Beijing and Dharamsala. In this context, world opinion is a significant factor, one that China now appears to recognize.
Saransh Sehgal writes about Tibet and geopolitics in the Himalayan region. He is currently based in Dharamsala, India and Vienna, Austria.