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Grand Exploitation: The Dark Side of China’s Western Development Plan

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Saturday, Apr 28, 2001
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In October, 2000, an international economic conference was held in Beijing. Among the invited guests: Oil company representatives, World Bank executives, members of the media, Chinese Communist party officials, and a host of international businessmen and businesswomen.

The conference was the inauguration of Xibu Dakaifa, the Chinese government’s ‘Great Western Development’ plan— a massive, five-year effort designed to attract foreign investment and build infrastructure in the poor western regions of China.

As the conference got underway, a Chinese government representative from Qinghai province took the microphone and addressed the assembled representatives: “Welcome,” he said. “We invite you all to participate in the grand exploitation of the western provinces.”

While it is true that something may have been lost in the translation— it was later pointed out that the word ‘exploitation’ does not carry quite the same connotation in the Chinese language as it does in English— the remark was nonetheless very telling.

Although the Chinese government is publicly pitching the ‘Great Western Development’ as a humanitarian effort designed to raise the living standard of impoverished Uighurs, Tibetans, and other ethnic minorities, the projects on the slate are predominately massive resource extraction and infrastructure projects. And while the Chinese media have hailed the plan as a great step forward for the people of Western China, Tibetans have referred to the plan as a death sentence, as the last nail in the coffin for their people and culture.

Tibetan bitterness over the western development plan arises from firsthand experience. The last time the Chinese government promised a great leap forward, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans starved to death under Mao’s draconian agricultural policies. Thousands more were worked to death in mines, labor camps, and communes. At one Bauxite mine alone, it is estimated that nearly 10,000 Tibetans slaved away and died.

In April, the Chinese Minister of Defense, Chi Haotian, spent 10 days in Tibet and Xinjiang discussing the vital role of western development in “consolidating national defense and realizing the country’s long-term security and stability.” An article in International Time stated quite bluntly that the Western Development plan was being undertaken in order to “quell ethnic unrest.”

In short, the goals of the ‘Great Western Development’ are not new. At its heart, the plan is not a humanitarian enterprise but rather an effort by the Chinese government to further consolidate control over troublesome regions like Tibet and Xinjiang.

Tibetans will see little benefit from the pipelines, power plants, and railroads that China has in store for them. Most of the jobs granted to Tibetans will be menial in nature, while the skilled positions will inevitably go to Chinese. The new AES power plant will provide power not for nearby Tibetan villages but for the Chinese city of Xining. The gas pumped out of the Sebei-Lanzhou gasfields will join a complex grid of pipelines before finally ending up in the provinces far to the east. As the Chinese reap the benefits, the Tibetans will be left with the environmental and social consequences.

The projects will also bring an inevitable influx of Chinese settlers to Tibet. According to Michael Dillon, director of the Center for Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Durham in Britain, “One of the greatest fears of the non-Han populations living in the western regions is that their societies, languages and cultures will be threatened and eventually extinguished by the migration of educated and qualified Han ‘pioneers’ from China proper.”

This fear is not unwarranted. The Chinese population in Tibet is growing every day. The border city of Golmud, once populated only by several hundred Tibetan nomads, is home to over 200,000 Chinese.

The dramatic increase in Chinese population has brought a host of problems to Tibet, problems that were endemic to the frontier towns of the American west— gambling, alcoholism and prostitution. Tibet Information Network, one of the foremost authorities on current conditions in Tibet, estimates that Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, now has one of the highest per capita prostitution rates of any city in the world—higher even than Bangkok or Taipei.

Of greatest concern to Tibetans is the Lhasa-Golmud Railway, which will connect Tibet by rail to China proper for the first time. When complete, the railway will drastically increase the flow of goods and services in and out of Tibet. And, like the railroads of the American west, it will bring a deluge of settlers and soldiers to Tibetan lands.

One official said the railway would be vital in helping to “strengthen national defense.” Chinese President Jiang Zemin was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “Some people advised me not to ahead with this project because it is not commercially viable. I said, this is a political decision— we will make this project succeed at all costs…”

For the Tibetans, all this is nothing new. For them, Xibu Dakaifa is just a new name for the same hardship they have experienced for 50 years.

But what is new about the ‘Great Leap West’ is the acceptance, endorsement, and increasing support the plan has from American and European institutions. Oil companies, development banks, and aid agencies are pouring in billions of dollars to help make Xibu Dakaifa a reality.

British Petroleum has $587 million invested in the Sebei-Lanzhou gas pipeline— a project they have all but admitted is political in nature rather than commercial. According to the Chinese government, Royal Dutch/Shell is set to become the underwriter of the massive Nine Provinces Pipeline—a project which will doubtlessly require large-scale troop deployment and the forced resettlement of thousands of people, and which will pass right through the heart of China’s most restive provinces.

When asked about human rights concerns surrounding the pipeline, one PRC official stated bellicosely: “The Central committee has discussed this at length and has found that there will be no problems associated with the Nine Provinces Pipeline.”

Apparently the concerns don’t bother companies like Shell or BP either. The dollars keep coming. Morgan Stanley recently arranged for the IPO of Chalco, a Chinese Aluminum company whose smelter in Qinghai province has poisoned traditional Tibetan grazing lands. Morgan Stanley has also underwritten a $1 billion Chinese government bond.

Were it not such common practice these days, one would think that a $1 billion bond, delivered with no questions asked to a country with a track record of abominable human rights violations, endemic corruption, and a stated policy of using western capital to “quell ethnic unrest” would raise at least a few eyebrows.

It certainly has among the Tibetan community. The Tibetan response to all this has been, naturally, outrage. Over the last several years Tibetans in exile have protested a series of companies and financial institutions that are backing what they see as the destruction of their homeland.

But what makes this battle difficult for Tibetans is that on paper, Xibu Dakaifa appears to be a boon for the local population. It is ostensibly intended to raise living standards, to provide jobs, to uplift the local people out of poverty. For the first time, the Chinese government is using the accepted language of international trade and development to carry out its policies in Tibet.

And the unfortunate reality is that Tibetans inside Tibet can do little to speak out against it.

A team of World Bank economists recently went to Tibet to research whether or not the Tibetan people were in favor of a proposed project that would bring 58,000 Chinese to Tibetan lands and would forcibly resettle close to 2,000 Tibetan nomads. What they found was not surprising. A “climate of fear” existed among the local population. People were not able to speak freely, under threat of imprisonment and torture. Nonetheless, many Tibetans still found the courage to speak of the disastrous consequences—environmental and social—that the Great Leap West is having on them.

Some economists may argue that the massive infrastructure and resource extraction projects of the Great Western Development plan are necessary in order to raise local living standards. But many others are beginning to recognize the curse that this type of development brings on a local population, particularly one in which the people have no control over their resources and no ability to speak freely. Activists and economists alike now fear that, in this new wave of development, the Tibetans will suffer the same fate as the Ogoni in Nigeria or the U’wa in Colombia. Helplessly watching their resources disappear, their lands overrun, and their environment polluted, but unable to stop it.

For years, the Tibetans were forced to swallow a bitter pill. Merciless repression couched in the sweet coating of communist propaganda. Now, they are being fed another pill. It may be a different coating, but for them, it’s still the same poison.

The Great Western Development plan begs the question: If development happens against the wishes of the local population, then is it really development at all?

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