ibetan native Wande Khar has worked for China Tibetology Research Center （CTRC） for decades. He was born and grew up in Hezuo City in Gansu Province’s Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. In the late 1970s， Tibetan language education had just been officially introduced to local schools. After graduating from high school， Khar became a teacher in a local primary school. A year later when the gaokao （national college entrance examination） resumed in China， he enrolled in Northwest Minzu University. In 1988， he graduated with a bachelor’s degree. By that time， CTRC had been established for only two years. Khar ventured to Beijing to join the research center which eventually became China’s most prestigious institution for Tibetological studies.
A few years ago， Khar was approached by an elderly European woman while attending an academic exchange event in France. She showed him a 1984 photo of Xigaze in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region and asked whether the area remained as poor and underdeveloped as decades ago. “I suggested she visit Xigaze again and take another photo for comparison，”he recalls. “In the eyes of many Westerners， Tibetans were a very vulnerable group， and based on inadequate sensory experience and imagination， they seem to think Tibet stopped developing.”
However， after six decades of modernization and transformation， Tibet has indeed achieved self-sufficiency in grain production and supply， developed modern industry from scratch， and enjoyed convenient transportation facilities， with all low-income farmers and herders covered by the social security system. Increasing numbers of Tibetans educated elsewhere are returning home to support local development. Moreover， Tibet is known as one of the regions with the best environmental quality in the world and remains a world-renowned tourist destination featuring distinct， abundant religious and cultural heritage.
From the peaceful liberation of Tibet in the early 1950s to the launch of Tibet’s democratic reform in 1959 and the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region in 1965， Tibet has kept in step with the country’s epoch-making changes. Alongside the great liberalization and development of its productive forces， the autonomous region has accumulated abundant social wealth and transformed the traditional mindsets of locals. “Radical Emancipation of the Mind”
Mount Qomolangma， known as Mount Everest in the West， attracts some 60，000 tourists each year， providing plentiful opportunity for local farmers and herders to improve their livelihood. At an altitude of more than 5，000 meters， the Qomolangma base camp in Tashi Dzom Township， Xigaze’s Tingri County offers services such as tents， camp carts， yaks and workers for transporting supplies， as well as tour guides. In August 2016， Yang Tao， a scholar from CTRC， spent a week conducting a survey there. He found that due to limitations of capital thresholds and yak numbers， it was hard for poor locals to benefit from tourism development， so Yang suggested optimization of the tourist revenue sharing mechanism of the base camp.
Income distribution is an inevitable topic in all sorts of economic theories. Six decades ago， it would have been unimaginable to form a revenue sharing mechanism involving the government， investors， farmers and herders in Tibet， let alone institutional optimization that aims to benefit more poverty-stricken farmers and herders.
Recently， four Tibetological researchers from CTRC―Tsering Yangdzom， Wande Khar， Li Jian and Yang Tao―were interviewed by China Pictorial. The researchers agreed that the democratic reform that started six decades ago has been the most profound and radical social reform in the history of Tibet and laid the groundwork for the modernization of Tibet’s social system.
Originating in the 13th century， the feudal serfdom system enforced a strict hierarchical structure in Tibet. Lords accounted for less than five percent of Tibet’s population and maintained ownership of the vast majority of production means， while serfs and slaves who accounted for more than 95 percent of the total population lacked production means and personal freedom. In his book Old Tibet Faces New China， French Tibetologist Alexander David-Neel wrote，“All the farmers in Tibet are serfs saddled with lifelong debt， and it is almost impossible to find any who have paid off their debts.”
In Yang Tao’s eyes， the most prominent characteristic of Tibet’s development is institutional reform creating a strong driving force. “Democratic reform enabled Tibet to shift from a feudal serfdom system to a socialist system， not only bringing radical changes to productivity and production relations， but also giving ordinary farmers land and livestock and considerably boosting their enthusiasm for agricultural production.” Wande Khar believes that the democratic reform eliminated the feudal personal independence relationship that had existed in Tibet for centuries and enabled serfs to become independent persons， which is the most important cornerstone for Tibet becoming a modern society.
Tsering Yangdzom grew up in Lhasa. Thanks to substantial improvement of educational facilities after the peaceful liberation of Tibet， she had access to quality education from primary school to college. She once worked as a teacher at Tibet University. In 1988， she joined CTRC and became Khar’s colleague. Yangdzom has paid great attention to the disruptive influence of Tibet’s democratic reform on people’s minds. “Today， as we plainly describe the effort to ‘overthrow the system of feudal serfdom’ in Tibet， most don’t realize the people underwent a radical emancipation of the mind.”
Assistance and Communication
Due to high altitudes， cold weather and uneven population distribution， Tibet suffers higher costs for industrial development and human resources than many central and coastal regions. According to Yang Tao and Li Jian， the harsh natural environment is a core factor impeding Tibet’s endogenous development and self circulation. Tsering Yangdzom stressed that traditional culture and ethnic sentiment of Tibetans make them less enthusiastic about commercialization， so reform is evidently promoted from top to bottom.
Since the early 1980s， the Chinese government has formulated and implemented a series of major measures conducive to the development of Tibet and the well-being of Tibetan people by upholding the principle of catering to actual local conditions and putting people’s livelihood first. For this reason， government-backed national assistance is the most prominent feature of Tibet’s modernization. This is also a policy and measure for regional coordinated development with Chinese characteristics， which is rare worldwide.
In March 1984， the second National Conference on Work in Tibet passed a decision to organize governments of nine provinces and municipalities and several ministries and departments of the central government to construct 43 projects that Tibet urgently needed， especially public establishments such as power plants， schools， hospitals and cultural centers. Some of these projects later became landmarks in Lhasa such as the Lhasa Hotel， Tibet People’s Hall and Tibet Public Art Museum. Primary statistics show that by the end of 2018， nearly 10，000 assistance programs had been carried out in Tibet， nearly 8，000 officials had been dispatched to work in the autonomous region， and more than 30 billion yuan （US$4.48 billion） in aid funds had been allotted to Tibet. The first time Tsering Yangdzom left Tibet to study elsewhere in 1978， her family spent 61 yuan （US$9.1） on her ticket from Lhasa to Chengdu. “That ticket cost what my mother earned in two whole months.” One of her classmates once asked her， “Do you eat rice and drink tap water at home？” Feeling discriminated against， young Yangdzom angrily answered， “We don’t eat or drink！”
With limited interactions and exchange taking place， such misconceptions were not uncommon back then. Not until the early 1980s were large-scale institutional aid projects benefiting Tibet launched across the country. Concrete action has also revealed channels and opportunities for mutual understanding and cultural integration between Tibet and the rest of China. Just as the Tibetan civilization has repeatedly integrated with other civilizations throughout history， mutual recognition between Tibet and the rest of China is also increasing.
On the celestial burial platform of the famous Drikung Thil Monastery， a Tibetan asked Yang Tao whether the Han people considered sky burial cruel. Yang replied， “Of course not. That’s the real eternal home.” The Tibetan gave him a thumbs-up. On the way back， the Tibetan driver asked Yang what sounded good for dinner. He said anything would be fine， even just soup. “If you refuse to eat their food， they will think you don’t respect them. That driver assured me that I really do respect their customs.”
Because it is hard to grow vegetables in alpine areas， the traditional Tibetan diet usually consists of highland barley and meat. During a survey in Bainang County， Tibet’s Xigaze City， Li Jian discovered that Shandong Province， a major producer of vegetables， had been supporting Bainang since 1995. In addition to sending officials to aid Tibet， a group of Shandong farmers also ventured to Bainang to teach locals how to grow vegetables. Today， Bainang has become the largest plateau greenhouse vegetable base in Tibet， with annual sales exceeding 100 million yuan （US$14.8 million）. More and more Tibetans are beginning to embrace and eat vegetables.
Li stresses that Tibet’s uniqueness means that the autonomous region cannot directly copy the development modes of other parts of the country to solve its problems. According to him， however， alongside aid projects， new ideas and experiences are flowing into Tibet， fueling new development concepts.
Vision of a Moderately Prosperous Tibet
A herder named Rigzin lived in a village in northern Tibet’s Rungma Township， Nyima County， about 1，200 kilometers away from Lhasa. The village is within the core area of the Qiangtang National Nature Reserve at an average elevation of 5，000 meters. The scenery is beautiful， but the harsh conditions are not friendly to human residents. Many villagers suffered from rheumatism and heart diseases， and the average life expectancy was less than 60 years. Without the necessary conditions for developing public services， the township even had not a single vegetable shop. Because of its extremely fragile ecological environment， Rungma Township became the first pilot project for ecological relocation in Tibet. On June 18， 2018， after voluntary relocation， Rigzin’s family and 240 other households moved into a village in the suburb of Lhasa. The resettlement site was built with total investment of 226 million yuan （US$33.8 million）， and a modern agricultural and animal husbandry demonstration park under construction， which covers an area of more than 30 hectares， will offer adequate job opportunities.
In the late 1970s， Deng Xiaoping， chief architect of China’s reform and opening up， proposed a vision of building a “moderately prosperous society.” The report to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China proposed to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020. As Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out， building a moderately prosperous society in all respects should be based on the situation of specific areas. However， with a vast territory and different situation in different areas， productivity varies， so the goal for prosperity should be different at various levels.
Yang Tao argues that instead of indicators like GDP， three standards for “moderately prosperous” are more important in regions inhabited by ethnic minorities： improvement of people’s living standards， environmental protection and poverty elimination.
Li Jian points out that as the only provincial-level region with contiguous poor areas and a vast area with extreme poverty， Tibet should not only raise 150，000 impoverished people out of poverty， but also ensure that infrastructure facilities like roads and other basic public services are available to all.
In addition to the large-scale support by the central government and local governments， the new direction for poverty alleviation in Tibet should be enhancing local impoverished people’s abilities to create wealth. Tibet boasts very unique landscapes， which makes it an ideal place for tourism and special industries such as plateau farm products processing. Li once visited the industrial park for modern animal husbandry in Tibet’s Coqen County. The introduction of modern production techniques has created many jobs and provided locals the opportunity to earn a stable income and climb out of poverty.
Li stresses the innovative power of young people in the age of internet. “Tibetan millennials who received higher education have led the local farmers to become involved in emerging industries. By developing industries such as planting Tibetan medicinal plants and manufacturing tourism souvenirs， they help the poor earn more money.” The South Asia channel has drawn Li’s special attention recently. With the construction of the South Asia channel and the Belt and Road Initiative projects， Tibet will become the crux of cooperation instead of a landlocked remote area and gain location advantages that will produce more fuel for development.
Living Standards Leap： Education and Medical Services
Scholars at CTRC once conducted a familybased survey in Chamdo， eastern Tibet， to find out what parents expect their children to do for a living after they grow up. The survey， covering herders， farmers and urban residents， suggests that the most sought-after professions are doctors and civil servants.
Li Jian and the other three scholars found that the development of modernity is altering local people’s everyday lives through their own research in Tibet. Education is a crucial driver for developing a modern society in Tibet. Before the democratic reform of Tibet， the region lacked schools in the modern sense and less than two percent of school-age children had access to education. But now a sound educational system with Tibetan features and ethnic characteristics has taken shape， including pre-school， primary，middle and high schools as well as vocational， adult training and higher education. Many Tibetan scholars such as Tsering Yangdzom and Wande Khar have become leading figures in the areas of their studies. Young Tibetans now have greater access to education and more opportunities to pursue personal development.
After the launch of China’s reform and opening up in the late 1970s， increasing numbers of farmers and herders began swarming into cities in search of jobs and business opportunities. The information and skills they acquired in the process returned to make a positive impact on the social development of Tibet. In Li Jian’s eyes， Tibetan society has benefited substantially from educational development and changing population structure especially since 2000. “The number of farmers and herders with fundamental education has risen dramatically in Tibet. Equipped with basic scientific and cultural knowledge， they are more productive than the previous generations， and also more socially inclusive.”
Looking back on her childhood in Lhasa， Tsering Yangdzom says， “Back then the only hospitals we could visit were the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Hospital and Lhasa People’s Hospital. But now there are dozens in Lhasa.” Before the peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951， just three poorly equipped official medical institutions were available alongside a few private clinics. The ratio of medical staff to the total population in Tibet was a paltry 0.4 for every 1，000 people. Because of chills and lack of oxygen in the high-altitude region， even a cold or dysentery could be deadly， and an outbreak of smallpox or typhoid fever could easily kill thousands. In the early 1950s， the Chinese People’s Liberation Army began to offer medical services to Tibetans as they trekked through the region. When the 21st century arrived， a healthcare system featuring free medical services covered all counties and more than 96 percent rural townships in Tibet. With maturing medical agencies and the estabalishment of a disease control and prevention system， Tibetans have seen great progress in health conditions and a remarkable rise in life expectancy from 35.5 years to 68 years. “Green medical passages” have been built in many herding areas， such as Damxung County in central Tibet， which Yangdzom visited with Yang Tao in 2011. “Patients who need more treatment are transferred to larger hospitals in cities or even Lhasa. Regular checks are performed on clinics in rural areas to ensure expired drugs are pulled off the shelves，”said Yangdzom.
Partly because of the local religious culture， many Tibetans formerly resisted both Western and traditional Chinese medicine. Instead， they looked to deities for recovery or only trusted Tibetan medicine. Yangdzom and Khar both noted that educational and medical development， which Tibetans value more since the democratic reform， has introduced the benefits of modern civilization. “After the peaceful liberation of Tibet， doctors from other parts of China helped locals tackle their health problems. Tibetans eventually accept that they should see a doctor when they get sick. In the past， a cold or dysentery could be deadly for some Tibetans， but after they tried granules or berberine for colds， they realized that medicines can cure and that such diseases didn’t mean a death sentence.”
Saving Mountains and Rivers
“Where else in the world has 40 percent of the land been set aside in nature preserves in twenty years？ How hard is it to reverse a steady decline in number of endangered species？ The industrious Tibetans achieved it，” wrote former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the preface of the book Across the Tibetan Plateau： Ecosystems， Wildlife， and Conservation.
In Yangdzom and Khar’s memories， Tibet once embraced a great leap in industrial construction. During the “cultural revolution” period （1966-1976）， dozens of non-ferrous metals， rare metals and non-metallic ore were found in the region， but massive exploitation was eventually terminated， mostly due to ecological protection concerns.
Tibet has tremendous ecological significance. It is the source of rivers flowing through China， South Asia and Southeast Asia and the climate regulator for China and even the eastern hemisphere of the planet. An important gene tank for protecting Earth’s biological diversity， it is home to over 9，600 types of wild plants， 798 types of vertebrates and nearly 4，000 types of insects.
However， the ecological environment is extremely fragile on the plateau. It takes as long as several years in certain areas of Tibet to grow grass that can be restored within a single year in areas with lower altitudes. The dilemma of balancing economic development and environmental protection was identified by European countries and the United States during the early period of industrialization and in eastern China in the 1980s and 1990s. Tibetans realized the importance of coordinating economic growth and natural resources and environment as early as the 1970s.
Benefiting from the proliferation of green development policies， Tibet has kept most of the region untouched， with 47 natural preserves at all levels that cover Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon， Mount Qomolangma， Lake Manasarovar and more world-known tourist attractions.
Along with environmental protection have come economic gains. Emerging industries such as ecological tourism are thriving in Tibet thanks to its strength in natural resources. In 2018， 33.68 million tourist visits to Tibet generated revenues of 49 billion yuan （US$7.3 billion）， which accounted for about 34 percent of its GDP. “Tibet is better integrated into the entire Chinese market， and the country’s demand for improved living standards and ecological products have injected strong momentum into Tibet’s economic development，” Yang Tao noted.
Concepts of environmental protection from the West were introduced to China in the 1980s， and have integrated with and been restructured by traditional values about nature in the country. In the eyes of Tibetans， there is a worldly space in nature behind the deified concepts that can be utilized for survival. Modern concepts of environmental protection mingle with local values about nature through communication between locals and outsiders as well as within local communities. Traditionally， farmers and herders in Tibet chop wood for household use， but those living in Lulang Town， Nyingchi City have spontaneously taken the role of forest rangers. During a research tour to Lulang in June 2018， Yang noted that local awareness of ecological protection has grown with the tourism boom. “They are earning more money because of thriving tourism. To keep their hometown attractive to tourists， they actively fight behaviors that could harm the forest. Protecting woods has even been added to the local code of conduct.”
The Dagze Industrial Park， located in eastern Lhasa， is home to more than 1，200 companies that involve production of Tibetan food， handicrafts with ethnic characteristics， refined processing of agricultural and animal products and new energy. In 2017， its industrial output hit 1.28 billion yuan （US$191 million）. The industrial park has implemented low-carbon and recycling transformation in recent years to promote clean production technologies， raise energy efficiency， reduce resource consumption and strengthen waste recycling. In Yang’s view， “green economic engines” as such are critical for balancing economic development and ecological protection in Tibet.