Dilemma of development: Tibet’s development project and reductionist reading

December 31, 2015 By Tenzin Desal*


Before his journey through the fringes and heart of what is now China’s colossal landmass, Indian author and essayist, Pankaj Mishra, made several trips to Dharamsala.

He considered the exiled Tibetans he found here in their “jeans and American college sweatshirts” unlikely “heirs to a traditional culture…………… not with karaoke bars and video game parlours standing next to Buddhist temples.”

After struggling with “what to make of Tibetan refugees, in their oddly westernised way”, Mishra surveyed data relating to economic indices, particularly those concerning ‘Tibet’, before stating that: “there is more religious freedom in Tibet than any time since Cultural revolution. It has also recorded higher GDP than any other provinces in China. (Mishra 2006)”.

The author later somewhat redeemed himself, however, by adding: “Still economic development has not made for political passivity (as it has elsewhere in China)”. Unlike him, many other intellectuals have failed to delve beyond this extraordinary yet misleading figures and succumbed to what I refer to as reductionist reading.

China has poured money and resources into Tibet and Tibetan areas. Development became one of the key policies with which to ‘tame’[ii]the restive Tibetan inhabited areas. A sense of dilemma and confusion gripped policy makers, academics, and observers in the wake of protests by a large number of Tibetans in 2008, which were followed by an unprecedented wave of self-immolations across Tibetan inhabited areas.[iii]

In an effort to diagnose the causes of such protests and, in some cases, the complete rejection of China’s rule over Tibet, it is essential to look beyond questionable published figures and avoid slipping into reductionist reading.

Reports and data compiled with the blessing of the Chinese government should be treated with caution.[iv] Out of necessity, few researchers who have managed to carry-out field work in Tibet rely on government data. Comparing their field notes and observations with such data, it is assumed that these data are useful for studying trends and drawing fairly accurate conclusions.

[i] . This paper has benefited enormously from Andrew Fischer’s sustained work on development in Tibet. His close and critical reading of statistical publications on Tibet, corroborated by his insightful field experiences during his trips across Tibet has made invaluable contribution in the field of development studies in Tibet.

[ii] . In her wonderful book, see Yeh (2013), in the introduction she writes: “Taming (‘ dul ba ) is central to Tibetan conceptions of self as well as landscape, and is thus particularly resonant with territorialization. In theTibetan Buddhist view, the ego must be tamed in order to obtain liberation from cyclic existence…The remaking of Tibetan selves and landscapes by the PRC through territorialization threatens to undo this earlier process of taming through a new project of civilization, cultivation, and conversion.”

[iii]. For a comprehensive report and testimonial compilation on self-immolations in Tibet, see Kirti Monastry (2013).

[iv] . Numerous economists and scholars have questioned the reliability of statistics published by the government, see Koch-Weser (2013) for an incisive thesis challenging the China’s national output statistics against that of US and European countries. Also see Rawski (2001).[PDF]


*Tenzin Desal is a Visiting Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.


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