By William Brown
When I drove with my wife and young sons some 40,000 km around China in 1994 to gauge the scope and pace of reforms in remote areas, the highlight was Tibet Autonomous Region in the southwest, which I’d dreamed of visiting since reading Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel by James Hilton, which created the concept of an ideal world among the high mountains of Tibet, as a child.
As we crested the Tanggula Pass at 5,231 meters above sea level into the Roof of the World, lightning bolts slammed nearby peaks and hail pelted our wheezing van as if the elements conspired to deny my childhood dream, but we finally made it to the county of Amdo in north Tibet, and spent the night in a tiny room heated with a yak dung fire. The next morning, I was intimidated when four tall, sun-darkened Tibetans swathed in colorful clothes approached me, hands on daggers. But they grinned, tousled my sons’ blonde hair, and shyly asked in halting Mandarin, “Can take photo?”
Although I was delighted by Tibet and her people, I was dismayed by their harsh living conditions and poverty. The West had romanticized Tibet as a Shangri-La of mystics but the reality was less idyllic. At such altitudes, with no trees and few plants or animals, even Tibetans struggled to survive.
Given Tibet’s remoteness, elevation and unearthly climate, I saw no hope—until I revisited 25 years later.
Signs of change
In 2019, I drove with Xiamen University colleagues over 20,000 km around China to see if President Xi Jinping’s goal of eradicating absolute poverty by 2020 was feasible, and we were astonished at the changes in every place we visited—even in the remotest counties in Tibet.
Shuanghu County at an average altitude of more than 5,000 meters above sea level is said to have only two seasons: winter and almost-winter. With only 14,398 people in an area of more than 110,000 square km, relocating people to lower altitudes would be most cost effective, but they were reluctant to abandon their traditional lifestyle. To ensure adequate medical care, the government spent 930 million yuan ($135.78 million) on a 220-km road to a hospital. They also built new homes with Tibetan architectural motifs, and spent 320 million yuan ($46.72 million) on solar power for 3,000 people.
“At 106,000 yuan ($15,476) per person, there is no economic benefit. We do it only so they can have light at night,” said Liang Nanyu, a government official who came from Beijing to help Tibetans in “death zone,” as the region at over 5,000 meters above sea level is called due to the lack of oxygen in the air, get out of poverty.
To protect the fragile ecosystem that is the source of many great Asian rivers, Tibetans were taught appropriate animal husbandry and many were employed to protect an environment in which it takes decades for a patch of grass to regrow.
Thanks to massive investment, the sacrificial labor of volunteers, and donations by companies such as PetroChina, Tibetan residents in Shuanghu lead happier and longer lives. Since 2016, PetroChina has donated 390 million yuan ($56.42 million) on 113 poverty relief projects in the county.
An aerial view of the world’s highest solar power station in Shuanghu County, Tibet , on January 31, 2019 (XINHUA)
Teaching to dream
But it’s Tibet’s investment in education that makes the improvements sustainable.
In regional capital Lhasa, I met with Yeshe Tenzin, Xiamen University’s first Tibetan student, now a Tibet University professor. Hailing from a tiny village of 200 people, Yeshe Tenzin had the world at his feet after studies in Beijing and degrees earned in Xiamen, the U.S. and Singapore, but his success has given him a deep sense not of entitlement but of responsibility.
“After I graduated from Xiamen University, friends asked me to join their businesses, but I thought I should return to Lhasa to improve Tibetan education and help build the region,” he said.
He is grateful for Tibetan youths’ new opportunities. He said, “I’ve seen the changes in education over the years and, frankly, if it was 25 years ago, I don’t think a young guy like me from a common family would have had an opportunity for such a rich education—and it was all free tuition!”
“Has life changed in your village?” I asked.
He said, “When I was a kid, we didn’t have TV, or even radio. Life was pretty simple, but now even my tiny village has TVs, refrigerators and the Internet. Everyone keeps in touch through [social media app] WeChat. Village life can even be better than city life thanks to subsidies for things like electricity and water, and healthcare is better. If villagers want to see a doctor in a city hospital, the government pays maybe 70 or 80 percent. And Tibetan houses are more beautiful now and bigger—like the Midwest in America, and they have their own cars and trucks.”
“How can they afford these big houses and trucks?” I asked.
“Some get jobs in cities or work as contractors, architects and craftsmen. Some do big businesses like real estate or urban construction. Money is pouring into Tibet and better economic conditions provide more opportunities,” Yeshe Tenzin said.
I myself had seen that e-commerce was booming. Even in remote valleys, trucks were hauling Tibetan products sold online. Online sales in Tibet amounted to 2.46 billion yuan ($385.2 million) in the first half of the year, growing by 19.72 percent year on year, according to official statistics.
“So why did you keep returning to teach at Tibet University after overseas studies?” I asked.
“I have had opportunities many of my friends could not have dreamed of,” he said. “I think it is my responsibility to return and share with my friends and community what I have learned, seen and experienced out there,” Yeshe Tenzin said. “I wrote a book, Faraway Tibet, to encourage friends, students and children to work hard and dare to dream. Every lecture or class, I remind my students that they must dream big because look at me—I did it! I visited all these places and they can too.”
Yeshe Tenzin talked about the government’s many preferential policies to help young Tibetans and other minorities to become entrepreneurs. He said, “Some of my friends are lawyers, teachers and professors. And a big change from 25 years ago is that families used to want their kids to stay at home and work locally, but today, they see education is more important than fast money earned in construction, so they are gladly sending their children to school.”
“One last question!” I said. “What do you think of Tibet’s future?”
He said, “The quality of life has rapidly improved and this will continue for a very long time.”
Two months after I met Yeshe Tenzin, he would begin his doctoral program in Sichuan Province that neighbors Tibet. But he said as soon as he finishes his studies in Tibetan history, society and economy, he would return yet again to Tibet University because his two main goals remain unchanged—improve Tibetan education and help build the region.
In 1994, Tibet’s poverty seemed insurmountable, but today, Tibetans are prosperous, healthier and happier. The average Tibetan lifespan has nearly doubled from 35.5 years in 1959 to 70.6 years today. No wonder Yeshe Tenzin is confident in Tibet’s future. And so am I.
– The Daily Mail-Beijing Review news exchange item