Tibet’s Prime Minister cautiously welcomes investment

Tibet’s Prime Minister cautiously welcomes investment

During a visit to Canada last week, Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, encouraged foreign investments and tourism in Tibet. His government has officially given up the fight for outright independence and instead advocates self-rule and sustainable development in their homeland.

On a recent meeting in Montreal, Lobsang Sangay emphasized his government’s pragmatic approach towards Beijing and gave qualified support for the idea that Western companies could do business in Tibet, as long as they respected local culture. “We welcome everyone who wants to alleviate the sufferings of the Tibetans in Tibet” was a key message from the affable Prime Minister. “However, it must be on the Tibetans’ term. Don’t invest only in Chinese-owned businesses or live in hotels that employs exclusively Chinese people”.

Sangay has been the elected leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile in India, since the Dalai Lama renounced his political leadership in 2011.

Huge economic potential

Nearly 60 years after China annexed Tibet, the area has turned into a hotbed of economic activities. The autonomous region has huge resources of metals, including China’s biggest copper and chromium deposits and among the world’s biggest lithium deposits, massive reserves of uranium, gold and oil, and remains an important source of timber.

The rush to extract minerals causes serious concerns for the fragile environment on the Tibetan plateau. The plateau also serves as the headwaters of many of the largest rivers in the Greater Himalayan area, creating unprecedented potential for hydroelectric power to be exported to the rest of China. In recent years the region has seen growing economic activities as Beijing tries to capitalize on its enormous potential, in terms of both resources and as an outlet for the overcrowded eastern regions in China.

The Sinotization of Tibet

As with the restive Xinjiang province to the northwest, the influx of Han Chinese into Tibet has been a key cause of grievance for the local population. Especially since the high-altitude railway to Lhasa was finalized in 2005, greatly improving access to the remote region, money and people have flowed to the Tibetan capital like never before.

Lhasa has seen a massive development in the last decade with economic growth rates in the double digits. Beijing sees investments as a way to pacify their restive ethnic regions, although the new prosperity has been accused of largely benefiting Chinese immigrants and entrepreneurs.

Sangay claims that a majority of enterprises in Lhasa are now owned by Chinese businessmen, who favor Chinese employees over the local population. Economic disparities was one factor that lead to the massive riots in 2008, the largest and deadliest seen in Tibet since the 1950s. “It was largely young people demonstrating”, says Sangay, “the third generation born since China occupied Tibet. They were angry because they don’t get jobs in their own country”.

Western involvement is sensitive and risky

It is unlikely that Tibet will see a rush of western companies for the immediate future, despite the increased deference to Beijing among western countries. The Tibetan leadership in exile and the Dalai Lama in particular have done a remarkable job of gaining public support and attention for their cause around the world, making any involvement a potential PR-disaster for most companies, even before taking security or environmental concerns into account.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Economics

About Author

Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).