Capitalism Invades Tibet 50 Years after Troops   

BEIJING, Oct 24, 2000 -- (Reuters)

Half a century after Communist Chinese troops occupied Tibet, the exiled Dalai Lama is fighting a new kind of invader - oilmen, gold prospectors, loggers and ranchers.

Armed with drills and chain-saws, the fresh arrivals are turning capital Lhasa into a boomtown.

China is throwing open what it calls its "Western treasure house" of natural resources; half the world's lithium reserves, China's largest chromium deposits and its third biggest copper mine and untold quantities of diamonds.

In doing so, it is rapidly absorbing the Himalayan region into the mainstream Chinese economy, a strategic goal that has eluded Beijing ever since Chairman Mao's People's Liberation Army troops marched in 50 years ago this month. With Tibet's prosperity tied closely to Beijing, Communist authorities trust hearts and minds will follow.

For the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, forced modernization represents a serious challenge.

It cannot be seen opposing an improvement in the living standards of poor Tibetans. Yet it fears much of the investment is designed to benefit a flood of Chinese immigrants and tighten China's political control.

The exiled government "supports projects which benefit the Tibetan people and opposes those which cause harm to them," it said in a statement from its seat in the north Indian town of Dharamsala.


Already, sharp-suited young businessmen can be seen on the streets of Lhasa brandishing mobile phones and wads of cash as they trawl karaoke saloons lined with prostitutes.

The Tibetan capital has a bustling stock exchange office where investors can trade shares in listed local firms.

Tourists swarm through the renovated Potala Palace that looks out across modern office blocks and a newly built Tiananmen-style concrete square.

Just this month, Tibet's top official, Legqog, was telling investors in Hong Kong that the Himalayan region's main goal was to "integrate into the global economy".

"You get rich, we get developed," he declared.

With no power in Beijing, the Dalai Lama is trying to slow the economic transformation of his homeland by putting pressure on multinational corporations and lending agencies.

His supporters were encouraged by a successful campaign against a World Bank loan to resettle poor Chinese farmers in traditional Tibetan lands.

Now they have set their sights on a gas pipeline in China's northwestern province of Qinghai on the Tibetan plateau being built by Chinese company PetroChina, in which British oil giant BP Amoco has a stake.

They are also up in arms over planned oil prospecting in Tibet itself.

"These projects, as they are now conceived, will cause harm to the Tibetan people," the statement by the government-in-exile said.

"Projects that adversely affect Tibetan society and environment must be immediately stopped and redesigned or cancelled."


The 950-kilometer (590-mile) pipeline from Sebei in Qinghai to Lanzhou in neighboring Gansu province is one of 10 projects under Beijing's "Great Western Development" policy.

China says the CNY 2.5 billion (USD 302 million) pipeline will create jobs, improve infrastructure and help redistribute wealth.

But Tibetan activists argue it will lure more Chinese settlers, upset the delicate ecosystem and deplete natural resources with little benefit for locals.

"When you try to develop areas based on resource extraction, it just turns them into colonies," said Lorne Stockman, spokesman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT).

Dharamsala is urging BP Amoco, Italian oil firm Agip and U.S. energy trader Enron to withdraw investments from firms engaged in oil and gas projects in Tibetan areas.

"The primary pressure point for consumers are now corporations," said Stockman.

"We have the ability to hold companies to their commitments on the environment and human rights."


The new tactics reflect growing disillusion with the political campaign the Dalai Lama has waged since fleeing to India after a bloody uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

Inspired by international sympathy with armed separatist struggles in East Timor, Kosovo and Chechnya, support is also growing for the India-based Tibetan Youth Congress, which has advocated using violence to resist China.

And Tibetan activists are throwing in their lot with more radical environmental and political activists who disrupted WTO talks in Seattle last year.

"There's a growing sense of frustration in India," said Stockman.

So far, the campaign has had little success.

BP Amoco has a 2.2 percent stake in PetroChina, but says it will not invest directly in the pipeline.

BP also plans to invest in Sinopec, which holds the rights to Tibet's Lunpola field, the world's highest oil field.

"Our intention is to be a constructive force in China and a force of progress and the very fact of our involvement can give us some influence in raising standards," said a company spokesman, who declined to be identified.

WTN-L World Tibet Network News