In the Tibetan and Uighur autonomous regions

  • Both regions are being developed fast


Last week this scribe was invited to visit Tibetan and Uighur Autonomous regions in China by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs along with other scholars from France, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Russia and Thailand. The tour commenced with two seminars at Beijing organised by the China Tibetology Research Centre and Institute of China Borderlands.

Participants in both seminars were experts on Tibetan and Uighur history and field research specialists on both autonomous regions. The foreign participants were also well aware of the challenges, issues and development in both regions, and held a healthy discussion.

Talking of Tibetans first, it transpired that a lot of effort has been made by the Chinese government for the unification of Tibetan-inhabited provinces. Scientific research studies have been undertaken for the preservation of Tibetan literature, classics on Tibetology and museums. Special emphasis has been laid upon traditional Tibetan medicine, which has been accepted as a viable field of treatment and continues to be taught not only in Buddhist monasteries, but specific departments have been dedicated to it.

Last year there was no night life, the sidewalks along commercial centres were fenced, shoppers could only enter through security gates. Because of improved security conditions, the fences have been removed, and at night we saw thousands of Chinese of all ages and minority groups dancing in the square

It is heartening to note that all 56 Chinese ethnic minorities are treated with policies of unification, common development opportunities and regional autonomy, and are treated as equal citizens having the same rights. Lessons have been learnt from former Soviet Union on managing minorities, and are being implemented after employing Chinese characteristics.

The biggest challenge to the Tibetan Community, both inside and outside Tibet, is the alleviation of poverty, which faces three major problems. The economic issues have been intensified because of the natural environment, which is a cold, dry and Himalayan climate with limited rainfall, which affects the quality of the grasslands. There is low participation in the industrial sector, because the region is far removed from the markets, and the close vicinity of India has not helped either. The regional Tibetan culture is an impediment because the Buddhists have a low motivation for pursuit of wealth.

Since President Xi Jinping has resolved to eradicate poverty from China by 2021, both the Tibetan and Uighur Autonomous Regions present a daunting task. To meet the deadline, the Central Government has invested heavily in infrastructure development. Dual-carriage highways have been built, meandering through thousands of tunnels in the mountainous region with adequate rest areas, commercial and refuelling facilities. The Xinjiang-Beijing high speed train service has been installed while the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, linking Beijing, has been completed. Since both the Tibetan and Uighur Autonomous Regions offer tremendous potential for tourism, facilities have been developed for maximum benefit to accrue to the inhabitants. Cultural heritage has been preserved with national, international and UN support beckoning millions of domestic and foreign tourists.

Medical and educational capacity building has not only provided the much-needed resources but also offer employment opportunities. Vocational training centres have been a major factor in enabling the minorities to seek gainful employment after acquiring specialised skills. Various Chinese Academies of Sciences have conducted research on restoring the ecological balance and tackling the effects of global warming while maintaining economic development. Seeing is believing so the Chinese Foreign Ministry took the group of foreign scholars to a visit of Gansu and Xinjiang Provinces.

With an area of 425,88 square km, Gansu links the Loess Plateau, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the Inner Mongolian Plateau, as part of three major river basins – Huang Ho, Yangtze and an inland river. It resembles a strip extending to 1,655 km, with elevation ranges from 1500 to 3000 metres, which offers a wide array of panoramic as well as historic spots.

Being landlocked and located in the central region, Gansu had remained in the lower strata of development but with the “deepening of China” and its designation as a gateway to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Gansu is now poised to reach its true potential.

President Xi Jinping’s policy of industrial transfer from more developed eastern regions to less developed western regions is paying dividends. Leveraging on its advantage in history, geography, resource and culture, Gansu is playing a vital role in China’s development. It is serving as a gateway because of the Hexi Corridor; acts as a supporter for energy industry; serves as an ecological barrier protecting the environment; acts as a cultural integrator to rejuvenate Gansu and present the province and its rich heritage and natural wonders to the whole world through the BRI.

Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, is situated along the banks of the Yellow River and offers traditional hospitality with a moderate climate and well-developed tourist facilities.

Our hosts had the prudence to drive us from Lanzhou to Gannan along the beautiful and newly completed highway under the BRI project. It was remarkable to observe that for most of the way, till we entered the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous territory, we were greeted with gleaming golden domes of mosques situated every two to three km. There are over 2500 mosques in Gansu, catering to its population of 1.35 million Muslims, belying the Western propaganda that China is suppressing Islam.

Gannan is one of the ten Tibetan Autonomous prefectures in China located at the northeastern edge of the snowy Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It is an important ecological security shelter since 120 rivers and tributaries pass through it and numerous marshy wetlands are located here making the green vegetation coverage rate as high as 94%. It is an important cultural treasure house too. We visited the Xiahe Labrang Monastery, the residence of the living Buddha Master, which has six major scripture halls and colleges for Buddhism, Tibetan Medicine and spiritualism. We also visited the model village of Gaxiu, which has been established as a means of alleviating poverty through ecological tourism and cattle farming. Constructed on ownership basis through local Tibetan inhabitants’ labour and government funds, the model village presents an aura of clean, healthy and prosperous dwelling with modern amenities including e-commerce.

The journey to Xinjiang was undertaken via modern high-speed train from Turpan. The visit to Turpan vocational training centre was an eye-opener. Contrary to Western propaganda, it is not a concentration camp, but offers minor offenders the chance to learn new skills along with courses in Law, the Chinese Constitution and Language. The positive body language of the participants depicted their happiness and well-being. The participants dwell in the training centres during working days and return home to spend weekends with their families.

Turpan is an amazing city with karez systems, historical sites and modern sprawling buildings.

Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, too now presents a skyline of lofty skyscrapers and stylishly designed buildings. A visit to the Xinjiang Exhibition on Major Incidents of Violent Terrorist Attacks was traumatising because of the extent of loss to human lives and property graphically depicted.

A seminar with renowned Chinese experts from Xinjiang University and Academy of Sciences was very informative as it highlighted the extent of the threat from extremism and terrorism, and the various steps the Chinese government has taken to protect the citizens from the three evils of extremism, terrorism and separatism. The Occident may be critical of the Chinese government’s approach but by issuing relevant white papers, China has taken cognisance of the perils and adopted adequate measures to eradicate the scourge of terrorism. Serious criminals are imprisoned, minor offenders are offered the chance to redeem themselves while developmental plans raise the quality of life of the underprivileged. A visit to the White Mosque informed that prayers, fasting and even aitekaf during Ramadan are well attended.

A tour of Xinjiang last year and the current visit presented stark contrasts. Last year there was no night life, the sidewalks along commercial centres were fenced, shoppers could only enter through security gates. Because of improved security conditions, the fences have been removed, and at night we saw thousands of Chinese of all ages and minority groups dancing in the square. We used the newly installed Urumqi Metro, which is both modern and efficient. These are visible signs of tranquillity returning to Xinjiang.

China is well on its way to tackle the serious challenges of extremism and terrorism; we wish it well.