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The tension between modernization and preserving traditions in Tibet

The considerable influx of Han and Hui Chinese into the Tibetan areas within the last decades has often been described as a danger to the local culture, religion and language. However, we should not forget that the lack of development is an even greater threat to the Tibetan people. Especially some young Tibetans tend to associate the Chinese coastal regions and/or the West with modernity and the Tibetan way of life with old traditions and backwardness. If the Tibetan areas cannot offer the perspective of a reasonably comfortable and prosperous life to its inhabitants, the most dynamic Tibetans will always be tempted to leave the region in order to move to the Chinese coastal areas or to foreign countries.

The huge majority of the Tibetans are very proud of their cultural heritage and wish to preserve it at all cost. However, the traditional Tibetan economic activities do not allow them to earn a decent living. What is more, nature in the Tibetan areas is certainly beautiful, but the cold and the high altitude are difficult to bear. Tibetans might put on a brave face; they suffer from the cold in winter like any other living being.

Tibet: Nature is cruel in the Tibetan areas; this masterless dog died from the cold. His flesh has helped other animals to get through the winter.

Nature is cruel in the Tibetan areas; this masterless dog died from the cold. His flesh has helped other animals to get through the winter.

Even in many modern houses, they can't keep the temperature above 0°C in winter; since water pipes would freeze and burst, there is no running water for a couple of months. The tough life takes its toll: many Tibetans are literally worn out when they are 40 or 50 years old.

Obviously, much progress has been made in recent decades to improve the quality of life. Many former nomads have adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle: in summer they live in tents on their pastures; in winter they live in houses close to one of the newly built roads. The Chinese government has massively supported this process with subsidized loans and other measures.

Tibet: One of many new towns where Tibetan nomads spend the harsh winter months.

One of many new towns where nomads spend the harsh winter months.

Switching from horses as only transportation means to motorbikes and sometimes cars has also made life much easier. Mobile phone antennas have popped up everywhere, even in remote places; this has done a lot to reduce the previous isolation of farmers and herders.

 Tibet: Motorbikes have done a lot to alleviate the isolation of Tibetan farmers and herders.  Tibet: Mobile phones have done a lot to alleviate the isolation of Tibetan farmers and herders.

Motorbikes and mobile phones have done a lot to alleviate the isolation of farmers and herders.

However, the Tibetan areas are still very far from offering a comfortable living to their inhabitants. Living in a house in winter instead of a tent means that the temperature inside is quite stable around freezing point instead of going up and down between 0°C and -10°C and below. For this specific problem, solutions exist: better thermic insulation could improve the comfort of living dramatically. More research is needed to find out whether this solution is not implemented yet for financial reasons or simply because it is not well known.

Recently, new legislation in China has made thermic insulation compulsory for new buildings of a certain size. As a result, the thermic insulation industry has experienced a sudden boom; prices will certainly come down due to mass production and new development. It remains to be seen to what extent this technology will be adopted by Tibetans to build or renovate individual houses.

Tibet: Thermic insulation panels are fitted on a residential building in Hezuo, Gansu province.

A residential building in Hezuo, Gansu province, is fitted with insulation panels.

Changes in everyday life like part-time permanent houses, motorbikes, mobile phones and (potentially) thermic insulation can improve daily living conditions; on the other hand, they imply radical changes in some aspects of the local culture and life style. This illustrates to some extent the sometimes conflictual relation between tradition and the quest for a better life. However, these changes cannot yet provide attractive jobs other than farming and herding to the local people.

Agriculture has become more attractive in recent years due to the rise in food prices. However, the total GDP produced through agriculture in the Tibetan areas will not rise dramatically in the future. Marketing strategies like branding and quality labels can of course allow Tibetan agriculture to get into the high price segment (see the text about the development of tourism).

However, the expected rise in income from agriculture is certainly quite small as compared to the expected rise in standard of living in the near future. What is more, demographic growth among Tibetans is quite impressive, due to increased life expectancy and to the selective birth control policy in China: national minorities can have 2-3 children and under some conditions even more, whereas Han Chinese families are limited to one child, to two under special circumstances. The finite natural resources will have to be shared among an ever increasing population.

Diversifying into other fields of activity is therefore essential, even if no such tradition exists in the Tibetan culture. This will necessarily introduce new elements into the Tibetan culture; for this to be accepted by the Tibetans, it is essential that they benefit from this process and that they play an active role in it. So far, all the projects outlined here got unanimous support from all the Tibetans living in these areas. Projects which are not welcome by the locals will of course be immediately scrapped.