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Tibet: is it Shangri-La… or something else?

Tibet (or Xizang) is a landlocked autonomous region on the border between China and many countries, among which India. It has been part of China in Yuan and Qing dynasties, but even in other time periods it had a special relationship with China.
Tibet used to be an empire of its own, but fell due to its own internal divisions. Tibetan cultures and religions are not as unified as one might think. Internal fighting was quite common for many centuries in the area.
The population is extremely small, with just about 3 million people, 90% of which are ethnic Tibetans.
The capital is Lhasa, with almost a million inhabitants.

Map of China’s provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions and special administrative regions. Source: chokkicx / Getty Images

Tibet, a Shangri-La on top of Himalaya

Tibet is mostly mountainous and consists of several plateaus.
The area is considered as a Shangri-La in the West. And yet its environment is extremely hostile to human settlements, which explains the extremely scarce population. Regardless of the efforts done by the Chinese government to build and maintain roads, the life quality outside the cities is one of the lowest in China.

The climate is very dry and cold, especially as the heights increase. Mount Everest is the tallest peak of the world, at 8848 mt, an extreme challenge to climb even for the most experienced people.
Among the important cities of Tibet, besides the capital, are Shigatse, Gyantse and Qamdo.

An economy based on nature… and government funds

The central government of China subsidizes the Tibetan economy. As a matter of fact, contrary to other provinces, Tibet does not pay any taxes. The central government takes care of 90% of its government spendings. These spendings are especially focusing on eradicating poverty, building roads and digital infrastructure.
Furthermore, many Chinese organizations support development of Tibet, especially in the education field. Since industry is extremely hard to develop due to the hostile environment and small workforce, artisanry, herding and agriculture are predominant.
Tibet is also getting more and more international and internal tourism, thanks to the natural resources of the area and its historical relics.

Divergent religions, cultures… and politics, too

Tibet’s international importance is pretty high, especially for political reasons. Some in the West believe it should be independent, under the previous government form – the theocracy led by the Dalai Lama.
While the theocratic government Tibet once had seems to many able to establish a very peaceful and culturally homogeneous nation, it is far from the truth. The old Tibet was absolutely not a Shangri-La for most of its population. While the clergy and warriors had indeed a good life, the same wasn’t for the common folks, almost always under serfdom. Furthermore, the different areas of Tibet had different religious beliefs – and different rulers, too, not always on agreement with the Dalai Lama.

The diversity is still there. Traditions are being preserved – as long as they do not force common people into serfdom.
But then, why Tibet appears in a much more different situation in the West? The biggest factor is the lack of knowledge of what Tibet was before the recent times. But an accurate confrontation of different sources will clarify how the Dalai Lama’s international importance is well connected to the political stance of some Western countries against China.

While the politicization of Tibet is a horrible thing, it helps – in a certain form – its inhabitants, thanks to the growth of tourism in the area.
The Chinese government tries to preserve Tibet by giving it autonomy. At the same time, China is pouring money and resources to develop it.
This shows one important point of China.
The region consists of around the 0,2% of the Chinese population. But it is not being left behind. And, to paraphrase a Chinese saying, in order to become rich, the first step is to build a road.

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