NOTES FROM AN AUGUST 1991 CONFERENCE IN QINGHAI PROVINCE
In August 1991, China´s western provinces — rich in natural resources and home to many of China´s “national minorities” – were the subject of an international conference entitled “Development Strategy and Ecological Balance in West China.” Sponsored by the Research Center for Rural Economy, the Ministry of Agriculture, and held in the town of Gonghe in the south-eastern part of Qinghai Province known to Tibetans as Amdo, the Conference represented a break from the traditional characterisation of policy formulation within China´s minority areas as an internal affair. Scholars and officials from China, Japan, and the United States met and exchanged ideas about the status of ecology and economic development in West China.
The focus of the Conference was on the eleven provinces of China, including Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Sichuan, Ningxia, Yunnan, Tibet, Sinkiang, and Qinghai. These provinces, which contain the majority of China´s ethnic minorities, are characterised by their rich resource base on the one hand, and low level of development on the other.
The hope of many participants at the Conference was that the western provinces would soon be receiving the type of attention previously given to the building of eastern China. However, although interesting and innovative ideas were proposed at Gonghe, many left with faint conviction that these ideas would be put into practice.
“Development” in western China has been conducted mainly by Han from eastern China, and much of it has actually concentrated on extracting resources for the benefit of those in the east. At the Conference, a number of voices -Han, Mongolian, Uighur, Tibetan, as well as of foreign observers — called for an end to the eastern “colonialist” presence in the west. They called for sustainable use, rather than des traction, of natural resources in the process of development.
The participants could be divided into three groups: officials and scholars from eastern China, minority nationalities (local officials, scholars and community-level workers), and foreign participants. While each group had its own specific concerns, three themes were consistently brought up: the rising dichotomy between development in East and West China; the need to balance economic development with environmental preservation; and the need for economic development in West China to be conducted by and for the local people.
The gap between levels of development in the East and West was seen as one of the most threatening results of earlier economic strategies. Both high-level Beijing officials and the local county officials spoke of the need to narrow this gap. Questions discussed included the crucial one of whether or not to encourage the complementary division of labor between East and West China (i.e., exchange of primary products and the sharing of advantageous resources), and whether the concept of a commercial economy should be extended to West China, which continues to be governed under the old model while economic change has overtaken the rest of the country. Some suggested the need for “vertical economic development” for western China, and lesser reliance on the East. A Beijing official with extensive overseas experience was heard urging his colleagues to bear in mind that the process of reform and development in West China must combine theory and practice at all levels.
Views varied on how to reconcile environmental protection with economic development. Some saw the environment as a tool through which to achieve development; for others the environment of West China was something to be protected from development A few Han participants from Beijing went as far as to speak of the need to end the colonial exploitation of West China´s resources. They believed minorities should gain control over natural resources in their areas as stipulated by the Chinese Constitution.
Most participants tended to perceive West China as an area whose storehouse of natural resources could, with the use of scientific knowledge, be rendered economically beneficial for all of China. There was much interest shown in developing the West´s hydroelectric potential, increasing the area under farmland, preventing desertification, and protecting grasslands.
There was sustained debate between those who proposed creating more farm lands and those who wanted to encourage the traditional practice of animal husbandry by local nomads. The county director of Gonghe, a Tibetan, proposed that a nomad organisation be created to protect the nomad´s rights to their animals and grasslands. His proposal was well received, with the exception of a vocal minority which saw mass agriculture as the answer to all development problems, and which tended to perceive the lifestyles of nomads as obstacles to their progress.
Most of those present seemed to agree that local participation in decision-making was essential for genuine development. In fact, some felt that a new definition of “development” and “participation” within China as a whole was required if West China was to be successfully developed. As a result, issues of local involvement were widely discussed, with a Tibetan participant suggesting that decisions should reflect the position of local people, and not necessarily local officials.
THE RIGHT TO DEVELOPMENT
The Conference discussed the need to implement the existing provisions of the Chinese Constitution relating to the minority nationalities. Stressing that all minorities should enjoy the right to development, they pointed out that much too often minorities did not even know what rights they had as minorities under existing laws. A Tibetan participant from Beijing proposed that rather than relying on the Government, ethnic minorities must cooperate among themselves more effectively to create a “spontaneous force for minority development”. As an example of this type of approach, he pointed to the Chinese Minority Research Institute, founded in 1991 by ethnic minorities from within the China.
THE GONGHE “CONSENSUS”
The closing speech, by a Beijing official from the Ministry of Agriculture, identified several points that said to form the consensus of the Conference, A synopsis of the points he made, apparently unilaterally runs as follows:
The development of West China is important for the People´s Republic of China; there is a need to establish a new concept of comprehensive development; the development of West China is a long-term process and participation of all nationalities needs to be emphasised; and development must be carried out for the improvement of the quality of life for the population.
The Conference ended with this “consensus” but with little agreement on the actual strategies necessary to achieve the stated goals.
In reflecting on all that was exchanged and observed at the Gonghe, it appears that the obstacles to be overcome are not just limited to the three themes that emerged. Instead, it seems, past development patterns in China as a whole must be analysed, including the ideology which directed them.
The commentary on how to change past strategies was varied. A Chinese participant from Inner Mongolia was convinced that economic development in China had not been suitable for minorities, who, he said, had effectively been excluded from the development process. A participant from Beijing said it was time to stop perceiving “the people of the east as the leaders, and those of the west as subjects.” Challenging the dominant model of development, a Tibetan participant proposed that “development be of the people, not solely of areas or industries.”
The lack of understanding by the Han of the traditions and needs of the minority nationalities within China, so often described by scholars, was glaringly present at Gonghe as well. Following several days of discussion of the need to “develop” western China by respecting local opinions and encouraging local participation, most of the participants from eastern China, on an excursion to Kumbum Monastery (Taer’si in Chinese), spent the time mocking local worshippers, disturbing prayer sessions, and laughing at people in what seemed an attempt to mask their ignorance of the environment they were in.
In the eight days of the Conference, the only interaction of the participants with the local community other than through cultural performances, was in interactions with local government officials. The attitudes and statements at the Conference, in general, highlighted the great gap which exists between the policy-makers and those in the community, and between East and West China. The historical, cultural, and other differences between the “national minorities” of China and their Han rulers was also clear.
MORE VOICES NEEDED
How easy will the environmentally protective and locally empowering models of development proposed at the Conference be realised? Solutions do not appear to be easy. As strategies continue to come exclusively from within the East China, it appears that without structural change, development in the future will not differ greatly from development of the past. Those Beijing scholars and officials who are sensitive to the need for development to be inclusive and non-destructive have not yet been able to influence policy. Without the application of a new meaning of development, the people in West China will most likely continue to be excluded from the development process.
Hope lies in the addition of more voices to the development process – through the creation of non-governmental organisations within China, such as the International Fund for the Development of Tibet; the increasing involvement of international organisations in the ethnic minority areas of West China; and the ability of disparate groups within China and elsewhere to generate discussion at conferences such as the one held at Gonghe.
McGranahan is a student of anthropology doing research on economic development in Tibet and Nepal.