China's push to develop its west hasn't closed income gap with east, critics say

Workers help construct a highway bridge across the Yellow River near Zhongwei in western China's dirt-poor Ningxia autonomous region.
Workers help construct a highway bridge across the Yellow River near Zhongwei in western China's dirt-poor Ningxia autonomous region. (Bloomberg Via Getty Images)
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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

BEIJING -- Ten years ago, China's leadership launched its "Go West" campaign, an ambitious plan to develop and modernize the country's poor western hinterlands. The aim was simple: to close the region's yawning income gap with the more prosperous east and assuage restive minority populations, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet.

China's economic boom had largely left the west behind. Spreading the wealth was as important politically as economically -- it was a way of increasing domestic stability and cementing the government's control.

Chinese officials rattle off all the statistical measures of the program's success: Highways were constructed. Houses were built. Nomads were resettled in "model" villages. Millions of people have electricity and clean drinking water. A rail line links Beijing in the east to Lhasa on the Tibetan plateau. And annual economic growth in the west is about 12 percent, higher than the national average.

But beneath the barrage of official statistics lies another reality. China's west -- defined as the dozen provinces and "autonomous regions" stretching from Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang and Tibet -- remains the poorest, least-developed and least-educated part of the country.

The massive investment, critics say, has mainly benefited state-owned companies that build the roads and railways and mine the minerals. There is little indigenous industry and scant foreign investment. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, and nomads have been resettled into villages where they have no livelihood. Locals complain that China is primarily interested in extracting minerals to keep the factories back east running.

The decade of development spending still has not bought the loyalty of China's ethnic minorities. Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang rioted last year, and Tibetans rose up in March 2008. Beijing has responded by severely tightening control in both places.

"The government has talked for years about this and that benefit they have brought to Tibetans," said Tsering Woeser, an outspoken Tibetan poet and blogger in Beijing. "But they never explained why, if the people are so happy, such a big riot happened."

Woeser added: "In recent years, there have been improvements in housing, electricity and water supplies. But these improvements cannot compare with the price Tibetans pay."

The sentiment is not confined to Tibet. Most agree that China's decade-long building spree has led to tangible improvements. "The economic development of the western region has made huge strides," Premier Wen Jiabao said late last year, announcing China's plans to continue the Go West campaign "unswervingly" for another decade.

Who actually benefits?

But the question is: At what cost to indigenous populations and the environment? "Nobody disputes that there are now many miles of roads and many airports and people coming in on planes," said Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University. "It's misleading to just ask if there's been economic progress. Who benefits from it? What is the cost locally, culturally and politically?"

Nicholas Bequelin, a China expert with the Asian division of Human Rights Watch, said: "It's not a people-centered modernization program. It's a top-down program that has mostly benefited state enterprises and the party-controlled institutions."

Xinjiang is China's largest region, making up one-sixth of its landmass, and Tibet is the second-largest, twice the size of Texas and accounting for one-eighth the area of the country.

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