Forum bolsters Tibet’s business credentials

After weeks of covering Britain’s EU referendum, I was desperately in need of some karma.

Where better else to find it than on the rooftop of the world. I am attending the 2016 Forum on the Development of Tibet in Lhasa.

It is my first visit to the autonomous region and one that was worthy of anticipation given the mythology it always attracts.

Certainly, the scenery is impressive, although when you descend into Lhasa airport you could be forgiven for thinking you were arriving in Scotland with all the green hills.

Most people’s image of Tibet is influenced by British novelist James Hilton’s creation of Shangri-La, an otherworldly paradise, in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

Hilton, also author of Goodbye, Mr Chips, apparently never even went to Tibet and I am not sure if he did the region any favors.

The problem that Tibet has and what this forum is partly aiming to address is that the region is not seen internationally as a place to do business.

Participants at this forum, apart from China, are from 31 countries, including Tibet’s near neighbors India and Nepal but also from as far afield as New Zealand and Ecuador.

My main interest here is how the region is likely to benefit from the central government’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The northwest of its territory is connected with the Silk Road Economic Belt and the southern part, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

It is hoped by building new links through the development of infrastructure it can break out of its landlocked chains.

It is not a forlorn hope since it has done it before. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and long afterward, Xigaze, now a prefecture-level city in southern Tibet, was a significant freight station for the ancient Silk Road.

There has been much progress so far, not least the 2,000-kilometer Qinghai to Tibet railway, which opened in 2006, as part of China’s Western Development or “Go West” strategy.

By 2020, we shall see the opening also of the $20 billion Lhasa to Chengdu rail link, which will provide Tibet with a potential link to Europe through neighboring western provinces.

Some of this is beginning to pay off already. Tibet’s economy grew by 10.7 percent last year, significantly more than the national average, although the base remains low.

There have been benefits to local people also with initiatives to help nomads find work in newly established towns and encouraging former “serfs” to set up agricultural businesses.

But it is establishing trade links with its southern neighbors and being better connected to the rest of China that will really drive the economy.

Some experts such as Zhang Yun, a director of the Institute of Historical Studies at the China Tibetology Research Center, talk of the old silk routes being restored to their “original splendor.”

Over much raising of glasses of butter tea, the traditional Tibetan drink and an acquired taste, there has certainly been room for optimism this week. Certainly, there have been many personal international connections forged.

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