Tibet’s Victory over Poverty

Elimination of absolute poverty in China’s once severely impoverished Tibet Autonomous Region is providing valuable experience for the global fight against poverty and a big boost for poverty reduction worldwide

By Li Yuan

When Tibet was peacefully liberated in 1951, the poverty rate in the region was as high as 80 percent. Over the following decades, a comprehensive campaign against deep poverty plaguing the region was waged by the central government, resulting in a continuous drop in poverty in Tibet. Despite huge progress, Tibet’s poverty rate was still 26 percent in 2012, with an estimated 600,000 people struggling in extreme poverty.

Since 2012, the Chinese government has placed top priority on “targeted” poverty alleviation and constantly explored innovative approaches. At the end of 2019, the government of Tibet Autonomous Region announced that 628,000 people in 74 counties across the region had been lifted out of poverty and that per capita net income had increased from 1,499 yuan (US$229) in 2015 to 9,328 yuan (US$1,426) in 2019.

Inspired by the momentum of targeted poverty alleviation efforts, the people of Tibet are now making great efforts to cement the poverty eradication achievements and implement the rural vitalization strategy.

No More Poor

Zari Township in Shannan Prefecture, tucked away in remote southern Tibet, was among the first regional scenic resorts designated in Tibet thanks to its well-preserved indigenous ecological environment. Despite the stunning tourism resources, however, it remained an extremely impoverished township often overlooked by tourists due to rugged roads, shortage of water and electricity, and dilapidated housing.

The township head, Gonjo Chodron, a native of Zari, has witnessed the tremendous changes in her hometown since poverty alleviation started. “Villagers have all moved out of their dilapidated houses in favor of modern residences with electricity,” she said. “A new asphalt road connecting the county seat of Lhunze to Zari shortens the travel time from nearly eight hours to only three hours.” 

A relocation settlement in Gonggar County, Shannan City. (SUN FEI)

In 2018, every farmer and herder in Zari climbed out of poverty through employment in the agricultural sector and assistance from state subsidies. Subsequently, Gonjo Chodron led her fellow villagers to start growing tea in mountains at 2,700 meters above sea level and develop traditional sectors such as Tibetan liquor, Tibetan incense, and bamboo processing.

“The tea gardens around the township now exceed 13 hectares, and the first harvest of 2020 alpine tea is selling well,” said Gonjo Chodron. She pledged to explore ways to bring more vitality to her hometown. “Rather than blind expansion, we plan to increase the planting area in a steady manner on a yearly basis.”

Tibetan liquor is another growth point poised to produce impressive economic benefits. According to the director of a local distillery, this year he developed a rose wine using homegrown wild rose hips, which has been popular with younger consumers.

“Today, Zari is a well-known prosperous village with beautiful houses, complete infrastructure facilities including a kindergarten and hospitals, and an industrial park that has helped local villagers increase their income,” said Gonjo Chodron. “So, most young villagers now prefer to stay here rather than leave to work elsewhere.”

Zari’s development path is representative of poverty reduction practice across Tibet. Considering the actual conditions, the autonomous region endeavored to eradicate poverty through industrial development, ecological relocation, and educational support while strengthening ecological conservation and the social security system. “Tibet’s practice of poverty reduction is similar to approaches adopted in many other parts of the country but involves innovation and exploration as well and deserves recognition,” said Zhang Yun, former director of the Institute of History under China Tibetology Research Center.

Secret to Ending Poverty

The Communist Party of China and the Chinese government have adopted a people-centered development philosophy with focus on enhancing people’s well-being and fostering all-around development while making steady economic progress toward common prosperity.

Theories and favored measures for poverty alleviation have been different in various academic circles. From a global perspective, the overall effects of poverty reduction have not been great, and progress has been slow. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the concept of targeted poverty alleviation at a central work conference on poverty alleviation and development with the phrase: “We must adhere to targeted poverty reduction and poverty alleviation.” He also proposed the “six precise measures,” namely precisely identification of the poor, accurate project arrangements, proper usage of funds, household-targeted measures, precise stationing of poverty-relief officials in villages, and measurable effects of poverty relief.

On February 11, 2021, Zhang Chunhuan and his family paste couplets on the door of their home in Motuo County, Tibet, to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Eight years ago, Zhang moved from central China’s Shanxi Province to this small county hidden on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, which is now a popular tourist destination and a base for Tibetan tea and Tibetan medicine. (SUN FEI)

Zari covers 578 square kilometers and is home to 593 permanent residents. In the early stage of poverty alleviation, Gonjo Chodron led township officials to visit every permanent household to accurately identify the real poor, and based on surveys and studies, tailored poverty alleviation programs for each poor village and household. “We analyzed the causes of poverty of each poor household as well as their labor abilities and possible methods of increasing income, discussed with villagers about local industry development, determined what kind of cooperatives to develop, and accordingly provided financial support and other assistance as necessary,” Gonjo Chodron explained. In 2020, the per capita annual income of formerly poverty-stricken households in Zari Township exceeded 12,000 yuan (US$1,833).

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke highly of China’s poverty reduction strategy, calling targeted poverty reduction methods “the only way to reach those farthest behind and achieve the ambitious targets set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

A series of specific measures tailored to local natural environment and economic and social conditions also contributed significantly to Tibet’s poverty reduction success. At the heart of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Tibet is an important national security shield and ecological security barrier, an “Asian water tower,” and a global climate regulator. As the largest contiguous poverty-stricken area in China due to both natural and historical factors, Tibet long lagged behind in infrastructure development, education, medical care, and other livelihood undertakings. The majority of its population is Tibetan Buddhism followers who were previously more enthusiastic about spirituality than in ridding themselves of poverty and seeking prosperity. While placing top priority on ecological environment protection, the regional government formulated measures to improve infrastructure, support education, motivate and empower the poor, and vigorously develop cultural industries. These efforts achieved good results and brought about drastic changes to Zari.

Top: Cering Lhamo (first left) works with her peers in the fields.
Bottom: Cering Lhamo (front left) practices tai chi in her community (photo by Che Gang).
Cering Lhamo, 95, was born in Lhunze County, Tibet. She became a serf at the age of six and worked for a lord until democratic reform liberated more than 1 million Tibetans in 1959. Cering Lhamo is now enjoying her retirement.

Tibet has also explored new theories and practices to build a new mechanism for poverty alleviation. Considering the low level of education of farmers and herders and their long distance from central markets, efforts were made to optimize the role of village-level organizations and farmers’ cooperatives to help impoverished households out of their dire situation.

Pana Village, situated on the grassland in northern Tibet, is home to 246 households, of which 65 were struggling with poverty. Locals traditionally subsisted on herding and selling surplus livestock products to vendors. However, limited pastoral area restricted villagers from expanding their herds, and the rapidly growing population left those practicing solely traditional animal husbandry with meager income. In 2017, Pana established a livestock production cooperative to incorporate all pastures and livestock in the village into intensive operation through shareholding, which greatly reduced the required labor for animal husbandry and enabled many herders to leave to work other jobs. Cooperatives were also set up to industrialize farming, and alongside establishment of processing factories for dairy products (fresh milk, ghee, and yogurt), large-scale production and brand marketing strategies gradually enhanced the value of local livestock products.

According to Zhalo, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the China Tibetology Research Center, the Tibet Autonomous Region government began rendering great support to the development of cooperatives in 2016. By the end of 2019, a total of 13,726 specialized rural cooperatives had been established involving 165,000 households, and the average annual income of the poor rose to nearly 10,000 yuan (US$1528), evidencing success of the approach.

China has set a goal of achieving basic modernization of rural Tibet by 2035. Zhalo considers the development of cooperatives not only a successful strategy for Tibet’s poverty reduction, but also an important means to achieve the goal of future common prosperity.

Boosting Confidence in Global Poverty Reduction

From 2015 to 2019, per capita disposable income of herders and farmers in Tibet soared from 8,244 yuan (US$1,260) to 12,951 yuan (US$1979), up 57 percent, and the income of the poor population increased from 1,499 yuan (US$229) to 9,328 yuan (US$1,425), a 522 percent jump. Tibet has basically eliminated absolute poverty while improving the standard of living exponentially.

Tibet’s victory in the fight against extreme poverty is highly significant not only for China’s poverty reduction cause, but also for the rest of the world. Experience gained from poverty alleviation and income-boosting efforts in Damxung County in central Tibet was included into the China Human Development Report 2016 from the United Nations Development Program.

Zhalo noted that most other regions of the world with a natural environment and economic and social conditions similar to Tibet are deeply impoverished, such as places in the Himalayas, the Andes, the East African Plateau, and other global marginal areas where ethnic minorities live. Finding effective strategies to improve the welfare of residents in these areas and help them get rid of poverty and move towards modernization has long stumped the international community.

Since World War II, under the leadership of international institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations, developing and developed countries have worked together to explore methods of addressing poverty, which has scored some achievements. However, effective solutions for some of the deepest-seated problems have yet to be found, and the overall results of global poverty reduction have fallen far short of people’s expectations. Zhalo maintained that China’s efforts to eradicate poverty, especially elimination of absolute poverty in contiguous poverty-stricken areas such as Tibet, have made a significant and direct contribution to the global fight against poverty and greatly boosted people’s confidence.

“Chinese wisdom and Chinese solutions developed through practice of poverty alleviation in Tibet and the rest of the country have proved increasingly valuable to the international community,” Zhalo remarked. “Countries seeking to accelerate independent development can learn from China’s experience in poverty alleviation. Already, most developing countries are looking to China for greater contributions to world peace and development as China continues enthusiastically developing new approaches and solutions for major global issues.”

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