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.
The west, as China defines it, includes coal mining areas such as Shanxi; tiny, dirt-poor Ningxia; and relatively better-off provinces such as Sichuan. The west borders 14 countries, makes up 70 percent of China’s landmass and is home to 27 percent of the population.
Timothy Oakes, a geography professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has worked regularly in Guizhou, in southwestern China, for more than 20 years. “The basic infrastructure improvements have actually been quite stunning,” he said, adding that new highways have “changed the whole way of life in a whole lot of places.”
But Oakes also said the development has been uneven and has failed to help Guizhou catch up with more prosperous areas: “The numbers mask the fact that you probably have the same degree of inequality in those regions as before, and probably worse. I still see large amounts of the countryside that are not being affected.”
Chinese officials mention handicrafts and pharmaceuticals as two growing local industries. But economists said those are extremely small-scale. “They can’t be the local economy’s backbone,” said Yi Peng, a finance and economics commentator in Beijing.
The reasons include economics and geography. In China’s export-driven economy, factories need to be close to the ports, and that means on the east coast or in the southeast. “Inland areas are bound to fall behind,” Yi said.
The bulk of the economic activity in the western provinces is in mining. But local areas get little economic benefit. The biggest impacts, many critics say, are that people are relocated and that fragile ecosystems are threatened.
Tibet was recently discovered to be a treasure trove of mineral deposits — iron ore, copper, lead and zinc that could reduce China’s reliance on minerals from abroad. But activists, academics and others are worried that Tibet’s delicate ecology will come under assault from an influx of Chinese mining concerns.
“Is it really necessary to develop the west?” Yi asked. “In my opinion, the living environment and the people’s feeling are the most important.”
Staff researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.