“Lhasa Consensus” and China’s Westwards Development

Gabriel Lafitte
18 September 2014

A gathering in Lhasa in August attracted brief headlines, generated less by its’ dry subject –the future development of Tibet- than by the intriguing announcement of a “Lhasa Consensus.” This knowing nod to the once-famous “Washington Consensus” held out the enticing prospect that the Tibet problem is now solved, consensus has now been reached.

The assembling in Lhasa of a smattering of establishment intellectuals from China’s official think tanks and universities, plus a few little-known scholars from around the world hardly justifies the issuing of a grandly-named “Lhasa Consensus.” The declaration is far less impressive than its’ title. It amounts to saying Tibet is doing just fine as China’s outpost and raw materials extraction zone for the world’s factory, and there is little else to say. The problem of Tibet is solved, Tibet is China’s, there is little more to discuss, we can revert to ignoring it altogether.

Probably the “Lhasa Consensus” will go the way of its model, the famous “Washington Consensus” of the 1990s, a brief moment, it turned out, when the US could congratulate itself on having won the Cold War, becoming the sole global superpower; neoliberal market economies were certain to forever rise, financial crashes were a thing of the distant past; and nationalism a fading force. How wrong all of that was. All of it.

At a time when both China and India have strong leaders, on whom many hopes are pinned, the “Lhasa Consensus” is a relic of a fast fading era. Tibet and “the Tibetan question” remain frozen in stale all-or-nothing clichés, with little sign of fresh thinking anywhere. In part, this is because so few Tibetans had a speaking role in this Forum on Development of Tibet, as is evident from available online footage. As usual, the Tibetans in the room were largely sherpas, the logistic facilitators essential to all conferences worldwide, helpers of those entitled to speak.

The “Lhasa Consensus” has risen without a trace and will not be heard from again. So ephemeral is this “consensus” it may have seemed a good idea to give a conference declaration a grand moniker, but it didn’t fly.

The notion of consensus suggests finality, a settled truth, a comity of minds in harmony. But, as any MBA teacher will tell you, today’s consensual truths cause tomorrow’s problems. Today’s solutions, and their unintended consequences, create perverse outcomes and new problems. That is why the Buddhists always urge us not to take those happy moments of consensus too seriously.

But the consensus among obscure academic hacks that Tibet is doing just fine under China is far from the only complacent consensus around. In addition to the Washington and Lhasa consensualities, we could also suggest there are entrenched Beijing, Delhi and Dharamsala Consensuses, in all but catchy name. The Beijing Consensus is perhaps the most familiar. It is embraced not only by the party-state but by Chinese critics of the dominant elite as well. There is consensus, both tacit and explicit, that China is on the right path to prosperity, which is the purpose of life.

The key to not only comfort but even opulence is to persist with development and urbanisation as fast as possible, while taking greater care to ameliorate the worst of environmental impacts. Urbanisation and fast growth are the cure to all problems, applicable to all areas within China’s borders, including Tibet. If the Tibetans are unhappy, this is just the growing pains of a prehistoric and primitive folk adjusting to urban modernity and life as factory workers. Like the rest of China, they will come to realise that they can learn to become consumers, and will inevitably outgrow their anti-modern stubborn clinging to the past.

The Beijing Consensus, and its echo, the Lhasa Consensus, are deeply flawed in their assumptions, perceptions and even basic understandings of what Tibetans actually think. Like all tribal consensuses, it is self-perpetuating and self-deluding; editing out of sight all that contradicts it.

The Delhi Consensus, by comparison, seems an improbable concept. In a brawling, restless, democratic India, there seems to be little consensus on anything. It may be that only when a consensus starts to fall apart that it becomes obvious how entrenched it was, how much it defined what is normal. And, if the Modi government lives up to half of what its backers expect, that consensus may rend.

Today, on the cusp of Modi’s adoption of China’s 1980s model of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) of intensive industrialisation, immune from ordinary Indian laws and rules, we can perhaps sketch the existing Delhi Consensus. Domestically, the Consensus is that India is best ruled by its upper castes, its’ industries protected from global competition by “intra-ministerial disagreements, mystifying constraints, narrow visions and a reluctance to involve competent people, heavy handedness and restrictions imposed by bureaucrats.”

Those are the words of Tansen Sen, author of deeply reflective histories of India-China relations. He speaks from experience: “Mutually suspicious bureaucrats have hesitated to facilitate people-to-people, industry-to-industry or sub-region-to-sub-region exchanges and collaborations. This is clear by the limited educational interactions between the two countries due to the Indian Ministry of Home Affair’s reluctance to issue visas to Chinese students and instructors and the failure of the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar sub-regional collaborative initiative.”

The Delhi Consensus has long agreed on warily, even fearfully keeping China at a distance, while treating South Asia as a region India can dominate. The 1962 war with China is as if it happened yesterday, or as if China has never changed its aggressive ambitions. There is no domestic constituency within India that speaks up for China, other than The Hindu.

This is about to change, if we are to believe Modi can implement his known strategy. By adopting the SEZ model, India will create extra-territorial enclaves where Indian norms and laws barely apply. If he succeeds in attracting Chinese investment into the SEZ, in partnership with India’s biggest corporations and best known brands, he will replicate what Deng Xiaoping did in the 1980s. Coming at a time when China’s comparative advantage of endless cheap labour is fast fading, this could be India’s big breakthrough, and India’s industrialists know it.

“What Modi plans to do, his advisers say, is end India’s reliance on procuring from China, and instead, bring Chinese companies to India to invest and manufacture locally. Doing so will fundamentally transform the nature of India-China relations. No longer merely transactional, the relationship will be driven by Chinese companies manufacturing in dedicated industrial parks in India. Now that Modi is the man at the Centre, the expectation in China is that Prime Minister Modi will not be all that different from Chief Minister Modi, who made four visits to China and travelled widely around the country, visiting Special Economic Zones (SEZs). As National Security Adviser Ajit Doval puts it, Modi has, through his travels, ‘condensed the Chinese achievement into three words: speed, scale and skill. And Prime Minister Modi believes India should benefit from that’”.

If India is about to upspeed, upscale and upskill, with SEZ in the lead, India will be transformed, both as an exporter of manufactures, and as a consumer nation in which the big corporations finally succeed in pushing aside the myriad small merchants and shopkeepers. As in 1980S China, and throughout the industrialised world, big corporations will boom, and they will have a vested interest in China as a major source of their prosperity, inheriting China’s mantle as the world’s factory. For the first time, India will have a powerful domestic pro-China lobby. Ananth Krishnan, in India Today, speculates that Chinese investment: “ will fundamentally transform the nature of India-China relations. No longer merely transactional, the relationship will be driven by Chinese companies manufacturing in dedicated industrial parks in India.”

The longstanding Delhi Consensus, preoccupied with China as a danger, sees the Tibetan presence in India as a way of maintaining leverage in dealings with China. Once the biggest of Indian corporations discover they can profit more by partnering with China’s biggest corporates, this consensus will fragment.

In the longer term, it may even be that the almost defunct vision of regional economists, of mutually complementary economies lifting each other, may revive the plans for effective linking of China’s western development thrust with the future of northeastern India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The potential for economic take-off is evident, with the electricity essential to intensive industrialisation coming from Arunachal Pradesh and, further upriver, Tibet, powering Kolkata, Kunming and everywhere in between. This vision of a regional trading boom is almost forgotten, kept alive only by the Asian Development Bank. It is also championed by Delhi University’s Institute for Economic Growth. Similar visions of complementarity drove Australia, in the 1980s, to integrate its economy with China. Australia boomed. This may well appeal to Modi’s liking for greater speed, scale and skill.

This economists’ dream is known only as the unmemorable BCIM Corridor, starting in Kolkata, heading east to Dhaka, Manipur, Mandalay and finally Kunming. The Corridor will have its own hinterland from which to draw raw materials, including the rich mineral resource endowments of India’s northeast and the Tibetan Plateau. It could take decades for these potentials to be realised.

The Washington Consensus, in retrospect, seems at best an embarrassing convergence of causes and conditions that led to ridiculous assertions of an uninterrupted unipolar Americanised world. However, its doctrine, of free trade and neoliberal markets, may yet breathe life into Modi’s India and even into the BCIM Corridor.

The Delhi Consensus may fracture for the same reason. India’s biggest businesses now stand to gain more from partnering with Chinese SEZ investors than from keeping them out. India’s globalised corporations now dream of India becoming 1980s China, its’ cheap labour inexhaustible. India will for the first time have a powerful domestic lobby arguing for accommodating China.

There is another way in which the “Lhasa Consensus” truisms of a happy, harmonious and prospering Tibet do a disservice to the actual debate. On the ground, there are not only Tibetans who hope for an authentically Tibetan but also modern future, there are others who sincerely hope for development with Tibetan characteristics. One can find Han Chinese, in senior positions, even within the same State Council that sponsored the “Lhasa consensus” conference, who are unusually open to Tibetan voices. They advocate development in Tibet, by Tibetans, for Tibetans; rather than the imposition from above and afar of a new economy of resource extraction and mass tourism, all with distinctively Chinese characteristics and Chinese beneficiaries.

The Tibetans, Chinese and westerners who propose strengthening Tibetan enterprises, civil society, rural communities, growth that is from the ground up, are in a precarious middling position. They come to conferences on development in Tibet, not to sign on to spurious consensus, but to do the actual work of strengthening Tibet. They are usually misunderstood. On one side is a highly interventionist central state with a long tradition of social engineering and a model built for China, not Tibet. On the other side are Tibetan exiles and external critics, who routinely misunderstand those who seek to strengthen Tibetan schools, clinics, businesses and cultural maintenance, as traitors to the Tibetan cause. Those working the middle ground in a polarised world are liable to being mistrusted by one or both sides.

Behind the “Lhasa Consensus” headline are the few who eschew political polarities, and get on with actual development work. One day it may be their turn. There is a new participant in conferences on development in Tibet: the modest NGO trying to make a difference on the ground, by encouraging Tibetan entrepreneurs. One such attending this State Council conference and its declaratory “Lhasa Consensus” was a young German language teacher immersed in helping Tibetans create small businesses. Otto Kolbl is one of several westerners trying to find practical empowerments for Tibetans to enter modernity on their own terms. It does not help that China’s central propaganda office cites him in its upbeat coverage of the new “Lhasa Consensus.” A middle way is hard to find in a bipolar world where everyone is deemed for or against.

China’s official media made much of this event as “the first international conference themed on the development of Tibet”, or at least the first such conference held in Lhasa. This is an odd boast. As early as 1998 Brandeis University, Boston, held conferences on development of Tibet. I convened a panel on development of Tibet at the 2003 seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. China has ignored these and many other meetings on development, at which development NGOs, now largely excluded from working in Tibet, shared their practical experiences.

At least the researches of economist Andrew Fischer on Tibetan development have been translated into Chinese. Far from proudly announcing that at last a forum on Tibetan development has been held in Tibet, China might wonder why it has taken so long. The simple idea, too simple to be noticed, is that genuinely helpful development should be based on the existing strengths and comparative advantages of the traditional Tibetan economy. Rather than imposing from above an energy-intensive, capital-intensive enclave economy from above, as China has done, Tibetans need help adding value to their wool, dairy products and livestock. Tibet needs fewer proclamations of “Lhasa Consensus” and more actual work rehabilitating degrading pastures and getting Tibetan yoghurt and butter to the booming Chinese urban market. Hardly a headline in any of that, but it would achieve a lot.