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KANGDING, China — One of the world's most remote regions is in the midst of a multi-billion dollar overhaul.
After decades of subduing unrest, China is betting that cold, hard cash will pacify restive Tibetans within its borders.
Beijing aims to spend nearly $30 billion — or roughly $25,000 per person — over a five-year period in the majority Tibetan prefecture of Ganzi in western Sichuan province, according to Governor Yeshe Dawa.
Its capital city of Kangding now features a new airport offering easy access. In a couple of years, an expressway will cut the road trip to provincial capital of Chengdu to three hours from as many as 20. A billion-dollar railway project is also in the works.
“In 20 or 30 years, we will achieve Northern Europe’s living standards,” said the feisty Yeshe, who is an ethnic Tibetan.
During a recent government-organized media tour of Ganzi, Yeshe and other officials revealed the scale of China’s Tibet investment plan: An annual subsidy equaling 10 times the prefecture's internal revenues.
The rare visit to the area was an attempt by Beijing to showcase its efforts to fast-track Tibetans’ integration with China’s modernizing economy. Officials cited improvements to health services, education and employment opportunities.
Part of the ancient Tibetan region of Kham, Ganzi is roughly the size of the state of New York but has a population of only 1.16 million, mostly Tibetans. Boasting snow-capped mountain peaks, alpine forests, breathtaking gorges and river valleys, its 500 Lamaist monasteries also inspire a unique cultural and religious legacy.
However, China's investment has triggered a tourism boom that is prompting fears that Tibetans’ traditions and way of life are threatened.
The trip offered a glimpse of how the new Tibet strategy mapped out by President Xi Jinping in August is playing out at the local level. It mandated that Tibetans will march “in step” with the rest of China towards the 2020 goals of a $20 trillion economy — an overall GDP rivaling that of the U.S.
Beijing, the prefecture chief said, is so supportive of Ganzi’s takeoff that it is funding road construction at a cost of $45 million per mile. Many areas soar from 6,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level.
These improvements have made a huge difference for Alaskan teacher-turned-café owner Jonathan Westbrook, who introduced the first Western-style café to Kangding when he traveled there four years ago. At the time, poor roads were practically crippling for the young business.
“The transportation access to the region is phenomenal compared to 10 years ago,” Westbrook told NBC News, noting that his pioneering Himalayan Coffee bar, which blends Tibetan motif with the log cabin feel from his Alaska hometown, is now popular among locals and tourists alike.
Some 3 million Tibetans live in province of Tibet while another 3.5 million call other parts of China home, mainly in the west.
For most Tibetans in exile and their international supporters, China has unlawfully occupied much of the Himalayan region since 1951 when the People's Liberation Army overran what is now the autonomous region of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s Nobel Prize winning spiritual leader, has led the government in exile from neighboring India since fleeing during the 1959 uprising.
While strikingly beautiful and a tourist draw, Ganzi is also “one of the most restive Tibetan areas,” according to Kate Saunders, communications director of the International Campaign for Tibet, citing Tibetans’ self-immolations and other protests against Chinese rule. ICT is the largest Tibet advocacy group and chaired by American actor Richard Gere.
A majority of 145 reported self-immolation protests have taken place in western Sichuan’s Tibetan areas including Ganzi since 2009, according to Pema Yoko, leader of the Students for a Free Tibet, another advocacy group.
Asked about these self-immolations, the Ganzi government issued a statement to NBC News that “the reasons were not what Western media have reported, some people had lost hope, some incurred gambling debts, and very few were incited by outside forces for political purpose,” referring to supporters of the exiled Dalai Lama whom China has accused of splitting the country.
It said the “inhuman” incidents have become very rare due to “improvements in people’s lives and rule of law.”
“Self-immolation is definitely on the decline,” according to Robert Barnett, a leading authority on Tibet at New York’s Columbia University. “It seems that the use of collective punishment in some key areas —penalizing families, friends, communities and monasteries for a single incident — contributed to the decline.”
Exact reasons won’t be known as “no independent research is allowed there,” he said, adding that the Tibetan government in exile in India has also called on people not to self-immolate.
In Ganzi, the Beijing-organized visit showed off a new $30-million hospital which offers medical services nearly for free due to insurance schemes, a $30 million technical college and a middle school for 4,700 mostly Tibetan students on government scholarships, a winery that mostly employs Tibetans, and a tourism program that recruits former nomadic herdsmen.
The local government said it has spent nearly $200 million helping hundreds of monasteries and religious sites in the past five years, covered some 80,000 Tibetan monks and nuns with health and social insurance, and spent $400 million to almost double high school enrollment.
Local Tibetans NBC News met during the government-organized tour said they are taking up the offer of economic help.
“I want to be an art teacher,” said 17-year-old Zeren Yongjin while doing a traditional Tibetan Thangka painting at the technical school. One painting can take three to four months, she said.
Meanwhile, 19-year-old high student Dingzhen Yijie comes from a long line of herdsmen, but he sees his future in law enforcement.
“The concept of law is weak among us so I want to be a policeman,” he said. A police officer commands a monthly salary of $650, which would place him firmly in the country's growing middle class.
Tourism is an industry that Beijing and at least some Tibetans are really staking their future on.
Sensing a boom in this area, Zuo Ma, a 49-year-old mother of three told NBC News she invested $150,000 in savings to convert a two-room family inn into a 14-room, 30-bed hotel in the picturesque Jiaju Village in Danba County. “Making $50,000 a year is no problem,” she said.
Meanwhile, Luo Zha, a former nomadic herdsman, has decided to settle his family and 30 yaks — the long-haired oxen unique to the Himalayas — in a village. From now on he's betting that he can boost his income three-fold by hosting curious tourists his colorful Tibetan-style house.
While some may see these changes as opportunities, a spokesman for rights group International Tibet Network warned that Beijing’s attempts to settle traditionally nomadic Tibetans could destroy an ancient culture.
International Tibet Network’s spokesman Tenzin Jigdal with family roots in Daofu County, condemns what he says are plans to “rehouse” 2 million Tibetan nomads within China.
The moves were “profoundly altering to Tibet’s social and environmental fabric, imperiling their livelihoods and their culture, and threatening the survival of the rangelands,” the organization's international coordinator said.
“Historically, many other centralized governments have tried to win over oppressed populations with money, and have failed,” said Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet and a former Italian parliamentarian.
He also called on Beijing to accept that “the expression by Tibetans of their identity and way of life is not anti-China.”
Chinese official argue that Tibetans must abandon at least some expressions of their culture in order to benefit from modern Chinese society.
“If we don’t help the Tibetan herdsmen to settle down, how can we provide them with health, education and other social services?” said Li Yongxin, a press officer for rural Danba County.
He also stressed that resettlement efforts were strictly voluntary.