By Robert Olsen | Forbes
ON THE WEB, 21 September 2012
“Do you realise that my business-class flights between New York and Hong Kong cost more than my entire ten years of schooling in the Tibetan refugee camps in India?” Tsewang Namgyal asks, shaking his head wistfully.
Sobering insights like these are about as uncommon as the Tibetan-American who uttered them. Certainly few, if any, of Namgyal’s investment banking peers on Wall Street can recount an upbringing in exile like his or the many years of social activism that followed. But, it also hints at something of greater significance.
Namgyal’s passion to protect Tibetan heritage remains as strong as ever, but his business experience has fundamentally changed his views on how to address the social ills that continue to plague his homeland.
In a desperate attempt to draw the world’s attention, more than 50 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against Chinese rule over Tibetan-populated areas and calling for the Dalai Lama’s return, according to Free Tibet, an advocacy group in London. Only nine are thought to have survived.
Lobsang Sangay, the political leader of Tibetan exiles, expressed his disappointment recently that dozens of self-immolations by Tibetans have failed to attract nearly the same level of attention as the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian man whose death sparked the Arab Spring.
“Tibetans’ fundamental human rights are being ignored by international leaders who are afraid of risking their relationships with China. The time has come for each one of us to speak up and demand Tibetan freedom,” Free Tibet Director Stephanie Brigden said in a statement.
Beijing’s response to the crisis shows a determination to repeat past mistakes, ensuring the cycle of abuses and protests will likely continue. The authorities in Tibet have orchestrated a media blackout to prevent independent reporting of the incidents. Foreigners have been banned from entering the areas where the immolations have taken place. The Communist Party chief in Tibet, Chen Quanguo, vowed earlier this year to step up efforts to censor mobile phones and the Internet. Despite the risk of prosecution for leaking state secrets, many reports have emerged describing the arrests, beatings and torture carried out by paramilitary police.
“Every Tibetan family knows somebody who has been imprisoned or killed during the occupation,” said Namgyal. In June 2010, Karma Samdrup, a prominent Tibetan businessman, was given a 15-year prison sentence from a court in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on charges of looting cultural artifacts. He and Namgyal were close friends.
“Samdrup was an entrepreneur who had become a multi-millionaire,” said Namgyal. “I had recommended that he should take some of his money out of Tibet and diversify, but he had confidence in the Chinese government. He believed that if he continued to work within that framework he would be fine.”
Human Rights Watch said the charges against Samdrup appear to be politically motivated. At the time of his arrest, he had been seeking the release of his two brothers who were detained for calling attention to alleged environmental abuses by local officials. In Tibet, the authorities don’t distinguish between different types of protests, all are viewed as a threat to national security and the protesters are labeled “terrorists.”
Samdrup had previously been hailed as an example of Tibetan success, lauded by the Chinese press and bestowed with numerous awards for environmentalism and philanthropy. “Karma’s imprisonment was a huge mistake. If someone like him could be put in jail, then nobody is safe,” Namgyal said. “It sends a chilling message across the business community.”
Namgyal argues that many of the social problems afflicting his homeland can be resolved by empowering Tibetans economically, while respecting their culture, but it needs to be led by Tibetan entrepreneurs who understand Tibetan society. “We need Tibetan industrialists like the Tatas and Rockefellers,” he says.
Sustainable and socially responsible development can build upon itself, leading to a wave of rising employment and incomes based on Tibet’s comparative advantages. This would not only help to alleviate poverty, but also generate more funds available for other projects aimed at preserving Tibetan culture and the environment. Tourism, agribusiness, hydroelectricity and mining were highlighted by Namgyal as offering the greatest potential opportunities, but the problem is too many Tibetans lack the capital, skills and connections to take advantage of these.
According to official figures, the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s (TAR) economy grew 12.6% to 60.5 billion yuan ($9.5 billion) in 2011. Although it was the 19th consecutive year of double-digit growth, those impressive figures are almost entirely beholden to the central government’s largesse.
“According to the most recent data available, the direct subsidies from Beijing amounted to 101.4% of Tibet’s GDP in 2010.” said Andrew Fischer, a senior lecturer from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. “Basically, their economic growth is being hyper-inflated by direct subsidies.”
Fischer contends that much of the capital flowing into Tibet flows right back out again in trade with neighbouring countries and provinces through the state-owned enterprises and related companies that dominate the economy. There are signs that some of the government’s subsidies have trickled down to its implied recipients, local Tibetans, as average household incomes rise, but a far greater proportion is concentrated among non-Tibetan migrants.
“A lot of the tensions in Tibet are driven by the economic grievances there,” Fischer said. “Obviously, there’s political and religious repression, but the economic model is a huge source of friction, too… With the intense promotion of domestic tourism, Lhasa, in particular, has become like a mix of a police state and Disneyland.”
Those subsidies have also led to a strong sense of discrimination in the job market. Migrants from other provinces are better equipped to take advantage of investments into infrastructure and other projects due to their higher education levels and fluency in Chinese.
Improving the education of Tibetans is one of the region’s most oft-cited needs, and Namgyal’s own personal journey from living in refugee camps to working on Wall Street is a testament to this. His family fled Tibet after the failed uprising in 1959. Namgyal’s father was an official and continued to serve the government-in-exile in Dharamshala, India, where Namgyal was born. After completing his schooling in 1992, he was granted political asylum and immigrated to the US.
Earning minimum wage from his first job as a dishwasher felt like a princely sum when converted into Indian rupees, but it would never cover the costs of studying at university. Through an aunt’s connections, he later landed a job working the nightshift at a steel and iron foundry that allowed him to study during the day for the SAT and TOEFL (English language proficiency) exam.
After being admitted to Dickinson College, Namgyal was actively involved in the establishment of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT). He later served as one of three founding board of directors and was involved in the development of the organisation’s by-laws. SFT currently has over 650 chapters in more than 30 countries worldwide. After graduating magna cum laude and working for a few years in banking, he earned an MBA at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona.
Namgyal now works as a vice president in the investment banking unit of a large financial institution while serving on the board of The Tibet Fund, a development organisation that provides humanitarian assistance to Tibetans in exile and Tibet. He’s also been a vocal advocate for encouraging Tibetan entrepreneurs to use market forces to benefit themselves and to alleviate poverty in the wider community. Through his network of contacts, he connects Tibetan business leaders with potential investors and advisors in the US, sometimes hosting them in his home. He also did this while travelling in Tibet, but concerns over safety have kept him away in recent years.
Although support groups have played a much-needed role in making the rest of the world aware of the problems in Tibet, some of their efforts may, in fact, be self-defeating. By protesting against all foreign businesses that operate in Tibet, they’re driving away socially responsible multinationals and clearing a path for those with far lower scruples to set up, instead.
The mining industry is a case in point. Namgyal, who has been involved with mining projects in South America, says the large miners with better health and safety standards won’t operate in Tibet due to reputational risk. His relatives, living outside the capital, Lhasa, have witnessed some of the industry’s worst practices: small mom-and-pop operators that allow chemicals and other waste byproducts to pollute the nearby river and spring.
Last month, Radio Free Asia reported that police used tear gas and live fire to break up a demonstration against mining operations that resulted in one death from a crowd of as many as 1,000 protesters. The Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s government-in-exile, said that over the past few years, there have been well over a dozen protests against mining that was polluting the environment and damaging the health of people and animals living nearby.
In terms of development, Namgyal stresses that Chinese and Tibetan interests are mutually beneficially in many ways. Although the media often portrays their grievances along ethnic lines, in actual fact, many Chinese scholars, lawyers, environmentalists and businessmen are sympathetic and appreciate that their interests are aligned. Tibet can certainly benefit from China’s economic rise, but it’s going to require a change of mind-sets across the political spectrum.