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Tibet disaster shows China resource divide

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A landslide that crashed down a Tibetan mountain, entombing scores of mine workers, serves as a parable on China's resources boom and its failure to benefit ethnic minorities, analysts say.

The 83 workers killed in the disaster were almost all members of China's Han ethnic majority and from across the country, illustrating how minorities rarely see any of the fruits of underground wealth -- not even dangerous jobs.

China has enjoyed decades of stunning economic growth but critics say much mineral development, often in poor minority regions, has been reckless and inefficient, coming with a high environmental and cultural cost.

Some 91 percent of China's 1.35 billion people are classified as ethnic Han, with the rest scattered among 55 other ethnic groups, including Uighurs, Manchus, Mongols, Koreans and Kazakhs as well as Tibetans.

Areas with significant minority populations such as Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia hold resources including oil, gas, copper, iron ore, coal and so-called rare earths -- key components in high-tech products such as smartphones.

The latest disaster struck in late March when a vast quantity of rock tumbled onto a workers' camp at a copper mine 4,600 metres (15,000 feet) above sea level east of Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Most of the buried labourers were migrants who had ventured to the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau to work in an accident-prone sector of the economy.

The mine is run by a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Gold Group Corp., the country's largest gold producer, according to official media, and the Beijing-based company's website carried a photo of burning candles and a message offering "prayers for personnel".

"There are long-standing issues of Han immigration and inequality that are much broader than simply mineral extraction," said Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, which promotes worker rights.

"When new economic opportunities open in these ethnic minority regions, it's usually Han workers who come in and do the work rather than locally employed workers."

Such movements have seen tensions flare, sometimes bloodily. Riots turned deadly in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009. Hundreds protested in Inner Mongolia when a Han truck driver ran over and killed a herdsman in 2011.

Carl Soderbergh, of London-based Minority Rights Group International, said China's smaller ethnic groups were paying a heavy environmental price for development.

"Minority herders are being forced off of traditional grazing lands while also seeing that their water sources are being polluted," he said.

In much of the world, he added, "very many, if not most, minorities and indigenous peoples are marginalised and kept out of decision-making processes".

Shanghai-based independent economist Andy Xie said that most resource development in the hinterlands, aside from coal, was misguided given the prohibitive expense, danger and environmental damage.

"If you completely (leave it) to market forces, I'm not sure a lot of mines would be opened up," he said, adding imports were often cheaper.

China's ruling Communist Party officially promotes ethnic solidarity and hails the benefits of market reform policies started in the late 1970s, which unleashed an economic boom that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.

More than 110 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire in recent years in protest against Chinese rule. Beijing rejects criticism of its control, saying Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and higher standards of living brought about by investment.

But Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, pointed out that in 2009 a major protest was held at the site of the mine disaster.

"The main concerns of Tibetans are about the quality of their environment and the health of their animals and land, rather than about the money," he said.

"These concerns are often expressed in terms of the sacredness of mountains and the importance of respecting natural forces."

After the landslide Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer living in Beijing, quoted a folk belief on her blog that the region's underground assets belong to a traditional demon figure.

"It is said that mines are Rasetsu's property, and if exploitation irritates him there will be droughts, landslides, earthquakes, epidemics, famines and warfare" she wrote.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130407/tibet-disaster-shows-china-resource-divide