This paper documents the rise of entrepreneurs in rural Tibet, a process that started in the 1980s and then gained considerable momentum in the wake of China’s Develop the West Campaign that was launched in 2000. The authors describe economic transformations in rural Tibet from 1959 to the present, and present case studies of entrepreneurs to show how some Tibetans are capitalizing on new economic opportunities that stem both directly and indirectly from the government’s development policies. Whereas many critics allege that China’s development initiatives do not benefit rural Tibetans, or do so only marginally, today’s rural entrepreneurs illustrate how some Tibetans are successfully negotiating the new matrix of opportunities. However, because Tibet’s economy is highly dependent on government investments, it is unclear whether the increase in entrepreneurial activities is sustainable over the long-term. Nevertheless, the case studies presented in this paper demonstrate several entrepreneurial pathways to upward mobility that are currently available, including farm-based initiatives, construction contracting, cottage industry, and retail business.


Fieldwork in rural Tibet was facilitated by an NSF-sponsored research grant (# 0527500) in collaboration with the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences in Lhasa. This paper was originally presented in a panel titled Social, Political, Economic, and Environmental Change Amidst Development in Tibetan Areas at the 12th IATS Seminar in Vancouver, 2010. The authors would like to thank participants of that panel for constructive feedback, in particular, Andrew Fischer for detailed and insightful comments that resulted in significant improvements to the paper.