Rapid subsidy-sustained growth since the mid-1990s in the Tibetan areas of Western China has been associated with a rapid transition of the local (mostly Tibetan) labour force. In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), for instance, the proportion of the local labour force registered as employed in farming and herding dropped from 76 percent in 1999 (the most agrarian workforce in China at the time) to 56 percent by 2008. This shift out of agriculture was mostly absorbed by rapid increases in the proportions of locals employed in services and construction. While some of this change probably reflects seasonal migratory workers who are still fairly well embedded in their rural places of emigration, the speed of transition has nonetheless been exceptional compared to other parts of western China. Moreover, the speed of transition in Tibetan areas outside the TAR might well be even faster. These changes are analysed through a longitudinal and comparative trend analysis of aggregate employment, wage and national accounting data, comparing the TAR to several other provincial cases in western China and the national average, as a means to reflect on the profound changes that are occurring to Tibetan people’s lives in very real and rapid ways. To the extent that many of these socio-economic changes may be irreversible, they highlight particular concerns regarding the preponderant dependence on subsidies sustaining economic growth in the Tibetan areas, the dominance of Han Chinese in the urban economies of these areas, and the fact that local Tibetans have very little capability to mediate these changes politically vis à vis the dominant sources of power dictating regional development policy.


This article has benefitted from numerous exchanges over the years with Geoff Childs, Melvyn Goldstein, Athar Hussain, Tanzen Lhundup, Tashi Rabgey, and Rong Ma, albeit none of them are responsible for any of the views expressed herein. Exchanges with Geoff Childs during and after the Twelfth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies in August 2010 proved to be especially helpful. Thanks also to an anonymous referee for making very pertinent suggestions on interpreting the macro level data.