Tibet has long been known as a holy place, remote from the changes sweeping much of China. But rapid economic growth is also transforming the plateau region and creating a new breed of native entrepreneurs.
One such businessman is Dawa Dondrup. Except for the view of snow-capped mountains out the window, the Lhasa office of the 46-year-old Tibetan entrepreneur could easily be in Beijing or Shanghai. With a copy of the book "Business Strategies" lying on the desk, Dawa in his black business suit is one of Tibet's most successful entrepreneurs.
"I seized chances and made the right choices," he said, looking back at his path from the days when he was a primary school teacher.
Dawa's grandparents were herders. His father made a living by offering prayer service and his mother was a farmer. He started his working life as construction employee after finishing primary school in Nyingchi, in southeastern Tibet.
He turned to teaching after his village set up a school. Even with his meager years of schooling, he was well-educated by Tibetan standards at the time.
"At that time, I was thinking of going to a college, but my family was too poor to support me," he said, and his salary was too low for him to pay his own way.
VISIONS OF SUCCESS
But he dreamed of doing business, especially after the reform and opening-up began in the late 1970s. "This is my chance, and I ought to do something," he thought to himself. He began to learn from anyone he could.
When he was a teacher, he went to Lhasa for a pilgrimage. There he stayed with a family whose son-in-law was a painter. The man earned money by painting tables, cabinets and walls in Tibetan-style houses.
At that time, painting a table brought in 30 yuan (about 4.40 U.S. dollars at current rates), a cabinet 60 yuan and the walls of a whole house 200 yuan. Those were great sums of money.
Lured by the lucrative business, Dawa asked the painter to give him a few tips so that he could earn something beyond his teaching salary.
One of his customers back in Nyingchi was a veteran soldier, who owned a truck and made a living by delivering goods.
"At the time, there were few private trucks doing goods delivery," Dawa recalled. He turned the old soldier into another teacher, this time about the delivery business. In return, he painted the veteran's house for free.
In 1983, he bought his first truck, one of the old Liberation line, with a 20,000 yuan bank loan. By 1987, he had gone through three trucks and only earned about 100,000 yuan.
He then went to Lanzhou, where he spent three years working with an older man in a general merchandise business, dealing in items like shoes and cloth. The experience broadened his horizons, as he often had to go to Guangdong Province in the south to deliver goods.
The southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen "were so modern, with good facilities and a good climate for business. I never thought that cities could be so comfortable."
Dawa began to consider establishing his own company, believing that it was the only way to really get ahead.
He founded the Dashi Industry and Trade Co. in 1996. It started out as a construction company and won a bid to lay a section of roadbed for the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. Still, he wasn't satisfied: he wanted products of his own. The regional government encouraged him to seek expert advice from business consultants, who gave him three suggestions: Tibetan medicine, tourism, and agricultural products. Two, he rejected immediately.
"The market share of Tibetan medicine in the inland was limited, while tourism was influenced by too many factors that we couldn't control. If there were no tourists, there wouldn't be any profit." So, agricultural products it was.
The Dashi company became The Tibetan Indigenous Industry Co., Ltd. on July 1, 2003, which is Dawa's birthday. Today, its fixed assets stand at 50 million yuan. It produces edible oil: rapeseed, garlic, capsicum and walnut. These oils are sold to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai and exported to Japan.
With annual revenue of more than 100 million yuan, Dawa said much of his success owed to government policies. "In Tibet, the agricultural industry is exempt from income taxes and the value-added tax is partly refunded," he said.
Dawa said one of his goals now was to help more Tibetans get rich. In his company, more than 80 percent of the staff are Tibetans from farming and herding families, and half of those families are impoverished. Each week, the company offers computer training for the staff.
Dawa is perhaps richer than many individual Tibetans, but many others are following in his entrepreneurial footsteps.
For example, in Doilungdeqen County, there's a farming-herding association, which its chairman Phurjung said was the first such association in Tibet.
Founded on May 13, 2004, the association aims to help local farmers to grow vegetables and flowers. During the first two years of the group's existence, native Tibetans could get free greenhouses, each covering one-fifteenth of a hectare of land, or 1 mu, a traditional Chinese unit of measurement. Before that, many greenhouses were run by Hans from elsewhere in China.
In the first year of the program, just 12 of the 550 Tibetan households joined. They earned 8,000 yuan after a year's efforts, about 10 times the annual income derived from growing highland barley.
They were taught how to grow many kinds of vegetables and flowers. Some later became technicians, like 31-year-old Losang Tsering, who once worked in railway construction. He became vice chairman of the association.
Losang said that 25 kinds of plants were grown in the greenhouses, with just two technicians from the Han ethnic group. "In 2004, the number was between 30 and 40 Hans."
Now, the greenhouse gardeners are cultivating roses and strawberries. "Agriculture in inland areas is more developed and they are our teachers," Losang said. "Tibetan people should develop their skills, to live a better life."
Losang, who attended agricultural and animal husbandry school in 1998, expressed his wish to bring the greenhouse concept back to his hometown, Boma Village. "My fellow villagers said they liked the idea and kept asking me when they could have their own organization."
Meanwhile, the original greenhouse program grew. By 2005, the number of households joining the program had risen to 50. Although they had to pay 3,000 yuan for each greenhouse starting in 2006, the results of the first few households inspired more to join.
By 2008, the number of participating households had surged to 235, each getting an annual income of 12,500 yuan. A total of 535 greenhouses had been built, funded by the regional government, with households paying rent for the facilities.
GROWTH AND CHANGE
Tsering Gyalpo, vice director of the Institute for Religious Studies of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, said it was good to see more Tibetans pursue wealth. In the past, he said, most Tibetans believed in fate and wouldn't try to change their destinies.
When asked if fast economic growth would eradicate the traditions of the plateau, he shook his head.
"On the contrary, a sound economy is quite important in preserving tradition," he said. "Without money, even if you wanted to renovate a religious site, you could hardly do anything."
Dawa said he had a similar view. "The core of Buddhism is to be benevolent. But if you are poor, how could you help others?"