Tibetans will become a minority in their own capital in the next few years as ethnic Chinese migrants pour into the city to take part in a new drive to develop Tibet’s economy, a top official said on August 7, according to reports from AFP and Reuters.

Jin Shixun, deputy director general of Tibet’s Development and Planning Commission, was speaking in the Tibetan capital at the start of a rare visit by foreign reporters to the Himalayan region, usually strictly off-limits to overseas media, according to AFP.

Jin’s statement is one of the boldest admissions yet by a Chinese official on the sensitive issue of ethnic Chinese migration to Tibet, a policy which endangers Tibetan culture and identity by rendering Tibetans a minority in their own homeland.

Jin told a news conference that the influx of investment and skilled labor to Lhasa will bring unprecedented prosperity and stability to the remote Himalayan region.

He said 95 percent of Tibet’s population of 2.62 million is ethnic Tibetan but in urban Lhasa, about 50 percent of residents are ethnic Chinese migrants.

“With the introduction of the policy of reform and opening up, there are more and more people from other provinces of China who come to Tibet to open up their business or make investment here,” Jin said.

“At the moment the population here in Lhasa stands at around 200,000 — about half of them are the migrant population,” he said.

“According to the needs of economic development and construction and the improvement of the investment environment and strengthening of tourist infrastructure, there will certainly be a large increase in these numbers,” Jin continued.

China’s Communist government has ruled Tibet since its People’s Liberation Army invaded and occupied the region in 1950. Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has lived in exile in India since fleeing his homeland in 1959 after an uprising against Chinese rule.

Jin’s remarks confirmed what seems obvious to visitors who have been to Tibet’s capitol more than once over any significant period of time.

Except for the imposing Potala Palace and tiny Tibetan quarter, the city now resembles most provincial Chinese towns.

Residents say Chinese businesses have started encroaching on traditional Tibetan buildings and wood houses in the past few years, taking over stalls and shops on the Barkor pilgrim circuit around the main Jokhang temple.

Lhasa is full of neon-lit shops, karaoke bars and Sichuan-style restaurants to feed the thousands migrant Chinese workers who have left heavily populated Sichuan province to earn money over the border in Tibet — migrant laborers like Zhang Donghua.

Zhang told AFP that he left Sichuan a year ago to work as a taxi driver in Lhasa. He says he can earn 1,800 yuan a month in the city, compared to 800 yuan back home.

“I just came for the money,” he said. “I’ll stay for a few years and then go back home.”

In May, local residents told AFP that authorities had begun demolishing Tibetan-style houses near the protected historic city center.

The Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 after a failed uprising, said the demolition was “a serious violation of China’s duty to protect cultural heritage.”

The development of mass tourism in the city — as exemplified by the opening in April of a 37-storey “tourist tower” topped with a revolving restaurant — has also come under fire.

Government-sponsored tax breaks for Chinese migrants and other incentives pose a serious threat the Tibetan identity by aiding in diluting the Tibetan population.

In an attempt to consolidate political power over Tibet, the Chinese government has undertaken construction of a railway to Lhasa from neighboring Qinghai province, expected in 2007.

The railway is expected to benefit the Chinese military and further flood Tibet with migrant Chinese workers while offering little or no benefit to the overwhelming majority of Tibetans, who are subsistence farmers and herders.

According to AFP, Jin said Tibet needed the skilled labor and investment from other regions to help maintain the average GDP growth rate of 12.3 percent the region recorded from 1994-2001.

Beijing unveiled a new plan last year to develop Tibet’s economy by pouring money into construction, mining, tourism, pharmaceuticals and other industries in a drive to link the region to the rest of China and snuff out separatism.

Officials said that in addition to providing most of the fixed asset investment, the central government will pay for 90 percent of Tibet’s budget of 10 billion yuan for 2002,

Despite an official campaign launched at the end of last year for “patriotic Tibetans” in exile to also invest money, most local investment remained limited to the service sector, Jin said.

AFP said that when asked about the position of the Dalai Lama and his supporters, Jin repeated Beijing’s official position that he is a “splittist.”

“The Tibet government is resolutely opposed to the separatist activities of the Dalai Lama clique,” he said.

According to AFP, Jin said 60 to 70 percent of the local government and Communist Party structure was ethnic Tibetan, including the chairman of the government and that Tibetans have a say in how the region’s resources are spent and protecting Tibetan culture and religion.

Nevertheless, Jin and the four other planning officials at the news conference were all ethnic Chinese.

According to AFP, when a reporter pointed this out, Jin looked embarrassed and explained that a Tibetan colleague had been unable to attend because of another meeting.

But one of the other officials, Zhang Jianbo, said it was irrelevant whether they were Tibetan or Chinese.

“I have been here for 26 years,” he said. “So I am almost the same as a Tibetan.”