2008: The Development of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises in Tibetan Areas


<<中国藏学CHINA TIBETOLOGY>>2008年第1期

作者: 王士勇

学术期刊 QCode : zhonggzx200801016


The Development of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises in Tibetan Areas

China Tibetan Studies中国藏学 China Tibetology 1/2008 pp. 134 – 138

By Wang Shiyong 王士勇 Assistant Professor at Qinghai Normal University 青海师范大学 民族部 Nationalities Department. He is currently working on a PhD at Helsinki University in Finland.

Begin Summary:

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are a prime driver of economic and employment growth throughout the world. In China, non-state SME’s contributed 1% of China’s GDP in 1979 but had grown to 20% of GDP by 2001. During 2001 – 2005, the proportion of people employed by non-state SMEs grew from 65% to 75%, employing many people who were laid off by failing state enterprises. For example during 1997 – 1999, 27 million people were laid off by state enterprises. Of these 22 million found new jobs, 95% with non-state SMEs. The contribution of non-state SMEs to GDP is high on China east coast, especially in Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. In the Wenzhou, Zhejiang area, non-state SMEs account for 95% of local GDP.

The vast majority of China’s non-state SMEs are on the east coast. On the east coast, the non-socialist sector of the economy contributed 52% of GDP in 2000, while in the west, only 18%. In the Tibetan areas of China, this figure is even lower. The author of this article, Wang Shiyong 王士勇 in his surveys in ethnic Tibetan areas of China was that even where Tibetans were in the majority, they were under 20% of the merchants. Other scholars encountered the same situation.

For example, a detailed study done in 2003 by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (See the 2005 study entitled “Marketization and Grassroots Social Services: The Case of Tibet” 市场化与基层公共服务:西藏案例研究 edited by Wang Luolin 王洛林 and Zhu Ling, published by the Nationalities Press.) — a part of a project to study the social and economic development of the TAR. The research report noted that if the 1367 private enterprises and 48,333 individual entrepreneurs (个体户) operating in the TAR in 2002, 80% were from outside the TAR. At the Zongjiao Road Kangnong Market near the western side of the Potala Palace, of the 645 individual entrepreneurs at the market, only 2 of the stands were run by ethnic Tibetans. Even in places where Tibetans are most concentrated, such as the Barkhor area, ethnic Tibetans are in the minority. According to 2003 registrations at the Barkhor street commerce and industry office, over 60% of the shops were run by people from outside the TAR and fewer than 40% of the shops were run by ethnic Tibetans.

The question of why the Tibetans cannot effectively take part in market competition, or why the market competitiveness of Tibetans is relatively weak involves political, economic, cultural, geographical and environmental factors and is very difficult to answer simply. To answer the question of the causes of why Tibetans cannot effectively take part in a market economy would require research into social systems, legal systems, the development of infrastructure, education and culture, market access and many other questions. This article explores the present situation of Tibetan SMEs and the difficulties they face.

The author, Wang Shiyong in 2004 made a survey of SMEs run by ethnic Tibetans on the problems they faced. Of the 95 valid responses received, 36 were from TAR SMEs, 27 from Qinghai SMEs and 26 from Sichuan Province Tibetan areas SMEs, with the remainder from the Tibetan areas of Gansu and Yunnan Provinces. The 95 SMEs surveyed are very small as is typical of Tibetan SMEs. Forty percent employ 20 or fewer people. Another 30% employ 20 – 50 people. Only seven of the Tibetan SMEs surveyed employed 300 or more people. Although some of the SMEs surveyed have 20 – 50 employees, and a few several hundred, the great majority of Tibetan SMEs are individual entrepreneurs. In many Tibetan areas, it is rare to see a Tibetan running a private enterprise and even in Lhasa where Tibetan SMEs are concentrated, Tibetan run private enterprises only account for about 20% of all the private enterprises in the city. According to a 2003 Lhasa City Commerce and Industry Association study, of 178 of the 438 private enterprises registered, they found that Tibetan run private enterprises only came to about 20%.

Tibetan enterprises are small and concentrate in just a few sectors. Of the 95 Tibetan SMEs surveyed by the author, 42% were engaged in manufacturing or processing, especially of Tibetan soap and Tibetan rugs. Commerce accounted for another 36% of the enterprises. The remainder concentrated in the service sector, especially restaurants and guest houses. Only 5% of the Tibetan enterprises were involved in agricultural or animal husbandry products.

Tibetans companies are concentrated in just a few sectors. In a survey done by the author in Gansu Province’s Gannan Prefecture, of the 370 enterprises operating on the two major commercial streets, only 30 were run by Tibetans. Of the 30 Tibetan individual entrepreneurs, 18 were engaged in small retail trade, 5 in running restaurants, 4 running a clothing store and 3 running a small guest house.

The situation was similar in Qinghai Province’s Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Of the 494 small retailers, guesthouses, restaurants and other businesses on the main commercial streets, only 166 or 33% were run by Tibetans. Worth noting that of the 33 repair shops that require some degree of skill, not one was run by a Tibetan.

Since most Tibetan SMEs are very small, many have no system of management, the manager also does the work and so neglects to make a long term business plan. Eighty percent said they had a business plan, but is usually wasn’t written, existing only in the mind of the proprietor. Eighty five percent of the Tibetan SMEs did not keep sales records. Very few kept any written records about the business.

Moreover, of the Tibetan SMEs surveyed, only 36% had ever borrowed money from a bank. Most got their operating capital from family and friends. Difficulties in finance were a serious problem for most Tibetan enterprises – 53% responded that is was their most difficult continuing problem. This shows that what is missing is a government policy to give favorable treatment of minority nationalities in the area of finance. It also shows that many Tibetan enterprises lack an understanding of and ability to handle financial matters. Other missing elements are a fund to guarantee loans and market information services.

Marketing is another big problem the survey revealed. Most of the Tibetan run businesses were founded after 1990, and 40% of them after 2000, well after reform and intensified market competition had come to eastern China. Thus Tibetan businesses just starting up were hit by competitors from eastern China who had already been toughened by years of competition and had already won most of the market. Moreover the processing technology of Tibetan firms was so far behind competitors for the Chinese interior that firms from the interior made big inroads into producing traditional Tibetan products. Today as market competition becomes ever more intense, due to a variety of historical, environmental, and educational factors, many Tibetan are unfamiliar with markets. As a result, the biggest problem facing Tibetan firms is marketing their products.

Tibetan companies also face a severe shortage of Tibetans with good technical skills. Tibetan education is not only far behind Han education but also that of other minorities. For example, in Tibet the rate of illiteracy or semi-illiteracy in 2005 for people between the ages of 18 and 44 was 44.84%, the highest in western China’s provinces and regions. This is much higher than the corresponding nationwide rate of 11.04%. If we look at the proportion of people who have graduated from middle school or high school, the situation is even worse. In 2005, China nationwide 38.3% of the population had graduated from middle school and 12.4% from high school. The corresponding proportions in the Tibetan Autonomous Region are 8.4% and 2.1%, the lowest in all of China. Developing education is essential to improving the quality of the labor force and to economic development. There is a severe shortage of investment in education in the Tibetan areas. In many Tibetan areas there is not even one vocational school. Therefore finding technically qualified people in the Tibetan areas is relatively difficult.

Most of the heads of Tibetan enterprises surveyed had relatively good educations. Forty-five percent were graduates of a university or technical institute while 27% were high school graduates and 18% middle school graduates. There are very few enterprises founded by Tibetan, but nearly all of them have good educations. Thus the lack of many educated people is a severe handicap to Tibetan business. Nonetheless, many Tibetan businesspeople surveyed did not have clear ideas about how to run a business — this shows that even where there is Tibetan education, it does not pay much attention to markets and business.

As far as I know, in all the Tibetan areas of China, there are only two schools where Tibetans can learn about developing a business. Yet many of the teachers at these schools are not well qualified. Some of the teachers teaching business have their qualification not in business but in the Tibetan language. The lack of business knowledge makes it hard for Tibetans business to compete successful in a very competitive business environment. Many don’t know how to make a business plan and don’t understand how to read financial accounts. There is a very serious need to train Tibetans in business management. Sixty-three percent of the Tibetan businesspeople surveyed said they needed help in business management. Half said they need training in marketing. Faced with these problems, some Tibetan enterprises hire Han employees to manage the company. Cultural misunderstandings however, often lead to poor communications in those situations, however.


Entrepreneurs and their personal characteristics are key to economic development. Entrepreneurs need to be risk takers and to be good at discovering and taking advantage of market opportunities. Most come from families that have run businesses. In Tibet, there are not many families that have run businesses, but Tibetan entrepreneurs come from families that believe in letting people choose their own occupation and often have a merchant background or have started up a business. This shows the importance of experience to setting up a business.

Due to historical reasons, very few Tibetan have had merchandising as their principal occupation. Their contact with markets has been limited to what they use to satisfy their daily needs. Although farmers and herders exchange salt and grain every year, this activity was not big enough to create the occupation of merchant in Tibetan society. Before 1952, the monasteries controlled the entire political and economic life of Tibet and much of the productive activity of the entire society was dedicated to providing for the needs of the monasteries.

The lack of a merchant tradition in Tibet makes strengthening education even more important. Human capital is the most important factor in production, especially in the knowledge economy of today. Much research shows that improving education and increasing employment is a necessary condition for solving the problem of social marginalization. Some Chinese scholars say whether human resources can be developed is the key question in the development of western China.

Education is very important but it is not the only thing. Research has shown that many successful small and medium sized enterprises, before they were founded or in their early development, got help and advice from various service institutions. SMEs often need help in matters such as increasing productivity, reducing capital costs, improving management and absorbing new technology. Many SMEs are capital starved and need help from society.

Getting more Tibetans involved in the market economy will require a very large investment in education, and particularly in vocational education. A social services network to help ethnic Tibetan SMEs should be established so that they will be able to get the market information, advice, planning, and production services they need without having to surmount a language barrier. In this way a cooperative environment favorable to the development of ethnic Tibetan small and medium sized enterprises can be created.

End summary 

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Now retired, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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