Since 1978, roughly 260 million people within China have moved from their birthplaces to economically vibrant cities. Some historians and demographers believe this may be the largest migration in human history. This massive redistribution of the population has reshaped China’s economic landscape. For example, migration contributed nearly twenty percent of the economic growth in China between 2001 and 2010.
Tibetans have been part of this mass migration—moving from rural regions to urban cities, such as Xining, Lhasa, and Chengdu, all in western China. In Xining, a city of 2.5 million that is the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau, roughly five percent (or 120,000 people) are Tibetans. Most of these Tibetans migrated from six Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures within Qinghai Province, and are mostly speakers of Amdo or Kham. Approximately ten percent of the Tibetans in Qinghai Province, including both Amdo and Kham speakers, have relocated to Xining.
Why have so many Tibetans moved to Xining? The conventional explanation among migration experts is the factor of “push and pull”—meaning that unfavorable conditions in the original place push individual people out, while more favorable destinations pull them in. Such theories assert that the migrants to Xining are seeking better employment and educational opportunities, as well as better health services. Other theories, such as that of the “new economics immigration,” maintain that migration decisions are made not by isolated individuals but rather by people acting collectively.
Of course, Tibetans have been migrating to Xining since the 1920s, although those earliest migrants were primarily Tibetan elites, who relocated to accept high-level government jobs. Starting around 1978, many young Tibetans moved to Xining for a free university education, and then later took state-run professional jobs in education, government, media, and medicine. Starting in 1990, a new wave of migration began, in which retired government officials purchased apartments in Xining and settled their families in the city. Still another wave began around 2000, when Tibetan farmers and herders relocated to Xining and rented apartments for jobs, medical services, and family ties.
This most recent wave of migration seems to be the most diversified and dynamic. Some have set up their own enterprises in Xining, such as restaurants, hotels, tourism agencies, and film-production companies. More and more young Tibetans are moving to Xining to pursue their dreams and to “make” something that will impact the Tibetan economy and culture in a sustainable way.