Social Media Meets Shangri-La: Tibet Tops One Million Internet Users

With a mainly rural population, primitive physical infrastructure and an agricultural lifestyle that prohibits lengthy travel, Tibet would seem to be an ideal place for online interaction. Well guess what? According to data recently released by the Communications Administration Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region, Tibetans have discovered the Internet in a big way. 

Though Tibet's population as of 2010 was just 2.8 million, the total number of Internet users hit 1.2 million by the end of the year. That figure can be further broken down into 104,000 broadband Internet users and 1.1 million mobile Internet users. So much for the old stereotype of wintry isolation on the roof of the world.

The advent of competition among the sudden explosion of Internet cafes has allowed users more choice and more time for less money. As well, the Internet has emerged as the average Tibetan's most convenient channel for interactive communication with the world at large. Why wait weeks for an answer to your mailed postcard when an email reply can arrive in mere seconds?

Surprisingly perhaps, the Chinese government seems to be onside and onboard with Tibet's embrace of all things online.

“The rapid development of Tibet's communications industry has shortened the distance between Tibet and the inland regions as well as between Tibet and the world,” stated Zhang Qingli, Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. “Tibet is no longer remote from the world.”

It's a big jump from subsistence farming to surfing websites, to be sure, but Tibetans – especially the younger, better educated sector of society – find a wealth of useful pursuits that can only be accessed through their modems or mobile devices. Acquiring information through search engines, using instant messaging to conduct conversations, trading stocks and arranging travel plans have become commonplace for Tibetans.

“All students are aware of the Internet, and love it,” said a 20-year-old university student who added, “Some friends spend the whole night online.” Access is cheap and easy thanks to the half-dozen Internet cafes that have sprung up around Tibet University. Most charge hourly fees ranging from 50 to 60 cents.

The Internet also offers opportunities for Tibet's homegrown cyber entrepreneurs like 24-year-old Losong Dawa, owner of the Boiling Point Internet Bar in Lhasa. “This is the future,” explained Dawa. “I want to teach [the new generation] computers, to bring Tibet into the modern age. That's my dream.” (via China Tibet Online, Lhasa Trip Advisor, Ron Gluckman and Varvaras)