Nearly two years after Tibetan regions of China were engulfed in riots and protests, Beijing is doubling its bet that rapid economic development will win the political loyalty of its Tibetan population.

In a meeting of China’s top leaders last month to discuss Tibet, the government pledged that “leapfrog” economic progress over the next decade would bring stability to the region and blamed the unrest in 2008 on the Dalai Lama and his “clique”.

Yet as the Dalai Lama prepares to meet Barack Obama, US president, in Washington on Thursday for the first time, Tibet experts are deciphering the outcome of the policy summit to see if Beijing has also made subtle changes to its approach, which reflect some of the criticisms it has received at home and abroad.

“There are some signs that different ideas are circulating in the discussions, although just because the central government says certain things does not mean that they will actually be implemented,” says Robbie Barnett at Columbia University.

Even by Chinese standards, Tibet’s economy has grown rapidly over the past decade, with gross domestic product rising 170 per cent since 2001. However, a number of foreign analysts argue that the 2008 riots were partly the result of a pattern of growth that tended to discriminate against the Tibetan population – a view that is shared, in private, by some Chinese officials and academics.

Heavy investment from Beijing that focused on infrastructure – such as the first railway line to Lhasa – has mostly benefited companies from elsewhere in China and Han migrants in Tibet, they say. Andrew Fischer, a Tibet specialist at Erasmus University in the Netherlands calls it “boomerang aid”, heavy subsidies that end up leaving the province and do not create self-sustaining growth.

The January Tibet Work Conference, the first such meeting since 2001, was attended by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and the two men analysts believe have been slated to succeed them, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. It stressed the need for continued strong growth to achieve “ethnic unity”.

Yet there are some indications that Beijing is playing down the development model based on huge infrastructure investments.

Unlike some previous meetings on Tibet, the statement released afterwards did not include a list of new projects. It placed emphasis on improving human capital and said rural incomes should be raised to the national average by 2020. For some Chinese Tibet specialists there has been a shift in policy direction.

“It used to be said that first should come fast economic development and then livelihoods. But now the focus is much more on people’s well-being,” says Zhang Yun at the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing.

How this emphasis on rural incomes would work in practice is less clear. Beijing has been experimenting in this direction for several years. A programme to rebuild housing for rural Tibetans has won praise in some quarters, although a scheme to force nomads into permanent housing has been sharply criticised.

The other new departure at the January meeting was the announcement that policies for Tibet would also be applied to other Tibetan areas – about half the Tibetan population in China lives in four provinces bordering the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

For some in the Tibetan exile community, this indicated that Beijing would push the hardline political strategy it has adopted in the TAR on all Tibetans in China. However, given that the Dalai Lama has called for autonomy for Greater Tibet rather than only TAR, others see this as an important step forward.

Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s chief envoy, said: “If we take away the political slogans, many of the issues that have been prioritised by the forum are similar to the basic needs of the Tibetan people outlined in our memorandum.”

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