China plans to fast track development of Tibet to enhance security in the poor mountainous region racked with chronic ethnic tensions that turned deadly in 2008, official media said on Saturday.
The government seeks "leap-frog" development of Tibet by raising infrastructure quality and agricultural incomes to national levels by 2020, Xinhua news agency said, citing comments from senior Chinese leaders at a meeting earlier in the week.
Violent demonstrations in the Tibetan capital Lhasa that left at least 19 dead on March 14, 2008 heightened government awareness of the economic roots of unrest, although officials blamed protest activity across the plateau on separatists loyal to exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Tibet's economy is expected to reach 43.7 billion yuan ($6.4 billion) in 2009, an annual growth of 12.3 percent over the past nine years, Xinhua said.
The economy has already grown faster than the rest of China, sped by the completion of a railway to Lhasa and large mining projects.
Chinese President Hu Jintao called Tibet's accelerated development "vital to ethnic unity, social stability and national security", Xinhua said.
"Tibet faces a 'special contradiction' between people of all ethnic groups and the separatist forces led by the Dalai clique," Hu was quoted saying.
Farmers and herders, 80 percent of Tibet and who now earn an annual average of 3,410 yuan, would be brought up to the national average of 8,582 yuan per year expected in 2020, while their children will get free education, local media said.
Central leaders also aim to develop science, technology and environmental protection, Xinhua said. It said China had invested 310 billion yuan in Tibet since 2001.
"Tibet is now transforming from fast development to comprehensive development, from relative backwardness to total opening and from simple agriculture to a complex economy," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was quoted saying in People's Daily.
The Tibetan demonstrations were followed by more violent riots in July 2009 in Xinjiang, another ethnically distinct region of China where locals feel they are not benefitting from China's economic development.
(Reporting by Ralph Jennings; Editing by David Fox)