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China Puts Infrastructure First in Western Push

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/08/01; August 1, 2001.]


XINING, China: Outside the gate of the Qinghai provincial government headquarters, more than 30 Tibetans stage a silent but futile protest against China's drive to develop its lagging western regions.

The residents of rural Songduo county have travelled to the provincial capital Xining to protest against the seizure of their land in the name of the "Great Western Development" programme.

"The government took our land and didn't give any reason," said one man sitting on the ground outside the government offices. "What does western development mean? You tell me."

Almost two years after China launched the development push, new highways, bridges and tunnels have sprung up amid the scarred brown hills surrounding Xining.

But China's emphasis on big projects and infrastructure works has failed to improve the lives of many.

For the farmers and herders of Qinghai, which borders Tibet, average income was 1,490 yuan ($180) last year, two-thirds of the national level for rural households with little growth from 1999.

Qinghai has won three major projects in the programme -- a $2.4 billion railway to Tibet, a $338 million potash fertiliser plant and a $300 million natural gas pipeline stretching 950 km to Lanzhou.

None of the projects is finished yet.

"For Tibetan people, it's health, it's education, it's skills training, it's not big infrastructure projects, which facilitate more Han Chinese people moving into the area," said Alison Reynolds, director of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign rights group.

"They (Han Chinese) have more skills than Tibetans so will always be better placed to benefit from the employment opportunities that arise," she said.

China's Transport Woes

China will invest $13 billion in Qinghai's infrastructure in the next five years with funding earmarked for more highways and three new airports, officials said.

More basic infrastructure is needed before a wave of prosperity can wash over western regions, which lag far behind booming eastern provinces, they said.

"Transport is the basis of economic development," said vice mayor of Qinghai's Golmud city, Xia Jiaxiang.

Chinese companies say the biggest problems for operating in the west are the big distances and high transport costs.

For Qinghai Salt Lake Industry Co, builder of the new potash fertiliser plant, it takes up to seven days to ship products to markets in southern and eastern China by truck and rail.

Salt Lake's freight charges are $20 a tonne, taking the price of its potash fertiliser to around $115, not much less than the same product shipped all the way from Canada.

Officials of Golmud Oil Refinery, a branch of industry giant PetroChina Co, said the new railway to Tibet would lower costs and increase demand for its crude and oil products.

"After the economy develops, market demand will grow and we will benefit," said Miao Geng, the refinery's vice director.

Golmud vice mayor Xia said the railway alone would create 50,000 jobs and swell the population of the western boomtown to 350,000 from the current 200,000.

That is what worries human rights groups. Ethnic Tibetans account for only 21 percent of Qinghai's 4.95 million population and that ratio is shrinking.

University Infrastructure

Analysts say western regions desperately need infrastructure but China should not neglect education, medical care and other programmes to help improve people's daily lives.

It could take a decade for the western development drive to show results, they say.

When China announced the first batch of western development projects last year, six involved transport, although the building of "university infrastructure" was part of the plan.

"Clearly an investment in people, in education, is probably the best investment any government can make," said Bruce Murray, representative for the Asian Development Bank in China.

"So more money clearly has to go into things like education and health to balance off the other investments in infrastructure and the environment."

In Qinghai, the one environmental protection initiative is a scheme to stop farmers from growing rape and barley -- a staple food crop -- in exchange for 90 kg of grain and $2.40 in cash for every one-fifteenth of a hectare.

The plan to turn farmland into grassland because of overgrazing and rapid population growth has faced opposition from producers, who want more compensation.

"It's not enough, but what can I do," said Tibetan herdsman San Cheng Jia from his house on the fertile shores of Qinghai Lake. "If we plant more grass, I can raise more sheep and yaks. Beyond that, I don't know what western development means."

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