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China Set to Build "World's Highest" Railway to Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/02/09; February 9, 2001.]

BEIJING, Feb 9, 2001 -- (Agence France Presse) The Chinese government has approved the construction of a controversial railway linking the mainland with the Tibetan plateau, set to be dubbed the highest railway in the world, state press reported Friday.

The 1,118 kilometer (650 mile) railway will stretch from Golmud in Qinghai province southward to Lhasa, capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the China Daily reported.

Feasibility studies and construction plans were well under way, it said, with some four-fifths of the railway to be built at an altitude of 4,000 meters (13,120 feet) or higher.

The daily did not report which government organ approved the project, but said President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji both backed it.

"The railway has great significance for the acceleration of economic and social development in Tibet and for the increase of economic and cultural exchanges," Zhu was quoted as saying.

The report did not say what the cost of the railway would be, but the central government has earmarked 100 billion yuan (12 billion dollars) for railway construction in China's western regions over the next five years with a significant portion expected to go for the Tibetan railway.

The construction of a railway to Tibet has been a Chinese ambition since the 1950s, but the plan was not realized due to the unique difficulties of altitude and terrain. Tibet at present can only be accessed by air or via tortuous roads.

While admitting the plan could bring greater economic benefits to Tibet, exiled Tibetan rights group have criticized the plan for being a part of Beijing's effort to encourage Han Chinese migrants to settle into the Tibetan region.

Such efforts were already diluting the Tibetan population and were making Tibetans second-class citizens in their native lands, the London-based Tibetan Information Network (TIN) has said.

Construction of railways to Urumqi and Kashgar in the western-most Xinjiang Autonomous Region was accompanied by a significant influx of Han Chinese migrants, as was the establishment of a railway to Golmud in the 1960s, TIN said.

The extraction and transport of minerals and precious metals out of Tibet by railway would also benefit Chinese mining companies more than the indigenous population, it said.

"The interests of the People's Liberation Army are paramount in determining the foundation of national security and military infrastructure in China -- two of the key motivations for constructing the railroad," TIN said.

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