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Dramatic Transformation of Lhasa Planned; New Railway Station Announced

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/06/14; June 14, 2001.]

TIN News Update / 13 June 2001.

The Lhasa terminus for the planned railway linking central Tibet with Qinghai and other Chinese provinces will be built in Ne'u (Chinese: Liuwu) township in Toelung Dechen county (Chinese: Duilongdeqing), with a bridge linking the township to central Lhasa on the opposite bank of the Kyichu (Lhasa) river, according to Tibet Daily. The news of the terminus is in line with China's plans to develop the area with "high-tech" industry as the "Liuwu New Area".

The Lhasa authorities are currently implementing ambitious plans to more than quadruple the area of urban Lhasa from its current 53 square kilometres to 272 square km by 2015 and to increase the urban population by 30 per cent over the next four years. A report from Beijing states that the "Liuwu New Area" and a "12.5 square km development zone" will "become the pioneers of economic development of Lhasa and even the whole autonomous region" (Beijing China Internet Information Centre, 4 June).

Reports from Tibet say that land prices in the Ne'u area are already rising, and that Tibetan farmers and local people may have to be resettled in order to make way for the new development.

Lhasa's population boom began in the 1980s and is set to undergo further acceleration. According to proposals outlined in the Party's Tenth Five Year Plan (2001-5), the population of Lhasa's urban area will have more than doubled in the 15-year period ending in 2005. The Lhasa urban area, which was no more than three square km with a population of 20,000 - 30,000 when the Chinese took control of Tibet 50 years ago, reached 53 square km and a population of 230,000 last year, according to official statistics. Meanwhile, the total population of the Lhasa municipal area (county level), which covers 523 square km, has risen to 470,000. The Five Year Plan states that the short term goal is to expand the urban area to 70 square km by the end of 2005 and to increase the urban population from 230,000 to "over 300,000" (Beijing China Internet Information Centre, 4 June). This would represent a further increase of 30 per cent in only five years, driven by the expected surge in Chinese influx as well as the urbanization of existing populated areas. Reports from Tibet indicate that the current population of Lhasa is at least 70% Chinese.

Actual population figures are invariably higher than official statistics. Chinese official regional census data do not include the military or the "floating population" of economic migrants, who live primarily in the urban area. Lhasa officials acknowledged in 1998 that one third of Lhasa's population was made up of "temporary residents". The longer-term aim of expanding the urban area to 272 square km by 2015 would allocate more than half the municipal area of Lhasa (county level) for urban development.

These official figures represent a forecasted annual increase of about 5.5 per cent for 2000-2005, even faster than the 5.1 per cent rate from 1990-2000, a period when geographic expansion of the urban area was not significant. The rate of population increase for the last decade is about five times the officially claimed national average of 1.07 per cent (China Daily, 28 March). The influx of Chinese people seeking work is likely to increase dramatically following the construction of the railway to Lhasa.

Ne'u township, located on the south bank of the Kyichu (Lhasa) River, opposite the western area of Lhasa, will be one of the primary sites for economic development in the urban area. Tibet Daily reported on 21 March that survey work is being carried out in the area with a view to building the station on the shore of the river in the Ne'u township area. (A photograph of surveyors in the area can be viewed at TIN's website: http://www.tibetinfo.co.uk/reports/railway.htm). Planning maps, published in 1982, show land use in the city as of 1980 as well as official goals for 2000. The maps include locations of rail stations, and can be viewed at http://www.tibetinfo.co.uk/reports/railway.htm

While the railway's approach to Lhasa has been changed since the maps were formulated, the location of the main terminus in Ne'u may be consistent with original design and land set aside for a terminal in Lhasa city remains undeveloped. The plan shows the railway crossing the river into Lhasa, with a smaller passenger terminal on the city side of the river, about 2.5 km south of Drepung Monastery. Tibet Daily states that a bridge will be built between Ne'u and Lhasa this year, but gives no details about its traffic handling capacity. Construction of the Ne'u township terminal will entail significant reclamation of land from the river's seasonal flood plain.

The railway will approach Lhasa from the northwest, first descending from the Qinghai-Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) border to Nagchu (Ch: Naqu) and Damshung (Ch: Dangxiong), then following the Toelung River from Yangpachen through Toelung Dechen county and into west Lhasa.

Development and Resettlement in Lhasa

Reports from Lhasa indicate that some Tibetan farmers in Toelung Dechen may be required to move away from their land and settlements in order to make way for the new development. A former Tibetan official from Lhasa now living in exile told TIN: "Some farmers may receive a little compensation for their land, but it is unlikely that it will be enough to fully make up for the loss of their livelihoods. In similar cases of resettlement in Tibetan areas, farmers have had a lot of complaints about the lack of compensation, but it is not possible for them to speak out about this." The pressure on Tibetans to conform to the Party's policy regarding the construction of the railway is likely to be intense due to the high priority accorded to the project, which is one of the key infrastructure projects listed in China's central budget for 2001. A Tibetan former official from Qinghai province, who is now living in exile said: "If Tibetans oppose the railway station openly, they would be accused of being a 'splittist', as someone who wants to destroy the country."

Official reports on the construction of the railway to Lhasa present a different perspective: "All the villagers from the township were overjoyed and ran to tell each other, excitedly planning a beautiful future [when they heard about the new station]," reported Tibet Daily on 22 March. "Qiangba Ouzhu [Jampa Ngodrub], a 63-year old man, said: 'I haven't been able to sleep these last few days. When I think about being able to hear the 'whoo-whoo' sound of the whistle with my own ears and see the train flying along with my own eyes, then I am so excited. In the past I could never have dreamed of a day like this!"

The construction of the 1,118 km railway from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa in the TAR is an important part of the Beijing government's campaign to develop the western regions of China, including the TAR and Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu provinces. The rail link and stations in Tibetan areas will facilitate increased exploitation of Tibet's mineral and natural resources and will generate both large and small-scale opportunities for employment and enterprise; the construction of the railway is intended to accelerate the integration of Tibetan areas into the national economy. "When the Qinghai-Tibet railway opens, the [Ne'u] township's agricultural produce and ore will be easily transported to Lhasa and even transported into the interior of the motherland," stated Tibet Daily (22 March). Toelung Dechen's county head, Zhuoga (Drolkar), told Tibet Daily that the news of the railway had already brought "limitless business opportunities" for the county (Tibet Daily, 2 April). She said that companies have already come from ten provinces and cities to discuss investment opportunities.

Wetland Area to be Converted to Tourist Attraction

The new plans for the development of Lhasa also refer to the conversion of a 6.2 square km area of wetland into a "tourist attraction", a probable reference to a swathe of marshy, undeveloped land stretching along the north edge of Lhasa from the city centre westward toward Drepung. Most of this area appears to be marked as marshland on city planning maps [see http://www.tibetinfo.net/reports/lhasamaps.htm]. A report published by the Beijing China Internet Information Centre on 4 June stated that: "Wetland construction must be strengthened and the ecological environment must be protected. Lhasa will put 200 - 300 million yuan ($24,189,939 - $36,284,909) to build the wetland area into a tourist attraction and pave roads around the wetland."

The new plans portray Lhasa as a rapidly expanding city with high-rise tower blocks and the preservation of "Tibetan characteristics" in buildings in the central Barkor area. The China Internet Information Centre reported on 4 June: "In the urban construction of Lhasa, the local government pays much attention to the protection of folk characteristics…In the old urban areas, in particular, the construction of major streets and buildings must follow the style of traditional Tibetan culture. Buildings on main streets all feature Tibetan styles." Steven D Marshall, co-author with Dr Susette Cooke of the CD-Rom Tibet Outside the TAR, said: "What is often touted as 'Tibetan characteristics' in modern construction usually refers to superficial decorative flourishes, such as black trim around windows and colourful trim on column capitols and beams. This may appeal to tourists but it reveals little about Tibetan architectural traditions." The Tibetan area of Lhasa, incorporating part of the Barkor area and part of the area around the Potala, now occupies less than 2% of the urban area of Lhasa.

Development Plans Lead to Fears of Tibetan Marginalization

The Tibetan former official from Qinghai, who has also lived in Lhasa, told TIN that the economic development of Toelung Dechen following the announcement of the new railway station would increase the numbers of Chinese workers in the area and would not necessarily benefit local Tibetans. "Many new hotels and restaurants will be constructed, and many people from China who have lost their jobs will come to find work," the Tibetan told TIN. "There may be some short-term benefit for Tibetans in the construction of shops and restaurants for local people, but the influx of more and more Chinese people with education and skills means that local Tibetans may only be able to hold onto these jobs for a couple of years, and will gradually be marginalized. After the construction of the railway station at Xining (in Qinghai province), local people got jobs as cleaners and ticket sellers and so on, but gradually many of them lost these jobs due to competition from more skilled Chinese migrant workers."

Similarly, the authorities' plans to create a 12.5 square km "high tech" zone in Lhasa are certain to draw Chinese workers and professionals, but it is unclear whether Tibetans will have the opportunity to receive the training and education that would make them competitive in a more sophisticated job market.

The former official told TIN that the main beneficiaries of the construction of the railway to Lhasa would be Chinese, and not local Tibetans. "When the Chinese are in charge of construction [on projects such as the railway] it is possible that some Tibetans may find work, but the main benefits go to the Chinese private companies and the authorities," he told TIN.

Construction of the Tibet-Qinghai railway was originally scheduled to start next month (July). However the vice-chairman of the TAR government, Chonpel (Ch: Qunpei), was quoted recently as saying that it may now be postponed to next year, as experts were still studying ways to solve three major problems as follows: "how to lay railway tracks atop icy soil to avoid the metal bending when the ice melts; how to lay track at high altitude; and how to protect delicate local ecology" (South China Morning Post, 24 May). A second report in the Chinese official media stated, however, that 10,000 construction workers were going to arrive in Golmud this month to start work on building the railway to Lhasa in July (China Youth Daily, published on the website: www.tibetinfor.com on 26 May).

Lhasa Maps and Panoramas

See the TIN website http://www.tibetinfo.net/reports/lhasapano.htm for newly available panoramas of Lhasa (available as single JPEG image files or to download in PDF format). These panoramas provide information relevant to modern planning and development in Lhasa, especially the construction of a rail terminus near Ne'u shang on the south bank of the Kyichu and the possible construction of a passenger terminal in Lhasa itself. The first is a panorama of west Lhasa taken from above Toelung (in northwest Lhasa) in late 1993. The second is a panorama of west Lhasa taken from above Ne'u Shang (on the south bank of the Kyichu) in late 1993.

Considerable detail about official intentions for the development of Lhasa in the years 1980-2000, including railroad infrastructure, are revealed in a set of planning maps for the years 1980-2000 published in 1982. The main diagrams for 1980 and 2000 are available at: http://www.tibetinfo.net/reports/lhasamaps.htm

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