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Railways Tibet On the Right Track?

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2004/10/14; October 14, 2004.]

Beijing is building a costly and complex line to Lhasa, which it says will bring prosperity and growth. Critics argue that it's just another step in the annexation of Tibet

Issue cover-dated October 14, 2004

THE VILLAGE OF Tuotuohe is not much more than a muddy truck stop along the Qinghai-Tibet highway. One day in early summer, Zhao, proprietor of the Lanzhou Handmade Noodle Tavern, was chatting with the owner of another restaurant in the village. It had snowed in the Kunlun and Tanggula mountains during the night, and traffic on the highway had ground to a standstill. Sitting by the iron stove in the middle of the room, Zhao sucked on his cigarette, surveyed his empty establishment and reminisced about the golden year of 2002. "If you would have been here then at this time of the day, every table would have been taken," he said.

The good times came to Zhao's restaurant courtesy of one of China's biggest construction projects, the Qinghai-Tibet rail line. Running a distance of 1,118 kilometres, the line will link the garrison town of Golmud in China's Qinghai province to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. With an official price tag of 26.2 billion renminbi ($3.2 billion), it's one of the most complex and daring railway projects ever undertaken. More than two-thirds of the line runs at more than 4,500 metres above sea level; 550 kilometres of it crosses permanently frozen earth.

By 2007, when the line is due to be completed, Zhao's business may dry up even further as the transporting of people and goods to Tibet shifts to the rails. Trains on this line will take just 48 hours to cover the distance between Beijing and Lhasa, with passengers travelling in carriages pressurized like aircraft to compensate for the high altitude.

All along the route billboards bearing slogans such as "Build the Qinghai-Tibet railway, create prosperity for people of all nationalities" proclaim the importance of the project to Beijing. According to China's leaders, the line will reduce Tibet's geographical isolation and speed up its economic development. According to the line's critics, it's simply another weapon in Beijing's annexation of the territory. On June 12, the railway line reached the northern bank of the Tuotuohe river, about 500 kilometres from Lhasa. Framed by the snow-capped Tanggula mountains, a reporter from Tibet TV recorded the event for the evening news. The man he was interviewing, an engineer, wore a pin with the words "Communist Party Vanguard Project" on his lapel. "We lack oxygen," the engineer told the reporter, "but we don't lack the right stuff."

According to a report by state news agency Xinhua, not one of the 100,000 workers on the project has died as a result of altitude sickness. That claim is impossible to confirm, but the harsh conditions under which the railway is being constructed make it questionable, especially as the same report acknowledged the deaths of more than 3,000 workers during the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet highway in the 1950s. "Every construction worker has health clearance before stepping on the plateau," Lu Chunfang, general director of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Construction headquarters told Xinhua. "Everyone passes a strict physical examination before being enrolled into the construction team."

Workers say the reality is different. In Amdo, the first town on the Tibetan side of the Tanggula mountain pass, a group of Muslim Hui migrant workers from Qinghai province were squatting outside the national railway company's medical clinic. They were whiling away their day as they waited for news from their boss about railway work he had assured them was on its way. After more than a week in Amdo, which is 4,800 metres above sea level, they were still showing symptoms of altitude sickness: a throbbing head and loss of appetite. Officially, all workers are required to present a clean bill of health, but, one of the migrant labourers explained, "80% of the doctor's certificates are fake."

The labourers say the railway construction company pays their boss 2,000 renminbi per month per worker. Of that, the boss, himself a Hui Muslim from Qinghai, passes on just half to each worker--1,000 renminbi for long days of backbreaking work. With some 30 workers in the group, and a work season lasting five months, the boss stands to make 150,000 renminbi, minus his expenses; each worker will return home with no more than 5,000 renminbi in his pockets. Asked about the absence of Tibetan railway workers in Amdo, the men's boss replied: "The railway company does not like to employ Tibetan workers. The Tibetans think that the land belongs to them, and that they should decide how fast to work."

Once the line is finished, around 16 trains a day will travel between Golmud and Lhasa, bringing about 5 million tonnes of goods into Tibet each year and 2.8 million tonnes out. Beijing says the railway will slash the cost of transporting goods by almost two-thirds. That, it says, will help speed up Tibet's economic development, generate 4 billion renminbi in direct and indirect income and induce businesses to set up shop--not to mention the extra 900,000 tourists Beijing expects to travel on the new line. And then there's mining: In the past few years, over a million tonnes of copper and about 20,000 tonnes of cobalt have been discovered in the vicinity of the railway line.

The line is just one of a number of major infrastructure projects under way in Tibet. Altogether, investments in fixed assets in Tibet, mainly by Beijing, totalled 13 billion renminbi last year; over the past three years, according to official data, GDP for the Tibet Autonomous Region grew by 12% annually. Not everyone is impressed, though: Robert Barnett, lecturer in modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, characterizes Beijing's spending on Tibet as "a Keynesian policy to sustain economic growth without really stimulating productivity and output. It works amazingly well with international economists."

And while Tibet's urban areas are feeling the benefit of economic growth, rural areas are slipping behind. Since 1992, the annual income per capita among the urban population has risen fourfold to almost 8,000 renminbi; outside the cities, annual average income was about 1,600 renminbi in 2002. The small town of Amdo, for one, is indeed in dire need of some modernization. After more than 50 years of Chinese rule, it still lacks paved roads, tap water and proper sanitation.

According to a report on the railway by the International Campaign for Tibet, a not-for-profit group that monitors and promotes human rights in Tibet, official Chinese figures show the budget for the railway represents more than three times Beijing's spending on health care and education in Tibet over the past half-century. This neglect has had severe consequences for Tibet's social development: In 1999, Tibet recorded an illiteracy rate of 67%, compared with a national average of 11%.

Critics also argue that the railway will accelerate the migration of Han Chinese to Tibet. In urban Lhasa, with a population of some 230,000 people, Han Chinese are already on the verge of becoming the majority group. "Migration is the primary concern among educated Tibetans," says Barnett. "In public, they will not voice any criticism. In private, they will tell you that this is the end of Tibet."

This migration process follows a pattern seen elsewhere in China, according to the International Campaign for Tibet report. Between 1912 and 1949, the Han population in Inner Mongolia increased fivefold. Millions arrived after the railway from Zhangjiakou to Hohhot was completed in the 1920s, and by 1949, Han outnumbered Mongolians by 11 to one. The same process took place in Manchuria with the help of railways built by the Japanese. Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is already a predominantly Han city, and in Kashgar, the Han population increased by 30% in 2001, the year after the railway there was completed.

Representatives of the exiled Tibetan government have no doubts about the impact of the new line: "We feel that the continuing construction of railways in Tibet will facilitate Chinese control over Tibet and the settlement in Tibet of many more Chinese migrant workers," says Thubten Samphel, secretary of international relations.

Some of China's neighbours, too, view the railway with unease. Analysts point to its military implications, saying it could be used to beef-up China's already heavy military presence in Tibet, including its ability to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. Says Barnett: "Indian analysts are constantly discussing the issues of Tibet's militarization."

Such matters mean little to ordinary Tibetans living along the railway to the "roof of the world." In Zaziqu village in the Qugaxiong valley some 100 kilometres north of Lhasa, 18 families make their livelihood from herding. The new line will run straight through their valley, forcing the herders to bring their yaks and sheep to their summer pastures through a tunnel under the railway. "We don't know whether or not the animals will refuse to pass through the tunnel," says the village head. "We are not opposed to this project, but it is creating big losses for us."

A housewife in the village admits to doubts about the project's benefits: "The radio said that we would be able to make 50 renminbi per day working on the railway. We were very happy, and thought that we could make some money," she says. "But only five to six people got work, and they were only paid 15-20 renminbi. It is unfair, but we don't know where to complain."

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