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Development

Deemed a Road to Ruin

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/08/26; August 26, 2002.]

Tibetans Say Beijing Railway Poses Latest Threat to Minority Culture

By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff, 8/26/2002
Boston Globe

NAGCHU, Tibet When Chinese officials recently announced the laying of the first tracks in an ambitious railway project to link the restive and long-isolated people of Tibet to the rest of China, they vowed that connecting the world's highest plateau to "the modern world" would bring unprecedented economic opportunity.

But away from the ears of government officials escorting a group of foreign journalists, Tibetans contended that the $2.4 billion initiative would only draw more Han Chinese residents, the country's dominant ethnic group, who have been migrating steadily to this area over the last decade, bringing with them karaoke bars, discos, and signs in Chinese script that most locals can't understand.

"The train is for them, so the Chinese can come here," said a former herder from this northern grassland region through which two-thirds of the roughly 700-mile-long railway will pass. "They are robbing our land of precious minerals and will use the train to take them away faster. They say they've brought us electricity, hospitals, roads, etc., but they are not for us; they are for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who live here now."

The whispered controversy over the railroad project is a microcosm of the fractious debate over Tibet's future and who will decide it, a tug of war between the lure of economic development and the threat to a minority culture and traditional lifestyle from an alien, modern society.

After a half-century of brutal crackdowns on independence-minded uprisings, Beijing has in the last two years, at least publicly, relaxed its iron-fisted strategy toward Tibet. Prison still awaits the few who dare to rebel, but the government is trying to win over the majority with a velvet glove promise of a more prosperous life.

While keeping tight control over politics and religious institutions, Beijing has showered money and preferential treatment on this remote, inhospitable region, making it hard for China to understand criticism of its policies. Subsidies underwrite everything from tax relief to cheap Lhasa Beer. The central government funds 90 percent of Tibet's budget. It funds $8.5 billion in subsidies and $3.9 billion in construction projects over the next five years, said Guo Jinlong, Tibet's Communist Party boss.

But local residents and returning visitors say Beijing's railroad, like its myriad economic projects, is choking its exotic culture. Even a decade ago Tibet looked dramatically different, they say. Herders faced little competition for grazing space in the open grasslands. The tiny capital of Lhasa was dominated by the serene hilltop Potala Palace, and pilgrims circled and prostrated themselves before sacred temples. But now many Tibetans say their towns are being remade in the image of modern China.

"China wants to kill Tibetan culture just like the US did to the Native Americans," said one Tibetan who lives abroad but visits frequently. "They are massacring Tibetans with prostitutes, alcohol, discos, and with a smile.

"Tibetans hear Chinese propaganda about development every day, and they believe it. ... The Maoists used to throw boiling water on us. Now it's just lukewarm, but it works fast," the Tibetan said. "I have no hope for 'saving Tibet.' It is finished."

The communist government sent troops to Tibet in 1950 and 1951 to "liberate" what was then an independent, feudal theocracy, and for 35 years kept the region an isolated enclave. Half of what was historically Tibet belongs to three other Chinese provinces, while the rest, an area roughly twice the size of Texas, is a so-called autonomous region of China.

Tibet's strategic importance makes it a territory the current government may never relinquish. The 2.5 million Tibetans occupy one-eighth of China's land mass, and their mineral-rich plateau borders India, the contested region of Kashmir, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan.

Beijing hopes the railroad will forge an iron bond with Tibet stronger than the "patriotic education" campaigns that many Tibetans have ignored in the past. For their part, Tibetans have little say in the campaign to develop their "backward" region. Although 70 percent of government workers are Tibetans, meetings with key officials underscored that the decision-makers are ethnic Chinese appointed by the Communist Party.

As a result of Beijing's economic projects, Tibet's economy has grown an average of 12.3 percent annually since 1994, said Jin Shixun, deputy director of the Development and Planning Commission. Although most Tibetans are still impoverished the average net income for herders and farmers is $170 a year, for urban residents $866 the government projects that living standards in Tibet will match those in middle-income provinces by 2010.

Officials say that the average life span has doubled under Chinese rule from 30 years to 60 and that 87 percent of Tibetan children are now enrolled in elementary school.

Tibetans contend, however, that hospitals are too expensive and nonexistent in rural areas and that schools teach main subjects in Chinese, which no one speaks at home. Critics say the good students get scholarships to boarding schools and universities in eastern China, where they are indoctrinated with the Chinese party line.

The government has spent tens of millions of dollars restoring the Potala Palace and temples that were vandalized in the Cultural Revolution, but it has simultaneously permitted the destruction of two-thirds of the historic buildings along a sacred pilgrimige circuit in Lhasa, according to architectural preservationists.

These days, women in Tibetan ethnic dress hawk souvenirs against a backdrop of modern Chinese buildings of white tile and blue glass. Monks in scarlet robes chat on cellphones, and young Tibetans wear Chinese fashions. Neon- lighted discos and plastic palm trees line the Himalayan capital's main avenue, Beijing Road. Hairdressers and bars conceal at least 1,000 brothels catering to Chinese troops and settlers in Lhasa, according to the Tibet Information Network. On the road to Nagchu, herdsman in fur-trimmed capes ride motorcycles instead of horses. Signs are primarily in Chinese.

Officials rebut allegations of a campaign to encourage Chinese migration. But Jin acknowledged that half of Lhasa's 200,000 inhabitants are ethnic Chinese and that Tibetans will become a minority in their own capital as development draws more Chinese seeking jobs.

The government is also promoting the urbanization of the sparsely populated grasslands. Nagchu's Communist Party secretary, Gongbao Tashi, who was born into a herding family, plans to double his prefecture's urban population within five years by consolidating nomadic villages and encouraging herders to take jobs in construction and in the railroad industry.

"For thousands of years, people here have been in the business of animal husbandry, but we also have a right to start a new life," he declared.

But others resent new laws that restrict herders to living in designated areas and limit the livestock they can keep. "Before the Chinese, my family lived in big open space, and we preferred that," said Qidar, a 24-year-old herdsman from northern Nagchu.

For Wushong, 57, a herdsman selected by government officials to speak with reporters, new opportunities have brought an undeniably better life. In a mud house plastered with posters of communist giants Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and President Jiang Zemin, he credited a government loan with boosting him from rags to relative riches. He earns $4,745 a year, about 28 times the average wage, from two restaurants and shops he owns in Nagchu, plus an array of livestock he can now afford to keep.

But even Wushong seems wary of the negative aspects of urbanization on Tibetan life. Three of his seven children abandoned herding to become shopkeepers. "I hope my grandsons will be nomads," he confided.


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