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China Set To Build Railway To Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/12/29; December 29, 2000.]

TIN News Update

London, 22 Dec - The construction of a railway to Tibetís capital, Lhasa, which has been a Chinese ambition since the 1950s, now looks set become a reality. Recent statements from Beijing indicate that China is planning to go ahead with the railway despite the unique difficulties presented by the altitude and terrain. The linking of central Tibet to Chinaís railway network will have a dramatic impact on the region - it will create possibilities for the exploitation of mineral and natural resources that did not exist before and is likely to lead to increased migration into Tibetan areas. The Chinese authorities have made it clear that a key political aim in building the railway is to accelerate the assimilation of Tibet into "the motherland".

A meeting was held in Beijing in September to explore the feasibility of four different routes for the proposed railway. The Railway Ministry has since commented that it recommends the Qinghai route as the "best choice", rather than routes through Yunnan, Sichuan or Gansu provinces. The favoured route would extend the line from Xining, which currently terminates at Golmud in central Qinghai. The construction of a railway to Lhasa now looks set to be on the agenda for China's Tenth Five Year Plan period (2001-2005); one of the main tasks of the Ninth Five Year Plan had been to "complete the preparations for the building of a railway into Tibet". The final decision on the route is expected to be made by the Central Chinese Communist Party Committee and the State Council in spring 2001.

A Tibet specialist who has carried out extensive field research in Tibetan areas in the areas of all the proposed routes believes that the construction of the railway would have a profound and irreversible impact on the future of Tibet. Steven Marshall, co-author with Dr Susette Cooke of the CD-ROM "Tibet Outside the TAR", told TIN: "There is nothing I can think of that could more dramatically or incontrovertibly hasten the end of the Tibetan character of the region than putting a railroad loop through Qinghai, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and perhaps into Yunnan or Sichuan. It's for that very reason that I think the state will do whatever it must to push the project through. Economically it's not a high-profit proposition, as was extending railroads across America's middle and western reaches. But despite the expense, it will create possibilities for mineral exploitation and commerce that did not exist before, which will generate large-scale and small-scale opportunities for employment and enterprise. That will stimulate the flow of 'human capital' into the area, bringing about demographic transformation."

The central authorities acknowledge that the purpose of building a railway is strategic as well as economic. The Tibet Daily stated earlier this month (12 December): "In particular, Tibet is located on the south-western border of the motherland, with a national boundary line over 4000km long. The unity of the nationalities and consolidation of national defence necessitate the urgent construction of a railway linking Tibet with the hinterland". The railway will enable the authorities to move army and security forces more easily for the purposes both of border defence and of internal control, and will be a further step towards the integration of Tibetan areas into the Chinese state as a means of "achieving stability".

The construction of a railway from China into Tibet will not only affect Tibetans living in the Tibet Autonomous Region; it will also have a major impact on the lives of Tibetans living along the route outside the TAR. In many cases these areas have remained relatively inaccessible from the rest of China, with Tibetans being able to preserve their own distinctive lifestyles and cultural traditions. The construction of a railway will accelerate development in rural townships that have previously attracted very little outside attention. Past experience suggests that incoming migrants attracted by these new commercial opportunities are likely to benefit to a greater extent than the resident Tibetan population. In the case of mineral exploitation, the Chinese state and the mining companies will be the main benefactors of increased access to the mineral wealth of Tibet. However, the exploitation of these resources, prioritised by President Jiang Zeminís campaign to develop the western regions, depends on the development of the necessary infrastructure.

"A line of unity, happiness and life"

Many Tibetans have of course benefited from reform and opening up in Tibetan areas, and there will also be ways in which some ordinary Tibetans may benefit economically from the railway. The railway will make the export of meat to other areas of China cheaper and more efficient and Tibetan herders could benefit from a resulting increase in demand for meat, though increasing herd sizes in response to market demand could have serious environmental repercussions, particularly in those areas that are already experiencing problems from overgrazing and desertification.

The main concern for the majority of Tibetans, however, remains the issue of increased accessibility to Tibetan areas and closer links with China, leading to the increased migration of Chinese into Tibet attracted by a growth in economic activity both in resource exploitation and private commercial enterprises.

Towns such as Nagchu, Damshung and Amdo, which lie along the proposed Qinghai rail route, are likely to be completely transformed if the line is laid along this route, just as other towns in Qinghai were transformed by the construction of the Xining-Golmud railway in Qinghai province. Official statistics show that Xihai city, the capital of Tsojang (Ch: Haibei) TAP and Delingha, the capital of Tsonub (Ch: Haixi) Mongolian and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which both lie on the Xining-Golmud railway in Qinghai province, have the lowest proportion of Tibetan residents of any Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in the Peopleís Republic of China (PRC), with 20 per cent and 10 per cent respectively, not including those people without official residency status, according to "Tibet Outside the TAR". Although there are several factors which have effected the demographic balance of these areas, the arrival of the railway appears to have accelerated this change and has also facilitated the heavy exploitation of the mineral resources of both areas.

Work has already begun on enlarging the transportation capacity of the Xining-Golmud section of the line this year, involving "some 10,000 builders from eight railway construction units" (People's Daily 8, October 2000). This line, begun in 1958 and completed in May 1984, has facilitated the development of Qinghai, including the resource-rich Tsaidam basin region. "Most of the major materials used in Tibet's development were transported to Tibet through this railway line", according to the article, which adds that the railway line "is thus named as a line of unity, happiness and life by the people of all nationalities".

The preferred Qinghai railway route could accelerate the development of the gold mining industry in Nagchu (Ch: Naqu) prefecture in the TAR and also facilitate the exploitation of recent oil reserves found in the Lhunpola oil basin, in the Jangtang (high steppe; Chinese: Changtang) region in the north of Nagchu prefecture and south Kyegudo (Ch: Yushu) TAP in Qinghai. According to the TAR Specialist Plan, an internal document that maps out the development of Tibet up to 2020, "Tibet has a wealth of natural resources [Ö] all of which are ripe for exploitation, but, constricted by the condition of basic communications infrastructure, the level of exploitation and utilisation of these natural resources is extremely low". The Plan states that in the future, given the expected development in the TAR and the needs of stability and national defence, to rely only on roads would be "far from adequate to suit the needs of Tibetan economic and social development". It goes on to say that "more and more people are coming to the conclusion that construction of a railway into Tibet will have an extremely important role in providing impetus for the vigorous development of the TAR economy."

The development of the railway system in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region gives a vivid example of the impact that such major infrastructure projects can have on the lives of the "minority nationality" inhabitants. After the construction of the railway to Urumqi in 1960, many immigrants settled in north-western Xinjiang, where they are now a majority. In autumn 1999, this railway line was extended to Kashgar, a remote oasis town in the far west of Xinjiang. This had an immediate impact on the local Uighur population in Kashgar. "Many Uighurs lost their livelihoods, through businesses being destroyed during the construction of the tracks, and due to loss of jobs transporting goods by road," a Uighur scholar now in exile told TIN. "The government says that the railway will help the economic development of Xinjiang, but it will further endanger the survival of Uighur Muslim culture and identity in the region. The Uighur people, who were already facing increasing pressure to survive due to the numbers of Chinese migrants arriving in the region, are simply unable to compete and to participate in the development of their own economy."

Rail link to Tibet "a top project"

On 11 December, the China Daily stated that a "rail link to Tibet is among the top projects to be sponsored by the government over the next five years", indicating that it is likely to receive substantial central funding under the Tenth Five Year Plan. The western regions of China are to be given 100bn yuan by the central government for railway construction during the plan period (2001-2005), part of which may be used as funding for the TAR railway. The authorities are also looking for additional sources of funding. The TAR preferential land-use policies published in November stipulate that those who invest in the construction of railways and railway stations "shall enjoy the priority of development, under the same conditions, of the land and underground resources on both sides along the line they invest in or within a fixed scope in the surrounding areas". (People's Daily, 23 November)

Feasibility studies on the four possible rail routes into the TAR from Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces have now been completed and reviewed. On 15 December 2000 the People's Daily reported that Ren Xigui, spokesman for the Ministry of Railways, had revealed that the ministry recommended the Qinghai route as "the best choice". There has however been some disagreement amongst the provincial-level Railway Ministry bureaux, which come under the Ministry of Railways, as to the best route, according to the Tibet Daily on 12 December. The Number One Surveying and Planning Institute of Lanzhou Railway Bureau (Gansu) favours the shorter and cheaper Qinghai plan. The Number Two Surveying and Planning Institute of Chengdu Railway Bureau (Sichuan) has argued for the longer, more expensive, Yunnan option because of the relatively good climate and resources of western Yunnan, which is also a key tourism area, and because this route gives direct access to the more developed areas of the TAR which are the richest in natural resources. (Tibet Daily, 12 December).

It is likely that jurisdictional interests have played some part in the respective recommendations of the railway bureaux (the Lanzhou Railway Bureau has been involved in work this year on the Xining-Golmud line), as well as regional competition, particularly between the two military districts of north western and south western China. 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. Qinghai, Gansu and the far western tip of the TAR are in the Lanzhou Military Region, while the rest of the TAR and Sichuan and Yunnan provinces are in the Chengdu Military Region. If the railway was built from the south west, the whole route would lie within the Chengdu Military Region, which would greatly enhance the importance of their command. The final decision, which will be made by the State Council and the Party Committee, is expected next spring.

The four routes

The Qinghai route starts from south of Golmud at Nanshankou, where the Xining-Golmud line currently terminates. It follows a similar route to the current Qinghai-Tibet highway to Lhasa, via Kyegudo (Ch: Yushu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai and Nagchu prefecture in the TAR. The railway line will be "1,080 km in length, with 564 km in Qinghai province and 516 km in the Tibet Autonomous Region", according to the Tibet Daily (12 December 2000). It is expected to take seven to eight years to complete, requiring a total investment of 19.4 billion yuan (about 2.34bn US dollars) according to 1995 figures.

The key challenge of this route is altitude, as much of the land over which the railway will pass is over 4,000m above sea level. Starting at Golmud (approximately 2,800m), the route gradually ascends to cross the Kunlun mountains, probably via the Khunu-la pass (4,722m). The railway will then take a long climb up to the Dang-la (Ch: Tanggula) pass which, at over 5000m above sea level, marks the boundary between the TAR and Qinghai. The route then descends, more steeply than the ascent, to Amdo (Ch: Anduo) county town (4,600m) and the rich pasturelands of Nagchu (4,300m) and Damshung (Ch: Dangxiong), passing through Lhasa municipality to terminate at Lhasa city (3,590m). According to the Tibet Daily article, 2.8 per cent of the route will consist of tunnels and bridges.

The Yunnan route, favoured by the Chengdu Railway Institute, is considerably more expensive, requiring total investment of over 63.59bn yuan (1997 figures; about 7.66bn US dollars) and has a length of 1594.4km. This route, which it is estimated would take ten years to build, starts at Dali, the western-most point of Yunnan's rail network, and would go north up through the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Dechen (Ch: Diqing), and then west to Lhasa via Kongpo (Ch: Gongbu) prefecture, TAR.

The other two routes proposed, one from Gansu province and one from Sichuan province, are even more expensive (63.84bn yuan and 76.79bn yuan respectively) and even longer (2,126km and 1,927km). The Gansu line would join up with the Golmud line at Nagchu, having passed through Kanlho (Ch: Gannan) TAP in Gansu, Golog (Ch: Guoluo) TAP in Qinghai, the northern edge of Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) TAP in Sichuan and Kyegudo TAP in Qinghai; the Sichuan line would join up with the Yunnan route after Zhongshaba near Nyingtri (Ch: Linzhi) town in Kongpo, having passed through Ngaba (Ch: Aba) and Kardze TAPs in Sichuan and Chamdo prefecture in the TAR.

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