A Railroad To Progress Or Just Another Chain To China?
[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/02/09; February 9, 2002.]
After 50 Years of Chinese Rule, Tibetans Remain Sceptical of Plans to End Their Poverty and Isolation
John Gittings in Lhasa
A dust storm swirls around the squat village in the Lhasa valley, blotting out its view of the bare, high mountains. Yaks and donkeys huddle against low, whitewashed walls; prayer flags flutter from turrets above. An overloaded mini-tractor brings farmers home from the fields, muffled and masked against wind and sand. They are at least better off than a nomad family, wrapped in tattered cloaks and marching into the distance.
The village, off a road not far from Lhasa, has electricity but life is still very basic. Their fuel is yak dung, plastered in large pats on the house walls while it dries. A row of plastic jerry cans is lined up against the village's single stand-pipe. The village has a primary school but most teachers are unqualified: less than four out of 10 Tibetan children reach secondary school.
"It's true that average incomes are only half of those in the 'interior'," says Wang Dianyuan, head of Tibet's planning development committee. "Our most important goal now is to raise the standard of living."
Mr Wang describes an "exciting scheme" to transform the region. Like many official plans it goes by numbers, from one to four: "One is for the new railway now being built from the 'interior' up to Lhasa; two is for two new airfields; three is for improving three main roads; four is for building four new power stations."
This modernisation plan has been given fresh impetus by Beijing's overall scheme to "develop the west" (including Tibet) in an effort to narrow the gap between China's rich and poor, and it is being billed as Tibet's salvation. But Tibetan critics abroad argue that it serves other aims.
"Essentially it is to do with political and strategic integration," says the independent Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya, author of Dragon in the Land of Snows. "Tibet's natural economy faces westwards towards south Asia; Beijing wants to tie it in firmly eastwards with China and to encourage more migration from the [Chinese] interior."
It is no accident that the new railway comes top in Mr Wang's litany. When the Chinese are asked what they have done for Tibet, they always cite the benefits allegedly brought to the region through opening it up by road and air.
The theme is stressed in the construction now under way of a massive monument in Lhasa to celebrate the 50 years of Chinese rule. Shaped like an abstract Mount Everest, it will dominate the view from the holy Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader. Officials say it will also commemorate the "heroism" of the Chinese soldiers and labourers who died in the 1950s and 1960s building the roads to neighbouring Sichuan and Qinghai provinces.
Beijing does not hide its hope that better communications will link Tibet closer to inland China and thus reduce the appeal of the "Dalai Lama clique". Mr Wang talks of its importance in "bringing Tibet closer to the 'interior' and promoting cultural exchange", adding that "we have been looking forward to it [the railway] for years".
In Lhasa's central post office, a glossy souvenir volume to mark the start of work last year shows a double-decker train speeding through pastures where yaks browse against a backdrop of snowy peaks. The reality may not be so idyllic. The new line, starting from Golmud in the neighbouring Qinghai province, traverses a bleak terrain with few signs of life.
From the air, the 5,000 metre-high Tanggula pass which it must scale is a deeply rutted escarpment of snow-covered rock. Badly eroded slopes threaten the route on to Lhasa with landslides. Four-fifths of the railway will be built above 4,000 metres and half its track will be laid on permafrost, posing technical problems that Chinese engineers insist they can solve. Even without any hitches, the 700-mile route will take six years to complete.
Last week the central post office was crowded with Chinese migrant workers sending remittances back home to their families in the "interior" before the Chinese New Year. The railway has already brought 10,000 more migrants to work on the track, leaving little employment for local Tibetans. "Most of the work units on the railway come from inland," says Mr Wang casually, "but we do employ some local people to do manual work, like digging".
The thousands of migrants already in Lhasa who mostly run small shops and restaurants or drive taxis welcome the prospect of easier access to the interior.
"Tibet is a good place to come to," says a taxi driver from Sichuan province. "There are fewer regulations, and we don't need a residence permit to live here. But the roads are often blocked in winter and planes are too expensive."
A chance meeting on the roof of the Jokhang temple with five young Tibetans gives a different perspective on the job situation. Only one is semi-employed - as a truck driver during the summer. Though their English is limited they all know the word "jobless".
"We are all learning English in a private school; there are 56 in our class," said a young man from Shigatze. "I hope it will help me get a job as a tourist guide."
It is not clear how far Beijing's development programme will help these young urban Tibetans, let alone the much greater number of rural Tibetans with virtually no education. Tibet certainly needs the kind of investment in infrastructure on which the plan focuses. Compared with the rest of China, the region is as isolated as it was 50 years ago.
The trunk roads to China and the "friendship highway" to Nepal are unpaved for most of their length. Last week Lhasa's airport - a 60-mile drive from the city - was closed for three days because of a dust storm that blotted out the runway.
Even Chinese sources acknowledge that Tibetan development has been unbalanced. "Over the past 40 years we have failed to build a diversified economy [in Tibet]," wrote the economist Shen Kaiyun. "Other Chinese minorities also depend in varying degrees on the central government, but Tibet can be said to be a model dependent economy." Mr Shen urges that future economic planning should be less "influenced by politics" than in the past.
Tourism has become Tibet's major industry but tight controls on entry requirements for foreign visitors as well as the altitude and climate limit its growth. The largest increase comes from the Chinese tourists who make the Potala Palace echo with the sound of mobile phones. In the square outside, they can sing along in a karaoke bar or shop in a new department store and ride on Lhasa's first escalators. A small, emerging Tibetan middle class may enjoy these new fruits of modernisation. Some will live in the new, semi-private housing estates on the edge of town and send their children to college in inland China. But for most of Tibet's 2.6m residents life is still largely set in an earlier age.
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)