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Railway to Roof of the World Threatens to Squeeze Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/08/04; August 4, 2005.]

LHASA, Tibet: Thursday, August 04, 2005 (AFP) - Under a blistering Himalayan sun, 500 workers are completing the Lhasa River Bridge, part of a 1,142-kilometer (708-mile) project that will link Tibet by rail to the outside world for the first time.

Remarkably for a project that will supposedly bring new hope and opportunity to the local economy once it becomes operational in 2007, only a tiny number of the 500 people toiling on the 929-meter (3,056 feet) bridge are Tibetan.

"Very few of the people employed here are ethnic Tibetans," said Wang Weidao, chief engineer on the bridge. "They don't have the technical training needed for the task."

While Wang was speaking, workers from as far away as central China's Hubei province were pushing wheelbarrows, sweeping dust and performing other non-specialized or technically undemanding tasks.

Foreign observers have long criticized the rail project, begun in 2001, for favoring members of China's Han majority over Tibetans.

But they also fear that once the railroad has connected Tibet with neighboring Qinghai province in two years' time, it will continue to benefit the Han Chinese first and local Tibetans last.

Officials in Lhasa, by contrast, emphasize the advantages they say the rail line will bring to the Tibetans, such as greatly reduced transportation costs for Tibetan products.

"Tibet is rich in water resources, but if we want to sell water to other provinces, now we have to use trucks or buses," said Xu Jianchang, deputy director general of the Tibetan Development and Reform Commission.

"After the rail is constructed, the local resources can be transported at much lower fees," he said.

But what worries pro-Tibet advocates overseas is that when the rail link is completed, a train ride from Beijing to Lhasa will take just 48 hours, and Tibet will suddenly be within much easier reach for millions of job hunters.

The Tibetans, who are already under pressure from massive Han immigration, could end up becoming even more marginalized, said Kate Saunders, the Washington-based spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet.

"Population movements will be encouraged by the shorter travel times, lower transportation costs, and enhanced connections to an increasingly Chinese cultural and economic network," she said.

"These movements represent a significant threat to the livelihoods and culture of the Tibetan people as well as to their prospects for achieving genuine political autonomy."

Local officials acknowledge that the rail will make it easier for Han Chinese to go to Tibet, but deny that Tibetans have so far lost jobs to migrant workers.

Currently, about 50,000 migrants arrive annually in Lhasa, a city of about 250,000, said Zhang Jianbo, a senior macroeconomist with the development and reform commission. Most of them leave after a few months of employment, he said.

But some do decide to stay on, and gradually they succeed in pushing Tibetans out of entire industries at a time, critics argue.

In one high-profile instance, taxi drivers were mostly Tibetan until a few years ago, but are now mainly Han Chinese.

"That's because the taxi business has become less lucrative and many Tibetans have decided to change jobs," said Zhang, the economist.

For those who worry that Tibet may disappear in a flood of Han migration, there may be hope after all.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are limits to how much labor the Tibetan economy can absorb.

"I've been here for six years, but I'm going home next year," said Li Wei, a worker at odd jobs who originally hails from northwest China's Gansu province.

"Work is getting too difficult to find. There are just too many people flooding the market. They come from all over the country."

But for every worker who returns home disenchanted, there may be many more who seek new lives on China's western frontier.

"It will be a long time before immigration reaches saturation point," said Saunders. "The Tibetan countryside is so huge, and economic problems in China force more Chinese to migrate."

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