Wednesday July 12 2006
Train to Tibet
By Kate Saunders
Read also: Tibet's Railroad to Perdition
The world’s highest railway to Tibet, opened by China’s President Hu Jintao on July 1, has been built through 16,000 feet high passes and on hundreds of miles of shifting permafrost, by tunnelling through rock at -300C in places where the least exertion can leave workers gasping for oxygen. China has pioneered new methods in order to build a fixed track on the unstable, moving ground of the high plateau, and thus to consolidate their control over the land they invaded in 1949-1950.
China is on equally unstable ground politically. While the railroad was launched with great pomp and ceremony by Beijing, the Chinese government signalled its concern about possible dissent by stepping up security in Tibet and announcing an intensification of the political campaign of “patriotic education” in order to undermine Tibetans’ continued loyalty to their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who escaped into exile in India in 1959. The new Communist Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Zhang Qingli, even called for a “fight to the death struggle” against the Dalai Lama and his supporters.
In a week when China sought to draw attention to its 21st century technological and engineering achievements, its language on Tibet appeared to be stuck in the hostility and paranoia of the Cultural Revolution. The new 1,142-kilometre rail link connects Lhasa with Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou via Xining and Golmud in Qinghai. It brings Beijing much closer to achieving the goal set by Mao Zedong over 40 years ago to integrate the Tibetan plateau with China.
The Golmud-Lhasa railway is the centrepiece of China’s high-profile campaign to develop its western regions, including Tibet, which reflects the Beijing leadership’s political and strategic objectives in the region. China’s “great leap west” affects 56% of its land area and almost a quarter of China’s vast population, including Tibetans, Uighur Muslims and other “national minorities.” China has described the railway as the “political front-line in consolidating the south-western border of the motherland” India’s border and it will certainly facilitate greater militarisation of the Tibetan plateau.
This strategic purpose was announced prior to the construction of the railroad; the official newspaper Tibet Daily stated on December 12, 2000 that: “The unity of the nationalities and consolidation of national defence necessitate the urgent construction of a railway linking Tibet with the hinterland.”
Creation of supply lines to China and branch lines off the main trunk will enable an expansion of military bases throughout the region and quicker mobilisation of personnel. Feeder lines or access roads could be used to service army bases and airfields hundreds of kilometres from the main route. The railway could also enable the deployment of rail-car missile launchers.
According to recent reports, the Second Artillery of the People’s Liberation Army is developing the DF31, an improved version of intercontinental ballistic missile for mobile deployment which can be carried on rail. After all, the $4.1 billion railway cannot be justified on purely economic grounds. Canny young technocrats within the ministry of railways apparently pointed this out years ago, but were over-ruled. While there may be an increase in tourism, that won’t be enough to pay for this ambitious project.
Freight capacity for the line is estimated to be around two million tonnes a year meaning that it will take 300 years at best to pay off the invested capital. And the railroad probably won’t exist for anywhere near that long according to reports from Chinese scientists, published in the official press, permafrost and global warming may endanger the safety of the railway within as little as a decade.
Chinese President Hu’s agenda on Tibet is focused on control and its integration into China, and not on genuine development that could be of benefit to its people. The western development campaign prioritises the development of the administrative and military apparatus of the state, and neglects health and education provision. Tibetans are suffering from increasing poverty, high levels of rural-urban inequality, the worst education indicators in the People’s Republic of China, and they are dying of conditions such as dysentery or pneumonia that could be easily treated if medical care were available.
The main beneficiaries of the railway across the roof of the world are likely to be the military, Chinese settlers, who rely on imported wheat and rice as staples of their diet, Chinese companies and Chinese migrants seeking work. But not the Tibetan people. Chinese government statistics show that Tibetans are not yet prepared to compete in the economic environment created by Central government policies.
The Tibetan rate of illiteracy is five times higher than China’s national average, and most Tibetans do not have access to a bilingual education system that can impart skills to help them compete for employment and other economic benefits. The increasing numbers of Chinese migrants in Tibet as a result of the government’s economic policies are the most serious threat so far to the survival of Tibet’s unique and precious cultural and religious identity.
In the past few weeks, security has been stepped up along the new rail route from Golmud to Lhasa, with large military convoys seen rumbling towards Tibet’s capital. Residents in villages along the rail route are required to display the Chinese national flag on the roofs of their houses, and slogans honouring the railway placed along the route. The inaugural train from Beijing, Train 27 Special Express, ascended snow-covered peaks at 16,000 feet, where laptop computers failed and passengers gasped for oxygen, and through boundless grasslands populated by shaggy yaks and rare antelope, before pulling into Lhasa’s new train station on July 3.
The opening of the new railway could not have a greater symbolic importance to the Chinese Communist elite. The Party’s very legitimacy has been linked to the success of its drive to develop China’s western regions, with the railway as its most visible and impressive symbol. But Beijing would gain a far more meaningful legitimacy in the eyes of the world if it sought to involve Tibetans in decision-making on the economic development of their own land, and to engage the Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama in talks about Tibet’s future.
Kate Saunders is a writer who works for the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT)