New Internationalist

Railway to the top of the world

Issue 381

Erling Hoh sees more than steel rails beneath Beijing’s push into Tibet.

Erling Hoh<
Erling Hoh<

As the railroad to Tibet that is now under construction reached the northern bank of the Tuotuohe River, the headstream of the Yangtze River, a reporter from Tibet TV recorded the historic event. Framed by the snow-capped Tanggula Mountains, an engineer on the project told him: ‘We lack oxygen, but we don’t lack the right stuff.’

In the village of Tuotuohe, not much more than a muddy truckstop along the Qinghai-Tibet highway, Mr Zhao, proprietor of the Lanzhou Handmade Noodle Tavern, was chatting with the owner of another restaurant in the village. It had snowed in the Kunlun and Tanggula Mountains during the night, and traffic on the highway had ground to a standstill. Sitting by the iron stove in the middle of the room, Zhao sucked his cigarette, surveyed his empty establishment, and reminisced about the golden year of 2002. ‘If you would have been here then at this time of the day, every table would have been taken,’ he said.

Come 2007, when the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is scheduled for completion, Zhao’s business may dry up even further, as the transportation of people and goods to Tibet shifts from the road to the rails. The realization of the 1,118-kilometre line from the garrison town Golmud in Qinghai Province to Lhasa will reduce Tibet’s geographical isolation and allow Beijing to tighten its annexation of the territory. With an official price tag of $3.2 billion, the project is one of the most complex and daring railways ever undertaken. Some 780 kilometres of the line runs more than 4,500 metres above sea-level, and 550 kilometres of it traverses permanently frozen earth, presenting the project’s engineers with a formidable challenge. The journey from Beijing to Lhasa, in train wagons pressurized like airplanes due to the high altitude, will take 48 hours.

All along the highway from Golmud to Lhasa, work on the railroad is forging ahead, as billboards, with slogans such as ‘build the Qinghai-Tibet railway, create prosperity for people of all nationalities’, proclaim the importance of the project. The railroad tracks are now some 200 kilometres from Lhasa, and will reach the Tibetan capital this year. Work on the one-kilometre railroad bridge that will span the Lhasa River, one of 286 bridges being built along the route, is well under way, as is the Lhasa railway station.

In Amdo, the first town on the Tibetan side of the Tanggula Mountain pass, situated at an altitude of 4,800 metres, a group of Muslim Hui migrant workers from Qinghai Province were squatting outside the national railroad company’s medical clinic. They were whiling away their day as they waited for news from their boss regarding the railroad work he had assured them. Having been in Amdo for over a week, they were still suffering from symptoms of altitude sickness: a throbbing head and loss of appetite. Officially all workers are required to present a clean bill of health but one of the migrant labourers explained: ‘Eighty per cent of the doctors’ certificates are fake.’

According to a Xinhua report from December 2003, not a single death due to high-altitude sickness has occurred among the 100,000 workers labouring on the project. While that claim is impossible to confirm, the extremely harsh conditions under which the railroad is being constructed make it seem more like traditional propaganda-speak.

‘Every construction worker has health clearance before stepping on the plateau,’ maintains Lu Chunfang, general director of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Construction headquarters. ‘Everyone passes a strict physical examination before being enrolled into the construction team.’

According to the migrant labourers from Qinghai, the railway construction company will pay their boss $241 per month per worker. The boss, himself a Hui Muslim from Qinghai, then takes about half of this as his cut per worker, leaving a monthly salary of $120 for long days of backbreaking work. With some 30 workers in the group, and the work season lasting five months, the boss stands to make a neat $18,123 while the workers will return home with just $600 in their pockets. Asked about the absence of Tibetan railroad workers in Amdo, the boss replied: ‘The railway company does not like to employ Tibetan workers. The Tibetans think that the land belongs to them, and that they should decide how fast to work.’

Upon completion, the railway will carry 16 trains a day between Golmud and Lhasa, bringing 5.0 million tons of goods into Tibet and 2.8 million tons out annually. The Beijing Government says that the railroad will reduce the cost of transportation to Tibet by more than 50 per cent, help speed up Tibet’s economic development, generate some $500 million in direct and indirect income, induce businesses to set up shop, and also bring some 900,000 tourists to Tibet by train every year. In addition to the railway, other key infrastructure projects are under way. Altogether, investments in fixed assets in Tibet, mainly by the central government, totalled about $1.75 billion last year. ‘It is a Keynesian policy to sustain economic growth without really stimulating productivity and output that works really well with international economists,’ says Robert Barnett, lecturer in modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

‘Migration is the primary concern among educated Tibetans. In public, they will not voice any criticism. In private, some will tell you that this is the end of Tibet’

In the past three years, the GDP of the Tibet Autonomous Region has grown by 12 per cent annually and since 1992 the annual income per capita among the urban population has risen by close to 75 per cent. The same statistics, however, reveal a glaring gap between Tibet’s urban and rural populations, with an annual average income per capita among the latter less than 20 per cent of the urban income in 2002. The small town of Amdo, for one, is in dire need of some modernization. After more than 50 years of Chinese rule, it still lacks paved roads, tap water and proper sanitation. According to a report on the railroad by the International Campaign for Tibet, a non-profit international organization that monitors and promotes human rights in Tibet, the budgeted cost for the railroad represents more than three times the amount the Chinese Government has invested in healthcare and education in Tibet during the past 50 years. This neglect has had severe consequences for the social development of the region. In 1999, Tibet recorded an illiteracy rate of 67 per cent, compared with a national average of 11 percent.

Critics also argue that the railroad will accelerate the migration of Han Chinese from the overpopulated central regions to Tibet. In urban Lhasa, with a population of some 230,000 people, Han Chinese are already on the verge of becoming the majority group. According to information circulated in Lhasa, there is a plan to expand the city’s population to 2.5 million people. ‘Migration is the primary concern among educated Tibetans,’ says Dr Barnett. ‘In public, they will not voice any criticism. In private, some will tell you that this is the end of Tibet.’

This migration process follows a pattern seen elsewhere in China during the previous century. Between 1912 and 1949, the Han Chinese population in Inner Mongolia increased five times. Millions arrived after the railroad from Zhangjiakou to Hohhot was completed in the 1920s and by 1949 the Han Chinese outnumbered the Mongolians 11 to 1. The same migration process took place in Manchuria with the help of railroads built by the Japanese. Urumuqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is already a predominantly Han Chinese city, and in Kashgar, the Han Chinese population increased by 30 per cent in 2001, the year after the railroad there was completed.

Analysts point to the military implications of the railroad, saying it could be used to beef up China’s already heavy military presence in Tibet, including the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. In 2001, Jane’s Intelligence Digest reported that ‘the PLA [the Chinese army] considers it necessary to build up a network of roads and mule tracks to bring military hardware and troops to the forward areas of the disputed border [with India].’ According to defence expert William Triplett: ‘With even a single line, the PLA could move about 12 infantry divisions to central Tibet in 30 days to meet up with their pre-positioned equipment.’ The railroad will also be used to accelerate mining activities in Tibet. In the past few years, 13 copper belts, with an estimated reserve of over a million tons, and two cobalt deposits, with a combined reserve of 20,000 tons, have been discovered in the vicinity of the railway line.

Under all circumstances, the railroad to the ‘top of the world’ looks set for completion on or ahead of schedule in 2007. In Zaziqu Village in the Qugaxiong Valley around 100 kilometres north of Lhasa, 18 families make their livelihood by herding some 1,000 yaks and 1,500 sheep. The new railroad will run straight through their valley, and force the herders to bring the animals to their summer pastures in the mountains through a small tunnel under the railroad.

‘We don’t know whether or not the animals will refuse to pass through the tunnel,’ said the village head. ‘We are not opposed to this project, but it is creating big losses for us.’

Erling Hoh is a freelance writer based in Stockholm, Sweden, who specializes in Chinese culture, history and current affairs.

A villager added: ‘The radio said that we would be able to make 50 yuan per day working on the railroad. We were very happy and thought that we could make some money. But only five or six people got work, and they were only paid 15-20 yuan. It is unfair, but we don’t know where to complain.’

Erling Hoh is a freelance writer based in Stockholm, Sweden, who specializes in Chinese culture, history and current affairs.

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