Nov 30, 2005
By Rui Xia
With much publicity and drum-beating in local media, China announced last month the completion of one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in its history: the Qinghai-Tibet (or Qingzang) Railway (see map below), which connects enclosed, remote Tibet with the rest of China via the city of Golmud, in Qinghai province.
The actual tracks have all been laid, officials said, although there will be another 15 months of experiments and checks before the line opens to commercial traffic in 2007.
A rail line linking Tibet with lowland China has long been an ambition of the Chinese Communist Party, but the project faced many hurdles, including technical, financial and political obstacles, and has been delayed again and again over the past 30 years. Railway engineers from Switzerland checked the terrain during the 1990s and declared the line “mission impossible”, but in 2001, Beijing embarked on the project again, with the assistance of Russian scientists, and began laying the tracks, which are expected to dramatically change the face of Tibet.
A few statistics show the staggering scale of the project: The new line runs 1,142 kilometers, mostly through almost uninhabitable wilderness at more than 4,000 meters above sea level, with 30 kilometers of tunnels and 286 bridges. The highest mountain pass en-route is over 5,000 meters above sea level. Over 70,000 workers, mainly Han Chinese from inland areas, were recruited for the project, laying rail through some of the world’s highest, most difficult terrain – encompassing mountain ranges afflicted by dust and thunderstorms, heavy snowfalls, earthquakes and landslides, and covered in a thick layer of permafrost. It’s little wonder, then, that Beijing depicts the US$3.1 billion railway as one of the country’s greatest-ever engineering achievements.
The thick ice
But all is not quiet on the western front. This jaw-dropping accomplishment raises many questions about the economic, political and environmental future of Tibet, as well as doubts about the long-term feasibility of operating a railway on such inhospitable terrain. The main technical challenge for China’s railway engineers was permafrost (earth which remains frozen year round). About half the length of the railway was built over permafrost zones, in which the uppermost layer (called seasonal frost) thaws in summer. The many bridges with foundations sunk deep into the ice are meant to overcome this problem by keeping the rail line stable throughout the seasons and changes in ground level.
Another technique, invented specifically for the Qingzang project, is the “slab-stone ventilation system” developed by Chinese scientist Zhang Luxin, in which parts of the line are built on large slabs intended to allow cool air to circulate and thus prevent the upper layer of permafrost from thawing. “The technique sounds like a logical way to deal with permafrost,” says Norwegian Railway museum researcher Hans Schaefer, who’s been taking repeated trips to China to research the Chinese rail system, “but it [has] never [been] done before and we’ll just have to wait and see whether it works”.
Other railways were built on ice in Siberia and Scandinavia, Schaefer explains, but due to the southern location and high altitude of Tibet, the scorching summer sun causes a much greater amount of the seasonal frost to thaw than is the case in these northern areas, which can bring changes of up to 2 meters in ground level. Even with all the technological efforts, it has been reported that the railway is already unstable, and will require a continuous and enormously costly maintenance effort to remain open.
Environmentalists have expressed unease with the railway and its manner of dealing with permafrost. Tibet is one of the regions most affected by global warming. With or without a railway, the plateau is melting away, as a recent Greenpeace report put it, which will make the railway even harder to maintain by exacerbating the seasonal melting problem.
Admittedly, the Chinese government has been paying much attention to the environmental issues, for example, by planting vegetation on the barren land to cool the ground and prevent the permafrost receding, and also taking care to build underpasses under the railroad to allow animals to migrate across the track. The main fear of environmentalists, however, is the influx of people and goods the railway is expecting to bring into Tibet, a tide that may place heavy socioeconomic pressure on the roof of the world.
Taming the wild
The rail link between China and Tibet will bring with it many economic and cultural changes: welcomed by some, and feared by others. Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet and once the sacred seat of the Dalai Lamas, now contains more shops, high-rises, roads, and Han people – the ethnic Chinese who, despite Beijing’s denials, are now estimated to constitute an absolute majority in the city. There is no denying that Lhasa’s economic situation has improved greatly during the past few years: more businesses are being opened, greater numbers of tourists pass through and more money is flowing in, especially in government subsidies.
The question is, to whom is all the money going? Government statistics from 2003 show Tibet to be the second-ranking province in China when it comes to wages of state workers. This includes cadres in the local government, and also the railway workers, both skilled and unskilled.
These workers are mainly Han Chinese. Despite government efforts to qualify more Tibetans, about 80% of ethnic Tibetans still live in the countryside, and an additional quarter are still nomads. For these people, argue Tibetan human rights activists, the rail link simply means further marginalization, and less job opportunities.
“On the surface, it looks like Tibet is going to benefit from the railway,” said one Tibetan intellectual who asked to remain anonymous, “but in fact, I believe it’ll hurt the Tibetan people. Already, fluency in Chinese is almost essential for getting a job in Lhasa and other towns in Tibet. Chinese immigrants are taking over jobs traditionally done by Tibetans, so the economic situation for many Tibetans not only hasn’t improved, it has worsened, and is expected to worsen further with the great wave of Han immigration that will start with the completion of the railway.”
She is a frail, soft-spoken woman, a graduate from one of China’s finest universities who speaks passionately for the Tibetan people. “The few cities in Tibet appear to be prosperous, but go only fifty kilometers out of Lhasa, and living conditions are appalling by any standard. Not enough money is allocated for education; Tibetan youths are being marginalized and discriminated against in their own country. They face a grimmer future than ever.”
The key problem, she says, is that of participation. “Just as they’re building underpasses for animal migration under the railway, the government is trying to make us Tibetans walk down a certain, narrow path. Ever since the Chinese occupation [began] in 1950, Tibetans were never asked whether, or in what way, they want to see their country developing. Even now, with more economic freedom and more money coming in, the human rights situation in Tibet is still very bad. This year, some people in Lhasa were detained for the sole ‘crime’ of watching a Dalai Lama lecture on DVD. Tibet needs real autonomy, not just economic benefits,” she concludes.
This view, however, is hardly shared by all in Lhasa. Small business owners, Han and Tibetans alike, are looking at the railway with mixed feelings of anticipation and suspicion. The railway is expected to bring many tourists and business people to Lhasa, helping local small enterprises and providing more job opportunities. Prices of goods will probably go down with easier, cheaper shipment.
“Many people believe the railway will accelerate the current opening-up and globalization trends in Tibet,” said Arthur Holcombe, president of the US-based Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund. “This will mean an increasing flow of lower cost consumer and durable goods to Tibet, making them available to broader segments of the Tibetan population living in urban and rural areas. The railway is also likely to stimulate increased growth and job opportunities along its route in such places as Amdo, Nakchu and Damshung Township areas, as well as in Lhasa,” Holcombe added.
The big winner, it seems, will be the growing middle class in Lhasa, although many Lhasa residents worry about the modern ailments the rail link may bring in along with its benefits. Crime and prostitution, already mushrooming at the other end of the rail track, in Qinghai province, are winding their way into the once pristine plateau. Air pollution, so far unheard of, is expected to rise with the coming of more factories and cars. Whilst even the Dalai Lama’s administration in India acknowledges the need for infrastructure development in Tibet, many feel the rights and wishes of common people are not being fully addressed.
Is the economic miracle going west?
In spite of all the efforts, it is debatable whether truly large-scale investments will ever reach Tibet. Many analysts argue the area is simply too remote, too backward and distant from major industrial centers to attract investors. The only industry universally expected to leap forward is tourism. The “roof of the world”, with its stunningly beautiful landscape and unique Buddhist culture, has certainly got a lot to offer to both foreign and Chinese sightseers, and the railway, once operational, will definitely make the trip much easier.
The ride, China railway’s brochures promise, will be a luxurious one with private toilets and showers in each car, and windows offering panoramic views of the Kunlun mountain range. The cars, to be built by Bombardier Transportation of Canada (which has attracted criticism for its participation in the project), will even be pressurized to protect lowland passengers from altitude sickness, and outfitted with UV-protection systems to prevent sunburn. No doubt, many middle-class Chinese, who are enthusiastic travelers inside their own country, and have more money than ever to spend on vacations, are looking forward to the trip.
Another benefit, almost certainly more important from the government’s point of view, is easier access for military troops to secure both Tibet itself and the borders with India and Nepal. Tighter military control, alongside Chinese immigration prompted as the Chinese version of “go west, young man”, might finally integrate Tibet, for decades a thorn in China’s side, into the fast modernizing mainland.
Of course, many foreign journalists, as well as “free Tibet” activists, see this, rather than economic development, to be the main objective behind the mammoth rail project. Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya, author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows, said in a 2002 interview: “Tibet’s natural economy faces westwards towards south Asia; Beijing wants to tie it firmly eastwards with China and to encourage more migration from the interior”.
But this is not the whole story, either. As in other areas of western China, one of the main objectives of the Qingzang rail link is improving access to some of the natural resources buried under the frozen land. Tibetan uranium, especially, is important for China’s future nuclear programs. Oil, gold, and other minerals will be loaded on the rail cars to be shipped east to the booming coastal economy. It seems that, yet again, investments in the west mainly contribute to the already flourishing east, leaving millions of local residents in wretched poverty with an ever-slimmer chance of improvement.
The Chinese-educated Tibetan woman feels the pain of her people, but sees little chance for any change. “The Tibetans have been weakening ever since the Fifties. They’re losing their culture and traditional way of life, and are offered little in return. I’d like to see China adopting the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Path’ philosophy, and moving towards real dialogue and real autonomy for Tibet, but I don’t see this happening under the current regime.”
To judge by her words – and the sad look in her eyes – it seems like the thud of the coming trains is also an announcement of a new era for the Himalayan region, and possibly the beating of funeral drums for traditional Tibet.
Rui Xia is a Western teacher and freelance writer living in China. Rui Xia is her unofficial Chinese name.
(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.
Rui Xia – Asia Times
Nov 30, 2005