Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Uneasy Wait for the First Railway in Tibet

Published in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, June 28, 2006
By Torbjörn Petersson (Translated from Swedish into English by Monica Masuda)

LHASA, June 26, 2006 -- A Tibetan villager, hardly above school age, is putting down the last stones in order on the embankment a few dozen of kilometres away from Lhasa waiting for the train.

He turns around, laughing at the camera. Maybe he is satisfied with his daily wage of 30 SEK (Swedish Kroner, 30 = $4.00 USD) as a temporary railroad worker. He should have been going to school instead.

Soon the train will come to Lhasa, and this part of the world will be changed forever.

Young Tibetans risk becoming second-class citizens since they lack education. Most of the higher education is done in Chinese.

From July 1st, the highest situated railroad will open. From Peking in the east, trains will roll over the high plateau in Qinghai to the roof of the world and mountain passes at an altitude of 5000 m into Tibet, leading to a transformation which, according to the Communist Party in Peking, will give Tibet better communications, protect the environment, lower the prices on goods, and make Tibet richer.

Critics abroad argue that the railway is just one more means for China to strengthen her control over Tibet, increase the Han Chinese population (the majority people in China), and strangle the Tibetan identity.

They say that the trains are the greatest threat against Tibetan culture and religion so far.

The Tibetans themselves prefer to keep silent when the railway crops up. Criticism against the railway is a delicate matter since this is a high-priority project from above.

The issue of the railway to Tibet is so delicate that the Chinese authorities, in spite of several inquiries during half a year in connection with this article, refused to give interviews.

I was also forbidden to stay in the area near the new railway station in Lhasa, but soon delegations of journalists will be led in groups to Tibet, and then they will see that the station is a large red building with white wings, its architecture inspired by the Potala palace, the wonder of Lhasa high up on a cliff which was the Dalai Lama's home in the past.

The design has annoyed some Tibetans. They feel deprived of their most famous symbol which has now become a sign of the union between China and Tibet.

The new station at the village of Moga fifty kilometres north from Lhasa, has also been drawn with the palace of Tibet's spiritual leader as a model.

Over a cup of yak butter tea, 57-year-old farmer Lobsang Tsewang tells how the adult male population in the village became navvies: "They needed people who could help with the railway construction. We were quarrying stone and transported stone with tractors and built up the embankment during four years. This raised the income in the village."

Recently when a test train came roaring on the rail, he went out to watch it pass by, and says that it felt very special. He had only seen trains on TV before. "I'm glad that the railway comes. It attracts people, and then we can open restaurants and make business," he says, while three persons from the nearest party committee are listening and a pleasant woman from the authority in Lhasa interprets into English. (One more official from the large municipality is present, monitoring the interview.)

Through the window behind Lobsang Tsewang's back, you can see majestic mountain peaks and wilderness. Tibet is magical.

Maybe he really believes in the train and the future. Maybe Lobsang Tsewang is hoping for possibilities, though the entire village had to be torn down and rebuilt higher up on the mountain slope since it would otherwise had been squeezed between the highway and the railroad.

With all the people from the authorities in the same room, it would be impossible for him to say anything critical. Every family received 20 000 SEK ($2,750 USD) as a compensation from the authorities, and his neighbour, Tashi Lundrup, took his savings, borrowed the rest, and built a new house for 60 000 SEK. "I'm not worried about the loans. With the railway, new possibilities open up. We will sell Tibetan clothes and handicraft to the tourists. The entire village will collect money and buy a car so we can transport tourists," he says optimistically.

In the village of Moga, the scenery is fascinating, the air is clear, but who will get off the train so near Lhasa and buy Tibetan handicraft? Who will eat at Lobsang Tsewangs rented restaurant and go by car with Tashi Lundrup?

These men are hardworking Tibetan farmers, as is three quarters of Tibet's population. But they lack education and do not stand a chance in the competition when one more million of tourists, most of them Chinese, will come to Lhasa every year.

It's enough to look around in Lhasa to see who is making money, and who has the greatest chances in the future: the Han Chinese immigrants.

Peking pumps in large sums as grants and investments. The railroad cost in all 40 billion SEK ($5.4 billion USD).

New roads, houses, and factories are built. According to Chinese statistics, the BNP per capita in Tibet has increased to 8000 SEK ($1,090 USD). T

The Communist Party is often emphasizing the economical development and can not understand why the Tibetans are so ungrateful, when the Party is proved to have lifted Tibet out of deepest poverty.

"Only under the leadership of the Communist Party in Tibet able to enjoy the prosperity and development of today", it was written in the People's Daily last year on the occasion of the 40 year anniversary of Tibet becoming an autonomous region.

Chinese troops entered Tibet in 1950. Nine years later, the Dalai Lama fled to India. In 1965, the partial self-government was introduced, a self-government of which no trace can be seen by International Campaign for Tibet and other organisations.

Last year, tea houses and vegetable stands on the other side of the street from the Potala Palace were torn down and replaced by a vast square.

A Chinese monument is towering just opposite to the palace. The text on it reads, "the liberation of Tibet was done in a peaceful way" as if to deny that 1.2 million Tibetans died at the hands of the Chinese conquerors.

If you disregard the magnificent position, the clean air and the monasteries, large parts of Lhasa today look like any other Chinese town.

In the city center there are the same type of buildings, Sichuan restaurants, karaoke bars and brothels. In the fine shops along the main street you see Chinese faces. They come from east and central China and moved to Lhasa since they saw the chances to do business. They have education, and money for investments.

The Tibetans are more often sitting in the tea houses and move around in the poorer parts of Lhasa. They are pilgrims in the temples and, following the tradition, they walk around holy places clockwise in ritual rounds.

Very few of them have any knowledge of trade and industry. Only 15 percent have finished high school or more, as compared to half of the Han Chinese. Forty percent can not read.

Critics are concerned that the railroad will now increase the share of Han Chinese in Tibet. They point out what happened when the railroad to Inner Mongolia was ready in the 1920's: the Han Chinese population increased fivefold in 20 years.

A similar development occurred when the railroad to Manchuria in north China was ready. Also in Xinjiang in Western China, the share of Han Chinese grew rapidly since a railroad was constructed.

With the train, also copper, gold, cobalt and other minerals can be quarried in Tibet and transported to the expansive east coast of China.

Moreover, the railroad is of strategic importance. With the train, China can quickly send troops and material to Tibet if necessary. The Indian border will be reinforced.

Deng Xiaoping said that China would open to the world in 1978. Now, Tibet must become a part of the world. The railroad can develop the economy in Tibet, but it brings both good things and bad things, says Pingsto Tashi, at the Dunlong local authority west of Lhasa.

"It all depends on how we in the local authorities are able to balance the development in the interest of Tibet. Laws must be made for people from other places who want to come here and stay for a long time," he says.

It is not sure that the local authorities will have the influence he believes.

In Lhasa, officials go on saying that 90 percent of the population is Tibetan. "Impossible. It feels more as if it already is 60 percent Han Chinese and 40 percent Tibetans", says a man from the town of Nagqu, who is visiting Lhasa to purchase Tibetan herbs to be used for the fabrication of traditional medications.

The same answer is given by some other Lhasa inhabitants at other occasions.The man from Nagqu I met one afternoon at a table at a tea house. He is cautious when commenting on the railway, but gradually it shows what he really thinks.

"They say that the train will make everything better, but I don't know," he begins. "Even if we didn't get a railway, we would be satisfied," he says ten minutes later. At last he says, "We Tibetans are worried that more thieves will come here by the railway. We ourselves always go by bus. This turns out to be a common answer in Lhasa. Many people are afraid that the train will bring too many new people to Tibet."

But all Tibetans are not against the railway. At a roof terrace in Lhasa, one evening, sits a man in monk robes, a living Buddha - a title he was given at the age of three. He belongs to one of approximately 2,700 temples, and his high position makes him unexpectedly outspoken. But in the beginning, he sounds like a Peking official.

"The train is good. It gives Tibet cheaper goods. If Tibet would become an independent country, how would it be able to support itself? In the past there was only bread made from barley and yak butter tea. Now there are lots of other foods, but it all comes from India, China, and Nepal," he says.

At 16, he went by foot for 35 days to get out of China and enter India. He wanted to study Buddhism with the Dalai Lama - banished by the Chinese - as a model. After five years, he returned.

"I hope, I do really hope that the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet and conduct ceremonies here before he passes away. The Dalai Lama has said that he will live for 120 years, so I have good hope. But everything depends on China's attitude," he says.

When he is talking about his belief, it becomes clear what is going on in Tibet. The railway has its advantages and disadvantages, but it is not the Tibetans who were given the choice.

"The situation of the Tibetans is above all about the lack of possibilities to choose one's own future," says Kate Saunders, International Campaign for Tibet, on the phone from London.

Typically, the only one who dares to criticize the railroad openly during one week in Lhasa, is a newly settled man from central China. Mr Wang, who is a manager leasing rooms at a small shabby hotel in central Lhasa, is not impressed.

He says, "the train is not good. With the train, Lhasa will be more like any other place, and Lhasa ceases to be Lhasa."

Enormous construction 5072 m above sea level.

The railroad from Golmud to Lhasa spans over 1142 km and runs through frozen tundra and ice on the high plateau of Qinghai and Tibet, and has been a technological challenge for China to build.

This is the highest railroad in the world -- at its highest, 5072 m above sea level -- and the first railroad to connect Tibet with the east and central parts of China. The travel from Peking to Lhasa is done in wagons with regulated air pressure as in aircrafts, takes 48 hours, and costs less than 400 crowns for the cheapest seat.

Soon before the opening, Wu Zhiwang, an expert on frozen soil at the Academy of Social Studies, warns that the global heating will become a threat to the railroad within ten years.

After 30 years of research in Qinghai and Tibet, the expert claims that he can see indications that large areas in Tibet and Qinghai will sink since the soil is not as frozen as before.

When frozen soil rapidly thaws, instability increases and geological problems arise, which in turn will affect the new railroad, Wu said to the New China news agency earlier this year.

Earlier, experts have estimated that the railroad would remain unaffected by the global heating for 50 years.