Saturday, September 16, 2006


By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Sep. 15, 2006 (IPS/GIN) -- China has intensified its long-term quest to integrate the remote land and people of Tibet by building new infrastructure and drawing up plans to tap the Himalayan region's virgin water sources and its rich reserves of copper, gold and hydrocarbons.

Chinese communist leaders insist their intentions are to make Tibet part of the country's economic miracle by expanding trade and tourism, and creating wealth in the backward region that many Westerners see as the last refuge of spiritualism.

But detractors say Beijing sees Tibet as the new "El Dorado" for energy-starved and resources-limited China. Some 40 percent of China's natural resources are located in Tibet, whose Chinese name "Xizang" translates as "Western Depository."

International activists and Tibetans-in-exile have warned that the new wave of Chinese investment in the region would be detrimental to Tibetan culture and autonomy. They say the new infrastructure would lead to further militarization of the Tibetan plateau because China, which occupied the region in 1951, would be able to move troops and supplies more rapidly and maintain a more effective garrison there.

While they welcome breaking the physical isolation the region has lived in for centuries, many worry that non-Tibetans would be the biggest benefactors of China's latest assertion of control over this disputed land.

"It is wrong to say that Tibetans are opposed to development. The question that needs to be asked is development for whom?" Yudon Aukatsang, an elected deputy in the Tibetan government-in-exile located in India, told IPS correspondent Ranjit Devraj during an interview on Friday. "We also need to define development better," she added.

Economic migration of China's Han majority, which now controls most of the tourist industry as well as trade between Tibet and the rest of China, has markedly intensified after Beijing built the first highway linking the province of Qinghai with Tibet in the 1950s.

"The exploitation of natural resources and the influx of Han population into Tibet through the highway were bad enough, but these are certain to multiply with the new railway," Aukatsang said. This summer China opened the "world's highest railway," linking the garrison town of Golmud in Qinghai and Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

Built at a cost of around $4.2 billion, the railway is 1,140 kilometers long and runs over severe terrain with unstable permafrost at extreme altitude, which made its construction one of the most difficult railway projects ever built.

At the opening ceremony, Chinese President Hu Jintao hailed the project as a "miracle" that proves the Chinese are "among the advanced peoples of the world."

Apart from the symbolic importance of the new railway as a project of national prestige, the line provides faster, cheaper and more comfortable access to landlocked Tibet. The train ride from Beijing to Lhasa (via Golmud) now takes only 48 hours and is less expensive than a flight.

"Strategically important to Tibet's development, this railway is an infrastructure project for public welfare rather than for commercial purposes," Sun Yongfu, vice minister of railways, said before the inauguration of the line on July 1.

Although the Chinese government touts the railway as a successful development project, the new railway has clear economic goals -- to stimulate trade between Tibet and the rest of the country and allow for more tourists to visit this remote mountain-bound region.

The government expects Tibet's tourism revenue to exceed 5 billion yuan ($700 million) per year by 2010, with the number of annual visitors rising sharply from 1.8 million in 2005 to some 10 million by 2020.

Already, in anticipation of rising tourist numbers, the daily entry quota into the Potala, the winter palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, has been raised from 1,500 to 2,300.

"Our guidebook to Tibet is a best-seller," Yi Xiaoqiang, an official with the China Youth Press, says of the stylishly presented "Zangdi niupishu," or "Ox-hide Book of Tibetan Lands." "It has sold more than 100,000 copies since its release -- a real record for a guidebook."

Just a month after launching the new line this summer, the Chinese government announced it would extend its run from Lhasa to Xigaze, the region's second-largest city and the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, one of Tibetan Buddhism's venerated spiritual lineages. Work on the Xigaze line in southern Tibet will begin next year and take three years to complete, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

This year, Chinese leaders are also planning to start building 21 highway projects and nine other major roads in Tibet, while upgrading the highway to the neighboring Himalayan country of Nepal.

In July, an ancient trade route across the 14,200-foot-high Nathu La pass leading into the Indian state of Sikkim, that had lain closed since the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, was reopened for commercial activity.

The infrastructure-building forms the centerpiece of China's "western development plan," which Communist Party leaders say is designed to usher Tibet into an era of modernity and prosperity now enjoyed in the booming Chinese provinces in the east.

"In reality, it is a political project and the railway marks the culmination of Mao Zedong's dream to irreversibly absorb Tibet into China," says Matt Whitticase, spokesman for the Free Tibet Campaign in London. "It will facilitate the migration of Han Chinese colonists into Tibet, ensuring the further diminution of Tibetan culture and identity within Tibet."

Most of the construction companies benefiting from the railway are from eastern China, and the same is true for mining companies now hoping to use the railway to facilitate their operations in the region.

Once in place, the infrastructure network will speed up the exploitation of the Tibetan plateau's rich deposits of gold, copper, zinc, coal and other resources. Copper is regarded as particularly valuable as it is an essential component in the generation and transmission of electricity.

China has also invited transnational oil giants such as BP and Shell to explore for oil and gas equivalents after realizing that its own companies lacked the expertise known to drill in a region known for its complex geology.

The Free Tibet Campaign, which fights for China's complete withdrawal from Tibet, has mounted a vigorous opposition against Western oil and mining companies helping China extract local resources because it says Tibetans are routinely denied participation in key decision-making surrounding such projects.

"Tibetans are unable to exercise their economic rights to determine how their resources are utilized," Whitticase said. "They live in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation where opposition to an unsuitable project such as hydrocarbon extraction would have dire consequences."

Perhaps one of the most controversial Chinese plans to tap Tibetan resources to date is Beijing's new water scheme, called the "the big Western line."

Encouraged by the success of its civil engineering triumph with the Golmud-Lhasa railway, Chinese planners have come up with an even more audacious scheme to build a series of aqueducts, tunnels and reservoirs that would carry water from Tibet all the way to the parched plains of Northern China.

The partly underground 300-kilometer western line could eventually supply up to 8 billion cubic meters of water a year from the Jinsha and other rivers in the Tibetan region, according to Li Guoying, head of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission. The water will also be used to feed the Yellow River's upper reaches to feed rising industrial demand, Li told the media at a press briefing recently.

Still, the project remains so controversial that no starting date has been announced.

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