Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Railroad to Tibet Nearly Ready

After four years of construction across some of the world's most rugged terrain, a new railroad connecting China's far western Qinghai province with Tibet is close to completion. Beijing says the project is an important part of its campaign to develop China's poor western region. But critics fear the rail link will help the government tighten its grip on Tibet, and further marginalize Tibetans in their own homeland.

At the moment, two roads are the only land routes from China proper into Tibet, which forms China's southwestern corner. Once this railroad has been completed, the currently long and tortuous trip from Beijing to Lhasa will be cut to a relatively simple 48-hour journey.

Many technical difficulties had to be overcome, including the high altitude and lack of oxygen, the deep fozen earth and the fragile ecology.

Billions of yuan have been poured into the project. The Chinese government says the rail line will bring Tibetans more opportunities and greater access to the outside world.

Xu Jianchang, vice director general of the Tibetan Development and Reform Commission, says the local economy will benefit.

The project will be the first rail link to connect mainland China and Tibet; however, critics fear the railroad will mean more than just goods entering and leaving Tibet.

Since the launch of the government's "Go West" campaign in the late 1990's, China's western provinces have seen a massive influx of people of the country's ethnic Han majority.

According to the Tibetan government, each year about 50,000 migrants flock to Lhasa, a city now of 250,000. Once trains start running into Tibet, the region is likely to see an increase in ethnic Han job hunters. Tibetans say this will make it even harder for them to get jobs, and will erode their culture and identity.

The Han look on Tibet as a place of opportunity. But many Tibetans worry about the influx of Han. Most Tibetans are farmers, and lack the skills needed to work in offices or start businesses. Many of them cannot speak Mandarin, China's national language.

Their incomes are different, too. The Han usually earn a good living from restaurants, massage houses, and karaoke bars. The Tibetans - many still clad in traditional costume - earn much less selling local crafts or farm products. In the bigger towns, Tibetan beggar children flock around tourists.

China began a decade-long conquest of Tibet in 1949. A Tibetan government-in-exile, led by the region's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is based in India, and has tens of thousands of supporters around the world who oppose Chinese rule.

Many Tibetans think the Qinghai Railway will do more than help Han Chinese migrate to the region - they say it will help the Chinese government consolidate its power over Tibet.

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