ICT Inside Tibet: Safety fears over Tibet railway raised amid concern over mega-projects

  • An account of safety fears over construction of the newest line of the Tibet railway, the Lhasa to Shigatse route, is circulating on social media, with the blogger saying that the authorities are “turning a blind eye” to the dangers. The author of the blog, who gives a Chinese name, appears to have detailed knowledge of the railway’s construction and its failings and refers to the military and strategic importance of Tibet’s railway and its extension in areas close to the Indian border.
  • The Nepalese press reported that China and Nepal have completed an early study on the cross-border, 100-km railway that they say will connect Kathmandu with the border town of Kyirong (Chinese: Gyirong) in the Tibet Autonomous Region, part of China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ plans, although their account of the extent of underground tunnelling under one of the world’s most seismically active mountain ranges seems unfeasible and highly unlikely.
  • China denied last month that it was testing techniques in preparation for the building of a tunnel to carry water from Tibet to Xinjiang, saying it was ‘unrealistic’, following international press reports about the water diversion scheme.
  • In a linked development – and a blow to Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project, the ‘One Belt One Road’ plans – in the past week, both Nepal and Pakistan pulled out of infrastructure agreements for large dams worth billions of dollars with China, attributed to China’s strict conditions for funding and ownership. Tibet’s infrastructure and resources are regarded as important elements of China’s strategic objectives under the economic expansion plan of ‘One Belt One Road’.

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “The safety fears about Tibet’s railway and concern about possible corruption among officials are disturbing and consistent with a broader trend across the PRC of public outrage over shoddy infrastructure and its dangers expressed online. This Chinese netizen’s challenge coincides with growing concern over China’s mega projects and their implications, including the news that both Nepal and Pakistan have pulled out of infrastructure agreements for dams under the One Belt One Road plans, and confusing messages over unfeasible tunnelling projects in one of the world’s most seismically active regions. International governments that China seeks to engage for its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative should take heed of these developments, and the clear and present danger of playing by Chinese rules – lack of transparency, the subordination of professional ethics to a political agenda – when considering Chinese investment and collaboration with its global infrastructure ambitions.”

Safety fears on railway raised in detailed blog

A blog about the rail link from Lhasa to Shigatse (Chinese: Rigaze) in the TAR, which opened in August, 2014, details six problematic issues of the line which endanger its safety, saying that the relevant authorities are “turning a blind eye” to the issues. The blog, which was posted on several Chinese language news sites and social media and translated into English by ICT, describes “problems at the stretch labelled TJ6 on the Lhasa–Shigatse Railway” that have been known for two years but apparently not resolved, including skimping on material such as steel needed for tunnels, bridge pillars that are too short, and not enough cement used, which the author says contributed to “severe landslides” during construction of a tunnel entrance.

The detailed concerns expressed in the blog are consistent with a trend in China of public outrage often expressed in anonymous blogs about shoddy infrastructure that endangers lives. On November 13, in a Weibo post that has now been deleted, a microblogger shared internal documents and photos of poor construction along the Guizhou section of the Shanghai-Kunming high-speed railway.[1] In July, 2011, a high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou killed dozens of people and generated widespread anger over corruption and the government’s attempts to conceal the incident.

The blog states: “What is really a pity, however, is that all of the involved departments and control organs, including the China Railroad Headquarters, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Company, the Lhasa–Shigatse Railway Construction Command Bureau (the personnel from which have all been transferred to the Lhasa-Nyingtri Railway Construction Command Bureau) and the Lanzhou Railroad Management Bureau responsible for project supervision and control, are turning a blind eye to the problems exposed.”

Among the problems with the Lhasa-Shigatse route detailed by the blogger are that in February, 2016, the Lanzhou Railway Supervision and Management Bureau identified that five out of eight pillars supporting a major bridge on the route are two meters short, “thus causing a severe hidden safety hazard” but that nothing has so far been done about the problem.

Giving a further example, the blogger points out a “problem of skimping on construction materials” that “is particularly severe starting from 100 meters into the respective tunnels; 60% of the second lining reinforcing steel bars do not meet standards. […] Furthermore, they severely skimped on small conduits in the tunnel, and some were simply left out; and they also only used about 30% of the bolts.” The author stated that: “The ‘leftover’ steel was subsequently sold by the contractors”, with one relative of a contractor “at one point making over 40 million yuan in a single transaction.”

The blogger cites social media discussion on the failings in construction, reporting one blogger as saying: “Concealed dangers aren’t addressed or eliminated, the respective departments will probably only look into the matter when there is a disaster and casualties!” The social media discussion also notes that while the Chinese authorities state that the construction of the railway is for tourism purposes, its use is also heavily strategic and based on military concerns.

Massive investment in infrastructure in Tibet by the Chinese government – railways, airfields and roads – over the past decade has served the dual purpose of facilitating an unprecedented tourism boom, expansion of mining Tibet’s resources and serving China’s strategic and military objectives.

Construction has now begun on a new line to Nyingtri (Chinese: Linzhi) in the TAR, in the sensitive border area with Arunachal Pradesh, India, which the Chinese government flagged as “a new era in railway construction”.[2] The Nyingtri line will be part of a new railway route linking the TAR to the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, and beyond, running east from Lhasa. Referring to this connection, the blogger writes that: “According to guancha.cn, the Shigatse-Lhasa-Nyingtri railway with Lhasa as its strategic fulcrum, is to be used for passengers as well as for commodities and military personnel. From a geopolitical and regional military perspective, the strategic value of the Lhasa–Shigatse Railway is shocking! With Lhasa as its main hub, Shigatse as its western wing and Nyingtri as its eastern wing, it forms a circular area covering a distance of 700 kilometres from the east to the west and thus works towards safeguarding the Tibetan borderlands.”

The Lhasa-Nyingtri-Chengdu rail network is of high importance to the Chinese Party state, given Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the importance of control of Tibet’s border areas.[3]

New study on Tibet-Nepal route: implausible details of tunnel through mountains feature in Nepalese press

The Nepalese press reported last week that China and Nepal had completed a study on the cross-border, 100-km railway that they say will connect Kathmandu with the border town of Kyirong (Chinese: Gyirong) in the TAR. Last year, as part of this strategic rail network and together with the announcement of a raft of other major infrastructure and hydro-power projects, the Chinese National People’s Congress had confirmed the extension of the rail link from Shigatse (Chinese: Rigaze) to Kyirong (Chinese: Gyirong) on the Nepal border. Reports in the Chinese and Nepalese media have indicated that the construction of Tibet’s railway from Shigatse to the borders of India and Nepal is scheduled for completion by 2020.[4]

The article in Nepal’s www.myrepublica.com on November 11 referred to a study of the route that was part of the ‘One Belt One Road’ agreement signed by the Nepalese government with China in May.[5] In a statement that appears to be highly unlikely and unfeasible, the report said about 85 percent of the railroad will be underground and will pass beneath the hills from Kyirong, which lies at the altitude of 4000 metres, to Kathmandu (1400 metres).[6]

The likelihood of a railway tunneled deep under Chomolungma (Mt Everest), in the youngest and one of the most active seismic zones on earth, is highly unlikely. In reports on the proposed rail link over the past five or more years, the Chinese official media has stated that the rail link would reach Nepal via Shigatse and Kyirong, on the border, where a new ‘land border post’ has been established. The route Shigatse-Kyirong would not naturally pass through the Mount Everest area, unless there were particular reasons from the Chinese side.[7]

This possibility was first raised in 2015 by a railway and ‘tunnelling expert’, Wang Mengshu, who was cited by China Daily as saying: “The line will probably have to go through Qomolangma [Chinese way of referring to Chomolungma or Mt. Everest] so that workers may have to dig some very long tunnels.”[8] A more credible piece by a ‘tunnelling expert’ in 2012 did not mention this plan at all but focused on two possible routes that had been charted from the Chinese side and across Nepal.[9]

In the same article in the Nepalese press on November 11, Ananta Acharya, director general of the Department of Railways in Nepal, appeared to be urging caution in reaching conclusions about the nature of the construction, saying, “This was a basic research of the topology and geography. Both sides will later reach an agreement for carrying out a feasibility study.”

‘One Belt One Road’ under question as Nepal and Pakistan pull out of major projects

In a new development, over the past week both Nepal and Pakistan pulled out of major infrastructure agreements worth billions of dollars with China. ‘One Belt, One Road’ is Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative, and it is also effectively a branding operation for many of the roads, bridges, railways and other major infrastructure China has already built in Tibetan areas and elsewhere in the PRC, connecting Europe to Asia and the Pacific through China on land and at sea.

Last week, according to the Nepalese press, Nepal called off a US$2.5 billion hydropower plant awarded to a Chinese state-owned company, part of the ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative. Local media in Pakistan have now reported that Pakistan has decided to cancel a US$14 billion infrastructure agreement with China because it could not accept the strict conditions, including China taking ownership of the project, the operation and maintenance costs and pledging to build another operational dam.[10]

A former World Bank Group officer who has advised on the financing of infrastructure, Peter Guy, wrote in the South China Morning Post: “The Belt and Road seems to be faltering in its conceptual financial stage. Two major related projects have been cancelled within a week, in both cases because the terms were not considered by the recipient country to be fair and equitable. And this inevitably also raises issues about the commercial viability and financial credibility of some other projects. […] Full transparency – through competing public tenders – of the adequacy, suitability and quality of the Chinese equipment being used could soon become a serious problem. Then, the importation of tens of thousands of Chinese workers to install Chinese equipment displaces the employment for locals, which leads to significant political fall out.” (SCMP, November 20, 2017).

Blog details hidden safety hazards

The blog by the Chinese netizen on the Lhasa-Shigatse rail link highlights both the inadequacy and quality of Chinese equipment as well as the dangers of lack of transparency and a political climate that makes free and informed discussion about safety impossible.

Making specific allegations against individual contractors, the blogger also cites netizens’ concern, for instance, one netizen stated: “Another typical case of a government-business collaboration, I really hope that the relevant departments investigate this thoroughly!” Referring to issues of recent China-India border tensions, another nother netizen wrote on Sina Weibo: “Apart from being for civilians, the Tibetan railway is even more for the military, relating to the country’s big strategic matters. Not addressing obvious shortcomings, isn’t that indirectly helping the Indians?”

ICT was unable to independently confirm the authenticity of the blog, although the level of detail indicates it is a well-informed source. It was posted on social media this month (November 2017), and earlier on several websites, including www.sina.com , which is not official and includes content uploaded by users.[11] It was also posted, with images, on what appears to be a semi-official, pro-CCP website: http://www.lawgov.cn/2017/gn_0815/4382.html[12].

In a further example of how safety can be compromised in Chinese mega-projects, because of their prestige and status for the Party state authorities, the Chinese government has recently lifted restrictions for high-speed trains that had been lifted after the deadly crash in Wenzhou in 2011. After the 2011 incident, China Railway had ordered reduced speeds for high-speed routes, but from August these restrictions were lifted for select high-speed trains, which a report in Fortune linked to China’s drive to sell high-speed train technology abroad as part of the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.[13]

Speculation over massive water diversion scheme dismissed by Chinese government

The news that Chinese engineers were testing techniques that could be used to build a 1,000km tunnel – the world’s longest – to carry water from Tibet to Xinjiang “to make the desert bloom” attracted attention and speculation after it was published in the South China Morning Post last month.[14] The article stated that the proposed tunnel would drop down from the world’s highest plateau in multiple sections connected by waterfalls, and would “turn Xinjiang into California”, citing a geotechnical engineer.

Within days, both the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the official Global Times newspaper denied the scheme of transferring water from the Yarlung Zangbo River in the southern TAR – which becomes the Brahmaputra in India – to the Taklamakan Desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying: “This is untrue.”[15]

The Global Times states that massive water diversion projects from Tibet to Xinjiang have been discussed since the 1950s, but that they would never be approved “due to concerns of the huge cost and potential for damaging the landscape.” The estimated cost of diverting water from Tibet to Xinjiang would be five times that of Xinjiang’s annual GDP, according to the same article. Mei Xinyu, an associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, was also cited as saying that as it would depend so fundamentally on central government subsidies and the support of other local government departments, it could “lead to social instability.”

As the Yarlung Tsangpo becomes the Brahmaputra, it may be the case that considerations of existing tensions with downstream nations such as India are being taken into account. As a storehouse of freshwater and the source of the earth’s largest river systems, Tibet is a critical resource to the world’s 10 most densely populated nations surrounding the plateau.

Environment expert Gabriel Lafitte also mentions that growing awareness of the link between tunneling and dam projects and earthquakes may be a factor, too, although the Chinese authorities have not taken this into account with their major dam-building projects. On his blog Lafitte writes: “Almost the entire route [from Tibet to Xinjiang] traverses seismically active uplifting terrain that is deeply faulted and folded, where earthquakes and landslides are common,[16] and the sheer weight of impounded water can readily trigger further debris flows and even earthquakes. Chinese engineers have worked hard for decades to understand the risks, and are far from being able to chart them, still less are they able to mitigate the risks.”[17]

Gabriel Lafitte states that although this water diversion project is not going to happen, this most certainly does not mean that China moving away from nation-building mega-projects that establish the party-state’s power over remote landscapes.[18] China is still, for instance, committed to Zangmu cascade, the series of six hydro dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo, in succession, all downriver not far below Lhoka (Chinese: Shannan) in the TAR.

The Zangmu cascade is among multiple dams being built on all the major rivers running off the Tibetan plateau by powerful Chinese state-owned consortiums, in what has been termed “the greatest water grab in history”.[19] On the highest river in the world, the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), the last remaining generator of the enormous Zangmu dam became operational in October 2015, the subject of much concern in India.[20] The Zangmu Dam, on a bend of the river around 155 km from Lhasa in Lhokha is part of the Zangmu Hydropower Project and supports a huge 510 MW power station, which became operational in 2014 as the largest hydropower station in Tibet.

A major goal of China’s Five-Year Plan, from 2016-2020, is to intensify the build-up of hydropower dams on all the major Tibetan rivers, from which around one billion people drink daily. Many of the dams are being constructed in the sensitive and highly militarized area of Nyingtri (Chinese: Linzhi), linked to the new railway link being constructed from Lhasa.

Cascades of dams are to be built on all the wild mountain rivers; on the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Salween, there are sites for around 100 dams, which are either built, under construction or planned.[21] Other cascades will stem China’s last free-flowing international rivers – such as the Mekong and Brahmaputra – which could spark tensions with India and Southeast Asian countries downstream.

Matteo Mecacci, President of ICT, said: “There is clearly increasing unease over the consequences and risks of China’s land use plans in Tibet, both within the PRC and internationally. Because water is seen as a strategic asset in Tibet, and infrastructure as a means of protecting its border and therefore a security issue, Beijing’s policies on Tibet remain exempt from any genuine debate or enquiry, even among its professionals and experts. For instance plans for dam-building in Tibet have gathered pace despite the model for disaster set by the massive Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project, which sets records for the number of people displaced and number of cities and towns flooded. Environmental impacts are likely to get worse as time goes on. It is urgent that China begins to listen to the informed concerns of netizens on its infrastructure in Tibet, and that it calls a moratorium on massive dam-building and hydro power cascades in order for a genuine ‘ecological civilisation’ to be achieved.”

Footnotes:
[1] Sixth Tone, ‘High-speed rail contractors slammed for shoddy constrution’, by Bibek Bhandari, posted November 14, 2017, http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1001177/high-speed-rail-contractors-slammed-for-shoddy-construction. China Digital Times also reported: “In July of 2011, a high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou killed dozens and generated massive public outrage over corruption and the government attempt to conceal the deadly incident. After the 2011 incident, China Railway ordered reduced speeds for China’s high-speed routes. The speed restrictions were lifted for select high-speed trains in August, which according to a report in Fortune is related to China’s drive to sell high-speed train technology abroad amid the “Belt and Road” initiative.” (https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2017/11/minitrue-shoddy-high-speed-rail-construction/)

[2] Chinese state media report, China Tibet Online, October 23, 2017. The report stated: “Since 2012, Tibet has opened the Lhasa-Shigatse Railway, and the Lhasa-Nyingtri Railway also enters its construction, starting a new era in railway construction. Highway distance increased from 62,500 kilometers in 2012 to 82,100 kilometers in 2016, an increase of 25.9 percent. There are 71 domestic and international air routes connecting Tibet with 41 cities.”

[3] Lobsang Gyaltsen, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region government, said during a meeting of Tibetan delegates to China’s National People’s Congress in 2016 that: “We really do place a lot of emphasis on this railway.” (Reported by Associated Press following a news conference on the sidelines of the meeting, March 7, 2016). The Chinese state media said it would cut journey time from Chengdu to Lhasa from 42 hours by train and three days by road to less than 15 hours. Lin Shijin, a senior civil engineer at China Railway Corporation, was cited by China Daily as saying: “It’s like the largest rollercoaster in the world. With a designed service life of 100 years, it is believed to be one of the most difficult railway projects to build on Earth.” (China Daily, February 2, 2016, http://english.chinatibetnews.com/ly/lyxw/201602/t20160201_1064992.html).

[4] International Campaign for Tibet, ‘Plans for second railway across Tibet confirmed: likely to have even greater impact’, MARCH 14, 2016, HTTPS://WWW.SAVETIBET.ORG/PLANS-FOR-SECOND-RAILWAY-ACROSS-TIBET-CONFIRMED-LIKELY-TO-HAVE-EVEN-GREATER-IMPACT/

[5] On August 11 (2017), just prior to the Chinese Vice Premier’s arrival in Kathmandu, Nepal signed an agreement to be part of President Xi Jinping’s plan to build a new Silk Road – the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative – linking Asia, Africa and Europe. The intention is to expand China’s global economic and geopolitical reach. International Campaign for Tibet report, ‘High-level Chinese visit to Nepal highlights difficulties for Tibetan community’, August 28, 2017, https://www.savetibet.org/high-level-chinese-visit-to-nepal-highlights-difficulties-for-tibetan-community/

[6] “A Chinese delegation including experts on high-altitude railway technology and Nepali engineers jointly concluded that the railway will be underground and cost around Nepalese Rs 275 billion, the report cited government officials as saying. It said the Chinese delegation of 23 members led by Zheng Jian, deputy administrator (vice minister), of China’s National Railway Administration, wrapped up its five-day study on Nov 10.” Reported in Tibetan Review, ‘Preliminary survey for an underground Tibet-Nepal OBOR railway line concluded‘, November 14, 2017, http://www.tibetanreview.net/preliminary-survey-for-an-underground-tibet-nepal-obor-railway-line-concluded/

[7] Mount Everest is in an area designated as the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve, a vast area traversing several counties in Shigatse(Chinese: Rigaze) prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region close to the border with Nepal including Nyalam (Chinese: Niela), Tingri (Chinese: Dingri) and Kyirong (Chinese: Gyirong).

[8] China Daily, April 9, 2015, (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2015-04/09/content_20406196.htm ) A Chinese business website even created a graphic speculating on the location of the tunnels through Mount Everest: (http://www.91b2b.com/news/201504/11/49097.html )

[9] A Chinese correspondent who joined a 2012 study on the route from Dram into Nepal in 2012 detailed two possible routes that had been charted: “From the Chinese side and across Nepal, two possible routes with three main alignment options are suggested. The northern lines will involve several long tunnels at great depth, some reaching more than 20km long and with more than 2,000m cover.” In an account of the trip published in a specialist magazine on tunneling, Zheng Yan Long added: “The most difficult section would be on the Chinese side of the alignment where the elevation drops by about 2,000m over a distance of 20km between the towns of Nyalam and Zhangmu. A spiral solution could be adopted to stay within the vertical gradient allowance of less than 15% for electric railway operations.” See April 17, 2015 update to International Campaign for Tibet report, ‘New strategic rail network to Tibet’s borders endangers environment, raises regional security concerns’ November 12, 2014, https://www.savetibet.org/new-strategic-rail-network-to-tibets-borders-endangers-environment-raises-regional-security-concerns/

[10] The exclusion of the Diamer-Bhasha dam from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) framework, a key element to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, was because China’s hyper strict conditions for funding the project were “not doable and against our interests”, Pakistan’s Express Tribune quoted Water and Power Development Authority chairman Muzammil Hussain as saying on Thursday. Cited by the South China Morning Post, ‘Pakistan pulls plug on dam deal over China’s “too strict” conditions in latest blow to Belt and Road plans’, November 16, 2017, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2120261/pakistan-pulls-plug-dam-deal-over-chinas-too-strict . SCMP reports that the project will go ahead as Pakistan has decided to finance the project – which will generate 4,500 megawatts (MW) of hydropower itself.

[11] It was posted by Beijing Sina News at: http://www.snsqw.com/news/rdzt/201708/176612.html on August 20, 2017, also at: http://000020.aniu.tv/news_21430404.html

[12] There is a linked Chinese legal website at: http://www.fzxww.net/

[13] Fortune, ‘China Just Relaunched the World’s Fastest Train’, August 21, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/08/21/china-world-fastest-train/

[14] SCMP, ‘Chinese engineers plan 1,000km tunnel to make Xinjiang desert bloom’, October 30, 2017, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2116750/chinese-engineers-plan-1000km-tunnel-make-xinjiang-desert-bloom

[15] Global Times, ‘Officials deny Tibet-Xinjiang water diversion project exists’by Deng Xiaoci, October 31, 2017.

[16] Gabriel Lafitte cites, for instance, the following paper by Yuan Jianxin, ‘Consideration on the Geological Hazards in Hydropower Station Site. Selection from the Experiences of Wenchuan Earthquake’, Hydroelectric Power Journal, VOL 35 #10, 2009.

[17] Gabriel Lafitte blog, ‘Zombies rise again in Tibet, posted on October 31, 2017, http://rukor.org/zombies-rise-again-in-tibet/

[18] In his blog, he writes: None of this means the nation-building mega-project is dead, just that it is morphing into a form better suited to today’s well-off consumption-led China. The closure of the livestock production landscapes of eastern Tibet, across Amdo, is very much on track, so the Sanjiangyuan National Park can replace it. Mass tourism will follow, with few visitors noticing that nomads no longer ride their horses through the alpine meadows, except for photo opps. Yaks will be for sitting on, for the iconic photo shot, not for subsistence production. Fierce nomad mastiffs will pose, toothless, for tourists to mimic. This is the future. China does not hesitate to close the most fertile pastures in Tibet, losing food security, in order to tell the world a glorious post-industrial story about growing a new wilderness of luxuriant ungrazed grass, wildlife conservation, carbon capture and world leadership in climate change. That’s the new economy.”

[19] Brahma Chellaney, cited in the International Campaign for Tibet report, ‘Blue Gold from the Highest Plateau: Tibet’s water and global climate change’, https://www.savetibet.org/new-report-reveals-global-significance-of-tibet/

[20] Detailed information on dams and three lists of hydropower projects (HPP) in the watersheds of the Drichu (Yangtze), Zachu (Mekong) and Gyalmo Ngulchu (Salween) rivers up until 2013, in the 12th Five-Year Plan period, are provided by expert Tashi Tsering at his blogsite: http://tibetanplateau.blogspot.co.uk/ Tashi Tsering writes: “As projects in Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan are completed, projects in Tibet Autonomous Region will be developed, moving generally from east to west. As these projects get developed, necessary infrastructure will be in place to develop the Brahmaputra River’s the Great Bend area.”

[21] See ‘Why India and China should leave the Yarlung Tsangpo alone’ by Prem Shankar Jha, March 5, 2014, https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/6753-Why-India-and-China-should-leave-the-Yarlung-Tsangpo-alone

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