New Qinghai railroads to pass through sensitive Tibetan areas

Tibet railway map

Plans for five new rail lines in Qinghai province, discussed on the sidelines of this year’s National People’s Congress March meeting in Beijing, include two routes through some of the most culturally significant areas of Tibet, and areas that remain under a security crackdown since widespread demonstrations across Tibet in 2008. (“During the 12th Five-Year Plan a strategic rail network to be built through Tibet, Xinjiang,” March 7, 2011, Xinhua [in Chinese].)

The rail lines are part of a huge network expansion program for the People’s Republic of China and, in conjunction with other major rail links planned for the Tibetan plateau, are likely to more dramatically impact Tibetan communities than the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which began operations in 2006 as the most high-profile symbol of Beijing’s ambitious plans to develop the western regions of the People’s Republic of China. (ICT report, Tracking the Steel Dragon – February 2008)

One of the planned lines, from Golmud in Qinghai to Chengdu in Sichuan province, will reportedly pass through the town of Kyegudo in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture that was devastated by a major earthquake on April 14, 2010. The same line will pass through Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) where tensions have escalated at Kirti Monastery following the March 16 self-immolation of a monk and associated protests. (ICT report, Crisis at Kirti monastery intensifies: rare public statements by lama in exile – April 13, 2011)

Mary Beth Markey, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “The Chinese government’s claim that rail expansion benefits Tibetans does not hold up to scrutiny. The Tibetan experience of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, now operating for almost five years, shows that it is Chinese migrants and settlers who are significantly gaining ground while most Tibetans are pushed ever further to the margins. Tensions between Chinese and Tibetans are real and mounting. If the Chinese government genuinely seeks to improve the lives of Tibetans, a reorientation of its economic strategy towards Tibetan priorities, ambitious professional-level education and training programs for Tibetans, and constraints on in-migration, would be a better strategy and support stability in Tibet.”

Yushu suffered serious damage in an earthquake in April 2010 resulting in the loss of over 2600 lives. In recent weeks the town has been the scene of large-scale protests in reaction to local government measures to appropriate tracts of land for reconstruction, while the original owners and residents of the land – whose homes and businesses were destroyed in the earthquake – are being pressured to move into poorly built and inadequate properties far from the center of the town. (ICT report, Reconstruction of earthquake-hit area excludes Tibetan participation, ignores local concerns: one year on from earthquake – April 15, 2011)

The prospect of a railway through Kyegudo is likely to have been a major enticement for property developers, which may in turn be a contributory factor behind efforts to move the original Tibetan inhabitants to the town’s periphery. Typically, although not confirmed in this particular case, local governments can raise significant amounts of revenue by selling land to developers and then offering limited compensation from the proceeds to the displaced or evicted residents. A new railway into Yushu is certain to attract businesses and entrepreneurs from the Chinese mainland, driving up property values and radically altering the demographics of the town. Wang Yuhu, the Party Secretary of Yushu Prefecture, was quoted at the National People’s Congress saying, “Poor transport communications have always hampered the social and economic development of Yushu. If a railway can come through Yushu, it will undoubtedly play an enormous driving role in the construction of Yushu.” (“During the 12th Five-Year Plan a strategic rail network to be built through Tibet, Xinjiang,” March 7, 2011, Xinhua [in Chinese].)

It should be noted that despite reports of the line going through Kyegudo in Yushu Prefecture, an official map issued by the Ministry of Railways shows the Golmud to Chengdu line crossing Qinghai far to the north of Kyegudo. This may indicate that officials from Yushu were lobbying for the railway during the National People’s Congress, and that the route shown on the map is subject to change.

Parts of Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, in particular Ngaba county, have been in a state of almost constant political crisis since at least 10 protestors outside Kirti Monastery were shot dead by police in March 2008. Tensions rose again in February 2009 when a young monk, Tapey, set fire to himself in protest at the local authorities’ cancellation of a major prayer festival at the monastery. (ICT report, Monk in Tibet sets himself on fire; shot by police during protest -February 27, 2009) And as this report goes to press, Kirti Monastery is surrounded by hundreds of fully armed police attempting to impose a security lockdown following another self-immolation by a young Kirti monk in mid-March, on the third anniversary of the 2008 protests when police had shot dead at least 10 people. (ICT report, Crisis at Kirti monastery intensifies: rare public statements by lama in exile – April 13, 2011)

Another of the five rail lines planned for Qinghai province will run from the provincial capital Xining to Kunming in Yunnan province and pass through Chamdo (Chinese: Changdu) in eastern Tibet, a major center of Tibetan cultural and political identity. Construction of the lines through Yushu and Chamdo will reportedly start during the period of the 12th Five-Year Plan, an economic and social planning blueprint covering the years 2010 to 2015, although there is no indication yet of when they will go into operation.

The five new rail lines in Qinghai are part of an ongoing expansion of the rail network across all of the People’s Republic of China which will eventually include other new lines into and out of Lhasa directly from major population centers in Sichuan and Yunnan to the east, and then from Lhasa to the border with Nepal and all of southeast Asia. In research published in October, 2009 comparing key population, industrial and other indicators in Qinghai and Sichuan, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) noted that the impact of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway may “far surpass” that of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. (CECC Special Topic Paper: Tibet 2008-2009 – October 22, 2009.) (ICT will be providing new research and analysis on all of these new rail lines into Tibet and other major infrastructure developments in upcoming publications covering the national and regional 12th Five-Year Plans.)

One of the three remaining new rail lines in Qinghai – in addition to the two through Yushu and Chamdo – will run from Golmud to Dunhuang in Gansu province; another of the new lines will run from Golmud to Korla in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) via the resource-rich Tsaidam Basin, and a third will run from Xining to Chengdu.

With three of the new rail lines originating in Golmud, there will be a dramatic increase in the number and capacity of linkages between the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the rest of the Chinese rail network, facilitating further large-scale exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources as well as enabling greater population migration into Tibet, both seasonal and permanent.

Fears that the Qinghai-Tibet Railway would lead to what Tibetans characterized as “a second invasion of Tibet” were confirmed by the significant influx of primarily Chinese tourists, migrants and settlers into Lhasa that followed completion of the line in 2006, contributing to rising tensions in the area. (ICT report, Tracking the Steel Dragon – February, 2008, p. 40)

The expansion of the rail network in Tibet along with the rapid and large-scale development of mineral and hydropower resources across the plateau are key elements of China’s centrally planned development targets for Tibet, and perceived by the Chinese Communist Party as essential in expanding its influence and consolidating control. The construction of the railroads reveals Beijing’s political and strategic objectives in controlling Tibet, bringing the Chinese government much closer to the goal set by Mao Zedong over 40 years ago of integrating Tibet with China, and exacerbating Tibetan fears for the survival of their cultural and religious identity.

Tourism too is being promoted as a major driver for economic growth in Tibet – facilitated to a great extent by rail access – and by the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan in 2015, the Tibet Autonomous Region alone with an official population of less than 3 million is expecting 15 million tourists annually, roughly the equivalent number of tourists visiting London each year.

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