China’s Sky Train

July 1, 2006 marked the departure of the first train from Beijing to the roof of the world, with President Hu Jintao trumpeting an engineering feat which puts the Peoples Republic of China’s interests within 48 hours of Tibet’s heartland, as opposed to weeks and months via land routes. Coincidentally, the launch marked the onset of intensified political repression in Tibet with the new Communist Party chief, Zhang Qingli, announcing that the struggle against the Dalai Lama and his supporters was a “fight to the death”.

In brief, China has invested US$4.2 billion in a rail line which stretches over 1,956 kilometres from China’s western city of Xining to Lhasa, the provincial capital of Tibet, and was manually built by 100,000 workers over a period of 5 years. Roughly a quarter, 550 kilometres, of the train’s tracks rest on frozen earth , and around half, 960 kilometres, sit 4,000-plus metres above sea level with oxygen levels approximately half that at sea level. According to the Xinhua news, no labourer died of altitude sickness, but there are rumours that a number lost their lives in the process of the rail’s construction.

Consisting of 16 carriages equipped with oxygen facilities to prevent altitude sickness, Train 27 Special Express, also dubbed the Sky Train, was hailed by Hu Jintao in his televised speech as a “magnificent feat by the Chinese people”. In truth, the feat would not have been possible at this point in time, nor in the foreseeable future, were it not for US General Electric’s diesel engines which have the capacity to maintain an average speed of 100 kph, even at altitudes of 4,000 metres where the thin air can have the effect of halving power; and Canada’s Bombardier which fulfilled a US$280 million contract to build carriages with the capacity to withstand the journey through Tibet’s frozen alps, some with deluxe sleeping compartments equipped with showers, glass-walled sides for panoramic views, entertainment centres and gourmet dining areas, and toilets with sewage and waste-treatment systems.

During the journey to and from Lhasa, the train traverses seven tunnels and 286 bridges to avoid contact with a layer of ice which melts and refreezes almost daily according to the seasons, and also to avoid interfering with the unstable areas of thick permafrost which lie a metre or more below the earth’s surface. Track embankments are stabilized by pipes fitted with cooling elements and driven beneath the earth’s crust. At one point the train reaches Tanggula Mountain, 5,068 metres above sea level, and regarded by local Tibetans as “insurmountable even by eagles”. Tanggula Mountain station, the world’s loftiest rail stopover, is operated and monitored by satellite. On reaching the unmanned station, Sky Train’s first passengers had already strapped on oxygen masks, some had nose bleeds, others were vomiting, as potato chip bags burst their seams and pens spat their ink.

In heralding Sky Train as the fulfilment of a 100-year-old dream, China admits that Beijing had been eying Tibet long before the bloody annexation of 1949. The railway venture, by far the most ambitious and costly step in China’s Great Leap West to develop its western regions, had negative impacts on Tibetans which pre-empted the July 1 rail launch; in part by displacing Tibetan nomads from their rural settings into cities totally alien to their lifestyle; in part by demolishing the homes, with scant compensation, of many Tibetan farmers to make way for the railway; and also by exclusively favouring the Han Chinese, by now the dominant population in Tibet, via the employment which came with the project.

Fifty years ago, Tibet’s Qinghai Plateau was a scantly populated wilderness. Today, following “development a la China”, it is a land conquered and settled by Han bureaucrats, engineers, miners, soldiers, police and prisoners. By 2004, there were six million Tibetans and an estimated 7.5 million Chinese in the original area of Tibet, with Tibetans employed chiefly in traditional agriculture, and the Chinese predominantly in government, commerce and the service sector. In other words, Beijing’s economic inducements for Chinese immigration to Tibet has turned Tibetans into a minority in their own land.

The streets of Lhasa, as too those of Shigatse, bear testimony to the “fading presence’ of native Tibetans: By 1996 in Lhasa, native Tibetans were outnumbered 2:1 by the Han Chinese who monopolize the running of factories, shops, bars and restaurants, even to the point of carrying out the shoe repairs and selling the locally grown peaches. On this background, despite China’s claims to the contrary, the anticipated economic windfall from the railway is unlikely to flow towards native Tibetans.

China’s earlier economic paradigm for Tibet led to the demolition of world heritage-status buildings, to the extent of entire neighbourhoods. Communist Concrete turned Lhasa into a Himalayan Bangkok, awash with bars, video arcades, military barracks, and one thousand brothels. The thriving prostitution is attributed to tourism, the vast inflow of China’s military, and the economic disparities resulting from rural-urban migration. Most prostitutes are Han Chinese, but poverty has also driven Tibetan women into the sex industry. By day, the brothels operate as hair salons and bars. By night, they become “pink parlours” where the flesh trade prospers under China’s modernisation drive.

China’s development model for Tibet reeks of religious and cultural suppression. Since 1949, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been slaughtered at the behest of Beijing’s whims; 175,000 while held hostage in prison and labour camps, and 150,000 from execution. To this day, displaying the Dalai Lama’s photograph or the Tibetan flag, or protesting Chinese occupation, brings harsh penalties, with Tibet’s Buddhist nuns and monks at highest risk of imprisonment and torture.

China’s phasing out of the Tibetan language from primary education has hastened the erosion of Tibet’s cultural identity, while compared with their counterparts in mainland China, and with Han Chinese immigrants, native Tibetans are starved of education. Figures from China’s 2000 census indicate that 47% of Tibetan adults ­ and 60% of Tibetan women ­ are illiterate, whereas in Beijing, only 4.9% of adults are unable to read. The World Bank has warned that Beijing needs to focus more on schooling and less on pouring concrete, but while education deprivation may be a significant factor in native Tibetans making up the majority of the region’s 10.3 percent jobless, ethnic discrimination also plays a major role. Furthermore, the prejudice against native Tibetans also extends to health care, and is starkly manifest from 2006 figures in The Lancet indicating that Tibetan women are 40 times more likely to die in childbirth than mothers in Shanghai.

In the name of socialist purity, all but eight of Tibet’s 6,259 Buddhist monasteries and convents were destroyed during the first 25 years of China’s occupation. Some have been restored, but purely to attract tourist dollars. Since his appointment as Communist Party secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in May 2006, Zhang Qinglie has moved swiftly to further strengthen China’s grip over the devout Buddhist region, returning to Beijing’s tone of the mid-1990s with a barrage of angry rhetoric against the Dalai Lama, and tightening control of religious practice in an effort to erode the 71-year-old monk’s influence.

A close ally of President Hu Jintao, Zhang Qingli was previously head of the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in that mainly Muslim western region, overseeing migration of ethnic Han Chinese as well as border security. In mid-July of 2006, when an estimated crowd of ten thousand gathered at the monastery of Kumbum in Qinghai to wait for the falsely rumoured arrival of the Dalai Lama, Zhang Qingli saw fit to disperse them with security forces. But as the world beats a path to China’s door seeking profits from its roaring economy, the hopes of Tibet’s people are lost in the stampede. Few questions are raised about the thousands of Tibetan activists and suspected opponents of the government who have been imprisoned over the years. Amnesty International reported in 1999 that many were sentenced after unfair trials, others were still held without charge or trial, torture and ill-treatment remained endemic, in some cases resulting in death, and that the death penalty continued to be used extensively.
Like China’s development paradigm, the Sky Train project also has major flaws, with the rail’s foundations sinking into the permafrost, together with the thousands of yak grazing along the tracks becoming a derailment threat, within the first month of operations. Worryingly too, the line passes through an earthquake prone zone where yearly tremors average around six on the Richter Scale. In November of 2001, a quake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale tore a 7km crack through the earth in the vicinity of Kunlun Pass on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. More recently, in February of 2006, a quake measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale shook an area some 660 kilometres northwest of Lhasa. Back in 2001, China’s experts proclaimed that the Qinghai-Tibet rail line was quake-resistant as Sky Train’s path crossed the seismic belt at right angles, thereby minimising any damage future tremors might cause to the tracks. Five years further on, and only three weeks after Sky Train’s launch, Beijing has announced the investment of 13million yuan [US$1.61 million] in an earthquake warning system along the southern section of the line. Peng Fengshan, head of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Seismological Bureau, admitted that earthquake monitoring on the plateau railway was crucial due to Tibet’s entering a seismologically active period which would last until about 2014.
According to Peng:

‘The Golmud-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway passes through a region where moderate quakes measuring up to six on the Richter scale occur annually ….. And the construction would be finished before the end of the 11th five-year-plan period [2006 to 2010], and with the system in place, possible damage would be minimal’ [our emphases].

There is little doubt that Train 27 Special Express facilitates the rapid mobilisation of China’s military strength against the Dalai Lama’s faithful, but by this point in time the subjugation of Tibetans is scarcely reason enough to justify Beijing’s massive investment. Rather, the deeper entrenchment of China’s military on the roof of the world, together with the rape of Tibet’s natural resources, are more likely explanations.

R S N Singh in his volume “Asian Strategic and Military Persepective” reports that China has deployed nearly a quarter of its nuclear missile force to Tibet including a nuclear missile launch site and at least two dozen ballistic missiles, all while constructing 14 airbases and an oil pipeline from Gormo to Lhasa. Singh suggests that China’s nuclearization of Tibet may end up polluting the waters flowing to India, Pakistan and Bangaladesh, but from a military perspective his revelations add credence to claims that China has turned Tibet into a warehouse, which with nuclear protection enables China to export and import resources to and from any region within Asia and Africa, and which is virtually impenetrable by foes.

The overall majority of rivers supplying water to south and southeast Asia originate in Tibet. And after covering most of the rivers of southwestern China with dams and turbines, the central government in Beijing has encouraged the industry to move to Tibet which is believed to have unsurpassed hydro-electric potential. The completion of the Sky Train railway, by integrating Tibet into China’s mainland, is anticipated to accelerate the process. In January 2006, the Huadian Group, one of the “big-five” state-owned power giants, signed an agreement with the Tibet regional government to construct several hydropower plants. The Huaneng Group, another big-five member, signed a similar deal in September 2005, announcing an endeavour to fully develop, more frankly thieve, Tibet’s rivers in order to serve the requirements of the country’s West-East Power Transmission Project. These moves come despite opinion from both the exiled Tibetan community, and also among hydropower critics in China itself, suggesting that the construction of hydropower stations on Tibet’s fragile rivers may prove disastrous in a region where the Chinese government has already been accused of “ecocide”.

In August of 2006 Beijing also announced a controversial river scheme, namely to divert, again more frankly thieve, Tibetan water to the parched Yellow River in the western China. According to Li Guoying, director of the Yellow River Water Conservancy Committee in Beijing, the Yellow River’s current flow is being exhausted by development demands in China’s west, and this “essential” project will be launched, perhaps as early as 2010.

Initially, the Yellow River scheme aims to transfer about four billion cubic meters of water annually, while decades later increasing the volume to 17 billion cubic meters each year. Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan expert on the region’s natural resources at the University of British Columbia in Canada, disputes such projections, counter claiming that “Tibet’s water availability is actually quite limited and these rivers depend on glaciers that are receding. The consequences just haven’t been thought through. This project is definitely not meant to develop Tibet”. Another, Yao Tandong, head of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Research Institute, warns that: “The full-scale glacier shrinkage in the plateau regions will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe.”

Now that China has emerged as a booming economic power, western companies are rumoured keen to take up contracts which capitalize on Tibet’s oil, natural gas, and gold reserves. In the quest for oil, Beijing is currently attempting to woo BP and Shell interest, with the partly state-owned PetroChina to oversee the opening up of 10 exploration blocks for foreign participation in the Qiantang basin, in the far north of Tibet, by late 2006.

Quoted in the oil industry’s Upstream as saying “The purpose of opening up Qiantang blocks is to protect our exploration rights in Tibet and accelerate the exploration at Qiantang”, PetroChina declares that the race is on now that the Golmud-Lhasa railway is complete. Few doubt the potential of Tibet’s natural reserves to enhance China’s corporate growth, but the likely large-scale environmental destruction may prove reminiscent, or even exceed, that of China’s indiscriminate logging of Tibet’s forests from the 1960s-1990s.

China’s myopic One Child Policy, introduced in 1979, reeked of misogyny, and accounts for the socially catastrophic absence of as many as 100 million females from the country’s demographics. Sky train has its teething problems, but may not prove myopic in terms of China’s economic and military ambitions, and is likely a major step towards China fulfilling the long-standing adage that “Whoever rules Tibet rules Asia, and Whoever rules Asia rules the World”. But by exploiting Tibet’s land, water, oil, and various other natural resources to meet those goals, China sends unmistakable signals that our Tibetan sisters and brothers are an endangered species who will struggle to survive in their nuclearized motherland.


Dr. Lynette Dumble and Ms. Susanne Menihane are social and environmental scientists from the Global Sisterhood Network, Dr. Dumble being GSN’s Founder and Director:


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