The world's highest railway opened for business on July 1st, spanning nearly 2,000 kilometres from China's Xining city to Lhasa, in Tibet. About 550km of the track runs over permafrost, thousands of kilometres above sea level. Its highest point sits at an elevation of 5,072 metres—so high that passengers making the first journey donned oxygen masks in the airplane-like cabins.
But the Tibetan railway represents more than an engineering marvel–built with the help of Canadian corporations like Bombardier and Nortel Networks. According to some rights groups, it represents the next step in a cultural genocide being waged by the Beijing government against the Tibetan people.
In the months leading up to the opening of the railway, China celebrated it as a technological achievement which would help develop the nation's vast and sparsely-populated western regions. China's state-run media outlet Xinhua News Agency reported that the railway “will benefit the Tibetan people the most” and strengthen its industries.
But bringing prosperity to Tibetans doesn't seem to register anywhere on the agenda of the mandarins in Beijing. When former Chinese President Jiang Zemin announced plans for the railway in 2001, he was up-front in saying that the project was about politics, not development.
“Some people advised me not to go ahead with this project because it is not commercially viable. I said this is a political decision,” he said.
Sure enough, some Chinese news websites provide a glimpse of the kind of development China's leaders had in mind. They say that the railway will promote “education” and an “exchange” of Chinese and Tibetan cultures. That's code for cultural assimilation, according to Tibetan rights activists, who fear that an influx of Chinese migrants will threaten Tibet's cultural identity and dampen calls for increased freedom and autonomy.
“Politically, China wants Tibetans to become a complete minority and to dilute Tibetan culture and identity,” Khedroob Thondup, a nephew of the Dalai Lama, was quoted as saying.
“This is the second invasion of Tibet.”
Many critics believe that the railway will be used to draw in even greater numbers of ethnic Chinese, who already outnumber native Tibetans in Tibet by some estimates.
“Tibetans today have become a minority in their own land,” writes the Tibetan Women's Association in a statement on the railway. “Especially in Lhasa, Chinese economic migrants have swamped the economic and social strata of Tibetan society.”
If true, the railway is just the latest in what has been a protracted campaign to strengthen the Communist regime's grip on the semi-autonomous and culturally unique region of Tibet. Since the Communist Party began its occupation of the region in 1950, it has engaged in the sometimes-violent suppression of Tibet's religious and cultural traditions. Thousands of monasteries have been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns either fled to India, faced imprisonment, or were forced to enter secular society.
In the last decade and a half, policies on Tibet's religious practices have become outwardly less restrictive. While many remain imprisoned, Tibet is now more open to tourism, and its economy is picking up.
But the Communist Party continues to suppress cultural and religious beliefs and practices in the region. At a recent meeting in Lhasa, Tibet's Communist Party secretary Zhang Qingli reportedly stressed the importance of what they called a “patriotic education” campaign in the region, and declared that the Party was in a “fight to the death” against supporters of the Dalai Lama. Beijing continues to send political work teams, accompanied by armed police, to Tibet's monasteries to indoctrinate its residents.
The Canadian corporations involved in the railway have deflected criticism from rights groups, saying either that they're not responsible for the how their technology is implemented or by saying that the railway is a positive force in developing Tibet.
Helene Gagnon, Senior Policy Director for Bombardier Transportation, says that the company has been supplying rail and subway cars to China for over 50 years and that the company believes that “maintaining an active presence in China can bring increased economic opportunity…. and improve circulation of information to previously isolated regions.”
Ethan Gutmann, author of Losing the New China: A Story of American Commerce, Desire, and Betrayal , had previously worked in China as an advisor to western corporations. He says that many corporations operating in China sincerely believe that engagement and technological advancements of any kind in the country will inevitably lead to greater freedom and transparency in that country. It's a “faith-based” rationalization for doing business in China, he says, and one that's difficult to find evidence for. Instead, he says, many political freedoms in China have actually been on the decline in recent years, sometimes with the help of western corporations.
To many Tibetan rights groups, Bombardier's support in building cars for the railway is a form of tacit approval of the Chinese regime's use of them.
“As a Tibetan-Canadian, I am appalled that Bombardier continues to defend their involvement in this railway,” says Losang Champa, President of Students for a Free Tibet Montreal in a press release. “The railway will increase the population transfer of Chinese settlers into Tibet exponentially and poses a dire threat to Tibetans' survival as a people. This makes Bombardier complicit in human rights violations in Tibet and we will continue to hold them accountable for their unjust actions.”
Bombardier built 173 of a total of 363 passenger cars for the project, with a further 51 luxury tourist coaches to be delivered in early 2007. Nortel provided the wireless communications technology for the trains, while Power Corp was part of a joint venture on the project.
The official Mainland newspaper, the People's Daily, reported recently in its overseas edition that the Chinese government plans to build three more railways in Tibet within the next 10 years.
Additional reporting by Joan Delaney