The Qinghai-Tibet Railway: China’s New Instrument for Assimilation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 14

The inauguration of the Qinghai-Tibet railway on July 1 marks a watershed in the Chinese leadership’s decades-long effort to tame the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The US$3 billion-odd, 2,000-kilometer railroad could become an effective weapon for Beijing’s alleged plan to “Sinicize” the restive region through the introduction of tens of thousands of tourists and private entrepreneurs into the inhospitable highlands every year. If Tibetans are significantly outnumbered by ethnic Han Chinese in their own territory, separatists and other disaffected elements will be hard put to stage a rebellion against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities.

It was no accident that President Hu Jintao was on hand to officiate at the inauguration ceremony last weekend. Having served as party secretary of the TAR from 1988 to 2002, Hu is the CCP’s ranking expert on Tibet. His suppression of the riots in Lhasa, March 1989, was widely seen as a prelude to—and model for—the Tiananmen Square crackdown three months later. Hu’s idea for breaking the back of the separatist movement was essentially the same as that of Chairman Mao Zedong—the population of Tibet with Han Chinese and the secularization of the predominantly Buddhist Tibetans. Mao made the decision in the 1950s to construct a railroad from neighboring Qinghai Province into Tibet. Owing to a lack of funds and low technological standards, however, the engineers were never able to develop beyond the 815-kilometer stretch from the Qinghai capital of Xining to Golmud, which is close to the border with Tibet and at the foot of the Himalayas.

Work to extend the Xining-Golmud line for 1,142 kilometers to reach Lhasa did not begin until 2001. Much of this section, which traverses plateaus and gorges 5,000- kilometers above sea level, was built over permafrost terrain. Special airtight car compartments with adequate supplies of oxygen had to be installed to accommodate passengers who could not withstand the high altitude, something that President Hu would empathize with; in 1990, the CCP’s rising star fell sick due to the high altitude, from which point he was often relegated to running Tibet from his residence in Beijing.

While presiding over the festivities in Golmud last Saturday, Hu played up the fact that the engineering feat testified “to the comprehensive strength and technological prowess of the nation.” The party chief and president understandably made no reference to the pro-independence movement during his inspection of the railway. While dwelling mostly on the benefits that the high-tech link would bring to local economies, however, Hu noted its “tremendously important significance toward boosting the unity of nationalities and strengthening the motherland’s border defenses” (Xinhua, July 1). At least one unspoken objective of the railroad, therefore, is to enable more Han Chinese to settle in Lama Territory.

Consequently, it should not be surprising that members of the Tibetan exiled movement have slammed Beijing’s latest move to instill “stability” in the TAR. Nawang Rapgyal, a spokesman for the Tibetan government-in-exile in India, said last week: “If the railway is used for political use—that is, the transfer of Chinese from China to Tibet, then it would be against the Tibetan people’s wish and we will be protesting that” (The Telegraph, Calcutta, July 1). Latest official statistics show that the TAR has a population of 2.4 million, with Han Chinese numbering less than 4%. This figure, however, which does not include the estimated 200,000 or so People’s Liberation Army soldiers and People’s Armed Police stationed in the region, is widely disputed by both foreign experts and the Dalai Lama’s exiled government.

Official Chinese media quoted the Tibet Tourism Bureau as estimating that the railway line—which conveniently feeds into the national rail network—would boost the number of sightseers by up to 4,000 a day (Xinhua, June 30). Despite the harsh, oxygen-thin climate, a growing number of the visitors, including job seekers from central and coastal provinces, may likely stay to try their luck. Already, Lhasa, until 10 years ago a predominantly Buddhist town, has been commercialized beyond recognition with the profusion of shops, restaurants and karaoke bars—all of which are operated by enterprising Han Chinese from the eastern provinces. Chinese cadres based in Tibet confidently predict that a Chinese-style, market-oriented culture and atmosphere will gradually envelop Lhasa and major TAR cities in the wake of better air, rail and highway communication with the rest of the country. Partly thanks to a new primary and secondary-school curriculum that gives pride of place to the learning of Mandarin Chinese as well as values deemed compatible with CCP ideals, a sizable proportion of the younger generation of Tibetans has become less attached to the lamas and other religious figures.

Political sources in Beijing say the opening of the Xining-Lhasa line may also render cadres specializing in Tibet work more confident, if not arrogant, in their on-again, off-again negotiation with representatives of the Dalai Lama. The sources say the Hu leadership is convinced that “time is on the side of the central authorities”—and it is unlikely that Beijing will allow the Dalai Lama to return to China, even for a brief visit, unless the latter were to make major concessions. This is in spite of the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has reiterated his willingness to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over the TAR.

The marked improvement in transportation into China’s extreme southwest region will also enable Chinese engineers and other specialists to tap the natural riches of Tibet, which include dozens of rare minerals. Moreover, at a time when China and most of its neighbors are worrying about dwindling supplies of water, the Himalayan region sits on the points of origin of several of the major rivers in China and Southeast and South Asia. Among these include the mighty Mekong, which flows into countries including Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Beijing’s ironclad control over upstream territories could significantly boost its bargaining power in economic and energy diplomacy with its neighboring nations.

At the same time, Beijing is weighing preliminary plans to extend the Tibet railway southward and westward into other countries, including Nepal and India. Not only would this enhance border trade but it would also serve to improve bilateral ties, particularly with China’s erstwhile enemy, India. From these perspectives, even though the initial costs of constructing and maintaining the Xining-Lhasa line seems excessive in light of the tepid commercial activities in this thinly populated part of China, the eventual payout—in economic, political and diplomatic terms—for the Hu leadership could be very substantial.

What the Chinese media has called “the Celestial Railroad” will also play a significant role in consolidating Hu’s political fortunes. While the railway was planned before Hu became party boss, the former head of Tibet hopes to claim as much credit for the high-tech wonder as possible. The inauguration of the rail link has also afforded Hu an opportunity to display his power base in this strategic part of China. While the bulk of the party chief’s followers seem to come from the Communist Youth League, quite a few of Hu’s current lieutenants are his comrades-in-arms with whom he served for more than a dozen years in the three western provinces of Gansu, Guizhou and Tibet. They include a good number of current cadres running western and northwestern China, including the party secretaries of Tibet, Xinjiang and Sichuan, respectively, Zhang Qingli, Wang Lequan and Zhang Xuezhong. Moreover, several officials who have received promotions the past few years have a connection with Tibet. Foremost among them is the party secretary of prosperous Shandong Province, Yang Chuantang, a former TAR party secretary himself.

While speaking to officials and engineers responsible for the “Railway to the Skies,” Hu placed an emphasis on the huge investments that the central government had made in the “go-west program.” For example, Beijing spent nearly one trillion yuan in infrastructure building in the western provinces during the 10th Five-Year Plan (2000-2005). Some 165 billion yuan is due to be lavished upon 12 major projects in the same region this year (China News Service, June 30). At the end of the day, Beijing’s ability to tame Tibet and Xinjiang will depend on the extent to which the CCP leadership can succeed in the Herculean task of resuscitating the economy as well as the social and cultural vitality in these distant regions. For a leader like Hu who has staked his reputation upon improving the well-being of China’s disadvantaged sectors, whether the average Tibetan will really be won over by Beijing’s largesse remains an open question.