Friday, 22 August 2014

China's new rail line lures tourists, workers to Tibet

BEIJING — Travelers in the Himalayas can now bypass some of Tibet's hazardous roads by using a new railway line that has renewed fears about Tibet's cultural identity and deepened concerns about China's ambitions in the strategic, high-altitude region.

Passenger services started Saturday on the railroad's just opened $2 billion extension line from Lhasa, Tibet's capital, to Shigatse, Tibet's second -largest city, and a major pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists.

The new rail line, which follows the completion of the Beijing-Lhasa line in 2006, connects the two cities in just two hours, compared with a five-to-seven-hour road trip on National Highway 318, "which is said to have many safety hazards," the state-runChina Daily newspaper said.

Indeed, on Monday, at least three passengers on a tour bus were killed and another 15 were missing after their bus plunged into a river southeast of Tibet, Chinese state media reported. The accident followed a similar tragedy nine days earlier, when 44 Chinese tourists died after their bus crashed off a cliff in southern Tibet. Monday's accident occurred on Highway 318, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

Rescuers work around an overturned tour bus after it fell off a cliff in Nyemo County, southwest China's mountainous region of Tibet Aug. 9, 2014. Xinhua reported the bus carrying about 40 people careened after it crashed in a pileup involving a sports utility vehicle and a pickup truck on a state road.(Photo: AP)

Tibet's government- in-exile argues that the rail extension threatens further cultural assimilation and environmental damage, as it may accelerate the mass immigration of Han Chinese -- China's majority ethnic group -- into Tibet. It may increase mining of Tibet's abundant mineral reserves including gold, chromium and coal. The line will allow easier transportation of mineral products but environmentalists worry about the effects of mining on Tibet's fragile eco-system.

Across the border with India, south of Shigatse, some Indians worry about the new extension and plans to connect China's railway to India, Nepal and Bhutan by 2020.

Tibet's growing rail network "is likely to leverage Beijing's claim over the disputed border region" with India, warned the PTI, India's largest news agency, as it cuts travel time for Chinese armed forces. The new rail infrastructure also greatly speeds China's own resource extraction from the potentially mineral-rich region, mining executive Zhu Bin told the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's newspaper, last month.

China asserted authority over Tibet in 1951. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959 and established a government in exile. Beijing has brought Tibet into the modern world, yet its sometimes repressive policies have angered many Tibetans still committed to the exiled Dalai Lama. Chinese authorities accuse him and exile organizations of plotting the self-immolation protests by Tibetans, which began in 2009 and now number over 130, mostly fatal, incidents.

The Beijing-to-Lhasa route was the world's highest railroad when built. Chinese officials and media have celebrated the new, shorter line as another miracle. The 156-mile route, a third of which runs through tunnels, defeated permafrost, bitter temperatures, earthquakes and low oxygen levels, at a cost of nearly $2,500 a foot, according to Xinhua. On board, passengers can access a free supply of oxygen under each seat to cope with heights of more than 13,000 feet. Two doctors also ride each service.

After a forum on Tibet's development last week, Chinese officials released the "Lhasa Consensus", a statement reproducing Beijing's rosy views about the "happy life" and religious freedom Tibetans enjoy. Western media, barred from independent reporting in Tibet, is "biased", while "the Dalai clique's statements on Tibet are distorted and incorrect", the consensus said.

The International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group, said the consensus statement was circulated as news emerged that paramilitary troops had two days earlier shot and seriously injured at least 10 unarmed Tibetans in eastern Tibet.

China's government has responded to five years of self-immolations "by intensifying the military buildup in Tibet and strengthening the policies and approaches that are the root cause of the acts, such as aggressive campaigns against loyalty to the Dalai Lama," the International Campaign for Tibet said.

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