By Joseph Kahn The New York Times
FRIDAY, JUNE 30, 2006
BEIJING China this weekend is opening the world's highest railway, a 1,140- kilometer line that crosses the vertiginous Tibetan Plateau and forges a steel bond with the once secluded Buddhist holy city of Lhasa.
The railway, expected to be inaugurated by President Hu Jintao and other top Communist Party cadres on a deluxe opening run, is an engineering marvel that traverses unstable permafrost and reaches more than 5,000 meters, or 16,500 feet, above sea level, higher than France's Mont Blanc.
Party officials have hailed the $4.1 billion project, which was decades in the making, as a milestone in its efforts to develop its vast, poor western region and bring a fresh infusion of people and prosperity to remote Tibet.
But Tibetan and foreign critics say the railway benefits Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group, at the expense of Tibetan natives. They argue that enhanced transportation links will accelerate a trend of Han-led economic development and smother Tibet's ancient spiritual culture, while undermining the pristine natural environment of its highlands.
"The overwhelming opinion among Tibetans is that the railway will consolidate Chinese control and bring in huge numbers of Han Chinese," said Tenzin Tsundue, an independent Tibetan writer and activist who lives in India.
"It will mean less employment and more destruction for Tibetans, not more opportunity," he said.
On Friday, three women from the United States, Canada and Britain were detained briefly after they climbed through a second-floor window at Beijing's main train station and unfurled a black-and-white banner that read, "China's Tibet Railway, Designed to Destroy."
Chinese officials defend the railway as vital to stimulating Tibet's development. They project it will double tourist revenues and reduce the cost of cargo transport by up to three-fourths.
"The completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway is a significant piece of good news longed for by the people in Qinghai Province and the Tibetan Autonomous Region," Zhu Zhensheng, executive vice director of the Qingzang Railway Office of the Chinese Railway Administration, said in a news briefing this past week. "The railway provides capacity for the quick flow of people, goods and information" and will directly contribute to the development of the area, Zhu said.
Mao proposed extending a railway to Tibet after the People's Liberation Army invaded the territory and brought it firmly under Chinese control in 1951, sending the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, into exile.
The first section, extending from Beijing to Golmud in Qinghai Province, was completed in 1984. But the 710-mile section connecting Golmud to Lhasa was put on indefinite hold. It would have to cross the Tibetan Plateau, survive extreme temperatures and stay fixed in the shifting permafrost of the highlands.
The plan was revived in 2001, when it was promoted as a key element of the Communist Party's "Go West" campaign. Engineers decided that bridges could span the most treacherous area of permafrost and that naturally cooled piping sunk into the ground could keep the tracks and embankment frozen to reduce instability.
Bombardier of Canada supplied specially outfitted train cars that supply oxygen, like aircraft, to prevent sickness among passengers at high altitudes.
A direct Beijing-to-Lhasa luxury train will be officially unveiled Saturday to coincide with the 85th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Communist Party. State media have been promoting the train for weeks as a new feather in the cap of state engineers who also celebrated the formal completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest dam, this spring.
But the event is being tightly controlled by Chinese officials to ensure favorable coverage. They handpicked 40 foreign journalists to ride the first train. Other news organizations, including The New York Times, that purchased train tickets independently were denied permits to enter Tibetan territory.
Even at the official price tag of $4.1 billion, the railway is difficult to justify in economic terms. Tibet's total gross domestic product in 2005 was $3.12 billion, so the payoff in terms of boosting economic activity would appear to lie decades in the future if it ever comes.
Also, foreign engineers who have been involved with elements of the project, but asked not to be identified because they did not wish to offend their Chinese sponsors, say the railway will require heavy expenditures on maintenance and may be difficult to run for more than a decade without an extensive overhaul.
Tibetan activists say they do not oppose the railway in principle but argue that it was conceived mainly to enhance China's economic and military control over the Tibetan region.
Even as they promote the rail line, Chinese officials still focus heavily on combating what they call Tibetan separatism, especially the resilient loyalty there to the Dalai Lama. Zhang Qingli, recently appointed as the Communist Party's top official in Tibet, told party leaders there in May that they were engaged in "a fight to the death" against the Dalai Lama, Tibet Daily reported.