r a i l r o a d   t o   r u i n

In June 2001, the Chinese government began construction on the Gormo-Lhasa Railway to connect China to the very heart of Tibet.

Building this railway is a monumental task, which the Chinese government said they have been working towards for over 20 years. The tracks will reach a total length of 1,118 km, over 960 km of which will be at or above an altitude of 4,500 meters (13,000 feet). Over 560 km of the track will be laid on ever-shifting permafrost earth. The rail line will pass through 30 tunnels and bridges, and run parallel to the Gormo-Lhasa highway. According to a 1995 static evaluation, the project will cost 19.4 billion yuan (US$2.34 billion). In short, this project represents what one reporter has called China's most massive development project to date, outdoing even the Three Gorges Dam.

This is a politically motivated project. China is building this railway to consolidate its military and economic control over occupied Tibet. As such, this project is opposed by the Tibetan people in Tibet as well as by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. The Tibet railway is among the greatest current threats to Tibet's survival.

The Tibet railway project is fraught with many dangers and technical challenges due to the high altitude of construction, permafrost, and seismic instability of the region.

Permafrost, a layer of earth that is frozen year-round, varies in thickness from season to season thus dangerously destabilizing any sort of construction laid on it. Over 550 km of the line will pass through permafrost regions, of which 190 km is "not stable" and 100 km is "not at all stable".

Earthquakes and tremors in the seismically active regions the line will run through pose additional risks to the stability of the line and safety of passengers and cargo. According to the chief geologist of the project, Hu Daogong, "The line goes over an area of frozen earth that is subject to earthquake and tremors that could cut the line at any time. Only God knows."

The high altitudes of the region - at one point exceeding 4,545 meters (14,911 feet) - pose additional physical hazards for construction as well as actual use of the line. Teams of doctors with oxygen tanks have been dispatched to construction sites to treat those with altitude sickness. The Chicago Tribune cites that "the air is so thin that unacclimatized workers risk nosebleeds, blackouts, and death." Chinese doctors associated with the project have recommended that workers perform only 4-6 hour-long shifts per day and only six months a year. Once construction is complete, the altitude will require special trains that can function with low oxygen levels as well as pressurized cars to prevent altitude sickness in passengers.

Both during construction and once complete, the railroad will help engender environmental depravity with overwhelming consequences.

Environmental concerns with the Gormo-Lhasa railway already cited by the TGIE include:

  • Eased transfer, and thus increased extraction, of minerals and other natural resources from Tibet to China;
  • Damage to wildlife;
  • Contamination of water bodies, particularly that of the Drachu (Yangtse), Gyamo-Hulchu (Salween), and Dzachu (Mekong) rivers; and
  • Inducement of deflation and soil erosion as a result of escalating resource exploitation.

The ease of China's militarization of Tibet is hampered by the arduous journey that overland travel into the heart of Tibet requires. The completion of the Gormo-Lhasa railway, as well as other planned lines into Tibet, will cement China's grip on the territory, easing the rapid deployment of military personnel and equipment throughout the plateau. In addition to implications for local Tibetans, this will pose a threat to India's security. Already the Tibetan plateau has been used to build and test nuclear weapons. According to the Tibetan Government in Exile, "Today, China's military arsenal on the (Tibetan) plateau is believed to include 17 top secret radar stations, eight missile bases with at least eight intercontinental ballistic missiles, 70 medium-range and 20 intermediate-range missiles, and 25 airfields and airstrips." The railway would facilitate further development of China's nuclear programs in Tibet, and thus pose additional security threats to the region.

The railway is intended to facilitate increased Chinese population transfer and economic migration into Tibet, further diluting the Tibetan population and threatening Tibet's cultural survival. It is estimated that within the first year, an additional one million Chinese settlers will pour into Tibet via the railway alone. This will exacerbate the ongoing economic marginalization of Tibetans in Tibet and increase ethnic tensions in the area.

In addition, the construction of the railway itself is drawing thousands of Chinese migrant laborers into Tibet rather than providing jobs to local Tibetans. It has been reported that of the 38,000 jobs open to workers, only 6,000 are occupied by Tibetans. 10,000 of the positions are for skilled workers, but according to reports no Tibetans qualified for these jobs. Gormo's vice mayor Xia Jiaxiang said the railway will create 50,000 jobs and swell the population of the town to 350,000. Even after construction, long-term jobs such as cleaning and ticket selling tend to be given to more skilled Chinese migrant workers.

We can see the impact of such railways on local peoples in cases as far away as the U.S. railways' opening of the American West, where millions of Native peoples were murdered and marginalized, and as close as the existing Xining-Gormo railway in the Amdo province of Tibet. Gormo is a good illustration of what we can expect for Lhasa and the rest of Tibet if this railway is completed.

Gormo is in the Amdo province of Tibet, the majority of which China annexed into its Qinghai province, formed in 1952. In 1958 China began constructing a railway to link Gormo through Xining and Lanzhou from mainland China. This project was completed in 1984. Today Tibetans reportedly account for only 21% of the province's 4.95 million population. As a reporter from the BBC news said in August 2001, "Forty years ago, before the railway came, there was nothing here, just open steppe and wandering Tibetan herdsmen. But today Golmud is home to 200,000 people, almost all of them immigrants from eastern China. Less than 5% of the population is Tibetan."

Though China claims this project will be wholly state-funded, it is expected that the government will seek funds through international lending institutions, as well as through international capital market injections such as sovereign bond offerings.

In September-October 2002, the U.S. Tibet Committee (USTC) sent out letters on behalf of the International Tibet Support Network (ITSN) to about 80 contacts at 22 different investment institutions, banks, and railway tech companies to put them on notice about our serious concerns regarding the Gormo-Lhasa railway project and find out if they are involved.

We are seeking a commitment from these companies to refrain from any present or future involvement in this project. Support of China's construction of the Gormo-Lhasa railway amounts to implication in China's brutal occupation of Tibet, its rape of Tibet's resources, and its attempted genocide of the Tibetan people. We are working with an international coalition of Tibet Support Groups, and are in the process of formulating a complete strategy to force those who invest or have any part in the Gormo-Lhasa railway to pull out of the project.


[ photo | nancy jo johnson ]

The U.S. Tibet Committee | 241 East 32nd Street | NYC 10016
tel 212 481 3569 | ustc@igc.org

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