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Chinese Train Carries Controversy

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
August 31, 2006

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With much fanfare, China opened the world's highest railroad (AP) connecting Beijing with the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, on July 1, the Chinese Communist Party anniversary. An engineering feat, the high-tech train reaches heights of more than 16,500 feet and carries passengers in sealed cars pumped with oxygen across the frozen Himalayas. But two months after its inauguration, the train is already experiencing trouble. Cracks have appeared in concrete bridges and the railbed is proving unstable in certain areas (RFE/RL); one passenger has already died from altitude sickness (The Standard).

Beijing's development in Tibet, part of its "March toward Modernization" policy, is having its own set of problems. Chinese President Hu Jintao called the opening of the train line a historic opportunity for economic and social development in the region (Xinhua). But the Wall Street Journal reports that Chinese entrepreneurs hoping to start business ventures offered by the railway, which is expected to bring 800,000 visitors to Tibet each year, are meeting with local resistance. Activists have demonstrated against the train line, claiming it threatens Tibetan culture by increasing the flow of ethnic Han Chinese to the area (BosGlobe). The International Campaign for Tibet offers a history of Beijing's policy on Han migration with the aim of assimilating Tibetans into China.

Beijing's impatience with development in Tibet is evidenced by recent official and media outbursts against the exiled Dalai Lama, says Howard French of the New York Times. Since 1998, the Dalai Lama has proposed a "Middle Way" approach in which Tibet would have a democratically elected government but remain part of China. Yet in a recent Der Spiegel interview, Zhang Quigli, the new Communist Party chief in Tibet, calls the religious leader a "splittist" who "deceived his motherland" and will only be allowed to negotiate his return when he "declares to the world that he has given up claims to independence for Tibet." Isabel Hilton writes in the Guardian that the Tibetan monk's influence is of such great concern to Beijing that when Tibetans gathered for public fur burnings after he called for an end to wearing animal skins in January, the Chinese government responded by ordering its broadcasters to wear fur. Hilton says the recent tensions between the exiled monk's supporters and the Chinese authorities are causing "cracks in the official Chinese narrative of unity and harmony between Tibet and China." During the Dalai Lama's recent trip to Mongolia, Chinese authorities stated they are opposed to any country allowing him a political platform for his views on Beijing's policy (BBC).

As GlobalSecurity.org explains, though the Dalai Lama was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, Western nations have been hesitant to condemn China's policies in Tibet for fear of harming their own relations with Beijing. A U.S. State Department report expresses continued concern over human rights abuses in Tibet.

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