TIBET IN THE 1980s, 1990s AND 2000s


In 1979, when a delegation from Dharamsala was allowed to visit Tibet, Party officials— seemingly believing their own propaganda—urged Tibetans not to throw stones or spit at the Dalai Lama’s representatives, out of hatred of the old society. But when the contingent arrived it was mobbed by thousands of adoring Tibetans, prostrating themselves and clamoring to touch the Dalai Lama’s brother. A stunned Party chief complained that all the efforts of the previous decades had evidently been no more effective than throwing money into the Lhasa River. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

After the Cultural Revolution, Tibetans rushed to rebuild the temples and monasteries and reinstate the Buddha's statue among the ruins. The Beijing government eased restrictions on Tibetans briefly during the 1980s, but that respite, along with other political reforms in China, ended with the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Since then, Tibet’s relations with the capital have reverted to a cycle of confrontation, with Tibetan protests spurring punishment, giving rise to more protest. [Source: Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2013]

Tsering Shakya wrote in New Left Review: “In the 1980s, the CCP purged "three categories of people" who had committed crimes during the Cultural Revolution, but that in Tibet, despite repeated appeals by leaders such as the Panchen Rinpoche, no such purge took place. Hu Yaobang noted in his speech at the Tibet Work Forum in 1984 that he had received written submissions from both traditional leaders and CCP members, urging the Party to expel such people; instead he promoted them, saying they could be reformed. The real reason was that the Communist Party could not find anyone else they could trust to run Tibet so dutifully. The stark contrast between the policy implemented in the TAR and that applied to the rest of China highlights the classic colonial tactic, often observed in Western imperial practice, whereby the hegemonic power seeks to cultivate loyal and servile natives to guard its interests. China rules Tibet differently from China, because there it faces the problems of being a colonial power. [Source: Tsering Shakya, New Left Review, May-June 2002 ^*^]

Tolerance in Tibet After the Cultural Revolution

The 1980s, after the collapse of the Cultural Revolution, was a period of relative tolerance by the Chinese in Tibet in part to make amends for past wrongs. Tibetans were allowed to reopen Buddhist shrines and monasteries. Monasteries destroyed in the Cultural Revolution were rebuilt. The Tibetan language was reintroduced in schools. Rural communes were dismantled and land was returned to private farmers who were allowed to grow whatever they wanted and sell it on the open market. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said all issues cold be discussed except independence.

In many cases the government provided laborers to help rebuild sacred buildings destroyed by the Red Guard. It is not clear, however, whether the Chinese did this as a goodwill gesture or to bring in more tourist dollars. In 1997, there were 1,700 monasteries and 130,000 monks and nuns. The rebuilt monasteries according to Reuter "are more like museums for tourists than genuine places of worship."

The liberal policy was pushed by the Communist party chief Hu Yaobang, who visited Tibet in the early 1980s and was appalled by how destructive Mao's policies had been there. He advocated helping spur economic growth in Tibet and allowing Tibetans to maintain their culture. The Dalai Lama was invited to China. Suspicious of Beijing’s intentions he sent fact finding teams instead. Even though he and the world were dismayed by what the fact finders reported in Tibet the Dalai lama was optimistic.

In 1980, Hu Yaobong apologized to Tibetans in Lhasa for the terrible things the Communist had done in Tibet. He slowed the migration of Han Chinese to Tibet and urged Chinese to leave Tibet to the Tibetans. Unfortunately for Tibetans Hu was ousted from the party by hardliners in 1987. Chinese policy towards Tibet changed after demostrations in Tibet in the late 1980s and after Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Chinese Policy Towards Tibet in the 1980s

left “In 1984, when negotiations stalled,” Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “China made a momentous change: if the Dalai Lama could not be enticed back to China, then Beijing would buy stability in Tibet through economic development. It approved forty-two major construction projects in Tibet and encouraged other ethnicities to seek work there. Thanks to what Chinese economists called a “blood transfusion” from the East, Tibet now has highways, bridges, and factories on a par with other parts of China. But the influx of non-Tibetans has become a leading cause of unrest.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

“In March, 1989, Tibetans in Lhasa held the largest anti-Chinese demonstrations there in decades, in honor of the anniversary of the 1959 unrest that coincided with the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile. The task of restoring order fell to Hu Jintao, a promising young cadre who was the Party boss in Tibet. He asked Beijing to declare martial law and cracked down on rioters. (He was rewarded for keeping the peace. Today, he is China’s President and Party chief.) [Ibid]

In 1989, the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize and hundreds were killed around Tiananmen Square, Beijing authorities invited the Dalai Lama to make his first trip China in decades, to attend the funeral of a high-ranking lama. But his advisers worried that accepting the trip could weaken his bargaining position and he declined, a decision that senior aides now regret. [Ibid]

By this time, Osnos wrote, the “Dalai Lama became increasingly convinced that the quest for independence was doomed, not only because of his belief in pacifism but also because of simple demographics. “A holistic view brings realistic action,” he told me. China is a “huge country. . . . So, therefore, the best way to deal with China is not confrontation but through reason.” In 1988, he publicly abandoned the goal of independence in favor of what he calls the Middle Way, which seeks greater autonomy within Chinese borders. [Ibid]

Chinese View of the Development in Tibet

According to the Chinese government: After the peaceful liberation, the economic construction of Tibet has made great progress, and people's living standard has been improved remarkably. Especially after the democratic reform, the social productive forces of Tibet have got liberated and developed unprecedentedly. The total output value of the whole Region in 2000 was 50 times as much as that in 1959 at the beginning of the democratic reform. Basic facilities have grown out of nothing, and developed and expanded continuously. Agricultural producing has become mechanized. Incomes of residents in urban and rural areas have increased sustainedly, most of the people break away from poverty and some of them live a relatively comfortable life. In 2000, the number of per capita color TV and self-phone of Lhasa occupied the first place all over the Country, and the per capita area of housing also is the highest. Nowadays, Tibet has several hundred modern industrial enterprises including electric power, mining, cement, tanning, machine fixing, wool spinning, food, building materials, printing, etc, and the modernized industry with Tibetan characters has formed preliminarily. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

“A road net with Lhasa as the center and the Qinghai-Tibet highway, the Sichuan-Tibet highway, the Xinjiang-Tibet highway, the Yunnan-Tibet highway and the China-Nepal highway as the framework has come into being. Among them, there are 15 main highways, and 315 feeder highways. The highways extending in all directions connect all the counties and 77 percent of the townships of Tibet. Air transportation develops very fast, and construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway has started. Increasingly convenient communications and transportation have promoted effectively the construction of modernization. Such causes as education, science and technology, culture and health develop vigorously, and the quality of ideology and morality and scientific and cultural quality of different nationalities in Tibet has generally improved. The right of believing in religion freely for the vast people who are religious has been practically protected and respected.” ~

“What should be especially pointed out is: during the 50 years since the peaceful liberation of Tibet, the government of China has given energetic support and special consideration on aspects of labor power, material resources, financial resources, technology and policies. Especially since the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee, the Central Committee has convened four forums about work in Tibet, and strengthens the energy for supporting Tibet. At the first meeting in 1980, the Central Committee defined the mission and aim of carrying out special policies in Tibet, and letting peasants and herdsmen recuperate and multiply, develop production, and become rich as quickly as possible. ~

“At the second meeting in 1984, they emphatically studied the problems in economic construction of Tibet, and relaxed policies furtherly. They also decided that the 43 project items in Tibet that were urgently needed to be constructed would be helped by nine provinces and cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Jiangsu. At the third meeting in 1994, they put forward the policies and measures of speeding up the development of Tibet and defending the social stability. They also defined the task and aim for the development of Tibet, an decided the strategic decision that the whole Country assist Tibet, and relevant ministries and commissions of the Central Committee and 15 provinces and cities assist Tibet according to the needs of it. They decided to help constructing 62 key projects. ~

“The forth meeting was held in June.2001, and it was decided that the realm for carrying out preferential policies would be wider, and the strength of support would be enhanced. The number of supporting units assisted constructing projects and money thrown in the construction was unprecedented. During the last 50 years, all kinds of investment and financial allowances given to Tibet by the Central Government have amounted to more than 500 hundred million yuans. Since the third forum about work in Tibet in 1994, in addition to investment by the Central Government, fraternal provinces and cities have invested 22.4 hundred million yuans, and helped 576 construction projects. Relevant ministries and commissions of the Central Committee have invested 9.2 hundred million yuans, and helped construction of 140 projects. These also became important driving forces for the development of Tibetan economy and society.” ~

During the tenth "Five-Year Plan" (2001-2005), China said it was “going to invest directly 312 hundred million yuans, construct 117 key projects for Tibet, give 379 hundred million financial allowances to Tibet, and different provinces and cities assist 10.62 hundred million yuans. The total money amounts to over 700 hundred million yuans, which could ensure keeping faster developing speed of all economic and social causes of Tibet. The future of Tibet will be more glorious, and life of different nationalities, especially the Tibetans in Tibet will be more auspicious and happier.” ~

Chinese View of the Political Development of Tibet

According to the Chinese government: “The great victory in the democratic revolution and the ensuing socialist transformation brought about tremendous changes to the whole Tibetan community. Since 1980, the central government has introduced a set of special policies to enable the Tibetan people to recoup their strength and make up for the damage they had suffered during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976). The policies include remission of taxation on collective and individual producers for a long time to come; authorization of private use of land and livestock by households for a long time while public ownership of land, forests and grassland is upheld; protection of the farmers' and herdsmen's right of determination in production and encouragement of a diversified economy based principally on household operations; free disposal of farm and animal by-products on the market, and encouragement of individual and collective industrial and commercial enterprises. All these have brought forth the initiative of the Tibetan people and stimulated the growth of the local economy. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“Tibet has also received support and aid from the central government and other areas of China. From 1952 to 1984, the central government gave a total of 7.9 billion yuan to Tibet in the form of financial grants. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region, some provinces and cities and the state economic departments built 43 major construction projects in the region. These included a geothermal power station at Yangbajan, auxiliary facilities for the Qinghai-Tibet highway, the premises of Tibet University, a hotel, a theatre, a training center with audio-visual teaching aids and a stadium in Lhasa, a solar energy power station at Xigaze, and a hospital and an art gallery at Zetang. |

“Religious activities are protected by the government. Temples have been renovated and repair. Buddhist statues, volumes of scriptures, ancient porcelain articles and other precious relics lost during the ten-year turmoil of the "cultural revolution" have been returned to the monasteries. Among them was a bronze statue of Sakyamuni brought to Tibet by Princess Brikuthi from Nepal in the 7th century. It is now kept in the Qoikang Monastery in Lhasa. An institute of Buddhist theology has been set up and preparations are being made to restore the scripture printing house. Tibet now has several thousand lamas, and the government sets no limit to the number of monks in the monasteries. |

“Tibetan officials and government functionaries are increasing rapidly. By the end of 1985, there were 31,900 officials and government functionaries of Tibetan and other minority nationalities, accounting for 62 per cent of the total. The principal positions in the governments at all levels are now held by members of these minority ethnic groups. Their ability and educational standards have been improving steadily.” |

Chinese View of the Economic Development of Tibet

Rapid developments have been reported by all trades and services in Tibet. Starting from scratch, Tibet's industry boasted more than 300 factories and mines by the end of 1984, covering power generating, metallurgy, woolen textiles, machinery, chemical engineering, pharmaceuticals, paper making and printing. They turned out more than 80 products, with a total value of 168 million yuan a year. The bleak and desolate Bangon, Markam and Qaidam areas have become major industrial centers. Good harvests have been reaped consecutively. In 1984, total grain output reached 494,000 tons and the animals in stock by the end of the year numbered 21.68 million, nearly double the 1965 figure. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“The living standards of the Tibetan people have been rising steadily. The peasants, who lived in rickety sheds and never had enough food, have moved into bright and spacious houses with glass windows and stored up more grain and meat than they can consume. Brightly decorated furniture, television sets and cassette recorders have also made their way into the home of former serfs. However, about small percentage of the peasants and herdsmen have not yet shaken off poverty, although their living conditions are better than in the old days.” |

Chinese View of Infrastructure Development of Tibet

According to the Chinese government: “There was no highway in Tibet before liberation. Since the People's Liberation Army marched into Tibet, several major trunk roads were built, including the Qinghai-Tibet highway (1954), the Sichuan-Tibet highway (1954), the Yunnan-Tibet highway (1976) and the Xinjiang-Tibet highway (1957) which linked up the Tibetan areas. A network of motor roads fanning out from Lhasa has been formed, extending to almost all counties. In 1984, the total length of roads open to traffic in Tibet reached 21,500 kilometers. The people's air force made the first successful flight from Beijing to Lhasa in 1956 and since then regular air services have linked Lhasa with Xining, Chengdu, Lanzhou and Xi'an. Roads also connect Tibet with the Kingdom of Nepal. The Longhai Railway runs through the Tianzhu Tibetan Prefecture in Gansu and the Qinghai-Tibet Railway starting from Xining has already reached Golmud in Qinghai. An oil pipeline extending from Golmud to Lhasa — a significant project for strengthening the defense of the southwest China borders and developing the local economy — has been completed. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“Radical changes have also taken place in culture and education. The one million serfs who were deprived of education before liberation are attending schools in Tibet or nationalities institutes in other parts of the country. With no institution of higher learning before, Tibet had three such institutions by the end of 1985 as well as 2,600 middle and primary schools, with a total enrolment 87 per cent more than in 1965. Many Tibetan professors, engineers, doctors, veterinarians, agronomists, accountants, journalists, writers and artists have been trained. The Tibetan language and customs and habits are enjoying respect and the outstanding heritage of Tibetan culture has been carried forward. Medical and health organizations have been established in all parts of the region, which had more than 500 hospitals by the end of 1984. A special team of medical personnel are making a systematic study of Tibetan medicine and pharmacology.” |

Demonstrations in Tibet in the 1980s

Demonstrations that grew into a near uprising began in September 1987 after the Dalai Lama proposed a peace plan for Tibet in a speech before the U.S. Congress. Young monks from Sera monastery, circumambulating Jokhang Temple, began shouting “Long Live the Dalai Lama” and “Independence for Tibet.” They were joined by bystanders and sympathizers demanding Tibetan independence. Four days later another group of monks and demonstrators shouted similar slogans while waving Tibetan flags. Chinese soldiers reportedly opened fire on them. A Chinese police station was burnt to the ground. Afterwards, additional Chinese police and armed troops were sent to Tibet.

The largest Tibetan pro-independence demonstration occurred in March 1989, during the Monlam Festival in Lhasa, to commemorate the uprising in 1959. Thousands of protesters took the street. At least 75 people were killed and hundreds were arrested in three days of clashes between Tibetan demonstrators and Chinese security forces. Afterwards authorities imposed martial law and PLA troops were dispatched onto the streets and in villages and the Dalai Lama told demonstrators to return to peaceful protests.

Crackdown in Tibet After Demonstrations in the 1980s

The Communists cracked down hard on pro-independence supporters after 1080s protests. Martial law lasted for about two years.

Chinese security forces were able to easily crush Tibetan resistance. Each time the Tibetans revolted they were dealt a humiliating defeat. "Tibetan independence is fueled mostly by misguided people in Congress and Tibetans in exile," a Western analyst told the Washington Post. "It is a crime to encourage Tibetans to think they will gain independence. It's not going to happen.”

The Communist Party leader in Tibet at that time of the crackdown was Hu Jintao, the current president of China. He is not remembered for being particularly harsh or being particularly sympathetic to the Tibetan cause. Most say he simply followed orders.

According to one biographer Hu Jintao made himself unavailable during the initial riots in 1989 and paramilitary police reportedly took matters into their own hands and crackdowned on protesters without orders from Hu. In this way Hu got credit for restoring order but also protected himself in the crackdown failed. Around this time Hu caught the eye of Deng Xiaoping and was appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee, paving the way for him to become leader of China.

After 1989 Beijing moved swiftly to consolidate its powers by taking control over Tibet’s Buddhists the best they could and diluting the authority of the Dalai Lama. Security forces were sent to the monasteries and “Democratic management committees” were established in them. Police stations were opened outside the major monasteries.

Tensions and Violence in Tibet in the 1990s and 2000s

Pro-Tibet protest in Toronto

Chinese rule in Tibet was particularly repressive from 1992 to 2000 when the Communist Party chief for Tibet was Chen Kuiyan. In 1997 he declared that Buddhism, which had been around for 1,000 years, was "foreign" to Tibet.

A report released by Human Rights/Asia in 1995 said: "In its drive to crush dissent, the Chinese state is widening the range of discontent, increasingly criminalizing the process of political criticism, and imprisoning more ordinary Tibetans than at any time since the late 1980s." There was a "renewed crackdown on religious activities, torture of independence advocates and dramatic escalation of arrests."

Tibetan women with scarves gagging their mouths marched to protest the repression in their homeland. A riot broke out in Lhasa after a Tibetan man at a Muslim Hui restaurant found "a long fingernail" in his dumplings and shouted "They're serving human flesh!"

There was an unconfirmed reports that seven Tibetans were killed and 60 were badly wounded in violence during a pro-independence protest at a prison in Tibet in May 1998.

In 1998, after months of research in Tibet, the Chinese writer Wang Lixiong noted that the region “is more prosperous now than ever before in its history. However, this has not gained the People’s Republic of China the allegiance of the Tibetans, more and more of whom have become attached to the Dalai Lama.” In another piece, Wang warned, “The present stability is superficial.” For his writings on Tibet and elsewhere, he was eventually placed under house arrest.

See Human Rights, Government

See Serthar, Tibetan Buddhism and Sects

Repression Ebbs and Flows in Tibet

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Unfurling banner at the Great Wall in 2007

The selection of Hu Jintao as the president of China in 2003 has given some Tibetans some hope since he was the governor of Tibet in the late 1980s and has first hand knowledge of Tibet. Many regard him as open minded and may support more liberal policies. The removal of a hardline local party chief in 2000 was also viewed as a good sign by many Tibetans.

In recent years there has been cycles of repression and easing of repression. By the mid 2000s, Beijing was restoring temples and monasteries and helping pilgrims. The official position seemed to be that the government had nothing against Buddhism or practicing religion as long as worship was not politicized. Beijing, however, continued its hard line stance on the Dalai Lama.

Pictures of the Dalai Lama became increasingly common sights in homes and sometimes in out of the way corners of temples. Monks kept picture of him under their robes like Christian scalpulars. While Beijing didn’t like them it didn’t raid homes or do body searches to find them either.

Tibetans caught trying to escape from Tibet were not dealt with as harshly as they were a few years earlier. One monk told the Washington Post he was caught by guards at the border while trying to escape to India. Instead of being imprisoned or punished in another way he was simply driven back to his monastery. Monks accused of pro-independence activities were only required to attend patriotic education classes.

In the summer of 2006 repression was stepped up. NGO operations were curtailed; Tibetan-themed blogs were shut down; workers were forced to write criticisms of the Dalai Lama. Some analysts believed that the move showed division in the Communist leadership over recent moves by the Dalai Lama and the arrival in May 2006 of a new party secretary for Tibet, Zhang Qingli, a hardliner and a friend of President Hu Jintao.

In late 2007 there were reports from the London-based Free Tibet Campaign that Tibetans were being forced to sign a petition opposing the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet.

See Easing of Tensions Between Tibet and Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama

Protests in Tibet in the 2000s

Tibetan demonstrations follow a similar pattern. Monks usually take the lead and lay people support and protect them. In 2006 there was some violence at Ganden monastery near Lhasa when monks showed veiled support for the Dalai Lama in a dispute over a clay statue of an obscure deity. Beijing responded by accusing the Dalai Lama of ‘sabotaging the unity of Tibet.” At Sera monastery a monk reportedly hung himself to avoid signing a paper criticizing the Dalai Lama.

In August 2007, about 200 supporters of the Dalai Lama who called for his return were arrested by police in Lithang, an ethnic Tibetan area in Sichuan Province, where people had gathered for a horse festival. The incident was triggered when a local Tibetan nomad named Runggye Adak spoke about the Dalai Lama in public. In November 2007, Adak was convicted of “trying to split China” and “subversion” for shouting “long live the Dalai Lama” at the horse festival.

Around the time of the beginning of the one year countdown to the start of the Olympics, large anti-Chinese, pro-Tibetan protests were staged in New Delhi; a huge banner protesting the Chinese presence in Tibet was hung on the Great Wall of China; and a pro-Tibetan activist shouted questions members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when they visited Beijing. The foreign protesters who hung the banner and the activist who harassed the IOC were deported on a plane to Hong Kong.

In 2007 and 2008 there were several demonstrations staged by non-Tibetans in China held in connection with the Olympics. In April 2007, Chinese authorities arrested four pro-Tibetan protesters who had hiked to Mt. Everest base camp and hung a banner to protest the Olympic torch relay through Tibet. Around the same time a soccer match between players form India and Tibet was staged in Delhi to protest the Beijing Olympics. See Olympics

In October 2007, Tibetan exiles stormed the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, India to protest new religious restrictions implemented a month earlier. About 30 to 50 protesters participated, including some maroon-robed monks who chained themselves to the flagpole inside the embassy before they were arrested. Beijing blamed the Dalai Lama for instigating the attack.

In October 2006, several hundred young educated Tibetan gathered in front of the local government administrative building in Lhasa to protest the fact that they were educated and qualified but jobs went to Han Chinese not them.

See Tibetan History, Uprising in 2008, Olympics

Economic Improvements in Tibet

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New train station in Lhasa

The Chinese have poured a lot of money, time and energy into modernizing and developing Tibet. Since 1959 the Chinese government has spent more than $30 billion in Tibet and increased life expectancy from 35.5 to 67 years and raised GDP from 142 yuan to 13,861 yuan. In recent years, helped by subsidies, the economy in Tibet has grown in double digit numbers, higher than those of China as a whole. Between 2001 and 2005, Tibet experienced average annual growth of 12 percent.

GDP reached 21.2 billion yuan (almost $3 billion) is 2004, a 19 fold increase from 1964. Much of the increase was attributed to government aid and the influx of Han Chinese who have created more economic opportunities, mostly for themselves but also for some Tibetans too. The opening of the railway to Tibet helped boost growth to 13.2 percent in 2006.

Economic reforms have raised the standard of living of many Tibetans. Large numbers have also been left out. Annual income quadrupled to $1,076 between 1986 and 2006. Yet unemployment has remained at around 10.3 percent, higher than the rest of China. Many of the unemployed are Tibetans, some of whom hang out at pool halls during the day and get drunk at night.

Beijing seems to be banking on the idea that economic prosperity will weaken the ties between Tibetans and their culture and religion and make it easier for the government to control them. But there are limits. One Tibetan truck driver told the Times of London, “Our lives are much better now — we can afford our own houses. It’s just that I don’t like the Chinese government.”

New Tibetan Train

rightA 1,142 -kilometer railway between and Lhasa and Golmund in Qinghai Province — which is connected to the national rail system — opened in July 2006. The highest railway in the world, it reaches an elevation of 5,072 meters, surpassing Peru’s Lima-Huancayo line which reached 4,800 meters, and cost $4.2 billion to make. About 960 kilometers of tracks run 4,000 meters above sea level. During these sections, oxygen is released into the carriages to ease the passengers' altitude sickness. About 550 km is also on frozen earth, the longest distance of any plateau railway. Reducing the journey from Golmund to Lhasa from three days to 15 hours, the new Tibetan train features specially-designed cars, pressurized like aircraft, with filtered, sealed windows to protect passengers from ultraviolet rays and oxygen supplies to prevent passengers from getting altitude sickness and help them with the thin air. Former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji called it “an unprecedented project in the history of mankind.”

The first section of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway - from the capital Xining to Golmud in the west of the province - was opened in 1984, with the second section - Golmud to Lhasa - started in 2001 and completed in 2006. An extension from Lhasa to Tibet's Xigaze prefecture is already under construction, while work on an additional link to Nyingchi prefecture in southeast Tibet will start during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). "When all extensions are finished, the railway network will be the first in Tibet and will really improve Tibetan people's lives," a Chinese official told the China Daily.

The railroad has been on the drawing boards for some time. Mao ordered feasability studied in the 1950s but the plans to build it were scrubbed due to engineering problems, lack of money and unrest in Tibet. A new rail line reached Golmud, the gateway to Tibet in 1984, but was prevented from continuing further because of permafrost and extreme cold.

Construction began in 2001 after methods for tunneling through ice and laying track on permafrost were worked out. The first 120-kilometer leg was complected in 2003. Once the operation was in full gear track was laid at a rate of about one kilometer a day. The first cargo trains went into operation on a limited basis in 2004. The railway is now being extended to Shigatse. China plans to extend it to the border of Nepal by 2013

The railway was opened with great fanfare with a nationally-televised ceremony featuring Chinese President Hu Jintao cutting a giant red ribbon at Golmud. Musicians in traditional Chinese and Tibetan costumes banged drums and cymbals as the 16-car train pulled out. “This is a magnificent feat by the Chinese people, and also a miracle in world railway history,” Hu said. Few Tibetans ride on the train. The ticket prices are too high for them.

Benefits of the Tibetan Railway


The Tibetan railway will be used for moving people and transporting minerals out of Tibet. Proponents assert it will help he Tibetan economy, significantly reduce the cost of moving products in and out of Tibet, and bring development and prosperity to the region. Clearly it will help the Chinese government exploit copper and iron ore deposits and other minerals in Tibet. Some the first passengers on the train were gold prospectors and oil men.

The new train cuts transportation costs to Lhasa by a third and is expected to bring 4,000 additional visitors to Lhasa a day. As completion neared the price of Tibet-related mining, tourism and construction stocks sold on the Chinese stock markets rose. The train was projected to double tourism revenues by 2010 and reduce transport costs for goods by 75 percent. In 2006, it helped boost growth in Tibet to 13.2 percent. A Tibetan student told the Times of London. “There’s no doubt that this will deal a blow to Tibetan culture. But we can’t remain backward forever and change will come sooner or later.”

Official data shows the Qinghai-Tibet Railway has played an important part, having transported more than 7 million passengers between 2006 and 2010, as well as carried 7 million tons of cargo, including food, coal, steel, and fuel. "The railway has helped Tibet's economy boom by providing more resources, jobs and business opportunities," said Liu Zengyi, a senior official at Lhasa Railway Station, who explained the railway saves shipping companies 500 yuan ($80) for each ton compared with highways. [Source: Dachong and Peng Yining, China Daily, September 12, 2011]

Problems with the Tibetan Railway

Critics claim the project will: 1) help Chinese mining companies more than Tibetans; 2) help the Chinese government exert more control over Tibetans; and 3) led to even more Han Chinese moving into Tibet. The trucking industry — which has traditionally moved goods in and out of Tibet and the garages, hotels and other business that support the truckers — will be hurt by the railroad. Conservationist worry about the environmental impact. The Dalai Lama said, “Cultural genocide is taking place. A railway link is very useful in order to develop but not when politically-motivated to bring about demographic change.”

Tibetans have gotten few jobs as a result of the Tibetan railway. Of the 38,000 people hired for jobs, only 6,000 were Tibetans. Most of the jobs Tibetans have gotten are low-level menial labor jobs, paying $6 to $8 a day. None of the 2,700 managers, supervisors or workers who operate the heavy equipment are Tibetans. Most Chinese workers earn between $700 and $2,500 a month.

Even so many Tibetans are happy to have a link to the outside world, an end to their isolation and are happy to have lower prices for things like vegetables and oil that used to be brought in by road.

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Impact of the Tibetan Railway on Ordinary Tibetans

The China Daily reported: As the train's engine burst into life, thousands of Tibetans stared in anticipation from the platform of Lhasa Railway Station, while many more outside pressed against windows in the hope of witnessing an historic moment. The day was July 1, 2006, and the train was about to embark on the first full journey on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a route that has opened the Tibet autonomous region to the rest of China.[Source: Dachong and Peng Yining, China Daily, September 12, 2011]

"For most people there (that day) it was the first time they had ever seen a train," said Sonam Drolma, 30, a ticket inspector at Lhasa station. "Everyone was so excited. My 60-year-old mother burst into tears when she later got on the train to go to Beijing." Drolma recalled that in the 1990s it took 10 days traveling 1,067 kilometers on bumpy, mountain roads just to reach Lhasa, the regional capital, from their hometown in Zogang county."The new railway offered me a job, and it has changed many people's lives in the past five years," she added.

Ngawang Dradul is one of those people. The 25-year-old procurator from Shannan prefecture in southeast Tibet admits his lifestyle would have been very different had it not been for the rail link."I probably would have given up on education without the line and become a farmer, like my father," he said, as he sat in a sleeping berth on his way to Beijing for a training course. "The railway connected me with the outside world."Dradul studied in the Chinese capital for four years and, thanks to the railway, was spared the ordeal of traveling to school every semester over bumpy roads by horseback and by bus. Pointing to his khata, a traditional white Tibetan silk scarf, he added: "My mother gave this to me to bless me for a safe journey. For her, this is a trip beyond her imagination, but the railway really makes it a comfortable two-day tour."

Zhang Qingli

Zhang Qingli, the party secretary for Tibet in the 2000s, was a protégée of Hu Jintao. Tibetans didn’t like him and it was not hard to understand why. He denounced the Dalai Lama, using very insulting language, stepped up patriotic education and dismissed Tibetan Buddhism as “an abstract” to “establish a normal order.” He described his mission in Tibet as an effort a “fight to the death struggle” and "a fierce battle of blood and fire with the Dalai clique.”

Zhang once said, “The Communist Party is like the parent to the Tibetan people and it is always considerate about what the children need. The Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans.” He has called the Dalai Lama “a jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes, an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast.”

Zhang made a name for himself in Xinjiang, where he was involved in implementing policies that were arguably even harsher than those in Tibet. In Xinjiang and Tibet he instituted a zero-tolerance policy in which small incidents were been treated as major threats to the government. One political analyst told AFP, “The things that he has done and the threatening and violent language he uses have been very disturbing.” Another said, his policy’s aim seem to be “to wipe out Tibetan culture and assimilate it into the mainland.”

Image Sources: History in Pictures, Wiki Commons, Save Tibet, Cosmic Harmony, Students for a Free Tibet, Seat 61

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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