NEW YORK - Last weekend, train `Qing 1’ left Beijing and began a two-day, 4,000km journey that took it across heart-seared deserts, over the forbidding Kunlun mountains and the vertiginous, 5,072 meter high Tanggula Pass, through the 5 km Fenghuoshan tunnel at 4,900 m, and finally to Tibet’s holy city, Lhasa, six kilometers high in the heart of the mighty Himalayas.
The five-year, US $3.68 billion rail project is one of the world’s engineering marvels and a triumph of state central planning. The most challenging portion of the world’s highest railway runs 1,000 km from China’s western Qinghai region to Lhasa at an average altitude of 4,000 meters. Five hundred km are built on permafrost, which freezes in winter and turns to bog in summer. China claims not a single worker died in the project.
Beijing says the new line will end Tibet’s isolation and open it up for tourism and economic development. This is certainly true.
China deserves high praise for this epic achievement.
But supporters of Tibetan independence are decrying the new railway. They claim it will deliver a final blow to Tibet’s vanishing freedom and cultural identity. Beijing scoffs at these claims, insisting it is bringing education, health, social justice and freedom to underdeveloped Tibetans.
Who is right? Historically, Tibet was a semi-independent vassal of China’s Emperors. Communist China invaded the strategic Tibet plateau in 1950, proclaiming `liberation of Tibet from feudalism.’ The great powers did nothing to stop this annexation. An anti-Chinese revolt stirred up by CIA failed after the US abandoned the Tibetan resistance.
In the 1960’s, Beijing detached and gave half of historic Tibet’s land and people to two neighboring regions.
What remained was dubbed the Tibet Autonomous Region with a population of about 2.6 million ethnic Tibetans.
Contrary to the belief Tibetans are docile, unwarlike people, Khampa tribes fiercely resisted Chinese occupation. Major revolts against Chinese rule have erupted over the years, with Tibet calling for the return of their beloved exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.
During China’s frightful Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were killed or died of starvation, and many national treasures destroyed or pillaged.
When China troops arrived in Tibet, they found a feudal society plunged in profound superstition. The all-powerful Tibetan priesthood lived off hundreds of thousands of illiterate serfs. Tibetans subsisted without education or health care in the most squalid conditions, washing only three times in their life: at birth, marriage, and death.
China undeniably brought basic schooling, medical care, electricity, roads and phones. Feudalism was eradicated. Totalitarian rule replaced the draconian Buddhist theocracy. Most important, Chinese Han settlers began pouring in. Tibet quickly became – and remains - a key strategic military zone for Beijing in the Himalayan border confrontation with India.
On my last trip to Tibet, anti-Chinese riots broke out in Lhasa. They were harshly suppressed. Tibetans came up to me, tearfully pleading for pictures of their Dalai Lama. It was heartrending. Particularly since meeting the Dalai Lama had inspired my book on the Himalayas, `War at the Top of the World.’
Today, Chinese outnumber Tibetans in Lhasa and are approaching parity outside. I call this `ethnic inundation.’ China has practiced it in many other non-Han regions, submerging its 56 recognized minorities – peoples like Manchu, Hui, Miao, and Yao – with millions of Chinese settlers.
Westerners wring their hands over the plight of Tibet. But next door Uighurs, a Turkic people of China’s western Xinjiang region resisting floods of Han Chinese settlers are branded `Islamic terrorists’ by Washington. A Canadian citizen of Uighur birth, Huseyincan Celil, recently seized by Communist Uzbekistan, is being deported to China to face charges of `anti-state activities’ for advocating Uighur independence. Ottawa has done nothing.
Tibet will never regain independence unless China disintegrates. Sadly, Tibetans seem fated to become extras in a tourist theme park while millions of Chinese move up the new railroad to the top of the world.