Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Thomas Mann opened the meeting and introduced Ms Kate Saunders, Communication Director of the International Campaign for Tibet.
Ms Saunders told the meeting that she had been in Washington for six years and had just moved to London. She had brought with her copies of the recent ICT Report “Tracing the Steel Dragon, How China’s economic policies and the railway are transforming Tibet”, and there was indeed an embargo on the publication until 28 February 2008, so members of the TIG were amongst the first people to read it. The report opens up new areas of debate, which is critical for anyone dealing with China. It takes an in-depth look at the construction of the railroad to Lhasa and reveals China’s objectives in controlling Tibet. The $4.1 billion rail link connects Lhasa with the rest of the People’s Republic of China, bringing Beijing much closer to the goal set by Mao Zedong over 40 years ago of integrating Tibet with China. It has been described as a “quantum leap” in Beijing’s strategy to develop its western regions, which is one of the major dynamics of contemporary China. There were 1.7 million passengers on the new railroad in the first year, 2007, and most of these were not tourists, but migrants, businessmen, military, etc.
China is proceeding simultaneously with the construction of several rail lines, which will have an impact on Tibet and bring closer the integration of Tibet into not only the Chinese economy but also the broader Asian and even Eurasian economies. This project contributes to nation building, tightening of control, and profitable extractions of resources.
The railroad is accelerating the influx of Chinese people to the plateau, exacerbating the economic marginalization of Tibetans, and threatening Tibet’s fragile high-altitude environment.
The railroad is an indispensable element of Beijing’s “transportation revolution”, aimed at expanding the Party’s influence and consolidating its control through the construction of new and modern transportation links on the plateau and beyond. The “opening up” of western regions of the PRC is regarded by the Chinese Communist Party as crucial to China’s successful rise in the 21st century.
The Chinese government has recently acknowledged the military applications of the railway for the first time, and admitting that it will enable military training exercises.
The railway is the linchpin of official plans to begin large-scale exploitation of Tibet’s mineral and other natural resources under China’s “Western Development Strategy”, and has triggered the involvement of foreign corporations in the Tibetan economy for the first time. Together with strengthening the state’s command and control over Tibetan areas, extraction of these resources is a primary motive for building the railroad.
It is know that uranium exists in Tibet but its location remains secret
The implication of China’s policies in Tibet goes beyond the plateau. Scientists believe that the Tibetan plateau offers early warnings of global climate change, and because Tibet is the source of several of the world’s largest rivers and plays a prominent role in the Asian monsoon system, accelerated warming there affects the lives of hundreds of millions of people downstream as well as those on the plateau itself. Scientists judge that increased urbanization and the Qinghai-Tibet railroad could be accelerating the warming process.
There is also concern in countries downstream, notably India, about the impact of China’s rapid development policies, especially the proposals for dams and water diversion projects on the plateau. There are no trans-boundary river treaties that could control dam building and water diversion.
More than 80% of Tibetans live in rural areas, and the majority have sustained themselves through a nomadic herder lifestyle, uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions and fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau. But the implementation of Chinese policies to settle Tibetan nomads, and to resettle Tibetans in towns, is now threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people and imperilling the Tibetan landscape.
The report reveals how these policies, based on an urban industrial model and imposed from top-down in Beijing, are counterproductive; they have made nomads poorer and degraded Tibet’s vast grasslands. Scientific research has established that the mobility of the herds keeps the grasslands healthy, that taking nomads off the land does not help conserve water resources, and that herds people denied their livelihood become demoralized and dependent. One of the last examples of sustainable nomadic pastoralism on this planet faces extinction unless this policy is soon changed. The displaced nomads cannot compete with Chinese migrants who are largely better educated.
There is a strategy of fencing off grasslands, but the nomads must pay for the fencing and put it up themselves
Tibetan antelopes, known for their very fine fur, are being slaughtered and are threatened with extinction.
The imposition of the railroad affects migratory routes.
The Tibetans are deprived of the stewardship of their own environmental problems; Beijing depicts the region as “barbaric and feudal.”
There is a striking discrepancy between official admissions of the environmental crisis in the PRC, and the apparent refusal by the Chinese government to accept that this has any implications for development strategy in Tibet – an indication that Beijing’s policy on Tibet remains exempt from genuine debate or enquiry.
By continuing to pursue a model of development that appears to increase rather than close the gap between urban and rural, rich and poor, Chinese and Tibetans, the Chinese state risks further marginalizing and alienating the Tibetan people and potentially undermining the political objectives of its current development: a stable Tibet within China.
The sustainability of the railroad in the shifting ground of the high plateau is uncertain. The geological and geographical conditions of the high plateau have not only made the railroad very expensive to build but could bring it to a halt within 10 years. Approximately half of the railroad had to be built on permafrost, or frozen earth, using pioneering new engineering methods to do so, and as early as August 2006 – just a month after the line had gone into operation – the authorities made a rare admission that fractures had started to appear in some railroad bridges because of permafrost movements under the rail bed. Rising temperatures on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau are likely to melt the permafrost enough to render the ground unstable, threatening the viability of the railroad in just a decade’s time. It was reported in July 2007 that the Tibetan plateau is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and therefore offers a critical barometer for climate change on earth.
Chinese economists have concluded that on the basis of the results achieved so far, the model of development that China is pursuing in Tibetan areas, based on resource exploitation and infrastructure construction, is increasing, rather than decreasing, China’s dependence on subsidies from the central government, especially in the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Thomas Mann thanked Ms Saunders for her talk and said that it was a very sad moment, we should look for progress. What can we do? There had been a campaign against Bombardier. Companies that invested in Tibet should be approached.
Eva Lichtenberger said that Mrs Saunders’ talk corresponded to what she had seen in Lhasa – only the Chinese were rich and the Tibetans were poor.
Did the Chinese authorities pay attention to protests that were made or is it a minor issue?
Ms Saunders said that companies need to have more engagement. They are concerned with relational issues, but not with political and strategic issues. Canadian companies have invested more than any other country. The government intend to issue guidelines on this matter. The ICT report contains a detailed list of Recommendations to Investors.
Eva Lichtenberger spoke of the Olympic Games and the importance of journalists present; Ms Saunders agreed that they should be targeted.
She also mentioned that there are record numbers of tourists visiting Tibet; Potala is overwhelmed, which causes great problems with water supplies and toilet facilities.
The meeting agreed that the pre-Olympic period was the time to act, and that His Holiness the Dalai Lama should again speak in the European Parliament. Members should encourage their own governments to act. The fact that Tibetan is an endangered language should be emphasised during this the Year of Inter-cultural Dialogue.