Autonomy and the railway
Translated by Susan Chen
|Image: Bilash Rai|
Perhaps no other railway in the world could have competed with the new Qinghai-Tibet railway for the amount of attention, comment and opinion it inspired. The fact that the Chinese government decided on 1 July 2006 – the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China – as the day for the formal inauguration of the railway leaves no room for ambiguity regarding the project’s ‘political colour’. Driven by the intense media coverage of the new track, a massive collective interest in Tibet suddenly broke out throughout China – and, indeed, around the world. According to the numbers put out by the Tibet Autonomous Region’s Tourist Bureau, 90,000 visitors arrived in Tibet within the first 20 days the railway was in operation. This has not only added an unbearable burden to the crumbling Potala Palace – which is supposedly designated as a World Heritage Site – but has significantly impacted on the lives of Lhasa locals. The prices of staple foods, vegetables and meats have all gone up dramatically, while worshippers are being forced to fight crowds inside temples.
The reaction of Tibetans to the new rail line is complex. This writer took a ride on the train from Beijing to Lhasa in January. Because it was winter – the slow season for visitors – there were few tourists on board. Instead, there were many Tibetan students heading home for the winter break. These students had been sent to ‘inland’ China for schooling from a very young age. In the past, because of the high cost of transportation, they could have gone for years without going home for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. The cheaper price of a train ride now helps in easing their homesickness, and this might well be the major benefit that the Qinghai-Tibet railway has brought Tibetans. The other benefit has been that the faithful from the Tibetan provinces of Amdo and Kham can now take the train to go on pilgrimage in U-Tsang, and vice-versa. Besides these, it is hard to locate the railway’s merits.
During the first seven months of the new service, the cars were overloaded in the summer and almost completely empty in the winter; the imbalance between supply and demand was evident. Indeed, this writer met a conductor on the train who acknowledged that the railway line lacks economic value, but has political and military significance. Despite agreeing that the railroad itself may not make economic sense, many Tibetans are concerned about the opportunity it provides to businessmen and transient labourers from inland China to exploit Tibet’s natural resources. According to official statistics, approximately 2500 potential mining sites have been identified within the TAR – which could in the future mean more than 30 mining sites for each of the TAR’s 76 districts (See accompanying story, “Prospecting the treasure house”). With ‘gold-mining’ expeditions already taking place along the tracks, the nightmare that the plateau’s fragile ecosystem might be further destroyed has become more real than ever.
Even though the crises of natural resources and environment that Tibet has been facing could darken the railway’s reputation, they remain irrelevant to Chinese officials and state-controlled scholars. Instead, these people consider themselves messiahs and spokespersons for the Tibetans: “We want Tibetans to also have the right to enjoy modernisation,” goes the official line. “Neither tradition nor modernisation should be missing.” While such sentiments might at first sound logical, what is important for Tibetans is not necessarily the issue of modernisation, but genuine autonomy. When there is no power, where can one find rights? And what can one do with tradition? Furthermore, what actually constitutes modernisation? The current reality of Tibet already attests to the falsity of the kind of modernisation that has come to the plateau. Ultimately, it is just another form of invasion – sugar-coated and equivalent to colourfully beautified violence. For Tibetans, who are deprived of autonomous rights, it is absolutely necessary to learn to recognise different types of invasion.
In fact, the railway by itself is not a problem. If Tibet’s genuine autonomy were put into practice, the idea of having railroads connecting villages could be internally debated. But when Tibetans lack autonomy, their fate is decided by others. They can only watch as their rights are taken away, and they are further marginalised in their own land. Rather than the indigenous Tibetans, it is the flocks of ‘gold-miners’ who are the real beneficiaries of such ‘development’ projects.
Unfortunately, under the banner of ‘development’, the modernisation symbolised by the Qinghai-Tibet railway is flourishing in Tibet. It has not only altered the appearance of Tibetan tradition, but has also begun to change the inner essence of Tibetans themselves. Gradually, all aspects of Tibet will be completely rewritten. Is this the blessing that Tibetans have received from those who hold power? Since Tibetans do not have the right of autonomy, the Qinghai-Tibet railway cannot be, as the Chinese state claims, the “Road of Fortune”. Instead, it is a road of no return – of the sacrifice of the land once known as Tibet.
~ Woeser is a Tibetan writer who writes primarily in Chinese. She lives in Beijing.