Train 27, Now Arriving Tibet, in a 'Great Leap West'

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

LHASA, China, July 3 -- After rolling under snow-covered peaks and crossing 2,500 miles, the first train ever to travel from Beijing to Tibet pulled into a station here Monday, inaugurating the world's highest railway and opening a new chapter in China's relentless assimilation of this once-remote mountain territory.

"The train is the realization of a 100-year-old Chinese dream," said an announcement on the intercom system as the train sped along the route, with wild donkeys, yaks and antelope looking on.

The 16 sleek new cars of Train 27 Special Express took 47 1/2 hours to climb from Beijing, in heavily industrialized eastern China, to the high Tibetan plateau, cupped on one side by the Kun Lun range and the other by the towering Himalayas. Extra oxygen supplies were pumped in via the ventilation system to prevent altitude sickness, and outlets for individual oxygen devices were available should passengers nevertheless feel uncomfortable.

For the Chinese government, the voyage marked a grand success in its "Great Leap West" campaign to develop the sparsely populated flatlands of Xinjiang and the mountain vastness of Tibet -- and in the process integrate restive minority populations more closely into a nation run by the Han Chinese majority.

Tibet is linked with the rest of China by air and road. But officials said the new train route, which took five years and more than $4 billion to build, will facilitate commerce, giving Tibet a bigger share in China's new prosperity, and bring in another half-million tourists a year to spend money in hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

"For decades, Tibet has been isolated by its special geographic environment, which has hindered all kinds of development," said Lhagpa Phuntshogs, director of the government's Tibetan Studies Center in Beijing. "Construction of the railway is quite an event, which the Tibetan people have dreamed of for such a long time. For sure, it will have an important influence on the opening and developing of the economy and culture in Tibet."

Celebrating the moment, Tibetan women at Lhasa's new rail station burned incense and handed out traditional white scarves to detraining passengers. In the descent toward Lhasa, many homes and public buildings displayed bright new Chinese flags, symbolizing the train's role in drawing Tibet more tightly into Beijing's orbit.

But for many Buddhist monks who still revere the long-exiled Dalai Lama, along with their supporters in the United States and elsewhere who treasure the special culture here, the advent of Train 27 raised the specter of another assault on Tibet's ethnic and national identity. The Chinese Communist Party, they say, has sought to crush Tibetan nationalism with police-state repression and dilute Tibetan ethnicity with Han migration ever since Mao Zedong's forces reasserted Chinese control here soon after taking power in 1949.

Dramatizing the fears, three young foreign women were arrested at Beijing's West Train Station on Friday after unfurling a banner denouncing China's political controls in Tibet and what they described as the threat to Tibetans' ancient way of life revolving around Lama Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama's supporters said that the new rail connection, as with most other economic development in Tibet, will largely benefit the Han Chinese officials and merchants who have controlled the levers of Tibet's political and economic power over the past 56 years of rule from Beijing. Even during the railway's construction, they said, most of the jobs went to Han Chinese from neighboring Sichuan and other provinces.

Zhu Zhengsheng, who headed the project for the Railway Ministry, acknowledged that only 10 percent of the roughly 100,000 workers employed during the five years of construction were of Tibetan stock. But in briefings for reporters, he portrayed the new line's overall effect as a boon for Tibet, a vehicle for foreign and newly affluent Chinese tourists whose number could surpass 5 million. Those tourists, in large part drawn by Tibet's cultural heritage, could bring in $725 million by 2010.

As with most Chinese officials, Zhu displayed little patience for the arguments brought by local and foreign advocates of what they portray as an endangered Tibetan national identity. With a certainty similar to that of white Americans as they pushed native Indians aside in developing the West, Beijing's leaders have asserted their own version of Manifest Destiny to bring economic progress and integration to Xinjiang and Tibet.

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