Tibet - going, going, gone?

Culture versus everlasting growth.


The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) comprises less than half of historic Tibet and was created by China in 1965 for administrative reasons. When Chinese officials and publications use the term "Tibet" they mean only the TAR which corresponds to the region ruled by the 13th Dalai Lama, who declared Tibet an independent republic in 1912.

Tibet is made up of the three provinces of Amdo (now split by China into the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu & Sichuan), Kham (largely incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai), and U-Tsang (which, together with western Kham, is today referred to by China as the Tibet Autonomous Region). Tibetans use the term Tibet to mean the three provinces described above, i.e. the area traditionally known as Tibet before the 1949-50 invasion.

Tibet lies at the centre of Asia, with an area of 2.5 million square kilometers. The earth's highest mountains, a vast arid plateau and great river valleys make up the physical homeland of 6 million Tibetans. It has an average altitude of 13,000 feet above sea level. But currently about half of Tibetans are estimated to live outside the TAR - many of them in nearby Chinese provinces or surrounding countries like Nepal and India.

During the early 20th century, Tibet had a strong claim to autonomy and perhaps even independence. Some scholars have suggested that Tibet met all the international standards for statehood in the middle of the century.
In 1950, after the Communist revolution, Beijing sent troops into much of Tibet, securing an agreement that Tibet would be part of China. But the Tibetans rebelled against their new rulers, and Beijing retaliated in 1959 with a full-scale military occupation.

Eastern Tibet deforestationEastern Tibet deforestation

In the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of Tibetans are believed to have been killed by the Chinese or sent to labour camps. Most monasteries were closed, and Buddhist texts were destroyed. The number of monks and nuns fell from about 115,600 in 1958 to only 970 in 1978, after the Cultural Revolution. China's ethnic majority, the Han Chinese, have moved in at such a rate that today the Tibetans are a minority in Lhasa.

In 2006 the new railway into Tibet opened. Beijing is now using the new railway to ensure that Tibet is tightly integrated into the rest of China. Despite over 40 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Tibetan people refuse to be conquered and subjugated by China. The present Chinese policy, a combination of demographic and economic manipulation, and discrimination, aims to suppress the Tibetan issue by changing the very character and identity of Tibet and its people. They have poor educational opportunities and instruction in Tibetan is forbidden. Public education by the monasteries is not allowed and quotas are made as to the numbers of monks or nuns allowed in monasteries. As a result there is about 45% illiteracy amongst ethnic Tibetans.

Since 1984 top ranking Tibetan students from primary schools in Tibet are sent to inland schools where they generally spend 6-7 years, isolated from Tibetan culture and language, forbidden to interact with Tibetan communities, if there are any, and not allowed home even for holidays. When these students return following their 6-7 years of education in inland China, they have been substantially assimilated into Chinese culture and find it difficult to reintegrate. Ethnic Tibetans are rarely given jobs and today Tibetans are outnumbered by Han Chinese population in their own homeland.
China-Lhasa railwayChina-Lhasa railway

In Ottowa on the 30 October 2007 Stephen Harper became the first Canadian prime minister to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama despite strong objections by China. Mr Harper said, he would not back down on speaking about human rights in China for the "almighty dollar." In Ottawa a motion in the Senate of Canada called on China to grant autonomous status to Tibet ( as did our own House of Commons) ahead of the March 10th anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising of 1959. Do we now let them down? Mr Brown is to be praised for his surprise announcement that he will meet the Dalai Lama in May when he visits Britain but there must be more than just a media shot which is soon forgotten. In addition, Brussels has twice coerced the Dalai Lama's to cancel visits as this could have affected trade with China. Yet the EU has all sorts of committees discussing Tibet.

The highest railway in the world connecting central China to Lhasa was begun in 2001 and completed in 2006.This controversial rail line is the cornerstone of China's efforts to tighten control over Tibet. The railway threatens to increase environmental pressure on the high-altitude ecosystem, bolster China's military strength in the region and facilitate the entry of large numbers of Chinese settlers onto Tibetan lands. Many Tibetans see the railway as the final phase in China's strategy to wipe out Tibetan identity and culture altogether. The Tibetan diaspora living abroad protested against the railway project, saying it would result in large-scale displacement of Tibetans. The trains are now entering Tibet bringing in hundreds of thousands of eager Chinese settlers. The two organisations participating in the protests said: "This will create a large scale (read more than 200 millions) human re-settlement crisis created by political manoeuvring and will leave lasting human conflicts like Israel-Palestine and Tamil-Sri Lanka," Students for a Free Tibet and Friends of Tibet (India)
water transfer projectwater transfer project

The Canadian company Bombardier and its financial partner Power Corp. provided the high-tech, oxygen-enriched train carriages, another Canadian corporate icon, Nortel Networks supplied the GSM-R communications system for the trains-the first ever commercially installed in China (GSM-R stands for global system for mobile communication-railway). And lesser-known companies, such as Continental Minerals Corp., provided much of the freight. In fact it seems that many of the other companies involved in 'development' and the resources such as mining that provided the main impetus for the project are Canadian: RailPartners, , MaxyGold Corp., GibiMin Inc., Sterling Group Ventures Inc., (outside the TAR) Eldorado Gold Corp., China- Inter-Citic minerals Inc. (Australia are also involved as Orchid Capital Ltd as are the US General Electric.) It is strange that Stephen Harper could thus claim that he was more interested in Tibetan human rights than the 'almighty dollar', meaning as he did, the Canadian dollar.

Migrant workers and tourists are pouring into the region. The railways ministry forecasts that almost a million people a year will arrive in Tibet via rail, of whom 400,000 will be tourists. Train tickets are subsidized-some seats are as cheap as $55 for the two-day journey from Beijing, much cheaper than airfare.

The railway is an amazing technical achievement as the sheer altitude of the route was long thought to make railway construction impossible. A passenger writes :"At Golmud, a doctor and a nurse boarded the train, and attendants showed passengers how to use the emergency oxygen supply that is available to supplement the oxygen injected into each carriage through the air-conditioning vents. When the train had climbed above 4,000 metres, the doctor's and nurse's services were required by passengers who felt weak, and a few people could be heard vomiting in their bunks. After several hours at high altitudes, ballpoint pens started bursting, as did the tiny airbags that cushion disk drives, causing laptops to crash."
not for much longernot for much longer

The president for Bombadier China Jianwei Zhang, imagines a future China where a foreign businessman might arrive in Beijing on a Bombardier corporate jet, walk onto a Bombardier people-mover system at the airport, take a Bombardier shuttle train from the airport to the city, and then travel around town on Bombardier subway cars. "You will be able to take Bombardier the whole way," Zhang says with a smile.

Some areas, especially in the south-east of the TAR, so far have been spared from heavy destruction due to their inaccessibility; but the TAR now has begun to be recognised as the richest region for timber in the whole of China.

The Chinese peoples have gone through unbelievable deprivation, famines and political repression. However much the Chinese leadership are criticised now, it can never be as bad as the Maoist era. Many Chinese have far more political freedom and material comfort than ever before. The West is relying on cheap imports from China to keep down inflation and perhaps those sovereign funds to help avoid the credit crunch. The EU also hopes to sell arms to China. This is because we must have growth, more and more growth, just to maintain the status quo. I personally cannot reconcile these two ideas. No, we must stop permanent growth. Our consumption and waste is immense. There can be quite a degree of self-sufficiency and things can be mended.

Problems will soon hit the Chinese in the sense that they now need more and more water and food is becoming more and more scarce. Let the Tibetans have education and jobs, don't cut down all the trees and destroy such a fragile environment. It's up to the big boys like Canada to help do something about this beyond selling trains. After all the Canadians didn't keep their trans-Canadian railway running. Our Prime Minister could spell out the problems and publicly ask the Canadian companies destroying Tibet to help, but this may affect investment, and our economy must grow!

China is scouring the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep its economic machine humming. Think Dafur, Burma and Africa. But trade deals cannot solve water problems. A century or so ago, the North China Plain was a healthy ecosystem. Farmers digging wells could strike water within eight feet. Streams and creeks meandered through the region. Swamps, natural springs and wetlands were common. Today, the region, comparable in size to New Mexico, is parched. Roughly five-sixths of the wetlands have dried up, according to one study. Scientists say that most natural streams or creeks have disappeared. Several rivers that once were navigable are now mostly dust and brush. The largest natural freshwater lake in northern China, Lake Baiyangdian, is steadily contracting and besieged with pollution. China has about 7 percent of the world’s water resources and roughly 20 percent of its population. It also has a severe regional water imbalance, with about four-fifths of the water supply in the south.
South -east TibetSouth -east Tibet
Mao’s unrealized plans: the $62 billion South-to-North Water Transfer Project to funnel more than 12 trillion gallons northward every year along three routes from the Yangtze River basin, where water is more abundant. The project, if fully built, would be completed in 2050. The eastern and central lines are already under construction; the western line, the most disputed because of environmental concerns, remains in the planning stages. Aquifers that are being drained to dangerously low levels. But scientists say those below the North China Plain may be drained within 30 years. Water usage in China has quintupled since 1949, and leaders will increasingly face tough political choices as cities, industry and farming compete for a finite and unbalanced water supply.

One example is grain. The Communist Party, leery of depending on imports to feed the country, has long insisted on grain self-sufficiency. But growing so much grain consumes huge amounts of underground water in the North China Plain, which produces half the country’s wheat. Some scientists say farming in the rapidly urbanizing region should be restricted to protect endangered aquifers. Yet doing so could threaten the livelihoods of millions of farmers and cause a spike in international grain prices. Water usage in China has quintupled since 1949, and leaders will increasingly face tough political choices as cities, industry and farming compete for a finite and unbalanced water supply.
PM HarperPM Harper
This is the sort of environmental problem the West should be addressing rather than filling the countryside with ineffectual windfarms and at the same time encouraging more airflights. Everyone goes on about the developing world being ruined by industrialisation and that we must do something. Well, the only way to do something is to realise that every country cannot keep growing ad infinitum. We in the West could help by cutting back, limiting imports that are unsustainable, only giving technical aid to valid projects that do not help destroy the world, and making our foreign trade rest on this moral. But what do we do? Distort our farming sector, destroy the seas, dump our waste in the third world and buy really cheap imports from China. Human rights can be spoken about but I'm afraid the 'mighty dollar, euro or pound' seems to win out.

Articles referred to and quoted:

Save Tibet news

New York Times, water