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China: Controversial Tibet Railroad Showing Signs Of Strain

A train crosses a bridge outside of Lhasa on the new railway (epa) PRAGUE, August 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- China's new railway to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, is a remarkable engineering achievement.

Starting from Golmud in the western Qinghai Province, the 1,100-kilometer line climbs to a maximum height of over 5,000 meters, making it the highest railway in the world. Over most of its length, it is above 4,000 meters.

Workers who built the line had to use oxygen-breathing equipment, and the carriages of the train are sealed and pressurized like an airplane. The project took five years and cost more than $4 billion.

The Fulfillment Of A Dream

At the opening of the railroad on July 1, Chinese President Hu Jintao described the rail link as a "miracle," and spoke of the fulfillment of a dream.

Tibert activists say the railway's $4.2 billion price tag is almost triple the amount Beijing spent in Tibet on health care and education between 1952 and 2000.

"After the struggle of the railway construction workers and other relevant parties, we have finally fulfilled the faith of several generations of Chinese people, especially the leaders of each minority group," Hu said.

The Morning After

But that dream has collided with reality in the harsh environment of some of the world's most daunting mountain ranges.

Barely a month after the line opened, railway spokesman Wang Yongping told media in Beijing that the rail bed had become unstable along some sections of the line as frozen ground thawed and subsided.

Wang added that concrete structures, including bridges, are cracking.

Experts say the problem is being worsened by global warming. The permafrost has already been thinned and is proving unable in some places to bear the massive weight of the train, with its three locomotives and string of carriages.

Higher temperatures are expected in the coming years, and the problems seem likely to worsen.

Good For Tibet Or Good For Beijing?

The railway to Lhasa also continues to draw opposition from Tibetan activists.

The international Free Tibet Campaign says the railway is not intended to benefit the Tibetan people.

"This project is politically motivated, as was declared by Chinese officials and the leadership on several occasions, and the motivation is to consolidate China's control over Tibet," said Yael Weisz-Rind, the London spokeswoman for the campaign. "With the railway in full operation, China would be able to mobilize military personnel and arms [and send them] into Tibet, further militarizing the whole region."

Another group, Students For A Free Tibet, says the railway will accelerate the colonization of the area. They fear easier access to the remote plateau will allow more Han Chinese settlers to be brought in.

Few Economic Benefits

They also worry of increased exploitation of Tibet's natural resources, with most economic benefits bypassing the Tibetan population.

The students note that the railway's $4.2 billion price tag is almost triple the amount Beijing spent in Tibet on health care and education between 1952 and 2000.

Weisz-Rind recalls that Beijing some years ago formulated a development plan for western regions, which included Tibet and was supposed to bring investment to the region.

But, she says, the money was characteristically spent in ways that did not benefit local people. And she fears that the new railway has the potential to do much more serious damage to Tibet and its culture.

"Altogether, of course, we fear that the consequences [of the railway] would be devastating for Tibet and Tibetans," Weisz-Rind says.

Beijing appears to be disregarding such views. Officials are already planning to extend the line some 270 kilometers past Lhasa to Tibet's second city, Xigaze, close to the borders of India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

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