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Though losing money, Qinghai-Tibet railway gaining in strategic importance

www.TibetanReview.net, August 20, 2008

The politically strategised Qinghai-Tibet (Chinese: Qingzang) Railway project was never meant to be a commercial success and it hasn’t been, reported Reuters Aug 16, citing railway officials. However, China is still touting the railway’s economic and social benefits, being obviously reticent about its more important political and geo-strategic purposes.

“Our experience with other lines holds true for this one too, that the initial benefit is economic and social,” Bai Xiaochun, party secretary of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Co, was quoted as saying. He has estimated that the 30 billion yuan ($4.37 billion) line was losing 1.2 billion yuan a year.

The train line from Golmud in Qinghai to Lhasa, inaugurated on Jul 1, 2006, is on course to being extended to the monastery town of Shigatse and, hence, to the resource-rich Nyingchi (Tibetan: Nyingtri) in the southeast within the next two or three years. China claims the railway will bring economic development and social benefits to Tibet.

But Tibetans and critics see the project as part of China’s final solution to the Tibet issue: overwhelming the occupied region with massive influx of Chinese immigrants so as to altogether “sinicize” the Tibetan Plateau. However, from April to June this year, 327,000 fewer passengers travelled on the Beijing-Qinghai line than they had in 2007, after Tibet was closed to tourists following demonstrations against Chinese rule that turned violent in March, Wang Yongping, spokesman for the Ministry of Railways, was cited as saying. Xinhua Aug 16 said the figure of 327,000 was 40 percent less than for the corresponding period in 2007.

Passenger traffic returned to the same level as 2007 just before the Olympics, but plunged again once the Olympics began in August in Beijing, Reuters cited Wang Zhongyu, deputy general manager of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Co., as saying. And the Xinhua report cited Bai Xiaochun, vice general manager of Qinghai-Tibet Railway Company, as saying the much touted luxury trains service to Lhasa would be put into operation in Sep’08.

The railway remains crucial for China’s exploitation of Tibet’s rich mineral resources. Although inbound cargo in the form of building materials, including steel and cement, currently exceeds outbound goods, which included 300,000 tonnes of mineral water marketed as “5100 Tibet Spring,” beer and dairy products, this is set to change very soon with China beginning production at Tibet’s rich mineral quarries. In Sep’08, China will begin producing 10,000 tonne-per-year of refined copper at the Yulong mine in Chamdo. The production will rise as the mine is further developed, reaching an annual output of 30,000 tons by 2010 and 100,000 tons eventually, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency Aug 15.

Reuters cited local planning official Yang Qianrang as saying there was no plan yet to extend the railway from Shigatse to the border town of Yadong or to Nepal and other Himalayan nations

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