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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Chinese railway raises fears for Tibetan culture

September 5, 2007

By China correspondent Stephen McDonell Sep 4, 2007

A year after the world's highest altitude train started running to Tibet, the Chinese Government says it is already delivering economic development to the isolated region. The Government says Tibetans are getting jobs,

new businesses and more products as a result of the service.

But critics say the train is watering down Tibetan culture and mainly benefiting the growing number of Han Chinese who live there.

In 2007, Tibetan workers still use traditional building methods that are centuries old. This time-consuming rhythmic restoration work is used on special buildings like monasteries.

The chairman of the Kada construction company, Qun Pei, says his people's heritage must be preserved.

"I personally think that protecting Tibet's cultural relics and ancient buildings is very important," he said.

This work keeps Tibetans in touch with the culture of their ancestors. But will the future still look like this?

The train is the centrepiece of the Chinese Government's strategy in Tibet. One year after the service started, the Government says it is delivering economic development to the region.

Tibetan Autonomous Region deputy chairman Hao Peng says the Qinghai-Tibet railway has boosted consumption.

"Compared to 2004 or 2005 before the train, consumption has greatly increased," he said.

Critics say the train is threatening Tibetan culture by bringing in hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese to this once-isolated region.

International Campaign for Tibet spokeswoman Kate Saunders says the train has enhanced opportunities for Chinese traders.

"You're seeing more and more Chinese working at the railway station in Lhasa, more and more Chinese setting up businesses in Lhasa," she said.

"Already it seems that Lhasa is approximately 70 per cent Chinese."

As well as people, the trains are delivering freight. Workers at the West Lhasa Freight Terminal, most of whom have come to Tibet from China's Sichuan province, say they are very busy with freight coming in and going

out day and night.

Pay discrepancy

Another Government initiative is a new business technology park, where a young Tibetan construction worker pushing a wheelbarrow says he is earning less than half of what Han Chinese do for the same job.

"Han Chinese who push a wheelbarrow get paid more than us," he said.

"We get 25 or 30 yuan a day, they get 60 or 70 yuan."

But officials from the Chinese Government say the worker really means that Han Chinese are doing different jobs to him. The worker is adamant that they do the same work and Tibetans get paid much less.

Tibetan Autonomous Region vice-chairman Nima Tsering says that is "absolutely impossible".

"If it's true then it's a serious problem and we'll do something using administrative measures," he said.

The Chinese Government may be bringing development and jobs to Tibet but there is a cultural price to pay. Parts of Lhasa look like any provincial Chinese city, with Chinese writing, food and way of life.

Each day five trains bring 4,200 passengers. Virtually everyone who gets off is Han Chinese. The deputy station master says there are no official figures on where passengers come from.

Tibet is a land of progress and regression. Sometimes you see both at once.

On the one hand, if you travel to certain areas, you will find newly built Tibetan-style villages with running water and electricity. But on the other, you have to pass police checkpoints to get there.

Tibetans silenced

Ms Saunders from the International Campaign for Tibet says there is a climate of fear.

"Tibetans are not allowed to openly criticise or debate the sort of economic development that's taking place in their country, in their land," she said.

People who travel to Tibet during the Beijing Olympics will notice there are no pictures of the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. That is because you can be thrown in jail for having one.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture says Tibetan political prisoners are prosecuted on flimsy allegations supposedly relating to national security, and torture remains widespread.

Mr Nima from the regional Government denies there are any political prisoners in Tibet, and says the issue has nothing to do with the UN.

Asked time and again whether the UN was lying about Tibetans being imprisoned and tortured for political crimes, he refused to answer.

It would be wrong to say that Tibetan culture is even close to being stamped out. It is still everywhere to be seen, even in the capital Lhasa.

Yet while this unique culture is still surviving, there is little doubt who is in charge of Tibet's destiny.

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