China recently announced the continuation of its preferential financial policies in Tibet even though scholars such as Dexter Roberts and Jin Wei have been critical of such measures pointing out that the area not only derives little direct benefit from the investments but further exacerbates its dependency economy. Since the 1990’s, the government of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has made an unprecedented scale of investment in infrastructure build-up in Tibet, specifically in the areas of connectivity such as railways, roads and airports. Investments were also made in Tibet to build hydro-power energy, for urbanisation, mining, tourism, military and government infrastructure. These massive investments in infrastructure build-up have increased the urbanisation growth rate, meeting official targets and also artificially catapulted Tibet’s GDP, which grew at an average of 12-percent in 2015.
This paper argues that besides the marginal positive impacts of the infrastructure build-up and urbanisation, there are more adverse immediate impacts and long term implications to Tibet as a land and its people. The cardinal question here is, how much and in what ways are these infrastructure build-ups affecting the Tibetan people? Though the natural growth of urbanisation can’t be avoided but the deliberate push for creation and expansion of urban cities have colossal repercussions in Tibet. Moreover, infrastructure build-up in Tibet is diametrically different from how it takes place in other parts of the world. Firstly, urbanisation in Tibet is unilaterally imposed by CPC without the consent of the local people. Secondly, the infrastructure build-ups are a deliberate effort to win the loyalty of the Tibetan people, thus paving way for maintaining political stability in Tibet which is China’s western strategic frontier. These investments are intended at stubbing out Tibet’s attempts at building on its distinct historical status within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The facade of development is also to project Tibet’s achievement of prosperity and liberation under PRC upon the international community.
Urbanisation with large infrastructure build-ups are located in towns and cities on the Tibetan plateau but they impact a larger section of the Tibetan people living in remote and rural areas. The rapid infrastructure build-up in Tibet has increased the demand for minerals and hydro-power energy resulting in unscientific mining and a cascade of dams choking the natural flow of Tibet’s rivers.
In short, this paper outlines the Tibetan perspective on impacts of infrastructure build-up in Tibet on the lives of the Tibetan people and Tibet as a land. The historical phases of infrastructure build-up in Tibet is not dealt in this paper. The entire study focuses on the existing, ongoing and planned infrastructure projects in Tibet. The Chinese military infrastructure in Tibet is not dealt here due to inaccessibility of reliable information. The paper is in two sections. The first section explores transportation infrastructures and the second examines the impacts of these infrastructure build-ups in Tibet in a larger context.
Transportation infrastructures build-up in Tibet
Transportation in terms of modern infrastructure was almost non-existent in Tibet till the early fifties. Horses and yaks were the major means of transportation for traders and nomads. The economy of Tibet during those times was self-sufficient unlike today’s total dependency on Chinese government subsidies and blood transfusion economic growth. After the occupation of Tibet by PRC, the infrastructure, especially transportation infrastructure has ‘changed’ the landscape of Tibet and the lives of millions of Tibetan people. So, the question begs, has it changed for better or worse? According to China’s White Paper published in September 2015, a comprehensive network of roads, railways and aviation has been built to further facilitate transportation in Tibet. Exploring the existing transportation infrastructure build-up in Tibet is significant before analysing its impacts.
a) Railway Lines
The Chinese authorities stress that railway connectivity is absolutely necessary to “consolidate national defense and the unity of nationalities” as Tibet encompasses the southwest frontiers of China with an international border stretching over 4,000 kms. The first railway project to connect the Tibetan plateau with China was implemented during China’s Second Five-Year Plan (1958-1962). In May 1958, Beijing began the construction of a railway line from Lanzhou to Siling (Chinese-Xining), the capital of Amdo province (now designated as Qinghai Province). The line was completed in October 1959 and became operational in March 1961. This was the first time in history that the Tibetan plateau was connected to China by a rail link. The work to extend the railway line from Siling to Nagormo (Chinese: Golmud) was launched in 1958. However, the project had to be halted in 1960 due to the crippling famine caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. The project was revived after 17 years in 1977 and was completed in 1979. However, it was only in 1984 that the 845-km railway line became operational.
Today, as stated in China’s White Paper, the Nagormo-Lhasa and Lhasa- Shigatse (Chinese: Xigazê) railways are fully functional and work on an extension connecting Lhasa to Nyingtri (Chinese: Nyingchi) is underway and is scheduled to be completed by 2021.
The Chinese government has plans for extensions further south, connecting Lhasa with Dromo (Yadong in Chinese) bordering the Indian state of Sikkim and another extension connecting Shigatse with the border town of Dram in Nepal by 2020. The latter line will not only boost China’s bilateral relations with Nepal where Beijing already exercises strong influence but will also provide an easy corridor for Chinese businesses and the military alike to the great northern plains of India. Another 1,214 km long railway link from Nagormo to Korla (southern Uyghur: Chinese: Xinjiang) will provide direct rail transportation between Tibet and Xinjiang. This line will be further connected via Kashagar in Xinjiang to the Gwardar port in Pakistan which is a key destination in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. In 2015, Pakistan and China signed a deal to acquire the usage rights to more than 2,000 acres of land for a Chinese company for the next four decades. The extensions of railway network to Gwadar port and to Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar are possibly Beijing’s answer to its “Malacca Dilemma”. For China, securing its energy transportation is crucially linked to its national security. Without enough oil, China will think twice before launching any large-scale military action.
In addition, according to China’s official news agency, Xinhua, a plan for a new railway line connecting Lhasa and Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, in southwest China was released in the draft outline of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020).
According to Claude Arpi, author and a keen observer on developments in Tibet, the recently announced PLA/Civil integration of the airports in Tibet will probably help Beijing to “strengthen the infrastructure” and consolidate its presence on the Plateau. There are nearly 15 airports on the Tibetan plateau. Five airports are in the so called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), with Gongkar Airport in Lhasa serving as the main hub connecting Bangda Airport in Chamdo, Minling (Chinese: Mainling) Airport in Nyingtri, Dgunsa Airport in Ngari (Chinese:Ali) and Heping Zhibde Airport in Shigatse. These airports cater to 48 domestic and international air routes linking TAR with 33 cities in China and the rest of the world. The four airports in Sichuan province of Tibetan plateau are Dartsedo (Chinese:Huatugou) Airport in Gartse Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Hongyuan Airport in Ngaba, Daocheng Yading airport in Karze(Chinese: Garzê) and Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport in Sungchu (Chinese: Songpan County. Four airports located in Qinghai province are Huatugou Airport and Delingha Airport in the Mongolian-Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Haixi, Golok Airport (under construction) and Yushul Bathang Airport. Two other airports on the Tibetan plateau are the Gannan Xiahe Airport in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu Province and Dechen Shangri-La Airport in Dechen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan Province.
Although military airfields in Tibet are not cited here due to insufficient reliable information, but most of the civilian airports in Tibet has operational facilities for both civilian and military use. The Minling Airport in Nyingtri is the most recent addition to the network of airports in Tibet.
c) Roads and Highways
According to official reports, by the end of 2014, the total length of roads open to traffic in TAR reached 75,000 kms out of which 8,891 kms have sub-high-grade surfaces or better, accounting for 12.6 percent of the total. 65 of all 74 counties in the TAR (88%) had access to asphalt roads. As many as 690 townships and 5,408 administrative villages could be reached by road, respectively accounting for 99.7 percent and 99.2 percent of the total. Recently, the 45.22km long expressway linking Nyingtri City and Minling Airport was completed and opened to traffic. This expressway was built with a total investment of 2.845 billion Yuan, according to Nyingtri Tourism Agency. However, roads in Tibet also have many strategic dimensions.
Following the ongoing spate of self-immolations in Tibetan areas against China’s rule, Beijing is escalating its clamp down on monasteries, targeting them as major restive centers. The strategic network of roads and highways in Tibet with its emphasis on connecting all monasteries to the nearest town is aimed at controlling the movement of the residents.
Impacts and Implications
Infrastructure build-up in Tibet should not be an end in itself, but rather a means for achieving better and more equitable living conditions for Tibetans. As mentioned at the beginning, Tibetans who are the owners of the land draw little benefit from these infrastructure build-up in Tibet. Primarily, the infrastructure build-up in Tibet is unilaterally decided and imposed by Beijing without the consent or consultation with the Tibetan people. As stated by Ben Hillman, co-editor of the forthcoming report (2016) on ethnic unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese government is plastering railways and highways and sticking mobile phone towers all over the Tibetan plateau. But these have mainly encouraged and served hundreds of thousands of new migrants to come to Tibet from the far-flung areas of rural China. “It’s a revolving door of Han Chinese migrants who come, make some money and leave.”
It is often said that infrastructure development can be considered the wheels if not the engine of economic growth. But infrastructure development must accentuate the benefits of growth, which makes the development process more inclusive. Empirical evidence have suggested that there is a positive relationship between infrastructure development index and per capita net domestic product to reduce the level of poverty and unemployment. In the case of Tibet, though the Chinese government has poured millions of Yuan for infrastructure development in Tibet but it has neither uplifted Tibetans from poverty nor has been able to increase per capita income of Tibetans which is lower than the national average. The growth that Tibet has attained in terms of GDP has been reduced to a mere figure with no actual improvement in the lives of millions of Tibetans. Professor Jin Wei, an expert at the Central Party School in Beijing, said that both the growth of investment in fixed assets and the growth of investment exceed the growth of GDP in Tibet. In the period 2012-2013, the amount of investment in fixed assets exceeded GDP by 100% thus implying that Beijing has invested millions of Yuan in fixed asset which has helped in sustaining the high GDP rate of Tibet.
Table number 1 explicitly illustrates that the domestic production potential of Tibet is among the lowest in comparison to other provinces of China. However, China continues to justify its investment driven growth in Tibet. Lobsang Jamyang, chairman of TAR, has said that the large number of Tibetan people living in poverty and the poor infrastructure development have made the investment-driven growth a reasonable choice for Tibet. Tibet’s high growth rate piggy backing on China’s investment is further exacerbated by high financial subsidies from Beijing. Professor Jin Wei notes that over 90% of expenditure supporting the functioning of Tibet’s society and economy depends on the central government’s fiscal transfer payment. Between 1952 and 2013, the central government’s financial subsidies (a cumulative total 542.343 billion Yuan) accounted for 91.45% of Tibet’s total financial revenues (a cumulative total 593.06 billion Yuan). For the same period, the central government’s financial subsidies accounted for 92.36% of Tibet’s total financial expenditures. In fact, the growth rate of the central government’s financial subsidies is higher than the growth rate of Tibet’s financial revenues. This argument is further supported by findings of a study carried out by China Tibetology Research Centre in Beijing, which revealed that in recent years Tibet’s economic growth has been driven by investment which comes from the central government’s financial transfer payment and support of inland provinces and cities.
Infrastructure build-up in Tibet is also accompanied by rapid urbanisation. China only took 30 years to accomplish the level of urbanisation that the western countries had managed to build in 200 years. In the next 20 years, there will be 13-15 million people every year entering China’s expanding new cities. Infrastructure development and the advent of urbanisation in Tibet is expected to accelerate the population influx from China which is further facilitated by the reforms in the Hukou system. Given the overwhelmingly rural character of Tibet, and the presence of sinicised towns already constructed throughout the region, many Tibetans infer that this aspect of the Western Development strategy (WDS) is intended to benefit migrants rather than the indigenous population. This frequently expressed opinion is supported by extensive development of new housing estates in Lhasa, Tsetang, Drakyab (Chinese: Bayi) and Shigatse, where the construction style reflects Chinese architectural style and the occupants and construction workers are so far primarily Han Chinese. Recently, China’s State Council, or cabinet, approved the application of Lhoka (Chinese: Shannan) in Tibet to become the fifth prefecture-level city in the region. While urbanisation in Tibet has brought benefits to many migrant workers, the vast changes underway in Gyalthang (Chinese: Zhongdian) have had two negative social consequences. The first has been an increase in conflicts over urban expansion, which is a common consequence of urbanisation throughout rural China. The second is a stratification of local labour markets, which favour Han Chinese migrants at the expense of local Tibetans. This is an emerging problem in many parts of China’s ethnically complex western regions.
Cities in Tibet like Lhasa, due to the influx of Chinese migrant workers along with the rapid urbanisation are seeing a growing trend of intermarriage between Tibetans and Chinese. The number of ethnic-mixed households was reported to be 7,343 in the 2000 census, 2.78 times the number in 1990. Of them, 28 percent lived in urban Lhasa. These figures show that intermarriage in TAR not only increased from 1990 to 2000 but also spread from the urban to the rural areas. In 1990, there were 2,639 united households of Han and ethnic minorities with 10,951 household members in TAR. About 37.7 percent of them lived in the Urban District of Lhasa, another 34.6 percent lived in six towns situated in prefectural capitals, and 7.5 percent lived in counties of Chamdo Prefecture (excluding Chamdo County). Another aspect of urbanisation along with the large influx of migrant workers can be looked as a strategy in the long run to assimilate Tibetan culture and identity. Many observers on infrastructure build-up in Tibet also view the trend as a geo-strategic “threat” to South Asia, implying Chinese expansionism in the region. This view is further expounded by the growing network of railway lines and roads in Tibet which fits into the larger picture of China’s new international dream, One Road One Belt. The expansion of railway line from Shigatse to Nyingtri bordering Arunachal Pradesh state of India, a territory over which China has repeatedly laid claim, could act as a ‘bargaining chip’ during the border talks with India. As a result of its long-standing territorial dispute with China, India faces 400,000 Chinese troops on its borders. India also must cope with additional threats from China’s build-up of military infrastructure in Tibet and the Chinese administered Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast.
Tibet continues to be the soft underbelly of China’s security interests. Beijing’s strategy to deal with the Tibet issue is headlined by its rapid build-up of infrastructure (economic and military) in Tibet. This helps Beijing in two ways: firstly, it has created an extensive and modern infrastructure that enables the rapid deployment of its forces at strategic locations in any eventuality; secondly, all infrastructure build-up are naturally accompanied by urbanisation with the transfer of migrant workers. These migrants, moving in their millions to Tibet attracted by job and market opportunities not only ease rural China’s unemployment and over-population burden but at the same time fulfill CCP’s strategy of cultural assimilation of Tibetans. China hopes that through this strategy, accompanied by an iron fist rule over Tibet crushing all expressions of dissent, they will ultimately subdue and disintegrate the resistance of the Tibetans within and outside of Tibet.
 Tibet, here refers to the Tibetan plateau consisting of the three traditional provinces of Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang
 China’s White Paper, Sept.2015
 You Ji, Dealing with the Malacca Dilemma: China’s Effort to Protect its Energy Supply, STRATEGIC ANALYSIS Volume: 31Issue: 3, May 2007
 China’s White Paper, Sept.2015
 Gao Junxia Tibet’s Nyingchi airport expressway opens to traffic, China Tibet News 2015-11-10
 China’s White Paper, Sept.2015
 Gao Junxia, China Tibet News 2015 http://english.chinatibetnews.com/tt/201511/t20151110_910038.html
 Ben Hillman, “Money Can’t Buy Tibetans’ Love“, April,2008, Far Eastern Economic Review, Australian National University’s new China Institute
 Jin Wei, 2015, 2015: No 9 Tibet as Recipient of Assistance and Its Sustainable Development, China Policy Institute Policy Paper
 Tibet maintains ambitious growth target with strong investment,http://www.china.org.cn/china/Off_the_Wire/2015-01/18/content_34591447.htm
 Wei op.cit.
 China Tibetology Research Centre, 2009
 A hukou is a record in the system of household registration required by law in China. The CCP had made flexible hukuo system in Tibetan area which encourages more migrant workers to move into Tibet.
 Susette Cooke, Merging Tibetan Culture into the Chinese Economic Fast Lane, China Perspectives (Nov- Dec, 2003)
 Boshi Lunwen (PhD Dissertation) Sichuan Daxue, 2003.
 “United households” is the English term used in Chinese translation, referring to mixed marriage.
 Rong Ma, 2011, Population and Society in Contemporary Tibet, Hong Kong University Press
 China inaugurates new Tibet rail link close to Sikkim, PTI Aug 15, 2014, http://articl;es.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-08-15/news/52845915_railway-line-xigaze-qinghai-tibet- railway
 India’s Central Asian Strategic Paradoxes:The Impact of Strategic Autonomy in the Emerging Asian Regional Architecture, Micha’el Tanchum p-419)
*Dr. Rinzin Dorjee is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.