July 13, 2006

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The Evil Train to Tibet?

I was quite amused by an article in the People's Daily today that expressed how China was 'soured and saddened' by Western press reports condemning the railway, not least from the Guardian newspaper in the UK. The funny thing is, they dredged up a report on railways in India, apparently from the Guardian a year ago, that had this to say:

"in India, nothing can link up the whole country but rail routes...­ From a broader sense, railways gives India a sense of unity."
Of course that is true also in a tragic sense this week. Now I've done a quick search of the Guardian website to find the article they reference, and I couldn't find it, so it's possible that this was not said, but I think it is entirely plausible given that I've read similar things expressed about railways in many other places.

The point is, I have to agree on this point with China. Why begrudge China's right to put a railway line in its own country? I think we must all be realistic and accept that Tibet, after over fifty years, is not going to be allowed its own independence by China. That being the case, why criticize a move that might help move at least a trickle of the economic prosperity enjoyed further east to Tibet? Some say that rampant tourism will wipe out what remains of Tibet's indigenous culture. But is that so that wealthy Western tourists can still fly up to Lhasa and, travelling a bit further, find some sort of Shangri-La untouched by time? Because there is no point trying to keep Tibet in stasis until some revolution somehow gives it back its independence.

If you travel to Germany, you don't expect, except on special occasions, Germans you meet to be wearing lederhosen. Does it make sense that we feel it's OK to want to expect indigenous costumes and historic poverty when we go to Tibet? Is it right for us not to want a railroad to a country, so that it remains too poor to afford anything except ethnic homespun?

'Free Tibet' is a pipe dream. The sooner people get over that and hope that people in Tibet can afford more opportunities, improved healthcare, safer roads, and more education, the better.

posted by HK Dave on 07.13.06 at 08:18 AM in the China history, education & culture category.


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Text of a bumper sticker sometimes seen around Boulder, Colorado:

"Forget Tibet, Free Boulder!"

posted by: Derek Scruggs on 07.13.06 at 09:34 AM [permalink]

I think it is just part of ever-present cynical attitude towards everything China. It seems like China can never be right in achieve some sort of net positive for its people unless CCP today just politically slit their wrist and "embrace democracy(???)".

The see the same sort of hilariously cynical attitude in alot of the commentators that when they open their mouth and spew out waves of tired rhetoric, it is hard to not laugh or take them seriously.

The fundamental mindset is that, after the collapse of communism, "Democracy" has evolved from the "best way" to the "only way". Its application is all purpose and universal. Any solution to the contrary is heresy.

IMO, some people needs to stop treating "Democracy" like a religion and return to the examination of the human condition.

posted by: Falen on 07.13.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

So I did a quick google news on Tibet and I found the some headline talking about the railroad and immediately i see some extremely hyperbolic headline such as "Railroad from hell" and "Blow to Tibet's independence".

Can't help but be amused and cynical at the same time.

But I guess the potential is there for cultural genocide such as the American Indians.

posted by: Falen on 07.13.06 at 10:23 AM [permalink]

Look, I do think what has happened to Tibet was unfortunate, and certainly it is debatable whether it was an independent state historically like Korea and/or Vietnam, or a dominion of China.

But as much sympathy as I have for displaced Tibetans that chafe at the idea of Chinese rule, those debates now are in the past. Given the rise of China and the global geopolitical tectonic shifts that entails, China's absorption of Tibet is a fait accompli.

Once one comes to terms with it, you realize that any efforts to spur economic development of that dirt poor area is a good thing. And to decry globalization there as 'Sinification' is like 19th century Victorians objectifying the 'noble savage'. Yes, there is troubling evidence of forced ethnic heterogeneity by the thousands of Chinese settlers China has encouraged to move there. But the railway has no racial bias - it can only help people there rise up from the poverty that has blighted the region from before even the Chinese takeover.

posted by: HK Dave on 07.13.06 at 11:02 AM [permalink]

While I agree with your assertion that Tibetan independence will never happen, I disagree with all this talk about moving economic prosperity to Tibet.

People who believe this are usually the ones that haven't traveled extensively to minority regions in China and/or have no idea what REALLY is going on. Just visit minority group-themed destinations in China such as Lijiang or Dali in Yunnan where the minority groups have been pushed out and Han Chinese settlers have moved in to cash in on their 'minority culture'. Fake cultural shows, tacky shops that sell minority trinkets are all features of them.
Take a look at last weekend's Standard article about a small town on Lugu Lake straddling Yunnan and Sichuan to see what economic development has done to minority people:


"....hope that people in Tibet can afford more opportunities, improved healthcare, safer roads, and more education, the better."

If Tibet was being unified with Canada or Australia then I would agree with you. I'm not sure how often you travel in China, but the health care for the vast majority of Chinese are terrible (visit a MASH-like Chinese hospital if you dont' believe me), safer roads don't exist and education in the rest of the country is in crisis mode.

Nobody asks what the ordinary Tibetans want (other than independence that is), the Han tell them what they need. If they do want economic progress why haven't any of them spoken up about it?

My advice is to go to Tibet, talk to a few Tibetans and see what they think about this tourism/unity with China circus. You'll quickly learn that many of them realise that independence is out of the question but they just want to be left to their own devices. Kind of like many Taiwanese people...but that's another story for another day:)

posted by: Dezza on 07.13.06 at 04:01 PM [permalink]

The railway is an impressive feat of engineering. Like most impressive -- and ergo expensive -- feats, there is plenty of room to debate the rationality of the thing. But now that it's there the Tibetans will get some benefit. Personally I hope to take the thing at some point.
I'm more bothered by that freaky giant Mao Zedong statue.

posted by: myrick on 07.13.06 at 09:46 PM [permalink]

My comments are posted here:


posted by: Joseph Steinberg on 07.13.06 at 10:48 PM [permalink]

Dezza, I don't care for tacky Chinese tourism any more than the next guy, and yes, I've seen it - all over the country. They belittle all the 'quaint' cultures of all the 'minorities' of China. It made my experience in Kashgar one of the most disappointing stops of my life (everything afterwards on the Pakistan side was way cooler).

But even with the huge influx of Han Chinese, I still thought that overall, Kashgar had overall become a wealthier city - as has Lijiang, Dali, and lots of other places where the tourism dollars had made its way. And while the chief tourism enterprises, many of them national, were run by Han Chinese, I definitely saw a decent share of my tourism dollars going to local minorities, and to their employment.

posted by: HK Dave on 07.13.06 at 11:01 PM [permalink]


i certainly agree with your 'advice of to go to Tibet, talk to a few Tibetans'. but the topic and observation should perhaps be much broader.

btw, have you done so? how did you arrived at your conclusion?

posted by: sun bin on 07.13.06 at 11:50 PM [permalink]


that whole statue thing is quite weird. but 7m is more like the average size you see in other cities, anything but giant.

posted by: sun bin on 07.13.06 at 11:53 PM [permalink]

speaking of "Fake cultural shows, tacky shops that sell minority trinkets"

Deeza, have you been to Oahu's Polyneasian Cultural Center? Any of the Indian reservation with cement teepees?

Taiwan's "high mountan people"(GaoShanRen) were actually plains dweller before the Dutch and Chinese pushed them up to the hills.

posted by: bobby fletcher on 07.14.06 at 04:58 AM [permalink]

Sun Bin: I've traveled extensively in Tibetan areas of Northern Yunnan and Western Sichuan. Although I've never traveled to Tibet itself, Tibetans in the areas I did visit go back and forth between Tibet and their homes in the above mentioned places.

I've talked extensively with regular Tibetan folks, even been invited into a few homes for chats, check out my website for photo evidence. I think it's pretty safe to say they cast a weary eye on all this development talk and feel left out and pushed out. I also speak with Han Chinese residing in these areas who think Tibetans are dirty, lazy and stupid because most of them just want to live on the land and herd yaks. There is definitely a lot of animosity between the minority groups and Han Chinese.

Fellow travelers and Tibetans themselves have even remarked that the Tibetan areas outside of Tibet are more authentically Tibetan than Tibet is now. I guess I'll have to see that for myself when I visit Tibet next year. I hope it hasn't turned out into another Lijiang by then..

HK Dave: if you can stomach what Lijiang and Dali have become then you're a bigger tourist 'man' than me:)

Bobby Fletcher: it's been awhile since I've been to Hawaii, I'll have to check out that cultural centre some time. What state are those cement teepees in?

posted by: Dezza on 07.14.06 at 09:19 AM [permalink]

I've seen cement teepees not on reservations, but outside or near them in southerwestern Colorado and in New Mexico.
I also believe I recall one outside of Tuba City, Arizona circa 1975 during a travesity of a road trip - but that might've been the drugs)))))
Tacky and absurd as they are -- they're used as adverts or picnic shelters, not housing -- they compare somewhat favorably to some of the horrendous housing on the actual reservations.

posted by: Justin on 07.14.06 at 05:30 PM [permalink]

When some people talk about "evil train" it's obvious that the point is not the "train" but the "evil". In other words, the problem is not whether China has or not the right to put a railway line in its territory (of course it has), but the evil China did in and against Tibet in the last 50 years. If you miss this point, your post makes no sense.



posted by: Enzo on 07.14.06 at 08:56 PM [permalink]

Actually I've always wanted to ask this question but never got a chance to. Every god damn backpacker seems to have some innate knowledge on the "pulse" of Tibetans and seems to have gained some sort of socio-political wisdom. I know that 99% of the schmucks backtracking in Tibet can barely speak a lick of Chinese, let alone Tibetan. Also 99% of Tibetans and Chinese likewise don't speak any English. How are people like Dezza communicating complicated social and political concepts with "regular" natives when the grasp of the language is at best tentative or generally non-existant? Grunting can only take you so far.

posted by: Jing on 07.14.06 at 10:48 PM [permalink]

It is really nothing "EVIL" about building a train to Tibet. If you want to talk about the policies there's a time and place for it.

The hypocrisy is so deep sometimes that people fails to see things for what they are. It is simply another part of the infrastrucuture development that's going on all over China. Not some neferious scheme to "wipe out the Tibetan culture".

Even if Tibet is an independent country, the train would STILL be just another part of globalization that's inevitable. People can't honestly be suggestion that instead of a train they should build a wall?

posted by: Falen on 07.15.06 at 12:01 AM [permalink]

Jing, I am not sure if Dezza speaks Tibetan; but for one reason or another he has ability to speak Chinese. Perhaps you may check his blog first.

posted by: LfC on 07.15.06 at 01:08 AM [permalink]

Look, Chinese travelers travel the way they want to. We can criticize them when they travel abroad, but when they travel in their own country we can't really tell them how to do it. As much as I hate whistle-stop bus tourism sandwiching in crappy food, stupid rip off 'handicraft factories' that pay commissions to the tour guides and ritualistic, soporific, pathetic 'cultural performances', if a billion people like travelling that way there's not much you or I can do about it.

And anyone that thinks that despite what Chinese domestic tourism is doing to historic or cultural environments, that it is not also bringing in money to the local economy, is totally deluding themselves.

Tibet is a part of China now. Get over any Quixotic quest to hope something will change the status quo and roll back five decades. That being the case, China not only has a right, but a responsibility to bring economic development to the region.

And on my favorite subject - I fervently hope for total culinary colonization of Tibet by China. Stop tsampa!

posted by: HK Dave on 07.17.06 at 10:31 AM [permalink]

Glad none of you were in charge of the World in the late 80s. I can just picture it, "Poland has been part of Russia for 50 years and always will be!"

Personally, I think the train will give a much needed economic kick in the pants to the region.

Tibet will be free and maybe it will take another 50 years. When you are all dead.

posted by: germaine greer on 07.25.06 at 04:23 PM [permalink]

Germaine greer: You are right, I am also waiting for the day when Northern Ireland is free. And why limit our imagination, maybe my personal favorite, Scotland, also has a chance.

I guess the Brits deeply regret that they did not do to the Irish what they did to the early Australians in the 18th century. Things would be much easier now.

Or if you are American, the Chinese can learn from you, chase all the Tibetens up to the mountain top and buy them hard liquor all day.

posted by: DFIndy on 07.26.06 at 04:46 AM [permalink]

It would seem that the Chinese are damned if they do and damned if they don't. The predictable response came even before the plans for the railway had been laid. But if the Chinese didn't build a railroad, it's possible that some would have accused the Chinese of trying intentionally to box the Tibetans in.

I also think that tourism would be a good thing. Remember, the Vatican gets millions of visitors a year, and they are still very much in business.

posted by: Dewei on 08.07.06 at 06:54 AM [permalink]

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