Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Decision at the Top of the World

"Aren't we Chinese great? They said it couldn't be done. And yet, we've not only done it, we've done it ahead of plan. No other country in the world could do this. Chinese people are so clever." We are two hours, several beers and half a roasted duck into a journey on the overnight express from Xining, traveling along the completed half of what will soon be part of the world's highest railroad -- the 1,900-kilometer line from Xining across the Qinghai Plateau to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. But my patriotic conversation partner, Wang Qiang, is just warming up on his favorite subject: China's engineering prowess.

"The new track follows the highway built by our soldiers in the 1950s. The terrain is so harsh that three of them died for every kilometer of road. You have to admire their spirit. But now, we've built the railway without the loss of a single life. Isn't China great?"
Jonathan Watts of the UK Guardian files this fascinating report on the building of the Qinghai to Lhasa railway line, an unprecedented feat of engineering that will be completed next month, three years ahead of schedule. The Qinghai/Lhasa railway, Watts writes, is an example of China's "can-do" spirit proving the experts wrong, the great majority of whom thought building tracks through the Kunlun Pass to be impossible. And this is no ordinary train line:
Luxury trains are being built for the new track. They feature pressurized carriages to minimize the risk of altitude sickness and tinted windows to protect from strong ultraviolet rays. Canada's Bombardier has won the $280 million contract to build 361 cars, some of which will have deluxe sleeping compartments with individual showers, glass-walled sides to provide panoramic views, entertainment centers and gourmet dining areas, and toilets with sewage and waste-treatment systems. The cars will be pulled by diesel engines capable of maintaining an average speed of 100 kph, even at above 4,000 meters, when the thinness of the air can cut power by almost half.
This is a long piece that is both a fascinating travelogue of an isolated region and a commentary on China's rise. Watts details the potential positive and negative aspects of the rail line, the fears among some Tibetans that it will increase Han cultural dominance of traditional Tibetan culture, along with the hope of many for much needed economic development. Watts also looks at the environmental impact of the railroad and the consequences of China's "bigger, faster, higher" philosophy of econonmic development:
The Tibetan dilemma is increasingly shared by other countries as the world tries to come to terms with China's rise. Everyone wants Beijing's money and goods; no one wants its ideas.

Economically, China's expansion is a storming success, with 9 percent growth for each of the past 25 years, lifting hundreds of millions of peasants out of poverty, making a fortune for foreign manufacturers that exploit low-cost labor, pushing down supermarket prices across the globe and boosting trade with other developing nations.

Environmentally and spiritually, however, it is a disaster. China's rivers are drying up, its cities are choked with pollution, the rural healthcare system has collapsed and the cities are seeing record levels of suicide and stress. China is showing all the symptoms of modernity -- only on a bigger scale and at a faster rate than the world has ever seen.
But Watts also points out that, like the railroad, cultural transmission goes both ways:
One of the beneficiaries of the boom is Buddhism. This was evident from the mix of materialism, spiritualism and political cheek at the Ta'er Si, one of the great Tibetan monasteries. Set in rolling green hills just south of Xining and famed as the home of living buddhas since the 16th century, it is attracting an ever-growing number of Han tourists. Their chatter and mobile phones disturb monks as they chant tantric scriptures ("During the peak season, there are almost as many tour guides as monks," complained one acolyte), but, as with the railway, the linking of materialism and spiritualism is not a one-way track.

Outside the monastery, the streets are filled with Buddhist wholesale shops (often run by Muslims) that offer bulk sales of robes, incense sticks, prayer wheels and beads. The customers are not tourists but monks, stocking up on paraphernalia to establish more monasteries. "This is a boom time for Buddhism in China," says Glen Mullin, the author of several books on the Dalai Lama. "Many of the monasteries that were shut down and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution are being rebuilt, along with new ones."
There's a great deal more to Watt's piece, including evocative descriptions of life in the Qinghai Plateau, the rapid changes due to development, even the attempts by a member of Tibet's famed "Wild Yak Brigade" to introduce ecotourism into the area (and if you've been following that story, as I have, you'll be happy to learn that the chiru has rebounded somewhat from the widespread predations of armed poaching gangs). His conclusions are intensely sobering. But at the end, he offers a glimmer of hope:
If railway tracks can spread the tools of modern technology and education to Tibet, the lifestyles of some of the poorest people in the world could be dramatically improved. If ideas are allowed to flow freely in both directions along the track, the meeting of Chinese materialism and Tibetan spiritualism could fill a gap at both ends of the line. And if, as some suggest, the tracks are extended farther south to the border with Nepal and then on through the Himalayas to India, it could transform relations between the world's two most populous and fastest-growing economies.

Present trends, however, suggest a much bleaker future. Fifty years ago, when Qinghai Plateau was part of Tibet, it was a scantly populated wilderness. Now, under Beijing's control, it has become a land conquered and settled by Han engineers, miners, soldiers, police and prisoners. There are few grimmer examples of what Chinese-style development can mean for ethnic minorities and the environment.

In the 19th century, Britain and Europe taught the world how to produce. In the 20th, the United States taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world in the 21st century, it must teach us how to sustain.
If China is the new "can-do" nation, isn't it possible for all of this energy and spirit to be directed towards this end?

No comments: