Tibetan Field Workers and Chinese Construction Crew

SYNOPSIS:  Reflections on Tibet, and on what the Chinese could possibly be up to?  Lots of thoughts and speculations based on nothing much, some hearsay, some observations, and some gut feelings.  About communism and road construction; about demographics, and about the future.

It’s not just millions, its billions and trillions the Chinese spend on “developing Tibet”. 

Once I paid attention, especially on my tour going east, I would estimate that the Chinese do more road construction, tunneling, and bridge-building in Tibet in a day, than the Cubans did in the last 60 years in their entire country!  Since I traveled to Cuba prior to this trip, I could not help but make this particular comparison.  There is one major road cutting through Cuba from west to east.  The colonial powers started it; the Cubans never managed to finish it…  When Celibeth and I were there, we wondered if it was communism that was at the root of this laid-back attitude, this lack of accomplishment, and this outright laziness?  It couldn’t just be communism — China is also considered communist.  Of course, both of these variations of communism have little to do with the communism Russia-style; I grew up with in East Germany.  All of this baffled me and occupied my mind as we crossed the country for hours each day.  I could also have compared the Chinese activities with developments in the US — and let me say this: the US would not fare well in this contest either…

The lalila and cha-cha-cha attitude of the Cubans has never been quite my cup of tea.  But it is a charming attitude that is pleasant to be around.  The driven, self-righteous and superior-laden attitude of the Chinese in comparison, is positively scary and completely contrary to the Tibetan attitude towards life.  Where the locals put up flagpoles to mark spots of local spirits, the Chinese erect pylons.  Where the locals warn travelers of dangerous spots by putting up cairns, the Chinese roll out concrete embankments, or hold together huge mountains by metal mesh-wires.  Where the locals string flags across a mountain pass, the Chinese plant solar panels.  

What do they hope to gain?  According to some reports, China has been exploiting Tibet wholesale ever since they set foot here, 60 years ago.  First, it was mostly a rampaging Red Guard that pillaged, looted, and destroyed.  Then, a more benign form of exploitation followed that came in the guise of “development”, or “reparation”.  Roads were built and eventually the infamous railroad connecting Lhasa with China followed as recently as 2007.  This railroad had been deemed impossible, by the experts.  It had to cut through rock, had to climb over some of the world’s highest mountain passes, and level countless irregularities in the land.  The Chinese did it!

The roads and the trains bring hundreds of thousands of Chinese visitors, but even more immigrants, heavily incentivized by the government.  Their salaries are higher than even in Shanghai.  Their taxes are lower than elsewhere or waived altogether.    Their presence makes for an obvious demographic change that drives native Tibetans out of the fabric of society.  Their language is marginalized, their culture merely tolerated (but at least no longer destroyed) and they are living under an ever-increasing police presence.  The new normal is the expectation that even walls have eyes and ears.  The car I was driving around in had two web-cameras installed.  At any time, “the government” could look it and out.  Nobody knew when, if, or if at all.  By all measures this is an Orwellian nightmare, yet both driver and guide had adjusted to it.  What other choice did they have?

The Chinese who resettle face a tough decision:  the money is good in Tibet, but evidence is beginning to show that the longer mainland Chinese are staying in Tibet, the  more likely they will die within a short time of their return.  There is something about the exposure to high altitudes that does not sit well with the Chinese (or other people’s) constitution.  Those who come to make money usually plan on staying no longer than five years; and that may be too long.

Immigrants need housing; but what do you make of entire satellite cities that have sprung up all over Tibet that stand empty?  Blocks and blocks of newly constructed multi-storied neighborhoods equipped with parks, child-care facilities, malls, even municipal buildings, stand empty as if in expectation of … what?  Sudden evacuations from the mainland?  The removal of unwanted elements en masse?  Future mass-immigration?  There is room for speculation and worse: conspiracy theories.  Are the Chinese building up Tibet as their big “get-away” in case of natural or man-made disaster? 

Minerals are being mined and transported back to China.  Forests are being cut and shipped out of Tibet.  But China is vast and has minerals and forests of its own.  Is that worth the billions it spends or is there more?

Once I started counting, I estimate that along any of the various highway projects involving tunnels and bridges, a full-scale, movable cement factory has been set up every 10-20 km, and at twice the interval a metal-processing factory is in operation.

Alongside the factories and the road construction, workers’ housing units have been put up, resembling little more than barracks providing no more than a roof over the head and some outhouses.  There is no entertainment, no distraction.  The workers are there to work and most likely work in double-shifts.  Each of those factory-worker units is responsible for a 10-20 km stretch of construction.  Once done, the entire production can be moved 50km down the road.  Simply remarkable!  This harks right back to the situation I encountered with my AirBnB hostess in Urumqi.  She was called to a “project”.  The exploitation of labor and the efficiency that goes along with it has no parallel in the modern Western world as we know it.

The results are by far not all bad!  Tibet has a fully developed and further developing infrastructure of roads, tunnels, bridges, electricity, mobile phone and wifi accessibility that rivals every other developed country.  The current Chinese president specifically supports farmers and nomads.  Hundreds of housing units have been built in the middle of nowhere and are made accessible to farmers and nomads at subsidized rent levels.  In some areas, heaters, solar panels, water tanks, etc. are handed out along the mission of “developing Tibet”.   

It is striking that while the most modern technology is employed by the Chinese, the Tibetans still work their fields mostly by hand, fetch their firewood in bundles on their backs, raise their yak even at the outskirts of Chinese highrise towns.   Two parallel cultures are developing.  Outwardly, the Chinese dominate.  Inwardly, the Tibetans resist.  Will that be enough to survive?

The Chinese have their mission, their motivation, and their justification.  But what is the ultimate plan?  I am still not convinced that it’s the minerals or the forests.  The more I looked, the more I began to see dried out river beds.  Finally, in the eastern part of Tibet, I came close to three of the dozens of dams that reportedly have been constructed by the Chinese over the last few years.  I saw the huge reservoirs that had been created, and it began to dawn on me:  its the water! 

Tibet’s water resources are among the most pristine and the most plentiful in the world.  As most of us are aware, this coming century and the centuries after, will experience a serious shortfall of clean, drinkable, sweet water.  Whoever controls the water supply will control the world!

In contrast to the Western world, which is susceptible to political shifts and ever-shifting priorities, communist China can make 10, 20, even 50 year plans and pull them through in all likelihood, unless there is another downfall like that of 1989.  And where would that come from? 

China can expect to be in full control of its destiny over the next few decades.  The Cold War is over.  In America we are at each other’s throats.  Islam is destabilizing the Middle East and occupying Europe and the US politically, and financially.  There is no “natural enemy” that can or will take on China.  Not now, not in the past, even over an issue violating as many of the human rights, as the illegal takeover of Tibet.  The Chinese have carte blanche to proceed.  And at full speed ahead, they do.

Is there anyone paying attention? 

And with this somewhat dark and entirely speculative blog, I will wrap up my blog on Tibet.  I hope I am wrong.

Om Mani Padme Om.

5 comments so far

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  1. I didn’t know that people who did not grow up in high altitudes but lived there for a few years (for example in Tibet) might die within a short time of their return to lower altitude homes (for example China). Wonder why that is? I always thought the body can adjust.

    • This was news to me, too. And all I have is hearsay. But this phenomenon is known in the Yaks, too! Yak will die if they get below 3000 meters. Isn’t that strange? That’s why they are so perfect for Tibet, 3500 meters and up.

      • The wonders of Evolution.

  2. Trump’s Paris Accords horror show has also helped the Chinese in their attempt at ascendancy.
    Napoleon said, so many years ago: “Let China sleep, when she awakens the world will be sorry.”

  3. It looks like another example of the struggle between a traditional, technologically primitive way of life and modern civilization.