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Tibet - Why the Chinese are There

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Tibet | Dalai Lama | Panchen Lama | Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala | Lost Lhasa | Friends of Tibet
Ngawang Sangdrol | Tibetan Diaspora | Tibet on Film | The Monks of Drepung | Tibet's Warrior Nuns
Tibetan Children's Villages | Why the Chinese are There

The Tibetan plateau stands at an average height of 15,000 feet above sea level. Roughly the size of Western Europe, its 1.5 million square kilometres of landmass is surrounded by the world's highest mountain ranges. Much of western Tibet is high-altitude desert (mostly above the altitude at which trees can grow) and the climate is harsh and inhospitable. Apart from grass, barley and yaks, not much edible material can be found there. For the inhabitants of a low-lying, fertile plain, such as the Chinese, Tibet is a cold hell. Virtually everything that the Chinese like to eat, including basics like rice and wheat, has to be imported from the plains. All of which makes one ask, why are the Chinese so desperate to hold onto Tibet?


Chairman Mao desired to prove after World War 2, especially to Stalin, that China had 'stood up', driven out the foreign imperialists (particularly the Japanese), and reasserted its old imperial territorial sovereignty, plus a few extra bits, such as Tibet.

Almost as soon as Mao had consolidated his victory over the nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-Shek, he turned his attention to Tibet. The first moves were made in late 1949, and by 1951 the invasion of Tibet was complete. Amdo and Kham, the two eastern provinces of Tibet, were absorbed into China: Amdo was absorbed into Qinghai and Gansu, while Kham was absorbed into Szechuan and Yunnan. The predominantly Tibetan regions became 'Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures' within the Chinese provinces.

China describes this invasion as the 'peaceful liberation' of Tibet, on the basis that foreign imperialist elements (an American radio operator and a few British diplomats) had infiltrated the region. In 1951, with Tibet conquered, the Chinese forced Tibetan delegates in Beijing to sign the Seventeen-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. This guaranteed the role of the Dalai Lama, the place of Tibetan religion and cultural institutions, and the gradual reform of landholding. Tibet would not be subject to enforced communisation. In the end, China broke all seventeen points within a few years. Oppressive measures against both religious and secular institutions, especially in Kham and Amdo, led to the uprising of 1959, after which the Dalai Lama was forced into exile in India. Present-day Chinese apologies for the destruction of 6,500 temples and monasteries in Tibet, when they occur, are always in terms of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976); in fact, most of the destruction in Tibet had occurred by 1959. The ravages of the Red Guards were merely the conclusion of the previous decimation of Tibetan culture.

China is still playing the 'imperialist claims game' in the Spratley Islands, with Taiwan, and along the MacMahon line in Assam, northern India.

Military and Strategic

Tibet is effectively a fortress dominating central Asia. By far the largest part of China's development of Tibet, specifically the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (the former province of U Tsang) has been financed by the military (including the People's Liberation Army, the Public Security Bureau and the People's Armed Police).

A significant proportion of China's nuclear arsenal - maybe as much as 25 per cent to 30 per cent - is up there. Most of the new building in and around Lhasa is either for, or owned by, the People's Liberation Army of China. Lhasa itself is now a city of 35 square kilometres and expanding, of which PLA barracks and other installations count for a large segment. Old Tibetan Lhasa, mainly around the Jokhang Temple, is less than one square kilometre and diminishing.

More significantly the Chinese are in the process of constructing a major railway line linking Golmud in the far northeast to Lhasa in the south, a mere 300km from the Indian border. Currently it is estimated that 160 land-based BS4 nuclear missiles are located near the existing Xining-Golmud railway line in the Qaidam basin. Their launch crews are stationed in the three main towns of the area - Xining, Datong and Dulan1. The new railway line will allow the Chinese to move these missiles and their support personnel south very easily. It is due for completion in about 2006.

Minerals and Resources

The Chinese name for Tibet - Xizang Zhizou - means 'western treasure basket'. Approximately 40 per cent of China's mineral resources are in Tibet, including gold, coal and what are estimated to be the world's largest uranium deposits (many under Tibet's most sacred sites such as the Potala hill in Lhasa). Altogether more than 126 industrially useful minerals lie under Tibetan soil; soil that the nomadic people consider as sacred. Many Tibetans have commented on how quickly the West went to the aid of Kuwait in the first Gulf War for its oil reserves while still ignoring Tibet. Huge areas of prime virgin forest have been clear-felled in southeastern Tibet, the former province of Kham. It was estimated in the 1980s that over $54 billion worth of timber had been extracted from Tibet since the early 1950s. Only recently has China forbidden logging in the Upper Yangtse because of the catastrophic results of the massive deforestation. Both the Yangtse and Yellow Rivers carry massive volumes of silt, but in the case of the Yangtse, the topsoil erosion already constitutes a major threat to the hydroelectric machinery of the Three Gorges Dam.

Water is also soon to be one of Tibet's most exploited resources. Much has been heard of the notorious Three Gorges Dam further down the Yangtse, but the Chinese are also undertaking massive damming schemes in Tibet. Approximately ten major dams are planned in the immediate future, with all the devastation and displacement of local Tibetan communities that will entail. They are also talking of diverting the Brahmaputra River northwards to irrigate north China's deserts and of using nuclear explosives to cut through the intervening mountain ranges. At the Great Bend, where it turns south through the Himalayas into Assam, the Brahmaputra falls 3,000 metres in the space of a hundred or so kilometres with huge hydroelectric potential. The Chinese claim it will have twice the output of the Three Gorges Dam. Work is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2009 but has been described as a 'declaration of war' against India and Bangladesh. One of Tibet's most sacred lakes, Yamdrok Tso, has already been mined, tunnelled and used for hydroelectric development.


Chinese demographers back in the 1980s estimated that Tibet could provide living space for 100 million Chinese.

The population of greater Tibet before 1950 is thought to have been about 8 million; the indigenous population today is estimated at 6.5 million (approximately 1.2 million Tibetans are believed to have died as a result of China's invasion), but they are now outnumbered in their own country by about 8.5 million Han Chinese immigrants. This is the single biggest threat to Tibet and the disproportion is likely to increase hugely once the new Xining-Golmud-Lhasa railway is up and running.

Statistics regarding Tibet can be confusing as Chinese figures refer only to the Tibet Autonomous Region, whereas Tibetan Government-in-Exile statistics refer to the entire Tibetan landmass, including the former provinces of Amdo and Kham.

China offers considerable subsidies to any Chinese wishing to emigrate to Tibet. Tibet is considered a hardship posting for military, administrative and Communist party personnel, who accordingly enhance their income by taking jobs in Tibet. Because of the high altitude and the difficulty of growing Chinese foods in Tibet, supplies have to be trucked in from the lowlands. Tours of duty for such personnel in Tibet are generally quite short, rarely more than a few years. However, in the east and particularly in the cities, large populations of Chinese are now settling permanently in Tibet.

Nuclear Dumping and Chemical Weapons Testing

This is a controversial area. There is not a lot of concrete evidence of nuclear dumping or of chemical weapons testing because any relevant sites are strictly off-limits. However there have been reports of radiation pollution in some areas out in the high-altitude desert and around the old nuclear test site near Lake Kokonor. In fact the worst nuclear pollution from test sites is over the northern Tibetan border in East Turkestan (Chinese: Xinjiang), where the Uighurs have suffered significant birth-defect incidence as a result of China's nuclear test programme. There are substantiated cases of Tibetan rivers, particularly in the far northeast of Amdo (now part of China's Gansu Province), suffering from radioactive pollution as a result of uranium mining. Toxic waste from factories flowing into rivers is also a documented problem, as it is throughout China. Roughly 85 per cent of all China's domestic and industrial waste is dumped, untreated, into the local rivers.

A further nuclear hazard may result from the proposed diversion of the Brahmaputra. Apart from the obvious danger of radioactive pollution downstream if peaceful nuclear explosives are used to cut through the mountains, a greater danger lies in the fact that the region of the 'Great Bend', where the Chinese are planning to undertake this resculpting of the Himalayas, is on a major tectonic fault-line very prone to earthquakes. There is potential here for a major environmental catastrophe.


Overall, in terms of both the administration and exploitation of Tibetan resources, Tibet now fully qualifies to be considered a colony of China on the old imperial model. Chinese immigrants at all levels, from farmers and traders up to government and party officials, rarely speak any Tibetan. On the other hand, any Tibetans who want to find reasonable employment must be able to speak Chinese (Mandarin). The Chinese regularly draw attention to the amount of money they are spending to develop Tibet, but this expenditure mainly benefits the Chinese not the Tibetans. Minerals, water and timber are all extracted to supply China's hungry domestic market and industrial needs.

Further Information

Further information and background details concerning Tibet and China's colonial occupation can be found through the following links:

1Interestingly, in the last few years the Chinese approached the World Bank for funding to resettle Chinese farmers into the Dulan area which was formerly inhabited by Tibetan nomads. After widespread protests the loan was refused.

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