Last weekend I had a conversation with a Chinese friend of mine in which we wondered what long-term impact of the new Tibetan railway (completed in 2006) would have on Tibetan lifestyle and culture. We were both concerned that the closer link between Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) and the central government would lead to increased pressure for Tibet to develop along Western lines, possibly at the expense of their environment and cultural traditions.
An article in yesterday’s Time Magazine suggests that our fears are not unfounded. The article reports on a recent announcement by the Chinese government of the discovery of large mineral deposits, including 1 billion tons of iron ore, 40 million tons of copper, and 40 million tons of lead. The findings represent a doubling of China’s copper, zinc, and lead reserves. Unfortunately, “the potential reserves, with an estimated value of $128 billion, are spread over more than 600 sites on the Tibetan plateau.” The article goes on to say that, without the Tibetan Railway, it would not be affordable to transport the minerals back east.
The Tibetan government-in-exile and environmental groups are opposed to mining, which would be very damaging to the fragile alpine environment. The Tibetan government further fears that the profits from mining would all go east with the minerals, leaving little benefit to the Tibetan people.
It appears that the Chinese government is now facing its first major test of its professed commitment to sustainable development in Tibet. In previous posts I have touched on the increasing friendship and trade between China and Africa, which sometimes comes at the expense of human rights and true development assistance. Let’s see if the Chinese government can do any better within its own country.