China is incurring huge expenditure in transferring and consolidating the Chinese population in Tibet. Massive investment has been made to build a network of modern highways all over Tibet. China can also boast of having laid the highest railway track in the world that connects Lhasa with Beijing. In fact, China often complains that its “civilizing” mission in Tibet is costing the government and people of China large amounts in terms of subsidies to an under-developed region. According to official Chinese statistics, the level of annual subsidies to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in the late 1980s was around 1 billion yuan or $270 million. However, all the infrastructure that China has built in Tibet has not made the lives of the native Tibetans any better; it has only taken the exploitative apparatuses of the Chinese government deeper.
China’s Ministry of Land and Resources has announced monumental new resource discoveries all across Tibet. The findings are the culmination of a secret 7-year, $44 million survey project, which began in 1999. More than 1,000 researchers were divided into 24 separate groups and fanned out across the Qinghai-Tibet plateau to geologically map the entire Tibetan region. Their findings have lead to a discovery of 16 major new deposits of copper, iron, lead, zinc and other minerals worth an estimated $128 billion. These discoveries add to Tibet’s proven deposits of 126 minerals, with a significant share of the world’s reserves in lithium, chromite, copper, borax, and iron. “Lack of resources has been a bottleneck for the economy,” Meng Xianlai, director of the China Geological Survey, had once complained in his statements. The discoveries in Tibet “will alleviate the mounting resources pressure China is facing.”
Tibet is now said to hold as much as 40 million tons of copper — one third of China’s total, 40 million tons of lead and zinc, and more than a billion tons of high-grade iron. Among the Tibet discoveries is China’s first substantial rich-iron supply. A seam called Nyixung, is alone expected to contain as much as 500 million tons. That’s enough to reduce Chinese iron import by 20 per cent. The new copper reserves are no less substantial. A 250-mile seam of the metal has been found along Tibet’s environmentally sensitive Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge. One mine there, called Yulong, already described as the second-largest reserve in China, is now estimated to hold as much as 18 million tons, according to the government news site Xinhua and could soon become the largest copper mine in the country, helping to feed China’s increasing demand of the metal used for electrical wiring and power generation. China, which until now has imported much of its copper from Chile, is estimated to hold 5.6 per cent of the world’s copper and is its seventh largest producer.
The riches that China expects to extract from Tibet in the near future, perhaps better explains the money that China annually spends on Tibet than the empty claims of modernizing Tibet.
In fact, an official web site of China has itself disclosed that “Once-quiet, northern Tibet has become a scene of bustle and excitement since a number of inland enterprise marched into the region in response to the government call for speeding up the development of western China. Northern Tibet has more than 200 mining areas with 28 kinds of mineral ores, and is rich in oil and hot springs.”
The China National Star Petroleum Corporation and the China National Oil and Gas Exploration and Development Corporation have recently dug up the first oil well in the Lunpola Basin, which has a proven oil reserve of three million tons. This reserve is in addition to the over one million tons of crude oil that Amdo’s oil fields produce per year. Further, the Chinese have opened two alluvial gold mines in Nagqu and built a gem processing plant in Lhasa. Soinam Dorje, an official of the Nagqu Prefecture, has welcomed inland and foreign investors to exploit the gold, oil and antimony resources on the plateau of northern Tibet. This also goes far to explain the need to invest in infrastructure all over Tibet. Apart from its rich mineral wealth, Tibet has many other resources that may provide China the edge in its race to emerge as the world’s richest economy.
The volume of timber that China has taken away from Tibet itself far exceeds the amount that it has spent to build the infrastructural facilities in Tibet. In 1949, Tibet’s ancient forests covered 221,800 sq km. By 1985 they stood at 134,000 sq km — almost half. Most forests grow on steep, isolated slopes in the river valleys of Tibet’s low-lying south-eastern region. The principal types are tropical montane and subtropical montane coniferous forest, with spruce, fir, pine, larch, cypress, birch, and oak among the main species. The tree line varies from 3,800 mt in the region’s moist south to 4,300 mt in the semi-dry north. Tibet’s forests were primarily old growth, with trees over 200 years old predominating. The average stock density is 272 cubic mt/ha, but U-Tsang’s old growth areas reach 2,300 cubic mt/ha — the world’s highest stock density for conifers. Once pristine forests are reached, the most common method of cutting is clear felling, which has led to the denudation of vast hill sides. Timber extraction until 1985 totaled 2,442 million cubic mt, or 40 per cent of the 1949 forest stock, worth $54 billion.
Deforestation is a major source of employment in Tibet: in the Kongpo area of the TAR alone, over 20,000 Chinese soldiers and Tibetan prisoners are involved in tree felling and transportation of timber. In 1949, Ngapa, in Amdo, had 2.20 million hectares of land under forest cover. Its timber reserve then stood at 340 million cubic mt. In the 1980s, it was reduced to 1.17 million hectares, with a timber reserve of only 180 million cubic mt. Similarly, during 30 years, till 1985 China exploited 6.44 million cubic mt of timber from Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. As new roads increasingly penetrate remote areas of Tibet, China is finding new excuses to increase the rate of deforestation in the region.
China’s primary objective of constructing roads in Tibet is to deploy occupying forces like the People’s Liberation Army, along with defence materials, and immigration of Chinese, as well as to exploit the natural resources of Tibet, which are transported primarily to China. Roads may run through most Tibetan villages, but a public transport system is almost non-existent in the majority of rural Tibet. The Chinese modern means of transport do not benefit the majority of Tibetans. Tibetans in most places continue to use horses, mules, yaks, donkeys and sheep as modes of transportation. Thus, the Chinese claim of investing heavily in “civilizing” the Tibetans is one of the most shameless lies that one can perpetuate.
The Tibetan plateau gives birth to some of the longest rivers of the world; The Machu (Huang Ho, or Yellow River), the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), the Drichu (Yangtze), and the Senge Khabab (Indus). Tibet also has over 2,000 natural lakes spread over a combined area of more than 35,000 sq km, some of which are sacred and play a special role in local culture. Steep slopes and the abundant water of these rivers and lakes make them extremely valuable as sources of hydroelectric power. Tibet has an exploitable hydropower potential of 250,000 megawatts, the highest of any country in the world and the TAR alone has a potential of 200,000 megawatts. China has built some large hydroelectricity projects all over Tibet. These projects are designed to tap Tibet’s hydro potential to provide power and other benefits to the Chinese population and industries both in Tibet and China.
While the Tibetans are displaced from their homes and lands, tens of thousands of Chinese workers are brought up from China to construct and maintain these dams. Take the case of the Yamdrok Yutso hydropower project. The Chinese claim that this project will greatly benefit the Tibetans. The Tibetan people in general, particularly the late Panchen Lama and Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, opposed and effectively delayed its construction for several years. The Chinese, nevertheless, went ahead with the construction and with the help of more than 1,500-strong PLA troops are guarding the construction area and no civilians are allowed near it. But the environmental, human and cultural toll of these hydroelectricity projects will have to be borne by the Tibetans. Tibet also possesses high solar energy potential per unit only after the Sahara, an estimated annual average of 200 kilocalorie/cm, as well as significant geothermal resources. Despite such abundant potential from small, environmentally-benign sources, the Chinese have built huge dams, such as Longyang Xia, and are continuing to do so, such as the hydropower station at Yamdrok Yutso. Tibet is made to play a pivotal role in fulfilling the huge demand for power in China at the cost of its own helpless, poor natives.
Furthermore, Tibet has been made a hub of nuclear facilities. This reduces the radioactive risks that China could suffer if an accident takes place in such installations. Again, since such facilities are located in a colonized region, the Chinese authorities do not take the necessary precautions that are mandatory for such facilities. Official Chinese pronouncements have confirmed the existence in Tibet of the biggest uranium reserves in the world. Apart from Amdo, since 1976 uranium has been mined and processed in the Thewo and Zorge regions of Kham also. According to reports, the uranium mining and processing in Tibet is done with unforgivable callousness. The Ninth Academy, China’s Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy in Tibet’s north-eastern area of Amdo, is reported to have dumped an unknown quantity of radioactive waste on the Tibetan plateau, according to a report released by International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington, D.C.-based organization:
“Waste disposal methods were reported to be casual in the extreme. Initially, waste was put in shallow, unlined landfills… The nature and quantity of radioactive waste generated by the Ninth Academy is still unknown… During the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear waste from the facility was disposed of in a roughshod and haphazard manner. Nuclear waste from the academy would have taken a variety of forms — liquid slurry, as well as solid and gaseous waste. Liquid or solid waste would have been in adjacent land or water sites.”
Given the fact that underground water supplies in Amdo have been diminishing at a rapid rate and usable underground water is very limited, the radioactive contamination of groundwater is of great concern in the region. Many local Tibetans have died after drinking contaminated water near a uranium mine in Ngapa, Amdo. They have also reported deformed birth of humans and animals.
The existence of Chinese nuclear bases and nuclear weapon manufacturing centres in Tibet has been reported from time to time. China is reported to have stationed approximately 90 nuclear warheads in Tibet. The Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy or the Ninth Academy, a secret organization involved in China’s nuclear programme which is also a high security military weapons plant, is based at Dhashu (Chinese: Haiyan) in the Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It was responsible for designing all of China’s nuclear bombs through the mid-70s. It served as a research centre for detonation development, radiochemistry and many other nuclear weapons related activities. It also assembled components of nuclear weapons. Several missile bases are located to the south of Lake Kokonor in Amdo, and Nagchukha. Another nuclear missile site in Tibet is located at Delingha, about 200 km south-east of Larger Tsaidam. It also houses DF-4s, and is the missile regimental headquarters for Amdo, containing four associated launch sites. It has been reported a number of times that China has carried out chemical defence manoeuvres in the high altitude zones of Tibet. There are also reports that China has been conducting nuclear tests in several areas of Tibet in order to determine radiation levels on the human population.
Not only is its economy, China’s military might too is growing because of its colonization of Tibet.
China is exploiting far more from Tibet than what it is giving back. While China is proudly hosting the Olympics with its spectacular stadia and dazzling shows, the future of Tibet is turning gloomier.
- Partha Gangopadhyay
[Quote from Nuclear Tibet, Washington, DC, 1993, p.18]