China has inaugurated a railway link to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, fulfilling a long-time goal of the Communist Party. The Chinese government promises the new railroad will bring economic prosperity to the remote region, but exiles and activists around the world say it will help China further dominate Tibet and destroy its culture and environment.
For China, construction of the railway represents a huge technological feat as well as a political gain. For generations, the communist leaders have sought to consolidate their power across China's vast western regions. Establishing the rail link to Tibet, over permafrost and towering mountains, is - at least symbolically - another example of this aim.
Drummers and dancers, in Chinese and Tibetan costumes, performed Saturday, as the first train carrying officials and journalists pulled out of the city of Golmud in western China. The Canadian-built cars are sealed, and pumped with extra oxygen to keep passengers from developing altitude sickness on the 1,140-kilometer trip to Lhasa.
Television footage showed President Hu Jintao cutting a large red ribbon. In a speech to workers and others gathered at the station, he said that China is "ambitious, self-confident, and able to stand among the world's advanced nations."
Earlier in the week, Zhu Zhensheng, a senior Railway Ministry official, touted the railroad as being the highest in the world, at one point reaching 5,000 meters above sea level. He said three trains will make the journey each way every day, carrying about 900 passengers each - something he said will benefit the Tibetan economy.
Mr. Zhu says he does not have a specific figure about how much the opening of the rail link will contribute to the local gross domestic product, but he is sure it will be a huge boost.
Some Tibetan exiles and foreign activists see the line as yet another means for China to dominate the ethnic Tibetan population. Since it marched troops into the region in 1950, Beijing has been moving millions of Han Chinese into Tibet. Activists say the result is the destruction of Tibetan culture. Tibetans complain their status has been reduced to that of second-class citizens in their own land.
Ngawang Woeber, a Tibetan who has been in exile in India since 1991, is with the Gu Chu Sum foundation, a support group for former Tibetan political prisoners. He says he doubts the new trains will bring any benefit for the Tibetan people.
Woeber says the only benefit will be for the Chinese government and economic development for the Han Chinese, and what he says is the Chinese government's aim to move members of the Han population to Lhasa. He says no one else will benefit.
For years, Chinese and foreign tourists, along with Han migrants have traveled to Tibet on daily flights from eastern China. Tibetan independence advocates say the train, with its promises of lower fares and larger capacity, will only make the migration easier.
Although officials opened the route on Saturday, they have not yet decided when tourists will be allowed to use the train - for now, only those who live in Tibet or Han migrants will be able to take the trip to Lhasa.