Tibet's governor said Monday that a second railway to the capital will help bring higher incomes and better infrastructure to China's Himalayan region, despite concerns about potential harm to the region's fragile ecology and threats to its Buddhist cultural identity from Chinese migration.
First announced last week, the 1,800-kilometer (1,120-mile) line would link Tibet's capital, Lhasa, with the western Chinese metropolis of Chengdu with an estimated travel time of 13 hours.
Losang Jamcan, the governor of the Chinese-ruled territory, said during a meeting of Tibetan delegates to China's National People's Congress that Tibet's regional government considers the project important to improving living standards.
"When built, we'll see even more economic benefits, even more prosperity,'' Losang said at a news conference on the sidelines of the annual legislative session. "So we really do place a lot of emphasis on this railway.''
The second railway would complement a 1,956-kilometer (1,215-mile) line that opened in 2006 and crosses passes as high as 5,000 meters (16,400 feet).
The train has brought a major increase in both tourism and trade. With a population of just 3.2 million - 91 percent of whom, China says, are Tibetan or members of other minority ethnic groups - Tibet last year recorded visits from 20 million tourists, a 29 percent rise from the previous year.
Padma Choling, a senior Tibetan official and head of the regional legislature, dismissed concerns from overseas Tibetan groups and others about the impact of the second railway, whose construction start date has yet to be announced.
"It seems that every time we build a railway or something, there are worries about the environment and such. Rest assured, Tibet's environment is well protected,'' Padma said.
Along with facilitating trade and tourism, the existing railway to Tibet has cemented Chinese control over the territory, which was occupied by Communist forces in 1950.
China claims Tibet has been part of its territory since the mid-13th century, although many Tibetans say they were effectively independent for most of their history, and that the Chinese government wants to exploit their resource-rich region while crushing their cultural identity.
Padma also reiterated China's opposition to any invitation to the exiled Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory. Taiwanese President-elect Tsai Ing-wen is considering inviting the highest-ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism to visit in his capacity as a religious leader, although China regards him as a separatist and tirelessly seeks to undercut his standing as a figure of veneration.
"We are resolutely opposed to all his foreign travels,'' Padma said.
Beijing blames the Dalai Lama and others for inciting violations and a wave of self-immolations among Tibetans and says it has made vast investments to develop the region's economy and improve quality of life. The 80-year-old spiritual leader says he opposes all violence, but warns that Chinese rule is eroding Tibet's unique Buddhist culture.