Tuesday, June 19, 2007

China builds Everest highway

China has announced it will begin building a highway to Everest Base Camp which is expected to be ready in time for the Olympic torch relay next year. The road will replace a rough 108km track. The new road has attracted controversy due to the decision to include Tibet in the torch relay.

The new road will cost $20 million. The work will commence next week and will take four months to complete. China said the new highway would become a major route for tourists and mountaineers. The road will stretch from the foot of the mountain to a base camp at 17,000 metres. The new road will be a paved "highway fenced by undulating guardrails."

In April, China deported five American tourists after they demonstrated for a free Tibet at the base of Mount Everest. The five unfurled banners at a base camp calling for Tibet’s independence. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the five were detained for "carrying out illegal activities aimed at splitting China" and that they had been expelled according to Chinese law. An official for their group, Students for a Free Tibet, originally said four people were detained, but later said a fifth person who was transporting videotape also had been held. The five were expelled after being held for two days.

The demonstration occurred after China announced its grand plans for the torch relay which will be a 137,000 km event taking 130 days and will cross five continents in its journey from Olympia in Greece to Beijing. The highlight of the event is the plan to scale the world’s highest peak. But in order to reach Everest, the relay must pass through Tibet.

China invaded Tibet in 1950 and the country’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, lives in exile in India having fled his homeland in 1959. The Tibetan government in exile and China disagree over when Tibet became a part of China, and whether this incorporation into China is legitimate. The Chinese date their ownership of the Himalayan region from the time of Kublai Khan in the 13th century.

But Tibet was ruled by secular dynasties for three hundred years after the fall of the Yuan dynasty. The earliest Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup, lived in the 15th century and was officially the head of Tibet’s government. China remained an important presence and exacted tribute from the Lhasa government, backed up by the occasional armed incursion.

A British expeditionary force led by Francis Younghusband invaded in 1904 and fixed the border between Tibet and India. However they also recognised the suzerainty of China over Tibet. The country’s status remained ambiguous until Chairman Mao’s Red Army marched into Lhasa in 1950 and crushed the weak Tibetan Army. The last uprising occurred in 1959 which China crushed forcing the current Dalai Lama into exile.

While the Olympic road may have mostly symbolic meaning, China has a strong course of integration with Tibet encouraging mass immigration of Han Chinese to dilute the Tibetan majority. By October 2005, China had spent $26 billion on a railway linking the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, with the north-western province of Qinghai. China says the line will promote the development of impoverished Tibet.

China is now forcing nomadic Tibetan herders to settle in towns to clear land for development, leaving many unable to earn a living. Herders have been forced to slaughter herds of yaks, sheep and goats without compensation. Chinese authorities claimed the changes were a response to overgrazing by Tibetan herds that was causing erosion and soil loss. But one man affected by the settlement said "they are destroying our Tibetan (herder) communities by not letting us live in our area and thus wiping out our livelihood completely”.

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