The extraordinary technological challenges to building a rail line from scratch in Tibet are considerably easier to overcome, especially for a powerful centralized regime like China’s, than the legal and political challenges to improving a key rail connection (like Boston–Washington) in the world’s most advanced economy. Also, at this point in history, the Chinese clearly value public infrastructure more than Americans.
The new western railroad creates a bittersweet reality. It will transform Tibet from a thinly populated nation with a largely nomadic population and exotic, remote tourist destinations into a more common and accessible place. For many Tibetans, especially adaptable youth, opportunities will multiply; the loss of a unique history will seem less troublesome to them than it is to the isolated, older population.
The Lamaist State of Tibet is already a memory. Chinese soldiers invaded in 1950, and Tibet became part of the PRC a year later. After an unsuccessful rebellion, the Dalai Lama went into exile in India in 1959, and it is clear that the Chinese will not tolerate the re-emergence of a theocracy—especially since the government has endowed the west with so much strategic importance. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping declared that China should get on with development. “I don’t care,” Deng said, “whether the cat is black or white, as long as it can catch mice.”
Whether Tibetans will fare better under the Chinese government than they did under the Lamaist theocracy remains to be seen. The outlook for traditionalists is bleak, but for most Tibetans, the chances for a better future are enhanced by the construction of the rail line to Lhasa.
The author of the article takes the opportunity to bash the U.S. government for not investing enough in physical infrastructure, while lauding the PRC government for doing so. I suspect few Chinese citizens who live far from the coastal cities would share that view. They would likely be thrilled to have the equivalent of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System instead.