井底之蛙

7/11/2006

Tibet by rail

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:51 pm

It has been in the news of late that China has built a rail line to Tibet. It cost $3.2 billion, and the train cars have to be pressurized, but you can now get to Tibet cheaper than you could before. The official reason for this is to encourage economic development in the backward area of Tibet. The unspoken purpose is of course is to encourage Han migration and tie Tibet more closely to China. Might also help in case of war with India.

I have not seen it mentioned, but another reason to build it is because Sun Yat-sen wanted to build a railway to Tibet. Everyone who visits Nanjing learns that Sun wanted to build a bridge across the Yangzi, but that Mao did it. Carrying out the great tasks of the revolution is always something Chinese governments like to do.

After the 1911 revolution, when Yuan Shikai was made President Sun was made Minister of Railways. Yuan was chosen over Sun because Yuan was seen as a practical politician while Sun was a dreamer. Sun’s plan for railway development was quite frankly nuts, as the map below, from his collected works, shows.

Tibet Railways

Sun’s plan

In China proper he called for a network of railways that has not been built to this day. The map of Tibet is even more fantastic. I particularly like the route that goes along the border with India along, apparently, the spine of the Himalayas. This, like his net of rails in Mongolia, was intended to tie these border areas more closely to China. The era around 1911 was the age of the Rights Recovery Movement, when in addition to Chinese governments trying to hold on to every bit of sovereignty they could, non-state actors and individual citizens were supposed to do the same. All the spur lines running into Nepal seem to be laying claim to endangered territory. Most of these lines seem economically insane, but as they are more political than economic plans in the first place that is fine. The modern Tibet line is pretty much the same thing. I have no idea how much economic growth in will generate, but I’m sure it will be short of 3.2 billion. Still, Tibet is tied to the motherland, and the fact that it is economically crazy almost makes it better.

Tibet elevation

The modern line

22 responses to “Tibet by rail”

  1. J Chan says:

    The Americans have the American dream, so why couldn’t Sun have his own dream?
    Assuming that there are currently 5 million people in Tibet, a capital cost of $3.2bn equates to $640 per person- a small enough number to make it a good investment by any account for such a big project. And of course, the more people use it the cheaper this investment becomes per person.

    Perhaps historians should stick to commenting on history and not economic numbers.

  2. K. M. Lawson says:

    J Chan, in the just over a dozen comments you have left here at Frog in a Well, you have contributed in a positive way to the conversations here on more than one occasion. We are all delighted to read and respond to your comments and challenges to our arguments. However, you have also often added rude or insulting statements in response to the postings of at least three different bloggers at Frog in a Well (Baumler, Dresner, and myself) and I hope you will refrain from doing so in the future.

    In this particular case, it is perfectly legitimate to disagree with Professor Baumler’s contention that the railway line is not economical, and this can generate further interesting discussion in the comments here. However, it is not necessary to add a dismissive and inappropriate comment at the end (though I confess I am a bit confused as to what you meant to say here).

    UPDATE: Added word “not” in J Chan’s comment per his request.

  3. J Chan says:

    Comment deleted. Warning to J Chan.

  4. Matthew Mosca says:

    Alan,
    That’s a very interesting post. I had no idea that Sun had such ambitious railway plans in Tibet. Looking at the map, it seems to me that Sun’s proposed rail route along the Himalayas follows the existing trade route running from Lhasa to Ladakh, and the spurs running off to the south seem to follow established trade routes into Nepal and Bhutan.
    The Qing used a route to Tibet passing through Qinghai that seems fairly similar to the one just opened up. It wasn’t suitable for large-scale troop movements, but was the quickest route from Lhasa to Beijing and was used for communication. I wouldn’t be surprised if some optimistic late Qing bureaucrat had already considered the possibility of a Tibet-Beijing railway following this route.
    More broadly, I think the idea of a transfrontier railway linking China to the outside world on most frontiers was first conjured up by European powers. If I recall correctly the British were pondering a China-Burma railway as early as the 1870s – wasn’t that what Margary was exploring when he was killed? – and I wouldn’t be surprised if a Beijing-Tibet-Nepal-India rail line was first cooked-up by an ambitious British Indian official.

  5. Alan Baumler says:

    Mathhew,

    Yes, there were lots of imperialist plans for railways. There is even a word for it, railway imperialism. Building a railway (and usually a lot of rights to go with it) not only made you money, if you linked it to your colonial rail network it helped draw part of China in to your economic and political sphere of influence, thus laying claim to the area in preparation for “carving the melon”. Thus the French wanted to build a line from Vietnam to Yunnan, the Japanese wanted to connect Manchuria to Korea and the Russians wanted to tie Manchuria to Vladivostok. The Chinese were of course aware of this, which is why buying back rail concessions and building China’s own railways was such an important issue in this period. To us the job of Minister of Railways seems like almost an insult to a revolutionary leader, but Sun was supposedly quite happy with it, as it would put him right at the center of China’s economic development and the anti-imperialist struggle.

    On railway imperialism see The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932 (Harvard East Asian Monographs)by Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka

  6. lirelou says:

    Joseph Steinberg, Thanks for the link to your site. I couldn’t get the comment section to work, but your link to the article on matsutake mushrooms and other foodstuffs sales from North Korea to Japan was of interest. Using todays exchange rate, the Nork’s earned about $26.635 million US in food sales to Japan last year.

  7. lirelou says:

    Alan, I’m under the impression that the Hanoi-Yunnan rail lline was actually completed. Certainly the famous July 1953 photo of the 6th Colonial (French) paras dropping in on Langson shows them using was was left of the rail bed. I recall in my very cursory reading on China that Sun accepted his position in government with the realization that he did not have the power to oppose Yuan Shih Kai, who I believe was the field commander who lost Manchuria and Korea to the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War. Good point on the economic development AND anti-imperialist struggle angle.

  8. J Chan says:

    Lawson

    So I have added rude or insulting statements in response to postings.

    Baumler had just described Dr Sun’s plan as ‘nuts’- obviously you don’t consider such a description as rude or insulting. Dr Sun is respected by the Chinese on all sides. He is also respected by many non-Chinese.

    When Kennedy announced that by the end of the 1960s America would send a man to the moon and bring him safely back to the earth, he was not lauded as ‘nuts’ or a ‘dreamer’, but a hero. Was the expedition economical? No. Did it eventually bring economic benefits? Yes.

    You guys perhaps should re-read Kant and think about what he said how human achievements were conceived.

    So you go around censoring criticisms and give warning to others to keep quiet; everyone can now see through what you really stand for. You are a bunch of people whose only reason for posting is for self-glorification. The title ‘frog in a well’ is a very apt description of you, because you are well stuck in your well, and when on occasions that you are offered a glimpse of the outside, you immediately retreat back into your well.

  9. Alan Baumler says:

    J. Chan,

    I’m sorry you find our postings so offensive that you can’t respond to them in a constructive fashion. I suspect that it would be a better use of your time if you spent it elsewhere.

  10. Scott Relyea says:

    Alan,
    Thanks for yet another interesting post; and the map of Sun Yatsen’s ‘dream’ rail network is quite informative. Even before reading Matthew’s comment above on whether there were late Qing bureaucrats who’d considered a railway to Tibet, I had planned to add some info from a news item published in 廣益叢報 that I recently encountered while doing research in Sichuan.

    In 1906 the Governor-General of Sichuan and the Amban in Tibet jointly memorialised the throne suggesting the construction of a 川藏 railway that would link up with the 川漢 line. Though the news report lacks specifics on the route other than its extension westward from Yazhou through Dartsendo (Ya’an and Kangding), they undoubtedly anticipated that such a line would follow the slightly less rugged southern ‘官道’ via Batang to Chamdo and on to Lhasa.

    While this proposal indeed could be seen from a political standpoint, particularly coming only two years after the Younghusband Expedition reached Lhasa, the report cites access to mines in Khams and Tibet as well as an improvement in access to the plateau area for Sichuanese merchants as anticipated benefits. Nonetheless, I would tend to see the proposal more in its ‘imperial’ and expansive context (and quite in line with Sun’s ambitious though technologically deficient dreams), and thus influenced most strongly by more political-territorial motives.

  11. Thanks, lirelou. I apologize about the comments problem. I believe if you follow the link on the index page to the article page, you can comment. After I finish this term’s batch of papers I will tackle the code problems.

  12. I changed my mind….I do that often. Respectfully, J Chan, you’re wrong. Beijing can recoup its investments not necessarily on the Tibet line itself, but on the other railroads the Tibet line will facilitate—with oil and trade with Iran, Pakistan, Central Asia, and maybe India.

    http://www.radicalcontrapositions.com/leftflankblog/2006/07/20/beijing-goes-west

  13. Qin Fang says:

    It reminds me of the debate on whether the New Territory deserved to be included at the expense of big cost in mid-Qing. Millward’s books about Qing imperialism mentions of a similar theme. I guess the frontier project like this seems to have something to do with geopolitics and financial burdens. Yet oen question is to what extent did the state tend to pay for such that?

    Such concerns about geopolitics also has its resonance in a costly sea wall project at Haining, a county located along China East Sea in Zhejiang in Qing dynasty. Silver were tremendously poured on the project for two reasons. First, protect local poeple’s property and economy. Second, by providing a solid sea wall and protecting agrarain economy, the Qing monarchies convinced that local people preferred to stay with land rather than going after pirates offshore. That is to say, by engaging in local economy, the state could be able to integrated local people into the empire.

  14. Qin Fang says:

    It reminds me of the debate on whether the New Territory deserved to be included at the expense of big cost in mid-Qing. Millward’s books about Qing imperialism mentions of a similar theme. I guess the frontier project like this seems to have something to do with geopolitics and financial burdens. Yet oen question is to what extent did the state tend to pay for such that?

    Such concern about geopolitics in frontier also has its resonance in a costly sea wall project at Haining, a county located along China East Sea in Qing Zhejiang province. Silvers were tremendously poured on the project for two reasons. First, to protect local poeple’s property and economy. Second, by providing a solid sea wall and protecting agrarain economy, the Qing monarchies were convinced that local people preferred to stay with land rather than to go after pirates offshore. That is to say, by engaging in local economy, the state could be able to integrate local people into the empire

  15. […] Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well: China also wrote a posting about the Tibetan rail line and Sun Yat-sen’s earlier dreams of a similar railway in the aftermath of the 1911 revolution. […]

  16. sun bin says:

    there are a few hundred km away from ‘along the spines of himalaya’ (except the 2 branchs into nepal, which are perpendicular to the spines). but they are still over 4000m in altitude, and almost as tough to build as the new rail

  17. […] Some of the methods for fixing problems are old too. Jiang is big on the railway to Tibet as an important strategic link that will make it easier to control the place. (It’s railway imperialism!) […]

  18. Tundrup says:

    Colonial railways built in 2006…..the final solution…for the tibet problem….will not bring anything but hatred and instability at the Tibetan plateau.

    Read this well researched document called “Tracking the steel dragon” for the truth of the railway:

    http://www.savetibet.org/documents/pdfs/TrackingTheSteelDragon.pdf

  19. wmd says:

    Didn”t Sun Yat Sen propose the Three Gorges Dam project and other far reaching development schemes to modernize what had been until then a backward feudal nation in the grips of the british empire. Having recently endured two opium wars and the enforced opium trading and consequent addiction of twenty millions of its citizens, the bombardment of all its coastal towns and the humiliation of conceding Hong Cong to the british east india company. Far from being an imperial design i see the rail development project as an exercise in opening up the country to the potential of trade links with its neighboring countries, utilizing the potential of the interior of China and enriching the land and people by giving them access to rapid transport and ready markets. During the American civil war people thought Lincoln was Nuts for building the trans continental rail system and the canals linking the US river systems, within twenty years it was the the most prosperous nation on earth. Humanity must set far reaching goals for the betterment of peoples worldwide including Tibetans.

  20. Tom says:

    The train is, of course, not pressurized. It is sealed and the air is oxygen-enriched, but at ambient atmospheric pressure. Almost all newspaper reporters got this wrong when the first train rolled out, and they’re still getting it wrong three years later.

  21. […] history of countries in general and China in particular using railways to bind the nation together. Sun Yat-sen had plans for railway expansion that might charitably be called highly ambitious, and were […]

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