Tibet gets back to work

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Tibet gets back to work

Thursday, 26 March 2020 | Claude Arpi

Tibet gets back to work

It’s perplexing that when China is still in lockdown, work has resumed on infrastructure projects in Tibet. India must watch these developments carefully and take necessary measures

A Tibetan man became the first victim of Coronavirus but not in Tibet but in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. According to The Tibet Sun, Tenzin Choephel, a 69-year-old man from McLeod Ganj (where the Dalai Lama lives), died of Coronavirus after returning from a trip to the US on March 15. It said, “After staying in Delhi for a few days, Choephel returned to McLeod Ganj by a taxi on March 21. On the morning of March 23, he complained of respiratory problems. He was then taken to the Tanda Government hospital where he died.” Meanwhile, in Tibet, the situation is surprisingly “normal.”

Contrary to other provinces in China,  the mountainous region had only one infected patient of the Novel Coronavirus. The patient was a 34-year-old man, who came from the city of Suizhou, the hardest-hit province amid the ongoing outbreak. He was discharged from hospital on February 12. Xinhua reported, “He travelled from the city of Wuhan to Lhasa by train from January 22 to 24. On the evening of January 25, he developed symptoms of cough and fever and was hospitalised.” He was confirmed to be positive on January 29 and after an 18-day treatment he was let out.

It’s difficult to say if this is propaganda or truth. Nevertheless, the high plateau appears to have been less affected than the rest of the Middle Kingdom. If facts are correct, scientists will have to undertake a detailed study of the Tibetan case when the outbreak of the virus recedes.

One reason why Tibet managed to keep cases low is because the authorities over there used Tibetan medicine extensively to fight the disease. For example, when the Tibetan-inhabited area in north-west China’s Qinghai province reported 18 confirmed cases of the infection last month, 17 of them received a treatment involving Tibetan medicine (TM) and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the two independent traditional medical systems.

 Huang Licheng, an official with the provincial Health Commission, was quoted by Xinhua as saying, “The Tibetan medicine played an active role in the treatment.” He further said, “The provincial hospital of Tibetan medicine produced a batch of anti-virus medications featuring Tibetan medicine; 1,000 of them have already been sent to the front lines in Hubei Province, the centre of the virus outbreak.”

This aspect, too, needs to be analysed. At the same time, these harrowing times have shown Beijing’s priorities in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the first region in China to restart normal activities and that, too, on a war-footing. Guess what started first? Infrastructure projects close to the border with India.

On February 20, China Tibet Online asserted: “Work continues on infrastructure projects in Tibet.” It gave the example of the 11.5-km long Mainling tunnel on the Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway. It is located just north of Arunachal Pradesh: “It (Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway) currently has the most complicated geological conditions and is the most difficult project in China’s construction of a railway on the plateau,” noted the website.

The Mainling tunnel is scheduled to be completed by the end of March: “In order to ensure constructing process, currently, the construction workers are digging the last 60m of the tunnel. About 1,881 workers in Tibet are doing their best to construct the Lhasa-Nyingchi railway. With a designed speed of 160 km/h, it will be the first electrified railway in Tibet.”

But why so much hurry at a time when the rest of China is still under clampdown? Beijing has already invested $3.9 billion in this project and the railway line will be operational by next year. “Workers have completed 44 tunnels out of 47 and 119 bridges out of 120 along the route.”

Yet another development that should worry India is the Dagu Hydropower Station (HPS) project on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra in Assam). Located in Sangri County in Lhoka, the Dagu HPS has a capacity of 660 MW. Two billion dollars have already been invested: “It is a major project supported by the Central Government for Tibet’s economic and social development.” The dam is one of the three cascade dams under construction not far from the Indian border.

It is said that even during the Spring Festival, more than 300 workers remained on duty near the site. Later, they were said to “have successfully returned to construction. The construction site in the valley is busy; a large hydropower station is beginning to take shape.”

Another project is in Sakya county, near Shigatse, the second largest town in Tibet. A mega water project restarted around February 20, a few days before Losar, the sacred Tibetan New Year. “With the biggest investment ever in Tibet’s water project history, the project will help with irrigation, supply water, generate power and prevent flooding,” explained a Chinese website. It further said, “Tibet has arranged 179 projects for this year…Work has resumed on some of these projects.”

On March 3, charter flights were being arranged to bring workers back from the Mainland to Tibet “to resume the construction of major projects in the region.” Tibet Online, another official website of China, mentioned that on that day, TV6031 flight operated by Tibet Airlines landed at the airport of Nyingchi City. It said, “The 105 power workers onboard, from Zhejiang Province, will be assigned to the power grid projects in the region’s most impoverished areas.” Other such charter flights landed in Lhasa, Shigatse and Chamdo.

Quoting a Tibetan power company, China Tibet News said on February 29 that more than 2,800 workers had resumed the construction of 338 projects, accounting for 75 per cent of the total. It included the Ngari Power Grid Interconnection Project, not far from the Uttarakhand and Ladakh border.

The resumption of construction projects at a time when the rest of China was under lockdown is perplexing. Why this frenzy? It’s difficult to answer. A few weeks ago, an intrusion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was reported in Naku-la, south of the watershed in northern Sikkim, an area supposed to be a “settled” undisputed area.  This was not a good sign.

With the “victory” of Wuhan, triumphantly announced by the Chinese propaganda, the PLA, which played a decisive role, is bound to come out reinforced from the crisis. Can Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is in an extremely weak position today both internally and externally (despite the disinformation war going on a full swing), keep his control over the PLA in the months to come?

Only time will tell. But the speed at which it has resumed the construction of infrastructure projects in Tibet is certainly ominous. A Chinese website published a photo feature. Its caption read: “Multiple rocket launch systems attached to an artillery brigade under the PLA Xizang Military Command fire anti-aircraft rockets simultaneously during a live-fire operation at the elevation of 4,500 metres in Southwest China’s Xizang Autonomous Region on March 11, 2020.”

China will argue that it is only a routine exercise but India needs to watch carefully and take necessary measures to be ready for a new outbreak à la Doklam.

(The writer is an expert on India-China relations)

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