BEIJING (Reuters) - China has pledged to invest 100 billion yuan ($13 billion) in Tibet over the next four years, building the world’s highest airport and offering development in an apparent bid to boost an image tarnished by reported human rights abuses.
The money would be spent on 180 projects in the years up to 2010, including extending the predominantly Buddhist region’s first railway, Xinhua news agency said.
China planned to extend the availability of drinking water, electricity and telephone lines to herding communities and build a railway from the regional capital Lhasa to Xigaze, the remote Himalayan region’s second-largest city.
The plans also included the building of the world’s highest airport at Ngari in the west.
Tibet’s fourth civilian airport will be higher even than the 4,334 meters (14,220 ft) above sea level of current record holder Qamdo airport in eastern Tibet.
The regional government’s vice-chairman, Hao Peng, said the investment would be tilted toward herding regions “so farmers and herders and the grassroots population will fully enjoy the fruits of reform and development”, Xinhua reported.
Between 1994 and 2005, the Chinese government invested about 63 billion yuan in large infrastructure projects in Tibet.
To critics, the railway connecting Lhasa to other parts of China that opened in July last year has become a symbol of Beijing’s efforts to subdue discontent among Tibetans by offering development and modernity.
They also say China’s investment drive is enriching mostly Han Chinese while threatening Tibet’s environment and traditions.
While seeking to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans, China’s “control and repression of religion in Tibet, aimed at erasing Tibetan national and religious identity, have recently been intensified”, the London-based Free Tibet Campaign said in a statement.
The India-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in a report that there were at least 116 Tibetan political prisoners, 51 of whom were serving sentences of 10 years or more.
Of the total, 80 were Buddhist monks and nuns.
“Torture is a regular feature in Chinese-administered prisons in Tibet. Since 1987, there have been 88 known deaths of Tibetan political prisoners as a direct result of torture,” the center added.
The Chinese leadership appears cool to the return of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s god-king who has lived in exile in India since fleeing his homeland in 1959 after an abortive uprising.
Premier Wen Jiabao held open the door for dialogue with the Dalai Lama at his annual news conference on March 16, but accused him of demanding that People’s Liberation Army troops and all Han Chinese living in Tibet evacuate.
The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who says he wants greater autonomy, not independence, for his homeland, is not known to have publicly made those demands.
“Beijing cannot control him ... they feel it is better to keep him out than bring him back,” Khedroob Thondup, a nephew of the Dalai Lama and a member of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, said in an e-mail to Reuters.
“Beijing is not sincere in its dialogue and is now playing for time ... Beijing has said no to every overture from our side,” the nephew wrote, adding that there had been no contacts between the two sides in the past year.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard