China’s Fast-Track to South Asia

China's new railroad linking the city of Golmud in Qinghai province with Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is a $4.2 billion engineering feat. Stretching 710 miles at an average elevation of 13,000 ft, it is the highest railroad in the world.

Technological excellence was not the only reason why President Hu Jintao called the line a "magnificent feat" while flagging off the inaugural run on July 1. The railroad is a powerful instrument with which Beijing hopes to complete the full integration of Tibet with the mainland.

Ever since Chinese communist forces overran Tibet in 1950, the region has undergone a demographic shift. In Lhasa, Han Chinese today outnumber Tibetans, whose independent identity survives in exile in the form of the Dalai Lama. Tibetans, already anxious over the advancing age of the Nobel Peace laureate, fear the railroad will trigger a new influx of Hans, removing their already dwindling chances of independence.

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