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Massive infrastructure project threatens Lhasa's heritage site

May 21, 2013

May 20, 2013 - Chinese authorities and developers appear to have commenced a massive new infrastructure project in the historic section of Lhasa -- a large shopping mall with underground parking located in the northeast section of the Barkhor, the circumambulation route around the Jokhang Temple within the old city of Lhasa, the cultural and historic heart of Tibet, and destruction of buildings.

Beijing-based Tibetan writer and blogger Woeser writes on her blog that the new shopping mall now being built in the Barkhor, the pilgrimage route that encircles the Jokhang Temple, encompasses 150,000 square meters, with an underground parking garage containing 1,117 parking spaces. As Lhasa is a river town, with the water table close to the surface, going underground requires much pumping to lower the water table, not only on a building site built in the surrounds. This leads to the danger of land subsidence, a common occurrence in cities where aquifers have been intensively pumped.

The original ‘Old City’ area of Lhasa, which is at least 1,300 years old, today represents less than two per cent of the total area of Lhasa, with the rest of the city constructed mainly out of modern concrete buildings. Hundreds of historic Tibetan buildings have been razed to the ground over the past 20 years, including the village of Shol, once at the foot of the Potala Palace.

The dramatic increase in tourism in Lhasa since the opening of the new railway from Qinghai in 2006 has been especially acute at Lhasa’s historic cultural sites, such as the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace – the only structures in Lhasa accorded national-level protection. These sites have a particular significance to the Tibetan people because of their connection to the Dalai Lama and Tibet before the Chinese invasion.

In their petition, the Tibet Studies scholars say that given Lhasa’s cultural and historic significance, the “dire” and dramatic new developments in Lhasa are not only of Tibetan and Chinese concern, but are an “international problem”. (http://www.petitions24.com/tibetan_scholars_appeal_to_halt_the_destruction_of_old_lhasa).

In her blog, translated by High Peaks Pure Earth, Woeser wrote: “[When] the colossal ‘Spiritual Power Plaza’, a government-business sector joint venture built at the edge of the Old City of Lhasa, which had yet to open, was constructing an underground parking garage, it was pumping out groundwater day and night for over two years, causing anxiety among Lhasa residents as well as worries about cracks ripping through the Old City of Lhasa and depressions that could reach the dangerous point of forming sinkholes. Actually, cracks have already appeared in many places, while excavated sites have no water. And now the authorities want to construct a huge shopping center with an underground parking garage in another part of the Old City. Does this mean that we’ve reached a point at which it is now nigh impossible to prevent Lhasa from falling into the destructive clutches of hungry ghosts?” (Translation into English of Woeser’s blog by High Peaks Pure Earth).

The petition by scholars urges Chinese President Xi Jinping and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bukovato send “independent investigative teams” to Lhasa and to see “whether local officials and business interests have violated the responsibilities incumbent upon China through its participation in UNESCO.” UNESCO has warned Beijing before about the consequences of demolition and lack of preservation, to no effect; in 2004, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee warned Beijing that it needed to take better care of the Potala or risk having the site placed on UNESCO’s ‘Danger List’. (UNESCO warns China to look after Forbidden City and Potala Palace’, Agence France-Presse, July 6, 2007).

In a specific request to UNESCO, the petition says, “Most importantly we ask that UNESCO provide a clear-cut plan outlining what needs to be done immediately to preserve the Old City of Lhasa, to halt the current destruction, and to prevent Lhasa from being turned into an early 21st-century tourist town, shorn of its uniqueness and its innate traditional culture.”

In the 1930s, according to a demographic survey by Prof Zhang Tianlu, Lhasa’s population was only 20,000, yet by 1964 reached 154,000, a year in which destruction of the Tibetan built environment was escalating (‘Population Development in Tibet and Related Issues’, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1997). The population of Lhasa Municipality was officially 324,000 in 1985 and 477,000 in 2008; these statistics do not include military personnel garrisoned in Lhasa, or the substantial floating population of workers from inland Chinese provinces (Tibet Autonomous Region Statistical Yearbook 2009, table 3-5).

The urban population of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was officially 680,000 in 2009, almost one quarter of the population total. This includes not only Lhasa but a few substantial towns as well, according to the TAR Statistical Yearbook, 2011. By 2010, 357,000 square metres of floor space were under construction by state owned construction companies alone (TAR Statistical Yearbook 2011, table 10-7, 10-8) in a building boom that had lasted a decade, financed by central subsidies from Beijing. A further 105,000 sq m were under construction by local government (Investment Guide of TAR, Department of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, TAR, 105 pages, no date, probably 2002, listing 150 projects awaiting investment).

Australia-based analyst Gabriel Lafitte, who has studied China’s plans for the development of Lhasa and their implementation, said: “What makes Lhasa distinctive is the way the interests of the property speculators and the security state neatly coincide; and secondly, the role of the state in financing the entire building boom. The end result is that Lhasa has not only income levels similar to Beijing or Shanghai but also the consumption levels and social stratification of acute inequality, plus the exclusion and expulsion from the inner city of the working poor. As property prices rise, and Lhasa becomes an enclave of wealth accumulation with few linkages to the rural economy surrounding it, the range of businesses capable of paying the rent to the rent-seeking landowners shrinks. Only businesses with high profit margins can afford to operate in the city centre, which over many centuries became the centre of Lhasa because of its sacredness.”

Lhasa’s population boom began in the 1980s and underwent a further expansion with the coming of the world’s highest railroad across the Tibetan plateau to Lhasa in July 2006 - the most high-profile symbol of Beijing’s ambitious plans to develop the western regions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

News of a further expansion of Lhasa in the area where the station was built, known as Liuwu New District (Tibetan: Ne’u), was reported in the official press in November 2007. The reports announced that the Lhasa City area would be expanded by more than 60% through the establishment of this urban district, which will accommodate 110,000 residents. (‘Lhasa city area grows by 60%’, Xinhua, November 19, 2007, http://news.xinhuanet.com). Xinhua stated: “In recent years in the wake of the state’s western development strategy, Lhasa has been on a ‘fast track’ of economic and social development, in particular since the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railroad. As a terminal city for the Qinghai-Tibet railroad, a new golden period of development is being welcomed.” (‘Liuwu New District established, great changes to Lhasa’s urban map’, Xinhua, November 19, 2007, available at: www.xz.xinhuanet.com).

This new development was in line with — and may even be more ambitious than — proposals outlined in the Party’s Tenth Five Year Plan (2001–2005) to more than quadruple the area of urban Lhasa from its current 53 square km to 272 square km by 2015. In June 2001, an official report stated that the Liuwu New Area, in Toelung Dechen County (Chinese: Duilong Deqing), on the bank of the Kyichu (Lhasa) River, and “a 12.5 square km development zone” will “become the pioneers of economic development of Lhasa and even the whole autonomous region.” (‘Future Urban Development in Lhasa’, Xinhua, June 4, 2001, available at: www.china.org.cn. Also see ICT report, ‘Tracking the Steel Dragon’).

In December last year, images emerged of the removal of some market trading stalls from Barkhor street area at the heart of Lhasa, Tibet’s cultural and historical capital (ICT report, New images emerge of removal of stalls in Barkhor in Lhasa as authorities announce ‘face-lift’). According to a posting on Chinese social media, authorities in Lhasa ordered the removal of some small stalls from outside the Jokhang Temple to Yuthok Lam (Chinese: Yutuo Lu, which runs from the Jokhang to the Potala Square). While stall-holders had been told the removal is temporary, the posting expressed concern at this move in an area of such symbolic importance for Tibetans. No outside heritage or conservation groups are allowed to operate in Lhasa as the Chinese authorities have sought to seal off the Tibetan plateau from the outside world, and so details of new developments are often slow to emerge or incomplete.

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