A careful account of the Chinese expansion into the Tibetan Plateau, accelerated by the completion of the world’s highest railroad.
Fortune contributing writer Lustgarten notes that China has been working to incorporate Tibet wholly into its sphere since the invasion of 1959, when the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. To the chagrin of Communist technocrats, however, China could never quite figure out how to fund highways and other corridors of transport into the high country until recently, with the result that “Tibet’s infrastructure in the decades since  had remained more tied to India and Nepal than to Beijing—something Chinese nationalists found excruciatingly untenable.” Thanks to President Jiang Zemin’s “Go West” development initiative, though, Chinese settlers have pushed ever westward, resettling millions of ethnic Chinese into the remote interior. An important vehicle was the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, begun in 2001, which picked up on a failed effort begun and abandoned in 1979. The mountainous region, “shockingly inhospitable to the lowlander Chinese,” has since been sprouting factories, shopping centers, housing developments—and prisons, of course, for China has been striving to break the back of the Tibetan freedom movement. This train would, its builders hoped, “finally provide a permanent, intractable link between Tibet and China,” if only by introducing enough ethnic Chinese into the region to outnumber the Tibetan population, and thus converting a backward place full of supposedly docile people into another industrial powerhouse. Reporters remarking on such developments, such as the Swiss journalist Jean-Marie Jolidon, have been summarily expelled from China. Lustgarten had better luck, but it is clear that he asked hard questions along the way, including ones to establish how expensive the whole railway project has turned out to be: about $4.5 billion, perhaps much more.
Lustgarten’s account, both journalistic and historical, is a welcome addition to the literature of Tibetan enslavement.