Qinghai-Tibet Railway Statistics Add to Confusion, Mask Impact on Local Population

March 4, 2010

China's state-run media has released additional information about passengers who used the Qinghai-Tibet railway to travel to and from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) from July 2006 to December 2007, the first 18 months of the railway's operation. Based on Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) analysis of the fragmentary and sometimes contradictory information, more than a half million passengers, most of whom are likely ethnic Han, may have traveled during that period to the TAR to seek work, trade, and business opportunities. The railway's impact could overwhelm the Tibetan population in urban centers such as Lhasa, and sharply increase pressure on the Tibetan culture.

A February 8, 2008, Xinhua article entitled, "Qinghai Tibet Railway Transports 5.95 [million] Tourists," contradicted information provided by a December 20, 2007, Xinhua article (reprinted in China Daily the same day) by reporting a significantly higher number of passengers traveling to and from Lhasa, the capital of the TAR, and characterizing all of the passengers as tourists. (See details below.) The February 2008 report, which did not provide any explanation for the unexpectedly high figures, adds to the confusion about the number and purpose of passengers who travel to the TAR on the railway. As a result, the report may mask the probable impact on Tibetan population in the TAR. Tibetans made up 92.8 percent of the TAR's population in 2000, according to official Chinese census data.

Chinese media reports seek to focus attention on the increased tourist traffic to the TAR that the railway makes possible, and on the boost that tourism has provided to the regional economy. The February 2008 report states, for example, that 2007 tourism revenue in the TAR surpassed 2006 by 75.1 percent, and that tourism in 2007 accounted for 14.2 percent of the TAR gross domestic product (GDP) -- a rise of 48 percent over tourism's share of GDP in 2006 (9.6 percent, according to Xinhua, 30 November 07). The reports provide little information about the number of non-tourists who travel to the TAR to seek employment, trade, and business opportunities, and no information about the railway's impact on the size and ethnic composition of population in TAR urban centers such as Lhasa and the nearby prefectural capitals Naqu (Nagchu), Rikaze (Shigatse), and Zedang (Tsethang). Naqu is the last major stop on the Qinghai-Tibet railway before Lhasa; an extension of the railway to Rikaze is scheduled for completion in 2010; officials have not announced a railway extension to Zedang, but the town is linked to Lhasa by paved road and ample public transport.

As the economically driven, mostly Han influx continues, the Chinese government's weak implementation of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law will continue to hinder Tibetans from preserving their culture, language, and heritage. Weak implementation of the law prevents Tibetans from realizing the law's guarantee that ethnic minorities have the "right to administer their internal affairs." (See "Tibetan Culture Under Chinese Development Policy and Practice," in Section IV, "Tibet: Special Focus for 2007," in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2007 Annual Report for more information about how Chinese laws, regulations, and policies increase pressure on the Tibetan culture and erode the Tibetan people's ability to preserve their heritage and self-identity.)

Contradictions: Did 5.95 Million Railway Passengers Travel in 18 Months?

The February 2008 Xinhua report of 5.95 million persons traveling on the Qinghai-Tibet railway during the 18-month period raises questions about the scale of the claim, about what measures, if any, authorities have implemented to increase the railway's passenger capacity to the claimed level, and about passengers' purpose for traveling.

  • The figure 5.95 million contradicts the December 2007 Xinhua report on passenger traffic during the same 18-month period, surpassing that report by approximately one-quarter.
    • An average of approximately 10,870 passengers would have to commence travel each day for 18 months to reach a total of 5.95 million. If equal proportions of passengers traveled to and from the TAR -- a premise that ignores the likelihood that somewhat more than one-half of the passengers travel inbound and that some passengers remain for a time to work, trade, or engage in business -- the average daily passenger total in each direction would be approximately 5,435.
    • The figure 5,435, however, surpasses by about 1,000 persons the average daily total of approximately 4,400 Lhasa-bound passengers during the same 18-month period reported by the December 2007 Xinhua article. (See additional statistical information below.) The February 2008 report does not refer to any of the data provided by the December 2007 report, nor does it provide any new information that could account for the large increase in the reported number of passengers for the same period.
  • The assertion that 5.95 million passengers traveled on the railway in an 18-month period exceeds the railway's stated capacity, as reported in official Chinese media.
    • In May 2006, a TAR official stated that the railway would transport 4,000 tourists per day into the TAR when it commenced service on July 1. A June 28, 2006, China Tibet Information Center (CTIC) report published shortly before the railway began operation discussed the number and composition of Qinghai-Tibet railway trains. A total of four trains would arrive in Lhasa each day and the capacity of each train would be 936 persons, based on the number and capacity of each type of car the trains reportedly would include. Car capacities range from 32 to 98 passengers depending on the standard of accommodation. Based on the CTIC information, the capacity of four trains would be 3,744 passengers.
    • CTIC's preliminary schedule information appears to remain generally consistent with timetables available on the Travel China Guide Web site on February 25, 2008. Although passenger services for Lhasa depart from seven Chinese cities, only four trains arrive in Lhasa each day: service from Beijing runs daily; the services departing from Chengdu city and Chongqing city merge into a single train in Baoji city; the service departing from Lanzhou city merges in Xining with the Xining city service; and, according to CTIC, the services departing from Shanghai city and Guangzhou city depart on alternate days. The timetable for Naqu (Nagchu), the capital of Naqu prefecture in the TAR, illustrates how services with different points of origin retain their original service numbers after they merge to form a single train.
    • The December 2007 report does not provide any information that explains how the railway accommodates the average daily number of TAR-bound passengers claimed by the article (approximately 4,400), which exceeds by approximately 650 passengers per day the 3,744 passenger per day capacity of the four arriving trains based on the CTIC information. The excess number of passengers could be accommodated by adding one or two cars to some of the services.
    • If the February 2008 report of 5.95 million passengers arriving in and departing from the TAR each day during the first 18 months of operation (10,870 passengers per day) is accurate, then it would surpass by nearly 3,400 passengers per day the railway's daily bidirectional capacity of 7,488 passengers based on the CTIC information. The CECC has not seen any public reports by Chinese news media announcing large increases of service on the Qinghai-Tibet railway.
    • Even if Chinese authorities had announced a significant expansion of Qinghai-Tibet railway service, such an announcement would not resolve the contradiction between the passenger statistics provided by the December 2007 and February 2008 Xinhua reports.
  • The February 2008 report characterizes all of the Qinghai-Tibet railway's 5.95 million passengers as "tourists," contradicting the December 2007 report's acknowledgement that nearly one-half of the passengers during a 12-month period were not tourists.
    • The December 2007 report stated that "more than a half" of Qinghai-Tibet railway passengers from July 2006 to June 2007 were tourists, implying that somewhat less than half of the passengers during that period were not tourists.
    • A September 14, 2006, Xinhua report on the railway's initial period of operation revealed that less than half of the Lhasa-bound passengers were tourists. Midway into September 2006, after two and one-half months' of railway operation, Jin Shixun, the Director of the TAR Committee of Development and Reform, said that 40 percent of the passengers were tourists and that the rest were business persons, students, transient workers, traders, and individuals visiting relatives. (See additional details below.)

Clues: How Many Passengers Aren't Tourists, but Seek Jobs, Economic Opportunity?

Even though increased Han migration into Tibetan and other ethnic areas is among the objectives of China's Great Western Development (GWD) program, and even though the Qinghai-Tibet railway is formally designated a key GWD project, the Chinese government avoids providing information about the number of railway passengers who remain in the TAR for longer periods to seek employment, trade, or business opportunity. Official reports have provided clues, however, that more than a half million such passengers, most of whom are likely to be ethnic Han, may have arrived in the TAR during the railway's first 18 months of operation. The analysis below sets aside the February 8, 2008, Xinhua report of 5.95 million passengers traveling on the railway because of the unresolved questions and contradictions that it poses (explained above), and is instead based on the December 20, 2007, and September 14, 2006, Xinhua reports.

  • Approximately 2.35 million passengers arrived in Lhasa during the 18-month period from July 2006 to December 2007, based on the December 2007 report.
    • Referring to the period January-December 2007, the last 12 months of the 18-month period, the December 2007 report stated, "About 1.6 million passengers are forecast to travel on the Qinghai-Tibet railway this year." The article reported that during the first 12 months of operation, July 2006 through June 2007, "[A] total of 1.5 million people had come to [the TAR] by train."
    • Based on the average monthly passenger traffic provided by these statistics, an average of approximately 125,000 passengers per month (4,170 per day) arrived in the TAR in July to December 2006, and an average of approximately 133,300 passengers per month (4,440 per day) did so in January to December 2007. Based on those figures, the 18-month total of passenger arrivals in the TAR would have been approximately 2.35 million. The December 2007 report did not provide any information about the number of passengers departing from the TAR.
  • Among the approximately 2.35 million persons arriving in Lhasa from July 2006 to December 2007, more than a half million may have been non-Tibetan, mostly ethnic Han, workers, traders, and business persons who intended to remain for a period in the TAR to work, engage in business, or seek other economic opportunity, based on information provided in the September 2006 and December 2007 Xinhua reports.
    • If information provided in the September 2006 report about the different purposes of passengers for traveling to the TAR remained representative throughout the 18-month period of July 2006 to December 2007, then as many as 1.41 million of the 2.35 million arriving passengers may have been non-tourists, and over half of the 1.41 million non-tourists may have been mainly Han who intended to remain for a period in the TAR for economic reasons. The remaining 940,000 passengers (40 percent of 2.35 million), would have been tourists.
      • According to the September 14, 2006, Xinhua report, the railway carried 272,700 passengers in the period from July 1, 2006, until Xinhua published the report (76 days). The figure suggests an average of approximately 3,590 arrivals per day in the TAR, a plausible figure because the Shanghai and Guangzhou services did not start operation until October 1 and 2, respectively, according to Xinhua reports on the same dates. According to the September 2006 report, of the 60 percent of the passengers who were not tourists, 30 percent were businesspersons, and the remaining 30 percent were "students, transient workers, traders, and people visiting relatives in Tibet."
    • The December 2007 Xinhua information reports a lower proportion of non-tourist arrivals than the September 2006 report, but even the more recent information supports the observation that the railway passengers may have included more than a half million mostly Han workers, traders, and businesspersons.
      • The December 2007 Xinhua report stated that "more than a half" of the 1.5 million passengers arriving in the TAR between July 2006 and June 2007 were tourists -- a greater proportion of tourist arrivals than the 40 percent Xinhua reported in September 2006. It is unlikely, however, that the proportion of tourists surpassed one-half by a substantial amount. If, for example, the proportion of tourists had reached 60 percent, or even more, officials and news reports would have been likely to call attention to the figure and identify it.
      • If, for the purpose of illustration, the tourists who made up "more than a half" of the 1.5 million arriving passengers reached 55 percent of the total, then the 45 percent of arriving passengers who were not tourists during the 12-month period would have been numbered approximately 675,000 (about 56,250 per month). If that rate of arrivals for non-tourists represented an average for the entire 18-month period, then approximately 1 million non-tourists would have arrived in the TAR. If the proportions of purposes for non-tourist travel that the September 2006 report described continued to be indicative for the 18-month period, then over half of the 1 million non-tourists arriving in the TAR may have been principally Han persons seeking work and business opportunity.

Scale of Impact: The Influx in a Tibetan Context

If a fraction of the estimated half million or more principally Han persons who arrived on the Qinghai-Tibet railway to work or conduct business in the TAR during the 18-month period from July 2006 to December 2007 remained in Lhasa's urban district (Chengguan), they may have outnumbered the Tibetans who live there (105,997 according to the 2000 census). The influx of new workers and businesspersons may have surpassed the number of Han already present in the entire TAR: 158,570 in 2000, according to official census data, or 105,379 in 2005, according to the 2006 Tibet Statistical Yearbook.

  • National census and yearbook data on the same period conflict because each collects data differently. The census methodology is designed to include temporary residents, recent arrivals, and persons without a household registration. But because census day in 2000 was November 1, a substantial number of Han who work or trade in the TAR had departed by census day to spend the winter elsewhere in China. Provincial annual statistical yearbooks rely on data compiled by the Public Security Bureau (PSB).

The importance of railway passengers to Tibetans cannot be gauged adequately by measuring increases in tourism and regional GDP. The scale of the cultural, social, and economic impact on Tibetans will depend in part on whether the number of mainly Han workers, traders, and businesspersons proves large enough to overwhelm the Tibetan population first in Lhasa, then in nearby prefectural capitals such as Rikaze, Naqu, and Zedang, and eventually in the more distant prefectural capitals Linzhi (Nyingtri) and Changdu (Chamdo). The potential impact on Tibetans does not depend on whether or not Chinese officials classify the newly arriving participants in the TAR economy as transients or residents, or on whether their presence is officially recorded in statistical compilations such as the national census or provincial yearbooks. The scale of the impact on Tibetan culture will depend on the numbers, needs, and activities of the persons who travel to the TAR. The Chinese government provides little public information on such subjects. Chinese government data appears to underrepresent the number of Han who are present in Tibetan autonomous areas, and to report statistics that are inconsistent with each other and with observations by Tibetan and foreign experts.

  • A TAR government official explained to a CECC staff delegation visiting Lhasa in 2003, before the Qinghai-Tibet railway was completed, why the Han population appeared to be larger than official statistics indicate. He said that "every day" there is a mobile Han population numbering more than 200,000 in the TAR, and that it peaks from June through October. (CECC 2004 Annual Report.) A Tibetan academic in Lhasa told a CECC staff delegation in 2002 that the temporary population of Han workers and traders in Lhasa's urban district alone reaches approximately 100,000 during summer and declines to about 10,000 in winter.
  • A Chinese academic study of the migrant worker population in Lhasa in 2005, before the railway was completed, concluded that the actual number of temporary migrants is much larger than official records reveal. Studying the migrant workers in the TAR is difficult, the paper observed, because the workers move seasonally and generally try to avoid registering with local authorities in order to escape payment of fees and charges. The paper noted that the Great Western Development program promotes the flow of "a large number of temporary migrants" into the TAR, and leads to increased competition between a "low quality" local Tibetan workforce and incoming (mostly Han) migrant workers.

For more information on the Qinghai-Tibet railway and related issues, see Section IV, Tibet: Special Focus for 2007, in the CECC 2007 Annual Report; Section VIII, Tibet, in the CECC 2006 Annual Report; Section VI, Tibet, in the CECC 2005 Annual Report; Section VI, Tibet, in the CECC 2004 Annual Report; and Section VII, Tibet, in the CECC 2003 Annual Report.