The opening this month of the final segment of world's highest railway, from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet, is a staggering engineering achievement and a testimony to the developing greatness of China. But it is also the most serious threat by the Chinese yet to the survival of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity. In the words of a well-known Tibetan religious teacher who died after many years in a Chinese prison, the railway heralds "a time of emergency and darkness" for Tibet.
This railway across the roof of the world will result in an expanded Chinese military presence in Tibet, accelerate the already devastating exploitation of its natural resources and increase the number of Chinese migrants, marginalising the Tibetan people still further. In the capital, Lhasa, Tibetans are already a minority.
In the years after China's invasion of Tibet in 1950, thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and convents were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans perished. Today the suppression of religion is more subtle and less visible to outsiders. Many of the monasteries have been partly rebuilt, but often they are simply showplaces for tourists. Obtaining a complete religious education in Tibet is usually impossible. Even having a photograph of the Dalai Lama is a criminal offence. Many Tibetans lost their land to make way for the railway, and Tibetan nomads are being forced to settle in cities. Without land and religion, cultures disappear. This is particularly true in Tibet, where the land itself is regarded as sacred.
And even as their culture is undermined by the railway, most Tibetans are unlikely to enjoy any economic benefits from it. With a price tag of more than $4bn, the Tibet railway is the most ambitious and costly element of China's current drive to develop its western regions, known as the Great Leap West. But its construction was based on the Communist Party's old strategic and political objectives, and its main beneficiaries will be the Chinese military, Chinese companies and Chinese settlers. Most Tibetans don't have access to education that would allow them to compete in the economic environment created by China's policies, nor are they welcome to share the fruits of its success.
The opening of the railway to Tibet could not have a greater symbolic importance to the Communist elite -- it is the achievement of a goal set by Mao more than 40 years ago as part of a strategy to complete Tibet's integration into China. And sadly, the railway's opening takes place in an environment of intensified political repression. The new Communist Party chief in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, has said that the party is engaged in a "fight to the death struggle" against the Dalai Lama and his supporters.
China's president, Hu Jintao, formally opened the railway on 1 July. In the late 1980's, when he was party chief of the region, he presided over the torture and imprisonment of thousands of Tibetans through the imposition of martial law in Lhasa. The Tibetans have not forgotten Hu's role in the oppression of their people. President Hu was also personally involved in drafting the fast-track development policies that have been such a disaster for most Tibetans. They are based upon an urban Chinese model and do not take into account Tibetans' needs, views or the way of life that has sustained them on the high plateau for centuries. The Dalai Lama has spoken frequently about the urgent need to involve Tibetans in the development of their land.
A true "great leap" would make room for a Tibetan role in economic development, protect Tibetan religious culture and identity, and welcome the involvement of the Dalai Lama in decision-making on Tibet's future. Since 2002, there have been several rounds of dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama's representatives, following a decade-long diplomatic stalemate, but at present China's commitment to the process is uncertain.
Tibet's precious culture and religion, with its principles of wisdom and compassion and message of interdependence and non-violence, are rooted in the Tibetan landscape and Tibetan hearts. The survival of Tibetan Buddhist knowledge in its own land is vital for the world, as well as the Tibetan people. China's journey toward greatness must not include the further destruction of this heritage.
The writer is chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet