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China’s SARS strangles Tibet

No cases of the potentially lethal viral infection known as ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome’ (SARS) have been recorded in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) so far, but the efforts by the authorities to prevent the disease, also known as ‘atypical pneumonia’, of spreading on the Tibetan plateau, have led to drastic measures paralysing movement in the region.

The implications of this situation on the economic development of the region are potentially disastrous.


The TAR and Qinghai, traditionally known as the Amdo region of Tibet, are believed to be the two last provinces of China where no cases of SARS are known, which has gained Tibet the reputation in mainland China of being a sanctuary from the disease. The Chinese authorities reassuringly claim that the low concentration of oxygen and high level of UV radiation, both contingent upon the altitude of the Tibetan plateau, are likely to prevent the spread of the virus. Experts though, warn that the notoriously poor hygienic conditions prevailing in the region may outweigh these natural obstacles, once a few cases of the infection have reached the plateau.

Far from trusting the inhospitable natural condition of Tibet to alone cope with the dangerous virus, the Chinese authorities themselves have lately taken drastic measures to prevent its spread. Since Sunday 27 April all international flights into and out of the TAR have been stopped. The last flights from Kathmandu reportedly reached Lhasa International Airport in Gonkar on Saturday 26 April. All border-crossing points were also completely sealed off during the course of Saturday. Official communiques explained these measures as necessary to prevent a spread of the
virus from China into Nepal. The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu stopped delivering visas for Tibet on Thursday evening, though a few people were allowed to pick up their visas on Friday. Trucks carrying supplies into the TAR are reportedly being stopped at the province’s border. Goods like rice and other products, including foods that are not produced in the TAR and are normally transported by road from mainland China, are not reaching Lhasa anymore.<!–page–>

Many internal Chinese flights from and into the TAR were still operating today. While but a few people recently boarded planes to the Chinese mainland, aircrafts carrying a limited number of groups hoping to find a safe haven in Tibet were recorded in the last few days. The Chengdu-Lhasa route is the most frequented air route between the mainland and the Tibetan plateau. The local authorities reacted by imposing a quarantine of 10 days on all passengers arriving from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province – SARS is believed to have an incubation period of less than ten days.  However, since there are no quarantine facilities in the TAR, arriving passengers are currently isolated in hotel rooms in Lhasa.

It is not known whether such quarantine measures are also being imposed on passengers arriving from other destinations, but reports indicate that most inland flights might be cancelled from the 30 April.

Notwithstanding official communiques identifying the danger of SARS as coming from outside the TAR, strong travel restrictions have been imposed within the province itself, nurturing perceptions that the authorities might fear panic and unrest in this potentially tense situation, as much as the spread of the disease. Roadblocks have been installed along the major roads in the TAR, preventing the flow of goods and people. It is, for instance, currently impossible to reach Lhasa from the eastern prefecture city of Chamdo. The fact that visas delivered recently in Kathmandu authorised foreigners only to a short stay in the TAR have generated similar perceptions.

In Lhasa no drastic coercive measures seem to have been imposed on the population so far. Radio, posters and television features exhort people to practice sports in order to stay healthy. They also advise against visits to public places like restaurants and discourage private gatherings. Families celebrating marriage parties were advised by neighbourhood authorities not to invite relatives living in another part of the town. The fear of a coming shortage of consumer goods has led Lhasa dwellers to start hoarding these products.

While the period after the end of the winter in April-May is normally the time when tourists and professional expatriates arrive in the TAR, they are conspicuously absent this year. Foreigners travelling to Tibet for professional reasons were given notice that they would not be allowed to enter the TAR under the current regulations, even if in possession of valid documents. They were informed that their visas were not cancelled but their entry delayed, and notified that they could resume their work as soon as the health authorities can guarantee their safety. A few of those who had already reached Lhasa have managed to leave the region in the course of last week. International projects are said to have been delayed or postponed. Some foreign tourists who could not get a flight out of the TAR late last week are now waiting for the next opportunity to leave.

Though it is too early to seriously assess the effects of the current situation on life in the TAR, it is certain that, should the crisis continue for even a
few weeks, its consequences on the local economy will be disastrous. In particular tourism, which the authorities intend to make the ‘staple ndustry’ of the TAR as well as of most parts of Tibet, is likely to experience a very serious setback this year. Furthermore manufacturing and trade activities are likely to collapse soon, depending as they do on the continuous supply of goods and machines from, and markets in, mainland China. The current situation illustrates the weakness and vulnerability of the much-publicised economic growth in the TAR with its subordinate position to mainland China. Instead of developing a reasonably diversified economic autonomy in the TAR, the model of development currently practiced relies totally on transportation arteries from mainland China, which have now turned into potential infection channels. The current severing of the TAR’s physical 
links to China may asphyxiate economic growth and thus potentially alienate the relatively prosperous urban elite, on which Beijing’s plans for political ‘stability’ rely.

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