Tracking Dissent on the High Plateau:
Communications technology on the Gormo-Lhasa railway
In March 2005, the Canadian company Nortel announced it had entered into an agreement with China’s Ministry of Railways to provide a digital wireless communications network for a new railway being built in Tibet. The railway, with Nortel’s technology, became operational in July 2006. It now stretches 1,118 km from the city of Gormo to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital.
Many Tibetans object to the railway because they believe it will consolidate the Chinese presence in Tibet, a
presence that has been characterized by systemic human rights abuse.
The technology provided by Nortel, called the Global System for Mobile Communications for Railways, is a key component in the railway’s communication system. Railway communication systems are themselves part of China’s Golden Shield Project, an all-encompassing surveillance network that links national, regional and local security agencies, thereby improving the state’s efficiency in monitoring and controlling the flow of information and people.
To collect field data for this case study, researchers in Tibet and China focused on the general context in
which the investment would take place. As the only ex-ante study in the human rights impact assessment
project, the results of their research differ in nature from the results produced in the other studies where
the projects were operational when the research took place. This study limits its scope to the identification
of potential future impacts of the proposed investment project based on the general context and actual
situation in the project location.
The case study raises important considerations related to corporate complicity within public-private
partnerships, particularly in non-democratic states where human rights violations are systemic. It concludes
that because dual-use technology will be shared with the Government of China through this investment
project, the company and the home state (Canada) have an obligation to apply controls and safeguards
aimed specifically at the protection of human rights in Tibet.