By WILLIAM M. REILLY
UPI U.N. Correspondent
Lhasa, September 7 - After nearly a month in China, it became apparent the perception of how Beijing treats both ethnic minorities and religions is on the mind of China's leaders as it prepares for the influx of visitors for the 2008 Olympics in the capital.
While authorities are still faced with problems in these areas, the impression is generally favorable. However, in pointing out concerns, such as the noticeable military presence in Tibet, officials appeared to dismiss them with excuses, admittedly plausible ones.
Work in Beijing on Olympics facilities appears to be on schedule -- if not ahead of the timetable -- including new rapid transit subways. Construction of the Beijing airport line is the only one that appears to be of concern.
The opening of the new railway linking Beijing to Lhasa, a 2,520 mile, 48-hour journey, was a significant step in increasing the number of visitors to the Tibetan capital, home of the famed, towering red and white Potala Palace and revered Jokhang Temple.
It is the highest railway operation in the world, crossing the Tonggu-la Pass, due north of Lhasa at 16,890 feet. Oxygen is supplied to passengers before reaching the capital, at a mere 12,130 feet.
At the same time Tibet is bracing for foreign visitors, it is encouraging Chinese to visit areas of the vast and diverse nation they have not seen, ranging from seashore to the Himalaya Mountains, from desert to Alpine or tropical forests and Tibet.
After spending five days in Tibet, I met with TAR Vice Chairman Wu Wingjie in an colorfully ornate, formal, Tibetan-style reception room in China's modern government office complex in Lhasa, complete with two oversized chairs at the top of the room separated by a large array of cut flowers, behind which sat Wan Tailei, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs official assigned to interpret during my visit.
Wu said that in the first month of operation of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, beginning July 1, tourism to the TAR increased 66 percent.
He said tourism was one of the "pillars" of the administration. But, he added, hotel occupancy rates in Lhasa were already running at about 80 percent in July and August, the peak months for tourism in Tibet.
While many of the tourists are foreigners, most visitors are from other areas of China, including the traditional Tibetan areas of adjacent Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunan provinces.
The stated goal of the railway is to increase development of Tibet and lower the price of commodities brought into the region.
But the United Kingdom-based Free Tibet Campaign Web site said the main aim of Beijing is "Population Transfer; Tibetans are already a minority in their own country. The railway will enable an even greater degree of population transfer of Han Chinese settlers into Tibet, which will result in the total absorption of Tibet into China."
Wu said Tibetans make up between 92 and 95 percent of the autonomous region's population while Han, the dominant ethnic group in China, are counted among the remaining five to eight percent that includes all ethnic minorities.
Han appear to be well more than five percent in Lhasa, if only for their highly visible shops and small roadside industries.
"Exploitation of natural resources" was another complaint on FreeTibet.org, the campaign's Web site. "Approximately 40 percent of China's mineral resources are in Tibet, including gold, copper, coal, oil and uranium," the site said. "China has exploited these resources since 1950. The railway makes these resources even more accessible and cheaper to transport."
Free Tibet also said an "estimated 160 land-based BS4 nuclear missiles are located along the... rail line (which) will enable China to move the missiles and to deploy troops in great numbers, instantly."
No such sites were apparent on this correspondent's recent journey over the rails.
Known as the Roof of the World, Shangri-La or The Land of Snows, Tibet is discussing with neighboring Sichuan and Yunnan provinces marketing tourism in their region under the umbrella of "Greater Shangri-la."
"The largest goal... for building in Tibet is to further improve development and improve the livelihood of the people," said Wu.
There is plenty of evidence of building in Lhasa, with construction cranes dotting the skyline of the generally clean, sprawling city of more than 200,000 people, crisscrossed with broad boulevards.
When asked about the disconcerting number of military in the region, compared with other regions in China, he dismissed the concern by saying there was poor infrastructure in Tibet so the People's Liberation Army had to set up bases near existing, generally well-maintained highways, making them more visible.
Asked about a convoy of tankers through Lhasa at evening rush hour, Wu said there were few natural energy resources in the region and fuel had to be trucked in for the military. But sporting large red flags during rush hours?
There also were a noticeable number of institutions with armed fortifications, such as the main post office of China Post.
China has long claimed Tibet, more than twice the size of France, but with only about 3 million people. Tibet and China have an intertwined history going back centuries.
In recent times, however, Tibet enjoyed relative independence until 1950, a year after the People's Republic of China was proclaimed, and Beijing began what it calls the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet from feudalism.
The 14th Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, where he lives in exile. Some 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists followed him. An estimated 1 million people were reported to have died in the "liberation."
Wu said "some" exiles have returned, adding the Dalai Lama and his followers would be welcomed back "if they abandon the past and support our national cause. We welcome their return."
While the number of military was disconcerting when compared with other regions I have visited in China over the last few years, it did not appear pervasive and the Tibetans, many of whom serve in government, appeared generally content or at least accepting.
The younger generation mainly appears impressed with recent economic developments; they look to a brighter future and accept what restrictions might be on practicing their religion, if they espouse any.