Dislocation and Unrest in China’s West

Following the release last week of a Human Rights Watch report on relocation and resettlement in Tibet, High Peaks Pure Earth translates Tibetan writer Woeser’s description of a return visit to one uprooted community:

I will never forget the sad conversation that I had with these Tibetan migrants. I asked: “When you moved here did your mountain deity move with you?” My Tibetan friends, dressed in cheap western suits, lowered their heads and said: “How is that possible? We abandoned our deities, we abandoned our livestock, and all that for 500 Yuan per month.”

But in fact, it was not at all because of this little bit of money that these Tibetans abandoned their ancestors and deities of their homeland. In 2003, the Chinese government persisted in claiming that the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau were degenerating, caused by Tibetan herdsmen’s several thousand years of nomadic lifestyles, so they launched a massive, never seen before project, moving Tibetan herdsmen from the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong River to the fringes of towns and cities. To put it positively, they tried to give the Tibetan grasslands some time off to breathe. But the result is probably the elimination of nomadic lifestyles, which is such an important part of Tibetan culture. [Source]

Woeser goes on to describe the efforts of these “ecological migrants” to continue their religious traditions, including the incongruous conversion of pool tables into a roadside shrine:

“Ecological migration” is not limited to Tibet. The policy has also been used in Inner Mongolia, where a local rapper sang in 2011:

Once green Mongolian plateau turned to yellow
Beautiful grasslands turning to desert
The government says it is the herders’ fault
Have you ever thought about it carefully?
Whose fault is it really?
Overgrazing is a myth and a lie
We have grazed animals here thousands of years
Why has the desertification started since only a few decades ago? [Source]

A Wall Street Journal article on recent violence in Xinjiang lays some blame for the unrest on the ‘Comfortable Housing’ program’s expansion into the region two years ago:

Comfortable Housing began in Tibet. From 2006-12, two-thirds of the population, some two million people, were forced to relocate. In 2011, the program was extended to other provinces including Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. The target for Xinjiang is 1.2 million households by 2015, at a cost of 3 billion yuan ($489 million).

One of the key proponents of the scheme is Zhang Qingli, who was in charge of Tibet when it was rolled out. Now he is secretary to Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng, who handles minority and religious affairs. It seems that while slightly more moderate officials have taken over top posts in Tibet and Xinjiang over the last few years, Beijing continues to dictate the same hard-line policies.

[…] Perhaps China’s new leader Xi Jinping will change tack once he has consolidated control over the Party. The costs of security operations and Comfortable Housing continue to mount. Deng Xiaoping succeeded in the 1980s by abandoning ideology in favor of pragmatism. Mr. Xi seems to see himself in Deng’s reformist mold, so fixing the broken policies of his predecessor should be an obvious priority. [Source]

At the Journal’s China Real Time Report (via CDT), Russell Leigh Moses argued on Tuesday that there have already been signs of just such “a new, more subtle approach” from Xi and Yu. See also recent discussion of a possible parallel shift in policy on Tibet.