Tantalizing signs have recently emerged of possible change in China’s Tibet policy: arguments by a Central Party School scholar, a visit to Tibet this week by U.S. ambassador Gary Locke, and reports that strictly religious veneration of the Dalai Lama is being permitted in parts of Qinghai and Sichuan. But a new report from Human Rights Watch highlights irreparable damage already done to Tibetan communities by mass programs of forced rehousing and relocation.
Over two million people have been rehoused in the Tibetan Autonomous Region since 2006, while over 400,000 nomadic herders in Qinghai province will have been settled in sedentary communities by the end of this year. “Many Tibetans aspire to better living conditions and welcome many aspects of modernization,” the report acknowledges, but the New Socialist Villages built under the “Comfortable Housing” policy are often of low quality and poorly adapted to local conditions. A 2009 State Council report found that new settlements may lack “rational design” and consideration for inhabitants’ needs, with some even “built on unsuitable and potentially dangerous sites.” Contrary to government proclamations, moreover, HRW claims that even as they lose their traditional ways of life, many Tibetans have had to shoulder most of the cost of their new homes themselves.
While housing rights have been a key driver of social unrest elsewhere in China, anti-eviction protests in Tibet have been deterred by the additional risk of being labeled and punished as “separatists”. Within the system, on the other hand, there is little prospect for effective appeal when “in practice the law is little other than what officials say it is.” Consequently, “the majority consider themselves targets of policies they are powerless to oppose or affect.” From the report’s summary:
The Chinese government asserts that all relocation and rehousing operations are entirely voluntary and respect “the will of the Tibetan farmers and herders.” It strongly denies that any forced evictions take place in the process, and suggests it is being culturally sensitive by stating that the design and appearance of the new houses suit “ethnic characteristics.” The government also claims that all those who have moved to new houses are satisfied and grateful for the improvement in their living conditions, and stories highlighting the gratitude of rehoused Tibetans since 2006 have become a prominent theme in state media in Tibetan areas.
But Tibetans coming from both farming and herding communities interviewed by Human Rights Watch between 2005 and 2012 say that large numbers of people relocated or rehoused did not do so voluntarily and that they were never consulted or offered alternatives. They say that many face financial difficulties as a result of having to move, reduce their herds, or demolish and reconstruct their houses. They claim that new settlements are sometimes inferior to the ones they previously inhabited and that many promises made to them by local officials to induce them to move have never materialized.
[…] Some of the problems identified by the Tibetans interviewed for this report, such as increased living costs, indebtedness, loss of assets, and the profound alteration of community structures, raise concerns about the sustainability of China’s mass relocation and rehousing policies, especially once the tide of initial subsidies and investments from the central government recedes. For sedentarized or resettled nomadic communities, irreversible dislocation and marginalization are already observable, a fact that even official media are starting to occasionally acknowledge. Underlying all the concerns identified above are fears among Tibetans that these policies will erase their distinct culture and way of life. [Source]
HRW has assembled “before and after” satellite comparisons of some old and new settlements, while the organization’s Nicholas Bequelin provides an illustrated overview of the report:
For coverage of similar issues in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, see also Little Hu and the Mining of the Grasslands, via CDT.