Reports Detail Forced Displacement and Violent Reprisals Against Protest in Tibet

Two research reports published this week underscore how authorities in Tibet have displaced local communities to impose state-sponsored projects, undermining environmental protection and human rights. The collaborative research network Turquoise Roof published the first report, “Occupying Tibet’s rivers: China’s hydropower ‘battlefield’ in Tibet.” The report details how violent paramilitary reprisals have stifled protests against the construction of the planned Kamtok hydropower dam along the Drichu (Yangtze) river, threatening the displacement of villages and Buddhist monasteries:

The protests draw urgent attention to China’s extractivist plans that are carving up the Tibetan landscape, risking landslides, earthquakes and food insecurity, and impacting tens of millions living downstream in China, India and elsewhere in Asia. State-owned conglomerates are accelerating the construction of mega dams and associated infrastructure in Tibet despite the inherent dangers of a seismically unstable region where river systems are increasingly unpredictable due to climate change.

For the first time, China’s dambuilding is now reaching upriver to the sources of Asia’s great wild mountain rivers in Tibet in landscapes that were previously among the least disturbed habitats on earth. Tibet is described by Chinese engineers as “the main battlefield of China’s hydropower construction”, while a Chinese chief engineer warned that the process of constructing a dam in the upper reaches of the Drichu river is like building “high-rise blocks on tofu”.

[…] The plans involve the entire population of the area – monks and lay, old and young – being uprooted and displaced in their thousands from villages and monasteries that have flourished upstream in the sacred mountains of Gèndong alongside the Drichu or the upper Yangtze River, the longest and largest river on the Eurasian continent.

[…] The construction of the Kamtok dam risks a cascade of adverse consequences both on the plateau and in China, serving as a reminder that China’s policies in Tibet – where water is regarded as a ‘strategic asset’ by the Communist Party state – affect global climate systems already challenged by food and water insecurity involving glacial melting and erratic monsoon cycles. A leading Tibetan professor based in Beijing has revealed data showing that the rivers of Tibet are becoming more and more unpredictable. [Source]

Protests against the dam began in mid-February in Derge County (also known as Dege) in Sichuan Province, where authorities reportedly arrested over 100 Tibetan Buddhist monks and other residents. Videos of the protests showed black-clad forces pushing around Tibetan monks who were peacefully protesting. Similar dynamics were observed in mid-April, as Tibet Watch reported that the government had already started relocating around 60 households located near another planned hydropower station on the Machu river in Qinghai Province. 

A second report was published by Human Rights Watch and titled, “Educate the Masses to Change Their Minds: China’s Forced Relocation of Rural Tibetans.” The report draws on over 1,000 official Chinese media articles between 2016 and 2023 as well as government publications and academic field studies. It shows that Chinese media reports in many cases contradict official claims that all those relocated gave their consent and instead indicate that participation in “whole-village relocation” programs in Tibet is in effect compulsory:

The official press reports indicate the extreme forms of persuasion—that is, coercion—used by officials to pressure villagers and nomadic people or nomads to agree to whole-village relocation. These methods include repeated home visits; denigrating the intellectual capacity of the villagers to make decisions for themselves; implicit threats of punishment; banning of criticism; and threats of disciplinary action against local officials who fail to meet targets. In some cases, officials of increasing seniority visited families at their homes to gain their “consent,” visits that sometimes were repeated over several years. Some official press reports and videos obtained by Human Rights Watch show officials telling residents that essential services would be cut to their current homes if they did not move. Others showed authorities openly threatening villagers who voiced disagreements about the relocations, accusing them of “spreading rumors” and ordering officials to crack down on such actions “swiftly and resolutely”—implying administrative and criminal penalties. This report includes three case studies that show in detail the timelines, objectives, arguments, and methods used to obtain the “consent” of residents of entire villages to relocate.

[…] Official statistics suggest that between 2000 and 2025, the Chinese authorities will have relocated over 930,000 rural Tibetans (see Appendix I). Most of these relocations—over 709,000 people or 76 percent of these relocations—have taken place since 2016. Among these 709,000 people relocated, 140,000 are moved as part of the whole village relocation drives, 567,000 as part of individual household relocations.

[…] The relocation program in Tibet contravenes international human rights law standards. International law prohibits “forced evictions,” which have been defined as the removal of individuals, families, or communities against their will from their homes or land without access to appropriate forms of legal or other protection. Forced evictions include those that lack meaningful consultation or compensation, and which do not consider “all feasible alternatives” to relocation. Otherwise, lawful evictions must still be carried out in compliance with relevant international human rights law and “in accordance with general principles of reasonableness and proportionality.” [Source]

The report stated that over three million Tibetans have been forced to give up their traditional nomadic lifestyles based on yak herding and agriculture, and that “most relocation programs in Tibet move former farmers and pastoralists to areas where they cannot practice their former livelihood and have no choice but to seek work as wage laborers in off-farm industries.” Providing more details from the report, Marrian Zhou from Nikkei Asia highlighted the involuntary nature of the relocations and their detrimental economic effects:

In one case, 200 out of 262 families in a village in the nomadic area of Nagqu initially refused to move almost 1,000 kilometers away. Villagers eventually consented and there has been no record of anyone who was able to avoid relocation.

“The Chinese government says that the relocation of Tibetan villages is voluntary, but official media reports contradict this claim,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch. “Those reports make clear that when a whole village is targeted for relocation, it is practically impossible for the residents to refuse to move without facing serious repercussions.”

[…] Government officials also ask poorer families to move away from areas that are deemed “more suitable for income generation,” according to the report. Researchers found that local officials sometimes lied about the economic benefits of relocation to get the families to move, leaving them financially stranded in their new neighborhoods.

[…] Chinese laws require that families who relocate demolish their former homes to prevent them from returning. Researchers found that local officials in Tibet often enforce the demolition as well. [Source]

State-driven forced displacement has put Tibetan culture under threat. President of the Tibetan government-in-exile Penpa Tsering told France Culture this week, “We need to talk with the Chinese government. We try to find dialogue. But if you see what the government is doing all over China : everything is aimed at eradicating Tibetan culture. It is a true cultural genocide. We are dying a slow death, and so are the Uyghurs.” Covering the Human Rights Watch report for VOA, William Yang showed that Tibetan activists shared Penpa’s fears about the eradication of Tibetan identity:

Some Tibetan activists worry that the mass relocation or displacement of Tibetan communities may eventually “eradicate the Tibetan identity.”

“It takes many years for [a community] to flourish in one land, and you can’t easily build that in a place where you are not willing to go,” Tenzin Choekyi, a senior researcher at Tibet Watch, told VOA by phone.

In her view, the implementation of the relocation policies hasn’t taken the Tibetan community’s opinions and thoughts into consideration. “The Tibetan identity is in the hands of the Chinese party-state and is being eradicated under different policy directives,” she said. [Source]

This week, Tibetscapes, a research collective at the Indian Institute of Technology–Madras, shared a preview of R. Madhumitha’s recently submitted M.A. thesis that connects the themes of forced displacement, urbanization, Tibean identity. It is titled, “Fiction as a Window to Contemporary Tibet: Understanding the Tibetan Experience of Sedenterisation & Urbanisation”:

Madhumitha’s thesis examines Tibetan responses to Chinese state-making as they emerge through modern Tibetan fiction in English and English translations of Tibetan writing. She argues that 21st-century Tibetan literature has framed an uneasy confrontation with the state’s processes of sedentarization and urbanisation as a central element of the modern Tibetan identity and captures diverse and nuanced lived experiences of Tibetans. [Source]

Last year, CDT produced an interview series about Tibet and spoke with Tenzin Norgay, Lhadon Tethong (part one and part two), Bhuchung Tsering, Dechen Pemba, and Tsering Yangzom Lama. The latest interview in the series was with Lobsang Yangtso, Environmental Researcher at the International Tibet Network, who argued that the Chinese government’s interpretation of environmental protection in fact prioritizes extractive economic policies at the expense of sustainability and participatory governance:

The kind of environmental problems that we see in Tibet, all of them are very urgent. But one thing that I would like to highlight is how the Chinese government interprets environmental protection in the name of clean energy and so-called ecological civilization. They bring policies to Tibet and then remove people from their land in the name of protection: people are relocated, nomads are removed from their land. According to the Chinese government, removing nomads is essential to protect the grassland from degradation, and also to elevate the nomads from poverty. This is a really significant issue because nomads are losing their livelihood. And the nomadic way of life is their identity, their culture. The participation of nomads in the decision making is completely missing in the current policy that we see in Tibet. This has an economic, cultural, and political implication as well. So I feel this is very, very urgent. 

[…] When we talk about environmental policies from the government, the one problem that I see is that, in this whole policy of the Chinese government, economic development is the main emphasis, and in the name of economic development, they try to gain legitimacy from the local people. For them, economic development is more important than environmental protection in Tibet. So many policies like urbanization, especially when we specifically focus on border areas, specifically on the Brahmaputra, that kind of infrastructure development—the roads, the railways, the airports that we see have a lot of impact on water. Slowly, with these infrastructure developments, it will bring more army, more Chinese, and then slowly they will do mining, and then tunnel-building. Everything is all about gaining and extracting the resources from Tibet and then neglecting the respect for the whole nature and ecosystem. For us, we believe in nature reserves and we believe the rivers are sacred, but these concepts have not been really included in the policymaking. Right now, we are under the colonial occupation of China. And yes, the whole global world is facing climate change, but Chinese political control and colonialism has further degraded the whole Tibet environment. [Source]

Updated on May 23, 2024 to correct the location of the government displacements reported by Tibet Watch in mid-April.


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