In a massive campaign that recalls the socialist engineering of an earlier era, the Chinese government has relocated some 250,000 Tibetans - nearly one-tenth of the population - from scattered rural hamlets to new "socialist villages," ordering them to build new housing largely at their own expense and without their consent.
The government calls the year-old project the "comfortable housing program," and its stated aim is to present a more modern face for this ancient region, which China has controlled since 1950.
It claims that the new housing on main roads, sometimes only a mile from previous homes, will enable small farmers and herders to have access to schools and jobs, as well as better health care and hygiene.
But the broader aim seems to be remaking Tibet - a region with its own culture, language and religious traditions - in order to have firmer political control over its population. It comes as China prepares for an influx of millions of tourists in the run-up to next year's Summer Olympic Games.
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Human Rights Watch's witnesses told a different story. Peasants must take out loans of several thousand dollars to pay for the houses, which cost an average of $6,000, even though annual rural incomes hover around $320 in this deeply impoverished region.
"None of those interviewed reported being given the right to challenge or refuse participation in the campaign," the advocacy group said.
Local officials frequently embezzle allocated funds, the group said, and some land that peasants have vacated is being used for mining and other projects. Farmers who can't repay their bank loans forfeit the right to occupy the homes.
Probably the strongest criticism of the program concerns the way it came about - without consultation or consent. The campaign has come with no public debate, a throwback to past eras when rural people served as pawns on a development chessboard.
Chinese experts said that congregating Tibetans was the only way to provide them with opportunities to break rural poverty in the deep mountain valleys.
"There is no water, no electricity; very cold areas without even grass. It's almost impossible to help them without moving them," said Liu Hongji of the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing, a government-established research center.
Some outside experts have a different take, asserting that the relocations may generate the kind of social resentment that China is eager to quell.
"There seems to be a lot of dissatisfaction," said Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University. "It's a massive project of social - I don't want to call it engineering - but of forced, heavily regulated social change without normal safeguards of consensus and consultation."
Some outside experts have a different take, asserting that the relocations may generate the kind of social resentment that China is eager to quell. Those experts called that one right. The same experts suggest that forced resettlement programs will eventually lead to the final extinction of Tibetan culture:
There are vast sociological implications to the program.
Goldstein noted that the settling of Han Chinese in Tibet's major cities already has weakened the influence of traditional Tibetan elites. "The cities are a loss," said Goldstein, referring to demography from a Tibetan point of view. "The last hope is to keep the villages intact. If there's a battleground for Tibetan identity, it's in the rural areas."
And the rural areas, at least in appearance on a reporter's 11-day tour, are coming under ever greater Chinese control.
Having learned about this, it comes as no surprise to me that they rioted.
Photo: by unavco.org