(New York) - The Chinese government’s latest campaign of forcing Tibetans to reconstruct their homes is deepening poverty rather than boosting economic development, Human Rights Watch said today.
The government campaign, known in Tibetan as “Namdrang Rangdrik” (“Do-It-Yourself Program”) was launched last year. It requires villagers, particularly those who live next to main roads, to rebuild their houses in accordance with strict official specifications within two to three years. New settlements composed of rows of identical stone houses with a red flag on each roof are now a common sight across the region, particularly in the Lhasa-Shika-tse-Nyingtri triangle and in the vicinity of rural towns or townships of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Affected villagers are not able to contest the decision or refuse to participate, even if complying causes them great economic hardship.
“The Chinese government boasts about bringing economic development to Tibet, but its current policy is costing some Tibetans their homes and their livelihoods,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Tibetans must have a real role in development choices, and must be able to reject programs that deepen their poverty.”
Beginning in 2000, the Chinese government launched a series of centrally mandated initiatives designed to alleviate poverty in Tibet. These initiatives stipulated that the poorest families in a given village were to be relocated to new settlements of uniformly built houses along main roads, and encouraged them to start businesses or seek employment. The new houses were to be jointly funded by the government and the families in question.
But Tibetans affected by the initiatives have recently told Human Rights Watch that local officials have frequently embezzled the centrally allocated funds, while ordinary villagers have been expected to contribute free manual labor to build the houses. They also pointed out that the actual beneficiaries have not been poor families but the moderately well-off, whose moves into such housing have been extensively filmed and shown on television, apparently to give an impression of government largesse and new regional prosperity. In several reported cases, land vacated by relocated villagers is now being used for mining or other infrastructure projects.
“In recent years we’ve seen a slow but steady effort to separate rural Tibetans from their livelihoods in the name of economic development,” said Richardson. “But it has become increasingly difficult to see how these campaigns have brought economic gains or equal participation for Tibetans.”
The “Namdrang Rangdrik” campaign, which began in 2005 as part of China’s 11th Five-Year Plan, places less emphasis on poverty alleviation and more on urbanization and the construction of modern-looking homes. Tibetans have reported being told by local officials that clean, modern houses are necessary to make a good impression on growing numbers of visitors and tourists as the region modernizes.
But few of the houses actually have modern amenities such as water or electricity. In addition, the new houses are also usually smaller than the old ones and lack courtyards, which means that residents cannot keep their livestock and must sell them. Tibetans say that doing so closes off a significant source of livelihood for them.
The campaign’s stipulations for the financing of reconstruction also stand to impoverish affected Tibetans. The cost of building a new house that meets the government’s standards is about US$5,000-6,000, though the government lends households only about $1,200 for construction costs. Nearly all must therefore supplement these funds with considerable bank loans, as they lack the significant capital investment required. The poorest households are not even eligible for loans, but the campaign’s guidelines allow no exception for this situation. Even the most affluent households have been forced into debt, and those who default on their loans will forfeit the right to occupy the house they have built or started to build.
None of those interviewed reported being given the right to challenge or refuse participation in the campaign. Tibetans have described incidents in which those who refused to participate or those who were unable to participate because they could not secure the necessary loans had their homes bulldozed by local authorities.
Since China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951, Tibetans have systematically been denied fundamental human rights, including participation in public affairs, the freedoms of speech, assembly and religion, and, more recently, the rights guaranteed to ethnic minorities under Chinese law and international standards.
Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to end the campaign.
“Forcing people to take out loans to build new houses that they don’t want, that fail to accommodate their livelihoods, and that lack modern amenities hardly squares with China’s purported goals for economic development or its stated commitment to autonomy for ethnic minorities,” said Richardson.