III. Background

Human Rights in Tibet

Tibetans have suffered and continue to suffer repression and discrimination under PRC rule. Their rights to freedom of religion, association, speech, and assembly have been systematically violated, and those who challenge Chinese authority—particularly by expressing their loyalty to the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile since 1959 and whom most Tibetans are believed to regard as their spiritual and political leader—are subject to detention, torture in custody, and other arbitrary abuses.  Security agencies are quick to treat even minor expressions of discontent as a disguised form of nationalist or separatist sentiment.17

Despite guarantees enshrined in China’s constitution and its law on nationality autonomy, which mandate protections for ethnic minorities, Tibetans’ basic freedoms are chronically violated.  The media is almost wholly state-controlled, and there is no freedom of association.18 Tibetan civil servants are forbidden to practice their religion, and powerful political institutions, such as the Communist Party’s Lhasa Committee, are dominated by Han Chinese.19  In addition, institutional limitations imposed on the Tibetan language, religious practices, and other traditions, coupled with an influx of Han Chinese—the country’s dominant ethnic group—into Tibetan areas, particularly towns and along main roads, have created concerns amongst Tibetans that their separate identity and distinct culture may become insignificant or even vanish. Indeed, the government candidly admits its ambition to refashion the culture of ethnic minorities so as to further the assimilation of the regions they inhabit with the rest of China and defuse a perceived risk to China’s national integrity.  

In a landmark article published in January 2007 in the theoretical journal of the Communist Party, Li Dezhu—head of the government’s Ethnic Affairs Commission—called for renewed efforts toward the “cultural construction of a colorful and unique ethnic culture,” so as to protect China’s “cultural security” (wenhua anquan) and border stability. The article signals an important ideological shift from the traditional state discourse that emphasized the “preservation” of minority cultures. Instead, it clearly states the government ambition to refashion the cultures of ethnic minorities as part of an “advanced socialist culture” to strengthen “state interests”:

Most of China’s ethnic minorities inhabit border areas, and border areas have always been sensitive areas where different cultural and ethno-national ideologies blended and collided, and are the forefront of the infiltration of foreign culture. Western enemy forces are using economic globalization to step up cultural infiltration, and attempt to “westernize” and “divide” our ethnic areas. This constitutes a threat to China’s cultural security and border stability. Therefore … we must vigorously carry forward the fine traditional culture of ethnic minorities and effectively resist the infiltration of Western, negative and decadent cultures. It is an increasingly urgent and important task to consolidate and expand the advanced socialist culture to protect cultural security and state interests.20

Much of what has been written by environmentalists and anthropologists21 on the Tibetan and other ethnic minority herders in the present-day PRC emphasizes the perceptual schism between official and non-official thinking regarding the proper role of subsistence herders. From the official point of view, subsistence herders are seen as destitutes, and any step that gives them better access to the cash economy, road network, or urban housing is an improvement. For example, a recent media account described a local official in charge of a Chinese effort to start a meat-packing industry in Tibet, who stated that traditional herding practices have “contained the economic development in [the] region … [and] will have to be changed.”22 This view conflicts with those of some international scholars who have argued that Tibetan herders are efficient custodians of the high plateau grasslands and the most able managers of its fragile ecology.

China has consistently claimed that its policies in Tibetan areas and toward Tibetans are a function of the historical effort to “liberate” them from a theocratic feudal system, and to develop and modernize their economy and customs. 

Nationwide Land and Eviction Problems

Land disputes across China have skyrocketed over the past decade as a consequence of economic development. Forced evictions are increasingly a systematic problem across the country, for example in peri-urban areas to accommodate growth, and in rural areas for infrastructure development and construction. In Beijing populations of whole neighborhoods have been forced to relocate out of the capital as their homes are demolished to make way for new Olympic sites. According to official Chinese government reports, many of the 74,000 protests nationwide in 2004 were sparked by forced evictions.

These problems are particularly acute for rural Tibetans, given their relatively minimal access to the Chinese justice system, and their general dependence on land and undeveloped areas for their livelihood. It is telling that several older interviewees for this report recalled a historical precedent for mass rural resettlement by referencing Mao’s 1958 collectivization campaign in Qinghai.

Communities Described in this Report

All the people interviewed for this report were Tibetans from the Tibetan autonomous prefectures and counties of Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces, and from the TAR. 

An estimated 2.25 million Tibetan herders23 live with their herds in the northern and eastern regions of the plateau. They have a unique way of life, adapted to a harsh and challenging environment and reflected in their language, beliefs, and attitudes. They are traditionally more affluent and independent than the herders and farmers of the valleys, and have prospered more conspicuously through the partial reassertion of their way of life following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1980s, which promoted the establishment of a market, rather than a command, economy throughout the PRC. They have tended to resist attempts to commercialize production, however, especially the farming of animals principally for meat rather than dairy produce. Such activities go against not only their religious beliefs24 but also the well documented subsistence practice of maximizing herd size as an insurance against natural calamities, such as the devastating blizzards of 1997-98, which wiped out livestock in large numbers.25

Policies Affecting Tibetan Herders

The resettlements being reported from Tibetan areas of Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces and the TAR are to some extent connected to policies associated with the “Western Development” campaign, a national project designed to close the economic and infrastructure gap between the impoverished western interior and the rapidly-developing east coast. By the end of 2004 these policies had been applied to at least 7 million hectares of land throughout the western part of the country.26  Also at work are policies designed to preserve and promote economic advances locally and in China’s east.

A half century of policies undermining Tibetan herders’ livelihoods

Over the past 50 years several key policies have affected the Tibetan herders’ ability to maintain their livelihood. From 1957 to 1979 collective farming and herding practices imposed by the central government, rather than traditional methods of pasture management, led to famine, greatly degraded grasslands, and therefore put pressure on herders’ ability to sustain their herds.27 Under the “household responsibility system”—a key element of Deng’s early 1980s economic reforms, in which families were allowed to sell surplus produce and goods in open markets—Tibetan herders were granted custody, though not ownership, of state farmland or pasture. 

The 1985 Grasslands Law was adopted for the purposes of “improving the protection, management and development of grasslands and ensuring their rational use; protecting and improving the ecological environment; modernizing animal husbandry; enhancing the prosperity of the local economies of the nationality autonomous areas; and meeting the needs of socialist construction and the people’s life.”28 In effect, the law sought to concentrate and integrate pastoral production, to enable it to move from subsistence toward commodification. In the 1980s Chinese ecologists and policy makers became concerned about the degradation of grasslands in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, which also has a significant population of grassland herders. They attributed this degradation to overstocking by the herders, a view that has not been endorsed by all foreign scholars,29 and introduced policies requiring each household to fence off areas of pastureland. These were not seen by all scholars as effective.30 Subsequently, additional policies were introduced that set a quota for the number of animals that could be held by each herder, and compulsory livestock slaughter was brought in to meet these quotas. Compulsory resettlement of pastoral communities in Inner Mongolia was introduced in the 1990s.31

In the 1990s these policies were gradually introduced in Tibetan areas as well. For Tibetan herders, fencing the grassland into individualized plots represented a further constraint on herders’ right to livelihood and to key minority rights. The new policies were accompanied by shifts in the language used in state documents that articulated grassland policy. These increasingly referred to the benefits of fencing off pastureland, of “scientific” breeding, of the development of meat production for the market, and of sedentarization of mobile populations. Yet the underlying rationale remained, as per the 1985 Grasslands Law, to fix herd numbers on designated pasture land. Grassland fencing in particular has proved deeply unpopular, and led to an upsurge of local territorial conflicts over grazing rights, including major conflicts that have led to fatalities.32    

Recent policies with declared environmental and “scientific” objectives

Two policies put in place since 1999 are particularly relevant to understanding the current abuses. Both policies appear to have been designed for ecological purposes, but are reported to have been implemented in ways that are opaque and generally lack due process and compensation in Tibetan pastoral areas. The best known and most widely implemented was called “convert farmland to forest” (tuigeng huanlin).33 It envisaged tree planting on marginal farmland to reduce the threat of soil erosion, but in Tibetan areas it has been used to justify arbitrary land confiscation, requiring farmers both to provide labor and other inputs for tree planting, and to seek alternative livelihood.  The second policy, known as “revert pasture to grassland” (tuimu huancao), was aimed at reversing degradation in pastoral regions by imposing total, temporary, or seasonal bans on grazing.34 The largest area selected for a total ban was the Three Rivers Area (Sanjiangyuan) in Qinghai’s Golok (Guolou) and Yushu prefectures.  The ban led to compulsory resettlement and herd slaughter in Golok beginning in 2003. In other Tibetan pastoral areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and the TAR, less drastic measures such as reduction of herd numbers and state confiscation of pasture have been implemented in the same period.

The explicitly environmental turn in central government policy started with the forestry ban in the Yangtse catchment region following the 1998 floods in China,35 the first tacit official acknowledgement that deforestation in eastern Tibet since the 1960s had significantly increased the vulnerability of downstream regions to serious summer flooding.

In the local context, the policies present resettlement and livestock limitation as a necessary response to an environmental crisis of pasture degradation and overgrazing. Official policy has in essence blamed this crisis on the “backward” and “unscientific” behavior of Tibetan herders—language similar to that used to justify the “liberation” and “emancipation” of Tibetans in the 1950s. In the Communist Party’s terminology, the term “scientific” carries strong political undertones. An article on the economy of Qinghai Tibetan areas explains, “The concept of scientific development is distilled from the practical experience of China’s reform and opening building by the party’s central authorities.”36 The practical implication of this concept is that whoever opposes the policies of the party is “unscientific.”

“The education level of herders in our province is relatively low, they cannot scientifically cultivate land and raise livestock. They don’t know how to use fertilizer and chemicals, even less how to scientifically develop their household economy,” writes a typical study from the National Statistics Bureau.37

The most recent piece of relevant legislation, the revised 2003 Grassland Law, explicitly provides for the government’s right to radically limit herds and resettle people.38 In addition, it criminalizes any use of grasslands deemed to be “illegal,” a vague designation likely to discourage any violations.39 The constraints these policies impose, and the specificity of the people they affect, make it difficult for them not to be seen as opposed to herders and their way of life in general and opposed to Tibetans or Mongolians or other non-ethnic Chinese herding peoples in particular. Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch show that policies to divide and fence pastureland, to cut the size of herds, and to relocate herders to new housing have been intensified in these areas in recent years. This was reportedly presented in the name of “modernizing” the herders in order to “solve the difficulties of Tibetans.”40

Water management is central to the policies designed to preserve and promote economic advances locally and in China’s east.  The dual objectives are flood control and the maintenance of stable water levels for hydroelectric power generation. Interview with L.S., from Sanchu (Xiahe) county, Gannan prefecture of Gansu province told Human Rights Watch, “They said that if the Tibetan plateau is converted into forest it would decrease the risk of flooding in cities in China.”41 F.H., from Pema (Banma) county, Golok (Guolou) prefecture in Qinghai echoed this: “The [officials] said resettlement is to promote harmony between humans and nature, the policy of protecting and improving the physical environment of Golok prefecture should be implemented and flooding downstream should be brought under control.”42

Golok prefecture seems to have been targeted because it is at the source of the Machu (Yellow) river, protection of which has become a focus of national concern. F.R. described the reasons given for the so-called MaDriZaSum [Machu, Drichu, and Zachu] Rivers Source Protection Scheme, which had meant removal of herder families in Golok TAP (see also below):

The water flow of the [Yellow] river to the Lungyang hydroelectric station’s dam reservoir in the upper Machu area has decreased a lot.  Not only that, the water level of the Yellow river of Tibet is decreasing day by day and for the past few years the wet areas of the Yellow river source area in Mato county in Golok TAP have decreased …

The strength of the river source is depleted; the water flow in between Kyareng lake and Ngoreng lake has stopped six times and the water flow in some other streams has also been dry for the past half year.  Because of low flow of water in these rivers, many hydroelectric stations built by the Chinese government in Kham and Amdo region [most of Qinghai province and the western part of Sichuan province] cannot produce energy.43

F.R., from Qinghai, told Human Rights Watch that the Tibetan herders feel that they are being forced to resettle without reason, without due regard to their rights and in violation of them, in order to suit policy goals of the PRC administration.

That policy was announced in August or September 2003 … from the provincial government to Golok prefecture and then down to the counties and then down to the township level. Then the township leaders came to the pastoral areas to make the announcement. They said that the relocation of the [Tibetan herders] from the grasslands was in order to stop the erosion … of the source area of the Machu [Yellow river], and to protect the environment, and wasn’t this of benefit to the local [Tibetan herders] themselves? They said that they were protecting and monitoring the environment of the upper Machu in Qinghai, and they said the main thing is that the hydroelectric stations powered by the Machu can no longer produce electricity, which is causing hardship to the Chinese people who are the consumers, and so we the Tibetan [herders] have to leave our land.44

Even in areas where the environmental arguments for relocation are compelling, the Chinese government is still required to respect herders’ rights in determining, formulating and implementing solutions to environmental problems. Compounding alleged environmental crises with human rights abuses only worsens already fragile ecological and political situations in Tibetan areas of China.

17 See, for example, Human Rights Watch, Trials of a Tibetan Monk: The Case of Tenzin Delek, vol. 16, no. 1, February 2004,

18 See, for example, “China: Tibetan Intellectual’s Blogs Shuttered,” Human Rights Watch news release, October 9, 2006,

19 See, for example, “China: Fewer Tibetans on Lhasa’s Key Ruling Body,” Human Righs Watch news release, November 7, 2006,

20 Li Dezhu, “Vigorously developing ethnic minority culture - Actively promoting the building of a harmonious society,” Seeking Truth, Issue 446, January 1, 2007 [李德洙, “大力发展少数民族文化 积极推进和谐社会建设”, 是, 2007年第1期 ( 总446期)], (accessed February 19, 2007).

21 For a general bibliography, see On the disparagement of traditional herding knowledge by official science, see M. Fernandez-Giminez, "The role of ecological perception in indigenous resource management," Nomadic Peoples 33 1992; D.M. Williams, "Representations of nature on the Mongolian steppe: an investigation of scientific knowledge construction," American Anthropologist 102 (3) 2000; D. Miller, "Looking back to move ahead: integrating indigenous nomadic knowledge into the modern range profession" in China Society for Range Management 2001. See also M. Goldstein, C. Beall, R. Cincotta, "Traditional nomadic pastoralism and ecological conservation on Tibet's northern plateau," National Geographic Research, 6 (2) 1990; C. Richard and N. Wu, "Privatisation of rangeland and impacts on pastoral dynamics: the case of western Sichuan," in D. Eldridge, D. Freudenberger, eds., "People and rangelands: proceedings of the 6th International Rangelands conference, Townsville, Australia" July 19-23, 1999; D.M. Williams, "Grassland enclosures, Catalysts of Land Degradation in Inner Mongolia, Human Organisation, vol. 55, no. 3, 1996; "The barbed walls of China: a contemporary grassland dilemma," Journal of Asian Studies 55 (3) 1996; C. Richard, "The potential for rangeland management in Yak-rearing areas of the Tibetan plateau," in H. Jianlin, C.Richard, O.Hanotte, C. McVeigh, J.E.O. Rege, eds., "Proceedings of the 3rd International conference on the Yak, Lhasa, September 2000"; D. Sheehy, "Rangelands, land degradation and black beach: a review of research reports and discussions," in N. van Wageningen, S. Wenjin, eds., "The living plateau: changing lives of herders in Qinghai," International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (Icimod), Kathmandu, 2001 ; "The barbed walls of China: a contemporary grassland dilemma," Journal of Asian Studies, 55(3), 1996; Z. Yan, W. Ning, C. Richard, "Nomad people should be the major concern in grassland policy: a case study from the north-eastern Tibetan plateau," in C. Richard, K. Hoffmann, eds., "The changing face of pastoralism in the Hindukush Himalaya, Proceedings of an Icimod workshop in Lhasa, May 2002."

22 James T. Areddy, “On Other Fronts – Dispatch: Western frontier: China’s big push to stoke economy rattles Tibet,” The Wall Street Journal Europe, August 25, 2006.

23 “Resettled Tibetans ‘can’t live on charity forever’,” China Development Brief, May 1, 2006.

24 See, for example, Alexa Olesen, “Rural People Are Reluctant to Modernize,” Associated Press, November 12, 2006: “Lawang, the 23-year-old son of nomadic herders from Naqu, said his family doesn’t want to slaughter animals en masse, even for more money. Lawang said sheep and yaks are like family members, grazing close by the family’s tents and providing milk, wool and meat. ‘Once a year we slaughter some of our animals, but just as many as we need to,’ said Lawang, who, like many Tibetans, goes by one name. ‘And when we kill them, we cry and the animals cry too.’”

25 See, for example, R.B. Ekvall, “Tibetan nomadic pastoralists: environments, personality, ethos,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 118, no. 6, December 1974; M.C. Goldstein and C.M. Beall, “The impact of China’s reform policy on the nomads of western Tibet,” Asian Survey , 26:6, 1989; Ning Wu and C. Richard, “The privatization process of rangeland and it’s impacts on pastoral dynamics in the Hindu-Kush Himalaya: the case of western Sichuan, China,” in “6th International rangeland congress proceedings 1: 14-21” 1999; M. Nori, “Hoofs on the roof: pastoral livelihood on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. The case of Chengduo co., Yushu pref.,” ASIA 2004; D. Miller, “Restocking and pastoral development among Tibetan nomads after a severe winter on the Tibetan plateau in western China,” China Development Brief , vol. 1. No. 2, 1998; B. Horlemann, “Modernisation efforts in Golog: a chronicle 1970-2000,” in T. Huber, ed., Amdo Tibetans in transition, 2002.

26 “Resettled Tibetans can’t live on charity forever,” World Tibet Network News, May 5, 2006.

27 See International Commission of Jurists, “Tibet: human rights and the rule of law,” December 1997, p. 175: “Factors contributing to this degradation include compulsory collectivisation, imposition of production quotas and the ongoing state price fixing of herder products well below market rates, all failures of state policy. The combination of population explosion, command economy, collectivisation, and diminution of personal responsibility for environmental impacts, stifling of all dissent, artificially low prices for Tibetan timber and grassland produce, the availability of exploitable new frontier resources, and officially sponsored migration of Chinese into Tibet also help explain the steady degradation of the grasslands.”  See also J. Longworth and G. Williamson, China’s pastoral region: sheep and wool, minority nationalities, rangeland degradation and sustainable development (Oxford: University Press Books, 1993), p. 332:”The major blame is laid at the feet of policy. The policy environment in China since 1949 has created the incentives and uncertainties which have induced pastoralists to behave in an exploitative manner. Furthermore, the availability of modern technology has facilitated and intensified the ‘mining’ of natural pastures in China’s pastoral region.” See also Sheehy, “Rangelands, land degradation and black beach,” and J. Becker, Hungry Ghosts: China’s secret famine (London: John Murray, 1996).

28 “Grasslands Law of the People’s Republic of China,” art. 1 of the 1985 Grasslands Law, which was later updated in 2003, hence the 2003 Grasslands Law.

29 See Goldstein, Beall, Cincotta, ”Traditional nomadic pastoralism and ecological conservation on Tibet’s northern plateau.”

30 Williams, “Grassland Enclosures: Catalyst of Land Degradation in Inner Mongolia,” p. 307-312: “Since decollectivization, Chinese government policies have promoted household enclosures as the best solution to maximize pastoral productivity and control desert expansion in grassland areas.…Data and participant observation reveal that enclosures, as implemented through village level social context, actually compound grazing problems for most residents and the wider ecosystem.” (p. 307).

31 See, for example, D. Sheehy, “Grazing management strategies as a factor influencing ecological stability of Mongolian grasslands,” Nomadic Peoples 33 1993; D.M. Williams, Beyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese grasslands of Inner Mongolia, Stanford University Press 2002. The human rights aspect of ecological migration in Inner Mongolia were addressed by participants in a panel at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Chicago on April 3, 2005, chaired by Professor C. Atwood.  More information can be accessed via the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center website (www.smhric/hada/evict).

32 On local conflict in pastoral areas see E. Yeh, “Tibetan Range Wars: spatial politics and authority on the grasslands of Amdo,” Development and Change, 34 (3) 2003; biography of Dolkyar Kyap in HRW profiles vol. 2/5 September 1999; “Nomads killed in pasture fights,” Tibet Information Network June 21, 1999. Human Rights Watch interviews with B.U., from Machu County, Kanlho TAP prefecture, Gansu province, October 6, 2004; L.C., from Nyakrong county, Kandze TAP prefecture, Sichuan province, October 29, 2004; T.R., from Sogpo county, Qinghai province, October, 15 2004; K.B., from Dzoge county, Ngaba TAP prefecture, Sichuan province, June 17, 2005.

33 The State Council adopted the “Regulations on Reverting Pasture to Grassland” on December 6, 2002. See State Council Order No 367 “Regulations on Reverting Farmland to Forest,” adopted December 6, 2002, effective from January 2, 2003 [ 中华人民共和国国务院令 (第367号) : 《退耕还林条例》, 2002年12月6日国务院第66次常务会议通过,自2003年1月20日起施行], (accessed February 23, 2007).

34 “Notice on Transmitting to Lower Levels the Tasks for the  Reverting Pastures to Grassland Policy,” March 18, 2003 [”关于下达2003年退牧还草任务的通知”, 国西办农〔2003〕8号], (accessed February 23, 2007).

35 See “Yangtze Floods and the Environment: An August 1998 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing,”; and “China moves to curb deforestation,” Reuters, August 19, 1998.

36 “The concept of scientific development and the economy of Qinghai Tibetan areas,” Qinghai Finance, November 6, 2006 [“科学发展观与青海藏区经济”, 青海金融, 2006年11月6日], (accessed February 23, 2007).

37 National Bureau of Statistics of China, “Qinghai: How to strengthen the coordinated development of cities and countryside from the perspective of urban-rural economic disparities,” May 20, 2004 [中华人民共和国国家统计局, “青海:从城乡差距问题看如何加强城乡协调发展” 2004年05月20日], (accessed February 19, 2007).

38 Grasslands Law of 2003, art. 18, 45, and 48.

39 Grasslands Law of 1985, art. 63, 65, and 66.

40 Human Rights Watch interview with T.S., from Tarri (Darlak) county, Golok TAP (Guolou) prefecture, Qinghai province, January 21, 2005.

41 Human Rights Watch interview with L.S., from Sangchu (Xiahe) county, Gannan prefecture, Gansu province, January 2006.

42 Human Rights Watch interview with F.H., from Pema (Banma) county, Golok TAP (Guolou) prefecture, Qinghai province, January 16, 2006.

43 Human Rights Watch interview with F.R., from Machen (Maqin) county, Golok TAP (Guolou) prefecture, Qinghai province, November 24, 2004.

44 Human Rights Watch interview with F.R., from Machen (Maqin) county, Golok TAP (Guolou) prefecture, Qinghai, November 24, 2004.