Ethnic Tibetans living in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other remote areas are experiencing difficult times. A shopping mall is being built directly in front of the iconic Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa. With a modern train system, millions of tourists, and a variety of economic development projects the visual landscape of old Tibet is being erased within our lifetime. To be sure this is progress for some, but it is not without a social and cultural cost.
China is home to the Han people, as well as 55 ethnic minority groups that comprise about 8.5 per cent of China’s population. While this number seems fathomable, the scale of anything when it comes to China seems beyond measure. Almost 114 million of China’s 1.344 billion people are ethnic minorities living in one of the “ethnic autonomous regions.” These regions occupy about 60 per cent of the land mass of the country. So you have a large part of the country sparsely populated by ethnic minorities.
The Chinese government says it is helping to bring economic development to improve the lives of ethnic minorities and the environment in this remote area of the world. However, as The Indigenous World Report 2013 notes, there is also a negative impact:
“From the perspective of economic standards, progress has been made, and with noticeable results. The Chinese government is continually implementing infrastructure, education, poverty alleviation and community development programs, mostly in the hinterland regions. Through these efforts, ethnic minority peoples have seen a rise in their income levels and improvements in living standards. On the other hand, the emphasis on economic development and infrastructure construction has caused damage to the region’s natural environment. Most of the derived economic benefits and revenue generation go to government agencies and businesses, while it is largely the ethnic minorities who have to bear the consequences, including the destruction of traditional community landscapes and the hastened disappearance of ethnic cultures.”
There appear to be two drivers for the aggressive change in policy towards the people in Tibet, as well as the other cultural minorities. One is economic development and access to resources such as water and minerals. The other is a desire to erode ethnic identities in order to promote a Chinese national identity and thus suffocate local demands for autonomy or secession, as was the case for the former Soviet Union. Fear, either real or imagined, has been used to secure sweeping change and maintain stability and social order.
The recently released Human Rights Watch report, “They Say We Should Be Grateful,” describes the two main policies the Chinese government has put into effect in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other areas: the Comfortable Housing Policy and the Environmental Migration Policy.
“According to official figures, under the Comfortable Housing policy, 2 million people — more than two-thirds of the entire population of the [Tibetan Autonomous Region] — were moved into new houses or rebuilt their own houses between 2006 and 2012. Twenty percent of those rehoused between 2006 and 2010 — about 280,000 people — had to be relocated, some nearby and others at a great distance. The government intends to rehouse 180,000 more by 2015.
In Qinghai province, on the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau, the government has relocated and settled 300,000 nomadic herders since the early 2000s under ‘Environmental Migration’ schemes, and has said it intends to sedentarize 113,000 more by the end of 2013. By then, 90 percent of the herder population of the province will have been sedentarized. A chief aspect of the policy regarding herder communities, and one that upsets many Tibetans because of its impact on Tibetan culture, is that many of those rehoused or relocated have been sedentarized, moved off the land and into permanent structures.”
Considering the scale and speed of implementation of these policies, it is not hard to imagine why the Tibetan people rose up in protest in 2008. The government response was swift and hard. There was a massive influx of military troops in the region, constant monitoring of people in urban areas by police and party cadres, and the posting of permanent party cadres inside Buddhist monasteries. Surveillance is constant.
Attempts to criticize the government programs are dealt with by arrest and detention. It has been reported that while some of the new housing projects were originally offered as aid, Tibetans were later told they were required to pay large sums of money to take possession. On June 12, 2012, the Ngaba County People’s Court sentenced two Tibetans to two- and three-year sentences for refusal to accept the keys to their new homes.
What is perhaps most disheartening about this story is it seems so familiar to me as a Canadian: persecution of technologically less advanced minority populations because they happen to be located on land that the majority wants to reap profits from, and a fear of uprising that would require a level of violence outside acceptable international limits to quell the perceived threat — although if we think of Syria, these limits may be questionable.
So sophisticated governments turn to sophisticated means to limit internal dissent and international criticism. While we may have advanced from the days of the Spanish Inquisition and rule by threat of beheading and the gruesome torture practices of drawing and quartering or spike-ridden coffins, as a species we are still focused on retaining power at all costs. It seems like such an incredible waste of time, energy, and talent.
For additional insights please see:
Human Rights Watch, "They Say We Should Be Grateful"
The Indigenous World 2013
France 24 report, Seven Days in Tibet