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China: End Involuntary Rehousing, Relocation of Tibetans

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(New York) – The Chinese government is subjecting millions of Tibetans to a policy of mass rehousing and relocation that radically changes their way of life, and about which they have no say, Human Rights Watch said in a new report published today.

Since 2006, under plans to “Build a New Socialist Countryside” in Tibetan areas, over two million Tibetans have been “rehoused” – through government-ordered renovation or construction of new houses – in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), while hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders in the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau have been relocated or settled in “New Socialist Villages.”

The 115-page report, “‘They Say We Should Be Grateful’: Mass Rehousing and Relocation in Tibetan Areas of China,” documents extensive rights violations ranging from the absence of consultation to the failure to provide adequate compensation, both of which are required under international law for evictions to be legitimate. The report also addresses defects in the quality of the houses provided, absence of remedies for arbitrary decisions, failures to restore livelihoods, as well as a disregard for autonomy rights nominally guaranteed by Chinese law in Tibetan areas.

“The scale and speed at which the Tibetan rural population is being remodeled by mass rehousing and relocation policies are unprecedented in the post-Mao era,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Tibetans have no say in the design of policies that are radically altering their way of life, and – in an already highly repressive context – no ways to challenge them.”

The authorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region have announced plans to further rehouse and relocate more than 900,000 people by the end of 2014.In Qinghai province, on the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau, the authorities have relocated and settled 300,000 nomadic herders since the early 2000s, and have announced their intent to turn an additional 113,000 nomads into sedentary dwellers by the end of 2013.

The Chinese government asserts that all relocation and rehousing operations are entirely voluntary and respect “the will of the Tibetan farmers and herders.” It strongly denies that any forced evictions take place in the process, and suggests it is being culturally sensitive by stating that the design and appearance of the new houses suit “ethnic characteristics.” The government also claims that all those who have moved to new houses are satisfied and grateful for the improvement in their living conditions. While some Tibetans have genuinely welcomed aspects of the housing policies and benefited from them, many are concerned about their ability to maintain their livelihood over time. Most consider themselves targets of policies that they are powerless to oppose or affect.

Initial fears among Tibetans that the establishment of “New Socialist Villages” might be accompanied by increased government interference in their communities have proven well-founded. In 2011, the government announced that it had started to implement a plan to station new teams of official and party cadres in each of the 5,400 villages across the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). These new teams, who will “live, work, and eat together” with the villagers, are tasked with enforcing policies that establish a system of political surveillance and overtly violate basic civil, cultural, political, and religious rights of Tibetans. Since 2009, 119 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest of Chinese policies, triggering even more repressive policies from the government.

Tibetans coming from both farming and nomadic herding communities, interviewed by Human Rights Watch between 2005 and 2012, say that large numbers of people relocated or rehoused did not do so voluntarily, and that they were never consulted or offered alternatives. They say that many face financial difficulties as a result of having to move, reduce their herds, or demolish and reconstruct their houses. They claim that new settlements are sometimes inferior to the ones they previously inhabited, and that many pledges made to them by local officials to induce them to move have never materialized.

Official policy documents detailed in the report show that, contrary to official rhetoric, Tibetan households have to bear the greatest share of the overall cost of rebuilding their houses – up to 75 percent. One study from the central government claims that “for every yuan in governmental subsidies, households had to contribute 4.5 yuan themselves.” The financial implications of complying with government orders to renovate or rebuild housing go a long way in explaining why, in interviews with Human Rights Watch, Tibetans consistently expressed fears about their ability to sustain their livelihood in the future, and maintain their separate cultural identity.

“The Chinese government claims that it is bringing economic benefits to Tibetans by building modern ‘New Socialist Villages,’” Richardson said. “And while it may be true that some Tibetans have benefitted, the majority have simply been forced to trade poor but stable livelihoods for the uncertainties of a cash economy in which they are often the weakest actors.”

The Chinese government has deliberately obscured the full impact of its policies by refusing to allow any independent fact-finding investigations in Tibetan areas. Closed at the best of times to human rights investigations, access to the Tibetan plateau – especially to the TAR – has remained extremely limited for journalists, diplomats, academics, and even foreign tourists since the March 2008 protests and the ensuing crackdown. Yet analysis of open source satellite imagery reveals the magnitude of change faced by some Tibetan communities. In several cases, images show traditional villages entirely demolished, while a pre-planned “New Socialist Village” made of identical houses in parallel rows is erected nearby.

While the main justification for the rehousing and relocation policies in Tibetan areas have been economic, the Chinese government has also made clear that these policies are an integral part of larger political objectives such as combating ethno-national or “separatist” sentiment among Tibetans, and are designed to strengthen political control over the Tibetan rural population.

Despite their involuntary character and unequal outcomes, the central government is using rehousing and relocation policies in Tibetan areas as a template for relocating ethnic minority communities in other parts of the country. In June 2011, the central government instructed all provincial units, including Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu, and autonomous regions, including Inner-Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, to complete all ongoing relocation programs for hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders by the end of 2014.

Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to halt all projects involving mass relocation and rehousing, and allow an independent assessment of the design and impact on these policies, including by agreeing to long-standing requests by various United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteurs to visit.

Human Rights Watch said that defusing larger political tensions in Tibetan areas required that the Chinese government address long-standing grievances, and implement the PRC Autonomy Law in a way that actually devolves substantial policymaking power to Tibetans, including over economic and cultural matters, in line with relevant international legal standards.

“The fiction that Tibetans enjoy any kind of autonomy under Chinese rule is laid bare by mass rehousing and relocation policies in which they have no say,” Richardson said. “Forging ahead with mass relocation and rehousing programs in a broadly repressive environment will only fuel tensions and widen the rift between Tibetans and the Chinese state.”