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China using extreme pressure and threats to force Tibetan villagers abandon their homeland, coercive ‘resettlement’ eroding cultural identity of locals: Report

Following the dictates from Chinese higher officials, the local officials exhibit no flexibility in implementation at the local level and use every means possible to obtain 100% agreement from rural Tibetans to relocate.

China has accelerated the mass exodus of Rural Tibetans – villagers, nomads and herders – on the pretext of “poverty alleviation” and environmental protection since 2016, a recently published report by Human Rights Watch has revealed. While the Chinese authorities claim that these “relocations” are voluntary, the report claims otherwise. It highlights how China has been using extreme pressures to force Rural Tibetans to give “consent” to these relocation measures. 

The HRW has released a 71-page report after analysing over 1,000 Chinese state media reports, government publications and corroborations by Tibetans. It also includes three case studies including video footage. It details how Chinese officials use various ‘methods’ and ‘arguments’ to obtain the “consent” of residents to relocate their villages. The HRW report, titled, “Educate the Masses to Change Their Minds –China’s Forced Relocation of Rural Tibetans” was released this week on 21st May. 

According to China’s official data, more than 930,000 Tibetans in rural areas have been relocated since 2000. An alarming 76% of these relocations occurred after 2016. Since 2016, officials in the Tibet Autonomous Region have relocated or are currently relocating 500 villages with over 140,000 residents to new locations, often hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from their homes. 

The Chinese authorities call this “whole-village relocation” program. The report highlights that it amounts to forced eviction (forced mass exodus) and is in violation of international law. While the Chinese government claims that relocation is ‘voluntary’, Tibetans are barred from returning to their former homes. According to the report, officials put pressure and threaten rural Tibetans not just to relocate but also to demolish their current homes within a year of relocating. 

According to the report, this makes rural, unskilled Tibetans who were dependent on agriculture and allied activities, and who lived a nomadic lifestyle, become economically indebted to Chinese authorities and forced to do labour to earn a living after ‘voluntary relocation.’

Even surveys conducted by official scholars at relocation sites in Tibet found that many relocated individuals “cannot find suitable jobs to support their families” and that “satisfaction with relocation is low.” A 2014 review of an earlier relocation program in eastern Tibet revealed that even after 10 years, 69% of relocatees were still facing financial difficulties, and 49% wished they could return to their original homes on the grasslands.

China claims there is mass popular wish to relocate, report list extreme pressures that Chinese officials are using to coerce Tibetans

The Chinese government documents claim that there is a “mass, popular wish” to relocate because of unsustainable ecological conditions in a particular location. They make misleading claims that these relocations, done under coercion by authorities, will “improve people’s livelihood” and “protect the ecological environment.”

The 2018 White Paper on Poverty-Alleviation Relocation claimed that in all cases, “the poor have a strong desire to relocate, but are unable to relocate due to their own abilities and income levels.” It concluded by stating that in these programs “the Chinese government complies with the people’s desire for a better life.”

The acting China director at Human Rights Watch, Maya Wang said, “The Chinese government says that the relocation of Tibetan villages is voluntary, but official media reports contradict this claim. Those reports make clear that when a whole village is targeted for relocation, it is practically impossible for the residents to refuse to move without facing serious repercussions.”

Wang added, “The mass relocations of rural Tibetan villages are severely eroding Tibetan culture and ways of life.” 

According to the report, as per the Chinese government policy in Tibet, every household in every village that is targeted has to give consent to relocation. The Human Rights Watch found multiple references in Chinese media that showed Tibetan villagers were initially reluctant to relocate. 

In one instance, 200 out of 262 households in a village in Nagchu Municipality initially resisted relocating to a site nearly 1,000 kilometers away. However, the government asserted that everyone eventually agreed to move “voluntarily.” According to the Chinese officials, they get success in getting total consent because of “publicity work” and “door-to-door ideological work” carried out by their officials. 

(A Chinese Communist Party deputy secretary of Gonjo county visits households to pressurise them to give consent to proposed relocation program in Sa-ngen, Tibet Autonomous Region, March 2024, Image Source – Human Rights Watch)

According to the report, higher-level authorities routinely characterize the relocation program as a “non-negotiable”, “politically critical policy” coming straight from the national capital, Beijing, or from Lhasa, the regional capital. Following the dictates from Chinese higher officials, the local officials exhibit no flexibility in implementation at the local level and use every means possible to obtain 100% agreement from rural Tibetans to relocate.

(A Tibetan villager giving consent to be relocated to Sinpori, a mass resettlement site 60 kilometers southwest of Lhasa. Image Source – Human Rights Watch)
(Google Earth image showing Sinpori mass resettlement site, December 25, 2020. Image Source – Human Rights Watch)

For this, Chinese government officials are systematically using extreme forms of pressure to coerce rural Tibetans into relocating from their long-established villages. These methods include persistent assurances of economic benefits, intrusive home visits, denigrating their intellectual ability and capacity to make decisions different from those of the officials, denigrating Tibetan culture and beliefs, and implicit threats of cutting essential services like water and electricity.

It also includes intrusive home visits and after each time, officials of increasing seniority visit families repeatedly at their homes putting pressure on them to give their “consent”.  They openly threaten villagers who don’t give consent. They accuse them of “spreading rumors” and direct officials to crack down on such actions “swiftly and resolutely” which means initiation of administrative and criminal penalties against such residents. 

Additionally, they lure villagers to relocate by claiming economic betterment, but each targeted village has to reach a ‘consensus decision.’ Therefore, if some individual Tibetan households are hesitant to opt-out, additional peer pressure is imposed on them. 

(Official ceremony in August 2023, celebrating the mass relocations of 6,000 herders to Xiangheyuan. Image Source – Human Rights Watch)

The Chinese government’s efforts to assimilate Tibetan education, culture, and religion, along with relocating rural communities, severely damage Tibetan culture and lifestyle. These programs move farmers and pastoralists to areas where they can’t continue their traditional work, forcing them to become wage laborers in other industries.

Furthermore, in 2016 China’s 13th Five-Year Plan began and since then, Chinese authorities in Tibetan areas have been carrying out five main relocation programs, four of which take place in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). 

Another relocation program is known as “individual household relocation”. Under this program, Chinese officials force ‘poorer households’ to relocate to sites which according to them are more suitable for income generation. Since 2016, it has forcibly relocated 567,000 people under this program in the occupied territories of Tibet.

Apart from relocation, the Chinese government is also subjugating the Tibetan population to adopt Sedentarization – The process by which a nomadic group transitions to a lifestyle of living in one place. Since 2000, 3.36 million rural Tibetans have been affected by other government programs which have forced them to rebuild their houses and adopt a sedentary way of life if they were nomads.

(Google Earth images from March 2009 to December 2022 show extent of urbanisation of the Sangmo village area in Tolung Dechen District as China is trampling nomadic lifestyle of Tibetans and economically subjugating them. Image Source – Human Rights Watch)

Under another relocation program called “Extremely High Altitude Relocation”, the Chinese governments have forced even Rich Tibetans to relocate.  

The Human Rights Watch had earlier also highlighted the concerns of Rural Tibetans and how China has been taking steps to accelerate mass exodus of Tibetans. Earlier in 2007, HRW published a report titled, “No One Has the Liberty to Refuse”. Likewise, in 2013, it released a second report which was titled, “They Say We Should Be Grateful” which highlighted the increasing evidence of settlement and sedentarization of Tibetan herders.

Between 2017 and 2021, the Chinese officials also ran another relocation program, “Construction of Well-off Villages in the Border Areas of the TAR”. It relocated Tibetans and other local ethnic groups to newly built or reconstructed villages along Tibet’s borders to protect China from “infiltration” by “anti-China forces” in neighbouring Himalayan countries. Official media reports state that 241,835 people were “involved” in the program, but they do not specify how many were actually relocated.

Tibet has been under the illegal occupation of China for over 60 years and it has refused to negotiate with Tibetan leaders since 2010. The Chinese government describes Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lamai as a “separatist” seeking independence for Tibet, a claim denied by the Dalai Lama. 

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Paurush Gupta
Paurush Gupta
Proud Bhartiya, Hindu, Karma believer. Accidental Journalist who loves to read and write. Keen observer of National Politics and Geopolitics. Cinephile.

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