Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia have sparked protests from local ethnic Mongolian herding communities as they launch a massive demolition project, bulldozing houses and pasture without warning, rights groups and herders said.
Government officials in Alshaa Left and Right Banners and Eznee Banner launched the demolition program after the New Year, evicting herding families without warning and tearing down their houses with bulldozers, a U.S.-based rights group reported on its website.
Ruling Chinese Communist Party leaders in Alshaa Right Banner announced the demolitions there as part of a "renovation" project targeting buildings "at risk of collapse," according to documents posted to the website of the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC).
Demolition has already begun in dozens of villages inhabited by herding communities in the Banner, a county-like division, it said.
Ethnic Mongolian rights activist Xinna confirmed the evictions started a few days ago.
"The herders had never previously seen any documents relating to the forced evictions and demolitions," she said. "The leader of their gachaa [group of villages] had tried to talk to them about it, but not one of them agreed to it because they had a problem with the level of compensation."
"Nobody told them that this would happen [on this date]. They just showed up and started demolishing their homes."
Nowhere to go
An Alshaa herder told RFA that the evicted families have nowhere to go.
"We are just coming up to [lunar] New Year, and they are demolishing people's houses. Nobody would want that," the herder said, adding that local people aren't against the "upgrade" plan as a whole.
"They just don't want their houses demolished and themselves forcibly evicted."
The herder said the government is paying six yuan per square foot of lost dwelling space, and that herders lack skills to live a more urban life.
"What do they expect herders to do in the towns? They don't know how to do anything [but herding]."
Germany-based ethnic Mongolian activist Xi Haiming, who is known as Temcheltu in Mongolian, said ethnic Mongolians in China have gradually had all of their rights stripped away by the government.
"At least they still had their land," Xi said. "The authorities could ban grazing and tear down their homes, but at least they had their land."
"Now, the land is being taken away from them as well."
The evictions are part of a three-year "upgrade" program by the Inner Mongolia regional government which aims to demolish buildings "at risk of collapse," guarantee safe drinking water, and "urbanize" rural communities.
The plan also aims to deliver higher "hygiene standards," deliver electricity, radio, and television to all areas, and improve local schools, SMHRIC said.
It will also include the setting up of "cultural centers" and "convenient supermarket chains" in rural villages, the documents cited by SMHRIC said.
It also aims to speed up the urbanization of traditional ethnic Mongolian herding communities, offering lump sum payouts of around 10,000 yuan (U.S.$1,500) per household.
Alshaa Left Banner herder Tuyaa told SMHRIC that the herding communities not yet affected are getting ready to resist the demolition gangs:
"This is our ancestral land," Tuyaa said. "We have every right to live on our own land."
And local herder Dambaa said the "upgrade" program is something closer to ethnic cleansing.
"This is nothing but a decisive move by the Chinese to wipe out our pastoralist culture and way of life through urbanization," SMHRIC quoted Dambaa as saying.
"The heart of Mongolian culture and identity is pastoralism. Once our pastoralism is wiped out, naturally we will cease to exist as a distinct people," Dambaa said.
The latest evictions come after dozens of ethnic Mongolians took to the streets of Eznee's Banner town on horse- and camel-back in protest at encroachments on their traditional grazing lands last month.
According to SMHRIC, Alshaa has seen the growing expropriation of grasslands and extraction of mineral resources, which has devastated the region's underground water system and destroyed fragile local ecosystems.
It blamed expanding Chinese mines and encroaching Chinese settlers for "threatening the very existence of the unique culture of Mongolian camel herders" in the region.
Meanwhile, herders in Bayaanmu township of Ordos prefecture clashed with factory employees after they staged a pollution protest outside the Shengda Chemical plant near their homes.
Local environmental officials had already ordered it closed after it was found to be polluting the local water supply, but it later restarted in spite of the order, which followed 11 years of complaints from local residents, herders told RFA.
Two people were injured in the clashes, according to the wife of one of the injured men, Qiqige.
"We have had pollution here for more than 10 years, and we only rose up in protest when there was no other option left to us," Qiqige said on Monday, following Saturday's clashes at the Shengda plant.
"The government didn't respond to our protests, so we went to the factory to protest instead," she said. "But they don't care about the herders in the police station. The police only think of protecting the factory."
"When the factory employees were done beating up the herders, they took them not to hospital but to the police station to take a statement," Qiqige said.
"After that, they wouldn't take them to the hospital. We had to go by public transport," she said.
Beaten during dispute
Fellow herder Huari said she had been dragged from a vehicle and beaten during the dispute.
"They beat me up, and my head and back and belly all hurt," Huari said.
"The chemical factory continues to belch out white fumes in the middle of the night. They do it after midnight."
"I get such a headache from the smell that I can't sleep," she said.
Local people said they are now forced to drink bottled water to avoid the pollution that has seeped into the ground water in the area around the plant.
Reported by Qiao Long and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.