Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans forced to relocate, report says

Chinese officials promised a better life, but that’s proved untrue.
By Tenzin Dickyi, Lobsang, Dorjee Damdul and Pelbar for RFA Tibetan
2024.05.21
Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans forced to relocate, report says A Chinese Communist Party deputy secretary of Gonjo county visits a Tibetan household to persuade the residents to agree to the proposed relocation of their village, in Sa-ngen in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, March 2024.
Gongjue Pioneers/WeChat account via HRW

UPDATED at 9:35 P.M. ET on 05-28-2024

For the past seven years, Tashi and his once-nomadic family have been living in the outskirts of Tibet’s capital Lhasa after they were forcibly moved from their ancestral home in the grasslands of Tibet.

They had made a living raising yaks and other livestock and engaging in sustainable farming in Damxung county, located two hours away by road from Lhasa, until they and others were forced to move to Lhasa’s Kuro Bridge area, promised “improved living conditions” by Chinese authorities.

But in reality, they have faced joblessness, economic hardship and social exclusion ever since.

“All our farmlands in Damxung were confiscated by the government under the guise of development projects,” said Tashi, whose name has been changed for safety reasons. “Having grown up in the village without any education, it is extremely difficult for us to find jobs and make a living in the city.”

An official ceremony in August 2023 celebrates the mass relocation of 6,000 herders to Xiangheyuan, a multistory development where there is no available land for herders to use, in  Nagqu in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, August 2023. (Wumatang Township government, Dangxiong County, Nagqu, TAR via HRW)
An official ceremony in August 2023 celebrates the mass relocation of 6,000 herders to Xiangheyuan, a multistory development where there is no available land for herders to use, in Nagqu in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, August 2023. (Wumatang Township government, Dangxiong County, Nagqu, TAR via HRW)

Their story exemplifies the forced relocation of more than 700,000 Tibetans since 2016 in the Tibetan Autonomous Region under supposed poverty-reduction measures, according to a 71-page report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch.

Of that total number uprooted, 567,000 people lived scattered across the region and another 140,000 people lived in 500 villages.

The report,“‘Educate the Masses to Change their Minds’: China’s Coercive Relocation of Rural Tibetans,” is based on information from over 1,000 official Chinese media articles between 2016 and 2023, government publications and academic field studies.

Threats and harassment

According to official press reports, local officials used coercion and other extreme forms of persuasion to pressure villagers and nomads to agree to relocation. They claimed the moves were voluntary and would improve livelihoods and protect the environment.

Their tactics included repeated home visits, disparaging the villagers’ intellectual capacity to make decisions, implicit threats of punishment and the cutoff of essential services such as electricity and water. 

A Tibetan villager makes a fingerprint on an official document, agreeing to be relocated to Sinpori, a mass resettlement site 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Lhasa, capital of western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, in an undated photo. (Poverty Alleviation Office, Anduo County, Nagqu, TAR via HRW)
A Tibetan villager makes a fingerprint on an official document, agreeing to be relocated to Sinpori, a mass resettlement site 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Lhasa, capital of western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, in an undated photo. (Poverty Alleviation Office, Anduo County, Nagqu, TAR via HRW)

The officials also provided misleading information that said the moves would offer employment opportunities and higher incomes, the report said.

“The Chinese government says that the relocation of Tibetan villages is voluntary, but official media reports contradict this claim,” Maya Wang, HRW’s acting China director, said in a statement.

“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.”

The human rights group urged Beijing to suspend relocations in Tibet and conform with Chinese laws and standards and international law concerning relocations and forced evictions.

Satellite imagery shows the Sinpori resettlement site 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Lhasa, capital of western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Dec. 25, 2020. (Google Earth via HRW)
Satellite imagery shows the Sinpori resettlement site 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Lhasa, capital of western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Dec. 25, 2020. (Google Earth via HRW)

Senior authorities put pressure on local officials to carry out the relocations as non-negotiable policies, threatening disciplinary action against local officials who failed to meet targets, the report said.

Labeled separatists

Tashi, who was forcibly moved to Lhasa, said he told Chinese officials they didn’t want to move. “But Chinese authorities accused us of disobeying national orders and labeled us as separatists,” he said.

Many like Tashi were forced to sell their herd in a hurry after the Chinese government ordered the relocations.

“The order to relocate came so suddenly and we couldn’t disobey, [so] we had to sell our herds in a rush, leaving us with nothing,” a Tibetan nomad told Radio Free Asia. “Ever since we moved to Lhasa, we have never been happy.”

Tibetan villagers demolish their former houses in Tanggu Xiang, Lhundrup, in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, June 2021. (Tanggu township government, Linzhou County, Lhasa TAR via HRW)
Tibetan villagers demolish their former houses in Tanggu Xiang, Lhundrup, in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, June 2021. (Tanggu township government, Linzhou County, Lhasa TAR via HRW)

He said that the houses provided by the Chinese government are very small and crowded, with large families of 10 or so members living in only two to three rooms, forcing some to sleep in tents on verandas, he said. 

When the relocated Tibetans sought jobs in restaurants, they were told they were not hygienic enough, he said. 

“Self-employment is out of reach, and we can’t even get cleaning jobs in restaurants,” he added.

Rooted to the land

Elaine Pearson, director of HRW’s Asia Division, told RFA that relocations have occurred both across the Tibetan Autonomous Region and in Tibetan-populated areas in Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. 

“It’s important to note that forced relocations do happen across China, and they aren’t unique to Tibet,” she said. 

“Tibetans have a particular connection with the land and their livelihoods, and they lose that connection if they are forced to move,” she added.

 

County officials announce a relocation policy to Tibetans in Mindu township, Gonjo, in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, December 2018. (WeChat account Internet Information Gongjue via HRW)
County officials announce a relocation policy to Tibetans in Mindu township, Gonjo, in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, December 2018. (WeChat account Internet Information Gongjue via HRW)

The Chinese government says relocations are poverty alleviation measures and that the new locations are ecologically sound, so that affected Tibetans can improve their livelihoods by relocating, Pearson said.

“But in reality, that hasn’t been the case because many of the people are pastoralists, and they live off the land, but when they move to more urban-like areas, the work options are different [and] they would need to speak Chinese rather than Tibetan,” she added. 

Pearson also said the United Nations should be pushing for unfettered access to Tibetan regions, which has not occurred for many years.

The rights group wants the U.N. Human Rights Council to set up an independent investigation into human rights violations across China, including these violations in Tibet, she said. 

Local officials visit a relocation site to check occupancy in Drubarong township, Markham county, in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, September 2023. (WeChat account Zhubalong on the Jinsha River via HRW)
Local officials visit a relocation site to check occupancy in Drubarong township, Markham county, in western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, September 2023. (WeChat account Zhubalong on the Jinsha River via HRW)

“China’s coercive mass displacement of Tibetans destroys the Tibetan way of life and culture under the misleading policy labels of ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘ecology protection,’” said Tencho Gyatso, president of Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.

Tibetans have lived on the Tibetan Plateau for thousands of years and have adapted genetically and socially to how best to live and protect the high-altitude environment. 

“China’s reckless relocation policy and programs are pulling apart Tibetan society, its ancient culture and its environmental best practices,” Gyatso said.

Additional reporting by Tashi Wangchuk, Tenzin Pema and Dolma Lhamo for RFA Tibetan. Edited by Tenzin Pema of RFA Tibetan and by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

The story has been updated and corrected to show that "hundreds of thousands," not "more than 700,000" have been forced to relocate.

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Wangchuk
May 22, 2024 05:35 PM

Forced relocation and forced assimilation are not only illegal human rights violations, they are also evidence of genocide when it comes to ethnic minorities or ethnic groups occupied by foreign/colonial powers like China. The PRC should held accountable under int'l law for genocide against the Tibetan people.