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Beijing Reengineers Tibet

By Jerry Guo

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

China is known for throwing money at problems, nowhere more so than Tibet. After the street riots in Lhasa two years ago, fueled in large part by Tibetans who had moved to the city from rural areas, Beijing launched a massive social-engineering project to keep the restive countryside quiet. The "comfortable housing program" set aside $500 million to offer 230,000 households--three quarters of Tibet's rural population--heavy inducements to move to new state-built housing, often in entirely new villages. The offer included grants of up to $1,500, zero-interest mortgages with no payments for up to two years, and so much pressure to buy that the program may only add to rural unrest.

It's not clear how many households have moved, but hundreds of brand-new villages have been built. Critics say that local party apparatchiks have forced villagers to resettle, regardless of ability to pay. Now that the two-year grace period is coming to an end, many villagers are scrambling to make mortgage payments, a task made tougher if they have been relocated to new villages with no jobs. Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, says "comfortable housing" is a euphemism for forced resettlement of Tibet's million-plus nomads into fixed villages, where they can be more easily monitored. "It wipes out the possibility of continuing their culture," says Barnett. "They live in Potemkin villages where it's hard to see how they will be able to make money." And hard to see how comfortable housing can prevent future riots.

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