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Managing and servicing the floating population a “key issue for security anddevelopment in the TAR”

[TIN] Tibet Update 26 September 2008


The Chinese authorities have created a management team to deal with the floating population in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). This initiative was taken in response to the social unrest that swept across Tibetan areas in spring 2008, particularly the ethnic riots in Lhasa on 14 March. It has been interpreted as an admission by the authorities that the riots were triggered by relentless migration from China. However, after careful analysis of official reporting, and consideration of existing long-term PRC policies and ground realities in the TAR, this interpretation appears ill founded. Far from acknowledging any policy errors, the authorities' rationale behind forming the team is to reaffirm existing policies and consolidate the position of mainland migrants in the TAR, many of who were traumatised by the recent unrest. The team will also assume a role in containing the floating population of young Tibetans, many of them migrants from rural regions, whose frustrations erupted in the events of 14 March. Both floating population groups, mainland migrants and rural Tibetan migrants, were assigned specific roles as entrepreneurs and labourers in the long-term plans drafted by the PRC authorities for the TAR. Beyond that, mainland migrants also play a crucial role in providing a stabilising population within the restive Tibetan environment. Rather than a change of policy then, this new management drive represents further state intervention in the aftermath of the events of spring 2008.

It is the official policy of the PRC to facilitate a more or less controlled flow of non-Tibetans, mainly Chinese (Han) and Chinese Muslims (Hui) into Tibetan regions. They are expected to bring practical and entrepreneurial skills (qualities perceived to be lacking among Tibetans) and so, it is believed, trigger economic development in the region. The authorities also have few illusions about Tibetans' allegiance to central government and therefore see the mainlanders as constituting a core of loyalty to the state. The role of these non-Tibetan migrants draws parallels to that of the pioneers in the mid-19th century American 'Go West' movement from which features of China's Western Development Drive (Ch: xibudakaifa) are believed to have been derived.

The events of spring 2008 left many mainland migrants traumatised and deeply insecure and a number of them, mainly Chinese, left Lhasa within a few weeks of the riots, while others expressed their intention to leave, dependent on guarantees for their security. Ironically, the authorities' policy of aggressively disseminating graphic material about the single day of violent rioting might also have backfired and generated a dissuasive effect on potential newcomers.

Rural Tibetans have also been encouraged to move to cities for many years. For instance, a government work unit's report to Lhasa City’s People's Congress, dated 01 April 2003, mentioned "development of (...) emigration" from rural areas into urban areas as one of its key objectives. It states: "More rural workers should be sent out to the urban centres", and even makes urbanisation of the rural population a development indicator. The justification for facilitating migration from rural areas is "to expand the labour economy" for industrial development, and making use of a rural labour force that is seen as unproductive by the authorities. Farmers and nomads who are to "be encouraged to settle in towns and cities" are expected to "find jobs or engage in business" there.

However, the reality of development in Tibet is that while migrants from the mainland can gain access to and benefit from government subsidies to develop their businesses, most of the Tibetan floating population remains jobless and forms a new underclass in cities, particularly in the Tibetan capital. These Tibetans, mostly young people from eastern Tibetan rural regions, often survive in appalling conditions and, with many virtually homeless, inevitably get involved in illegal activities. At the same time, a deep resentment against incomers from China, who occupy the few jobs available, has been developing among them. Despite numerous warnings from Chinese sociologists, nothing was done over the years to address the situation and the Tibetans' frustration finally erupted against mainlanders, resulting in the ugly scenes of 14 March. The new migration management drive appears to correct these undesirable developments by placing the floating population under closer supervision of the state.

The newly created floating population management team is headed by Wang Yibing, the secretary of the TAR Legal and Political Committee, who is also secretary and head of the TAR Public Security Bureau (PSB). His deputy is Baima Chiling, an ethnic Tibetan (Tib: Pema Tsering), who is also the first vice chairman of the autonomous region. Both are high regional leaders and members of the standing committee of the TAR branch of the Communist Party.

The first meeting of the leading group for the (Tibet) Autonomous Region floating population service and management work (Chin: zizhiqu liudong renkou fuwu he guanli gongzuo lingdao xiaozu) was held in Lhasa on 02 September 2008. TAR deputy Party secretary Zhang Yijiong delivered the keynote address. According to a Tibet Daily report, Zhang stressed the importance of floating populations for the development and stability of the TAR and hence the need to provide them with proper services and adequate management. The aim of the new policy priority, he said, is to "vigorously create good environmental conditions for the floating population to work and live in Tibet [Autonomous Region]". Wang Yibing added: "We must adjust our working thoughts, enhance the guarantee system of the floating population's lawful rights and interests, so that they can live and work in peace and contentment [(Chin: anju leye)] better than ever". Zhang Yijiong also said the 'floating population' is "an important force in building a better-off, peaceful and harmonious Tibet [(meaning the TAR)], and hence all local party committees need to show leadership and government departments should take greater control interest in the floating populations, including protecting their legal rights and benefits, treating them equally, and providing rational guidance" and better public services. Wang Yibing emphasised that they must be helped to solve practical problems, and that protection of their rights and their sense of safety must be reinforced (obviously referring to the attacks on Chinese people and their properties on 14 March).

While these statements are obviously aimed at reassuring mainland migrants, other comments seem to refer more specifically to the Tibetan migrants. Wang Yibing spoke about the need to "reinforce management on public security, [and] target the criminal activities hiding within the migration community". In the afternoon of 02 September, the team visited and "gave guidance" to the Lhasa municipal office for the 'floating population', and also the housing rental agency.

In the speeches, the security and stability aspects were repeatedly emphasised. Zhang Yijiong, for example, pointed out that all Tibetan local governments and departments need to take "a strategic view of maintaining homeland unity, national security and Tibet stability". And the presence of Wang Yibing, the leader of the PSB, and, next to Qing Yizhi, vice-chairman of the TAR government and secretary of the Lhasa Communist Party, of the deputy commissar of the Tibet military region, Zhang Shipin, further reinforced this theme.




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