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China Moves 250,000 Tibetans To New 'socialist villages'

One year into a massive re-housing program, China aims to transform an ancient region.

By TIM JOHNSON
McClatchy Newspapers

"I think it's phenomenally successful, more than I would've believed."

Melvyn C. Goldstein, an expert on Tibet

ZENGSHOL, Tibet | The Chinese government has relocated some 250,000 Tibetans - nearly one-tenth of the population - from scattered rural hamlets to new "socialist villages."

The massive campaign, which recalls the socialist engineering of an earlier era, includes an order requiring the Tibetans to build new housing largely at their own expense and without their consent.

The government calls the year-old project the "comfortable housing program," and its stated aim is to present a more modern face for this ancient region, which China has controlled since 1950.

It claims that the new housing, located on main roads, sometimes only a mile from previous homes, will enable small farmers and herders to have access to schools and jobs, as well as better health care and hygiene.

But the broader aim seems to be remaking Tibet - a region with its own culture, language and religious traditions - in order to have firmer political control over its population.

A vital element in the strategy is to displace a revered leader, the Dalai Lama, now 71, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for advocating resistance to the communist government. The government hopes to replace him after he dies with a state-appointed successor, and in the meantime it's opened the gates of Tibet to greater numbers of ethnic Han Chinese and tightened control of religious activity.

China is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into road-building and development projects in Tibet, boosting the economy, maintaining a large military presence and keeping close tabs on the citizenry through a vast security apparatus of cameras and informants on urban streets and in the monasteries.

Some Tibetans, including farmers interviewed in the village of Zengshol, say they're happy to be in better quarters than their primitive, ancestral homes of mud brick. In other villages, Chinese escorts prevented a visiting reporter from speaking with residents. On several trips outside Lhasa last month, a McClatchy reporter traversed 800 miles of roads and witnessed the forced transformation of the countryside.

In the new settlements, cookie-cutter houses line the roads at regular intervals. The settlements varied in size but were mostly towns larger than the abandoned villages. The red flag of China flew atop every house.

In Zengshol, the farmers were reluctant to voice complaints.

Some experts say the relocations have lifted up the impoverished peasantry and could bring prosperity.

"It's created a building boom," said Melvyn C. Goldstein, a social anthropologist and expert on Tibet at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "I think it's phenomenally successful, more than I would've believed."

Human Rights Watch's witnesses told a different story. Peasants must take out loans of several thousand dollars to pay for the houses, which cost an average of $6,000, even though annual rural incomes hover around $320 in this deeply impoverished region.

"None of those interviewed reported being given the right to challenge or refuse participation in the campaign," the advocacy group said.

Local officials frequently embezzle allocated funds, the group said, and some land that peasants have vacated is being used for mining and other projects. Farmers who can't repay their bank loans forfeit the right to occupy the homes.


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