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Lhasa Prefecture Encourages Rural Migration for "Building a Middle-class Society"

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/09/02; September 2, 2003.]

TIN News Update
01 September 2003

In a remarkable amendment to the policies of the last decades, a government work report to the People's Congress of the Lhasa prefecture of April 2003, which was recently received by TIN, encourages migration from the rural areas of the prefecture to Lhasa city. The report, which declares 2003 "a critical year for building a middle-class society", indirectly acknowledges the failure of the 'western development drive' to bring development to farmers and nomads in the rural areas where 85% of the Tibet Autonomous Region's (TAR) population lives. Migrants from the countryside are intended to be employed as labourers in infrastructure projects. The report shows itself well-aware of the link between economic policies and political stability and expressively mentions as one of the paramount rationale of the programme "that tranquillity and order prevails in the social situation more than ever".

The government work report, (labelled "document No. 5",) was presented to the second session of the eighth Lhasa City (Lhasa Prefecture) People's Congress on 1 April 2003. In its main part, titled "Principal Tasks in 2003", the report depicts an ambitious programme intended to "accelerate growth" in the rural areas of the prefecture. The programme focuses on the introduction of new types of agricultural production and their local processing, as well as the development of markets. The foods farmers are being encouraged to produce are mainly fruits and vegetables, forest products, medicinal herbs and animal products, including "sea food" (which probably means fish). Much of these products are non-traditional and apparently aimed at Chinese immigrants and the export market. With the development of markets, self-production and the barter system would be replaced by a monetarised economy and production adapted to perceived potential customers. The recurring demand to develop strategies for export of agricultural products places the current intensification of border trade to Nepal, and particularly the forthcoming re-opening of the Nathu-la pass for trade with India, within the long-term economic development plan for the TAR. The programme identifies the encouragement of consumption within the farmers’ and nomads’ areas as a catalyst for the intended markets development.

But the most remarkable and recurring theme of the programme is the "development of (…) emigration" from rural areas into urban areas of the prefecture, in particular Lhasa City: "Farmers and nomads who wish to relocate must be suitably settled and allowed to get rich", "More rural workers should be sent out to the urban centres so that the rate of migration of workers is enhanced". The plan also specifies that "this issue should be included in the county and township annual assessments", thus making urbanisation of the rural population a developmental indicator.

For decades, official policy in the People's Republic of China (PRC) has been to strictly prevent migration from rural into urban areas. Although during the 1990s the actual implementation of this policy has been considerably relaxed, a household registration system (Chin: hukou, Tib: themto) assigning individuals to their area of origin as well as to an 'agricultural' or 'non-agricultural' status is, in theory, still in practice. As a result, experts estimate that millions of rural migrants workers currently live and work in or at the fringes of Chinese urban centres in a virtually lawless space and often under appalling living conditions. The Tibetan capital Lhasa is known to have just such a large 'floating population', arrived from all parts of Tibet, which does not appear in any official record. Over recent years, TIN has gathered evidence that the factually illegal status of these migrants prevents them from benefitting from the remaining advantages of the official social system (ration cards, places reserved for children in schools etc). Their lack of official status also makes them eminently vulnerable to arbitrary measures by often corrupt local authorities.

Although representing a significant change, the policy encouraging rural migration now introduced in Lhasa prefecture appears to be an amendment due to perceived economic or political necessities to, rather than a total departure from, the household registration system, since migration is encouraged within the territory of the prefecture only. It is not known whether a similar change is to be introduced in other TAR prefectures. The report also specifies that encouraged migration should happen under "correct leadership" and "thorough supervision".

The report gives the rationale behind the facilitation of migration as: "to expand the labour economy, the migration of rural labour force to the urban centres should be speeded up to increase income in the agricultural areas". Developmental experts, though, point out that, while a significant migration to urban centres could statistically raise the average per capita income in rural areas, real growth in the agricultural sector can only be achieved with a better added value of agricultural output. The success of the programme is therefore likely to depend on the intended development of agricultural output and its marketability.

Farmer and nomads who will now "be encouraged to settle in towns and cities" are intended to "find jobs or engage in business" there. To this end, a programme of "developing and expanding the counties and towns" is to be launched. For the immediate future, rural migrants will be employed in a number of infrastructure projects in the Lhasa area typical of the 'western development drive',and financed with subsidies and credits from the central government. These include the development of the city water system, the integration of the Lhalu marshes and the central canal, the renovation of houses in Old Lhasa, a new "comprehensive treatment" wing for the City Hospital, the reconstruction of the Kyichu embankment, the construction of power stations in rural areas, the expansion of Lhasa's communications network and a whole series of projects relating to the Qinhai-Lhasa railway (including several bridge projects, the construction of a tunnel, of the railway station and power transmission and conversion stations, etc).

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