Satellite images show entire Tibetan villages ‘relocated’ under controversial Chinese program

July 18, 2013

A Tibetan family, members of the Chinese region's declining rural population, stands for a photograph. (Getty Images)

One of the many small traumas of life for Tibetans is a program that the Chinese government calls "Comfortable Housing." The idea, according to Beijing, is to develop the Tibetan economy and improve standards of living by building new housing developments for one of China's poorest regions. And, on the surface, it might seem like an upgrade to move from traditional villages or rural communities into new housing developments.

But the effect of the program, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, has been to relocate some 2 million Tibetans, often forcibly. The program is uprooting entire Tibetan communities, accelerating the steady erosion of Tibetan identity and culture. And, often, because families must pay for the government-mandated relocations themselves, they are often driven deep into debt.

By the end of this year, the report estimates, 90 percent of Tibet's nomadic population will have been moved into sedentary "New Socialist Villages," effectively ending their traditional lifestyle and, because many know no other way to provide for themselves, making them reliant on the Chinese government.

As part of its investigation, Human Rights Watch collected satellite photos showing the Tibetan communities before and after their relocation. The photos are a few years apart, but they still show a remarkably severe and rapid transformation of these communities.

This first set of images, of the Tibetan town of Bagkarshol in Taktse county, not far from the regional capital of Lhasa, shows a 2004 image of the original Tibetan town on the left. On the right is a 2009 image, which reveals the town almost entirely destroyed (the report says 95 percent of buildings have been demolished) and replaced by a "New Socialist Village."

You can view the town's exact GPS coordinates in Google Maps here. The new villages, while earnestly welcomed by some families as an improvement, also make it easier for Chinese authorities to keep an eye on Tibetans, part of the government's effort to tamp down political dissent there. In 2011, Beijing announced a plan to station Communist Party cadres in every single one of Tibet's 5,400 villages, saying they would "live, work and eat" with locals.

Another set of satellite images shows the village of Drupshe, also in Taktse county, near Lhasa. The "before" image is from 2009; the "after" from 2012:

You can see that not only have families been moved into an entirely different sort of community, but the town has been moved from the banks of the Lhasa River to the side of a nearby road.

Adding to the humiliation, Tibetan families are typically required to pay some of the relocation and construction costs themselves, up to four-fifths of the total bill. This requires taking out loans from Chinese banks that, often, prove too costly for some families to afford.

Technically, the program requires Chinese officials to pay families compensation for their lost land and property. In execution, though, Human Rights Watch found a number of families who say they received only some of the promised compensation, if anything. It's not clear if the government is simply failing to pay out the money or if, as some Tibetans seem to suspect, it's being embezzled by corrupt Chinese officials.

As part of China's effort to modernize the Tibetan way of life, families, especially rural families, are often limited in how much livestock they can own and are encouraged to go into business. This, like the home relocations, requires taking out loans from Chinese banks. But, as several Tibetans recount in the report, those loans often become burdens, with families ultimately driven to sell off more of their possessions to keep up with the payments. Here's one Tibetan's account:

After the introduction of limitations on livestock and land, the government offered loans to people. It was to encourage them to do business or open restaurants. The government told them that it was important to become developed by mechanizing [agriculture], and so many people took loans and nowadays there are many who cannot repay them. ... I heard that some were unlucky with their business, they were losing their capital, and could not repay the loans even after selling off their household livestock.

This has been a tough period for Tibet. About 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest tightening government restrictions on political and religious freedoms. U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke warned in a recent visit to the Tibetan region that he'd found a "deteriorating human rights situation." Earlier this month, as a group of Tibetans peacefully commemorated the Dalai Lama's birthday, Chinese paramilitary forces are said to have opened fire on the crowd. Many Tibet-watchers believe that Chinese authorities hope to wait out the death of the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile, at which point they will likely select a successor whom they can mold as a pro-Beijing figure.

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