For China's Nomads, Relocation Proves a Mixed Blessing

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 20, 2008

LANZHOU, China -- Last year, local Communist Party officials relocated a 64-year-old Tibetan cattle and sheepherder named Lhabu to a newly created town called "Nomads' New Village," about seven hours south of this provincial capital. The woman moved into a small brick-and-tile house, one of hundreds of thousands the Chinese government has built as part of an expensive and controversial campaign to resettle the country's Tibetan nomads.

The government's effort to control an itinerant population of more than 2 million of its citizens is billed as a plan to improve the nomads' living standards and to protect rivers and grasslands from overgrazing. But it is also an increasingly important tool to contain Tibetans and counter the influence of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

The "peace and contentment" that nomads derive from improved housing "is the fundamental condition for us in holding the initiative in the struggle against the Dalai clique," Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party secretary for Tibet, wrote in a party journal earlier this year.

For centuries, Tibetan nomads have ranged across an arc of western China, grazing herds of sheep, cattle, goats and yaks. Now a culture that embodies Tibetan identity is at risk. Following the deadly protests against Chinese rule this spring that started in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, and radiated out to several western provinces on the Himalayan plateau, China's rulers are tightening political controls across the Tibetan regions, including stepping up the government-directed relocation of nomads.

"Tibetan nomads have remained until now beyond the reach of the state, to an extent, and the Chinese government doesn't like that," said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Campaign for Tibet.

Settlement policies vary, and their effect on the social fabric of nomadic communities is complex. In many places, nomads have been encouraged to give up their animals, leading to reduced incomes, a rise in alcoholism and other social costs. A lack of planning has resulted in some settlements lacking water or power, officials admit. In many cases, nomads are ill-equipped to compete with Chinese migrant workers for jobs in nearby cities, and there has been insufficient retraining, experts said.

The government has relocated hundreds of thousands of nomads in towns and cities in recent years, drawing them with government-subsidized housing and other incentives. In Qinghai, officials have settled about 100,000 families, almost half the Tibetan population in that province, experts have said. In Tibet, officials said last year they would spend $80 million to settle most of its nomads by 2009.

Last month, Gansu province said it would spend $189 million to relocate 74,000 nomads -- almost all the nomads in its Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Region, where Lhabu has settled.

"Some people who are flexible sell their livestock and buy vehicles to do business such as transportation and tourism," said Guo Xuquan, a researcher with the Gannan region's Institute of Pasturage and Veterinary Science, who said nomads had more work choices now. "Definitely, settling down will affect their nomadic culture, but from the aspect of social development, settling down is using an advanced lifestyle to replace a backwards lifestyle."

Until recently, Lhabu (many Tibetans use only one name) moved across the region with her herd, living in a tent with her extended family in a mobile community known as Ganzha village and staying in one place for relatively short periods.

Now, Lhabu can be found most days in a parking lot at the nearby tourist resort of Sangke, waiting for a customer to ride her horse for $4 an hour.

Sangke is one of the best-known grasslands in Gannan, sandwiched between two picturesque mountain ranges and alongside the wildflower-covered banks of the Daxia River. But the Sichuan earthquake and the Lhasa riots earlier this year have been bad for business.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company