China was headed for a showdown today with the United States and other countries over a proposed World Bank loan that would finance the resettlement of thousands of poor Chinese farmers into a remote area of the country viewed by Tibetans as part of their traditional land.
The $160 million loan, which the World Bank's board is scheduled to consider this afternoon, has thrust the bank into the middle of a furious controversy between China and critics of its human rights policies.
Several members of the board, which represents the bank's 182 member countries, sought in recent days to persuade World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn to withdraw the most controversial part of the loan from consideration, but China has insisted on bringing the full project to the board, raising the prospect of a rare vote at an institution that traditionally operates by consensus.
Negotiations were continuing yesterday evening, and bank sources said the outcome remained uncertain. "This thing is going down to the wire," one board member said.
U.S. officials said Jan Piercy, the U.S. executive director, would be instructed to cast Washington's vote -- which is weighted at 18 percent of the total -- against the loan, mainly on the grounds that the project's environmental problems haven't been fully considered in accordance with the bank's own procedures.
The project has drawn fierce criticism from champions of independence for Tibet, who argue that the resettlement plan would deepen the threat to Tibetan cultural identity posed by China's control over the former feudal kingdom. "Chinese population influx has gradually turned Tibetans into a minority in urban areas in their homeland," the International Campaign for Tibet said yesterday in a statement that described the loan as a "disaster" for Tibetans.
The attacks have incensed Beijing, where anti-Western sentiment is already running high because of last month's bombing by NATO of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Last weekend, the New China News Agency quoted Vice Finance Minister Jin Liqun as saying that he hoped the World Bank board "will not use the political standard of the West [and] will not believe in the lies of a small number of people of the Tibetan exile splittist [separatist] forces."
The bank's staff has been taken aback by the controversy, in part because the resettlement wouldn't affect the Tibet autonomous region itself, although a portion of the project would involve a part of neighboring Qinghai province inhabited by Tibetans, and that includes the birthplace of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
In a recently issued paper, the bank staff noted that the project was aimed at providing a chance for a better standard of living to some of "the poorest people in the world, with incomes of about $60 a year."
They would be moved from the hillsides of eastern Qinghai province, whose badly eroded land has been "likened to the surface of the moon," to a barren but fertile plain about 300 miles west in the province.
The loan also would provide electricity, irrigation, schools and other facilities for the resettled area.