By mid-morning, Lobsang’s leather cowboy hat is askew, his black robes disheveled and his breath stinks of booze. Once a nomad herder roaming the high Tibetan plateau, instead he stumbles around his sparse new concrete house.
For decades he and his wife grazed yaks and sheep, living a life little changed in centuries, until they acquiesced three years ago to government calls to give up their yak-hair tents for permanent housing. Now they live in a resettlement village, row after row of identical blue-roofed gray shells, an hour’s drive from Aba in Sichuan Province along winding mountain roads.
“Everything changed when we moved to this town,” said Tashi, who like her husband is in her 40s, but not sure of her exact age. “First we ran out of money, then he couldn’t find suitable work, and then he started drinking more and more.”
Chinese authorities say urbanization in Tibetan areas and elsewhere will increase industrialization and economic development, offering former nomads higher living standards and better protecting the environment.
Those who move receive an urban hukou — China’s strictly controlled internal residence permits that determine access to social services. The government offers free or heavily subsidized houses, medical insurance and free schooling, but critics say the drive has a one-size-fits-all approach and many former pastoralists have not prospered, despite its promises.
Unlike the voluntary urbanization of the early 2000s, when many adults maintained subsistence lifestyles while sending children and the elderly into towns, Andrew Fischer of the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam said: “The policy lock, stock and barrel shoves nomads into these resettlements thinking that is good for them, but then that gives rise to a variety of related problems like unemployment, social problems, alcoholism, et cetera, which are typical hallmarks of rapid social dislocation.”
At the resettlement facility, many former herders complained they lacked work or training.
Dolkar, 42, sold his last 13 yaks for 85,000 yuan (US$13,000) two years ago, a decision he now regrets, and has yet to find stable employment.
“I thought this was a lot of money, but I didn’t realize things in the town would be so expensive,” he said. “A person from the government came and convinced me I should move, but now I see I’ve lost so much. I want to go back, but it’s too late.”
Available urban jobs are low-wage, manual positions in construction or sanitation, but many nomads shun menial labor, having enjoyed wealthy status in the Tibetan community by virtue of their valuable livestock holdings.
“Sending people to urban areas only helps if there are jobs there,” Fischer said. “It’s not like everyone can become a petty entrepreneur selling dumplings in the marketplace, the jobs need to be there and in the absence of that the government moving them to urban areas isn’t going to help.”
Critics say one goal of the urbanization campaign is to give authorities more oversight over the people of Tibet, which has been ruled by Beijing since 1951.
The resettlement village is in what was Kham, the eastern part of preinvasion Tibet, where Khampa warriors fought Chinese Communist Party forces, sometimes with CIA backing, until the late 1960s.
Since 2000, government statistics show that urban residents have leaped by about 60 percent in the Tibet region itself, where officials launched a program five years ago to establish communist cadre teams in every locality.
The region’s top Chinese Communist Party official, Chen Quanguo (陳全國), has said each village should become a “fortress” to “guard against and combat the infiltration of Tibetan separatist forces.”
Urbanization efforts “concentrate people into areas where they are far easier to surveil and where they become more dependent on state subsidies to survive — in other words, where they are easier to control,” Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson said.
Environmental experts also say that rather than protecting mountain pastures, the policy has damaged their ecology, allowing invasive weeds to proliferate and changing the nature of the soil.
“Not using these grasslands long term doesn’t work,” Inner Mongolia Academy of Agricultural & Animal Husbandry Sciences Grassland Research Institute deputy director Sun Jie (孫傑) said.
“It’s always been natural for grasslands to be used for grazing, the plants and the soil need it for healthy growth,” she said. “Otherwise, poor quality foliage moves in and contributes to soil decline.”
Across China, urbanization is a top economic priority, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) calling it the nation’s “grand strategy for modernization” at a 2014 policy meeting, but benefits such as running water have come at the cost of Tibetan former nomads’ sense of identity, with many complaining their sons and daughters are taught almost entirely in Mandarin.
“My children will never know our history, they won’t understand our Tibetan traditions,” said Dorje, who moved into the resettlement camp six years ago and occasionally works odd jobs. “My grandchildren will never know I used to be a respected and wealthy man, they will only know poverty.”
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