Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO, issued its Global Annual Report of 2012, criticizing some specific cases of human rights conditions in China. It made some unfounded accusations against Chinese economic policies, including the "comfortable housing project" in the Tibet autonomous region. The project is widely welcomed by local residents, but Human Rights Watch distorted facts and singled it out as a human rights violation.
The project, which began in 2006, is aimed at improving the living conditions for local farmers and herdsmen and helping them settle down by providing affordable housing to 80 percent of them within five years.
We started researching the development issue of Tibet from the 1990s and mainly focused on the economic growth of the region and quality of life improvement of Tibetan farmers and nomads. We chose four countryside communities in Lhasa and Lhoka prefecture in the 1990s and surveyed them for more than 20 years. We were also authorized by local authorities to do field work in many other regions of Tibet. We analyzed the conclusion of the Human Rights Watch report and the "comfortable housing project" on the basis of our research findings and personal experiences.
First, the report mentioned that the "Chinese government removed 80 percent of the Tibetan population, including all herdsmen and nomads, to other places", which goes against not only common sense, but also basic facts.
Statistics indicate 1.85 million herdsmen and nomads - 61 percent of the total population - had settled down by 2011. A basic fact is that most of these people still live in places where their ancestors lived. They did not move or relocate. For example, the Chundui village, made up of 102 families, finished its housing project in 2010. More than 90 families' houses were rebuilt on the site. The other families chose new sites in the village for their new houses for different reasons, but all made the decision themselves.
In this project, the government also moved some farmers and nomads to other places. Most of the people had lived in Kaschin-Beck disease- and Goiter-prone regions. Statistics show that about 4,000 families living in the Kaschin-Beck disease-prone region had moved by 2010. The provincial government of Sichuan has already met their requirements and moved them to places far from disease-prone areas.
According to our research, in the past six years the number of farmers and nomads who have been relocated is about 150,000, less than 5 percent of the whole population. It is groundless for the Human Rights Watch report to say that 80 percent of the people were displaced.
In the beginning of the "comfortable housing project", the authorities assigned local architects in Tibet to design dozens of architecture patterns according to local geographic characteristics and ethnic styles for farmers and nomads to choose. Once the project started in 2006, it was warmly welcomed by local Tibetan people. We talked with more than 1,000 families. None of them was against the project.
There are some international organizations, academic institutions and scholars along with some NGOs that are always pointing fingers at the housing project in Tibet. They assume Tibet maintained the most complete nomadic production and lifestyle, which is conducive to protecting the delicate prairie ecological system.
But Tibetan nomads only travel long distances in the summer when the plateau is covered with exuberant grasses. In the long winter season, they only settle in the winter pastures in low-altitude regions. The government has fully noticed this while providing nomads with houses. About 30,000 nomad families had received comfortable and cozy houses as of 2010, most of whom live along traffic lines close to winter pastures.
Before the democratic reform in Tibet, the average lifespan of the local people was barely 35, and the mortality rate of newborn babies was as high as 30 percent. The government builds warm and comfortable houses in the summer pastures close to traffic lines. Children can go to school. The sick can be treated. If we only want to preserve their traditional lifestyle but ignore the hardships local people experience in their daily lives, we deprive them the right to development and a higher standard of living.
We often see some foreign experts in human rights discuss the housing projects, saying that the nomad's life lacks basic facilities and is quite inconvenient. Some say local residents don't have necessary means of livelihood after moving into new houses, and they owe a lot of money to relatives and friends so their lives become quite difficult. Our field research in the villages indicates that the government always finishes all supporting infrastructure facilities of water, electricity and roads after new houses are built.
Meanwhile, we also see many young people finding jobs in non-agricultural fields in communities with convenient traffic conditions. They do business in transportation services and catering industries. Before the changes, no one in their families left the farmland and pastures. When the project is carried out, the cost is actually paid by the government, the residents and bank loans. As far as we know, none of the families fell into poverty as a result of borrowing from the bank because the government often assists residents to help them pay loans.
To guarantee the residents' quality of life and health safety, the government helps Tibetan nomads improve their living conditions and respects their personal choices. It is a basic service that the government should provide.
Why does a New York-based NGO reach a totally different conclusion? If it's not for a lack of reliable research, we think it must be because they have ulterior motives.
The authors are researchers with the Institute of Social Economy of China Tibetology Research Center.