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For China's Nomads, Relocation Proves a Mixed Blessing

September 22, 2008

… More Opportunities, But Loss of Control

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 20, 2008; A12

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.

"If we're lucky, we can get two tourists a day," she said. "Lately, 
we've been getting just one deal in five days."

The subsidized two-bedroom brick house Lhabu shares with her husband 
and three grandchildren is warm and comfortable and not too far from 
the town center. But in one corner, she has stored the bundled tents 
that are a reminder of her former nomadic life. She is not yet used to 
being separated from her sons and daughters and their spouses, who 
continue to herd livestock on faraway grasslands and come home only 
every 10 days.

"How can a mother not miss her children?" she said, fingering a string 
of beads in her left hand and admitting to occasional loneliness and 
financial anxiety. "In the old days, we lived in tents on our 
grassland. Life was harder, but at least we were together. Now we old 
people have to take care of ourselves."

In some communities, nomads have been allocated fenced-in land for 
grazing and move only from summer to winter locations. Some like the 
comfort of permanent housing in winter and the opportunities for 
better education and health care.

Dorji, from Gansu's Zhuoni county, is a nomad who has made the 
transition. His parents settled in a house they built themselves. 
Dorji went to work for an accounting company in Xiahe and now runs his 
own souvenir shop. "Why settle?" he said. "First, it's good for 
managing your livestock. If nomads live separately in the grassland, 
their livestock can be easily stolen. And living conditions in houses 
are far better than tents. Nomads sleep on the humid ground, and many 
suffer from arthritis when they're older."

There's one other benefit, Dorji added. "It's also good for managing 
people. In the past, if government officials wanted to hold a meeting, 
it would take a long time to inform nomads who are scattered all over. 
And of course, if the government senses a bad thing is going to 
happen, it's quite easy to mobilize forces to surround a settlement. 
Then nothing will happen."

Like most other Tibetans, the majority of nomads are devoted to the 
Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader the government regards as a 
dangerous separatist, and there have been signs of greater official 
control over that devotion. "He is a religious leader worshiped by all 
Tibetans. He does not mention Tibetan independence," Dorji said.

"Nomads' choices should be respected. And the government should be 
aware of their culture traditions," said Du Fachun, a researcher with 
the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Ethnology and 
Anthropology who has studied government-led migration in Qinghai. "For 
example, museums should be built and their monasteries should be 
maintained. In the settlement areas, the temples are too few to 
satisfy their religious demand. To build a new temple, they need to 
pass very strict examinations and approval by the bureau of religious 
affairs. After March, those approvals became stricter."

By settling nomads into towns, officials also risk losing valuable 
ecological knowledge and animal husbandry skills, said Liu Shurun, a 
former professor at Inner Mongolia Normal University who continues to 
study nomadism.

Diseases are also spreading among both animals and people, because 
there are fewer nomads to clean up livestock waste and animals have 
less access to nutritious grassland, Liu said. "The grass and the 
animals are like a couple, you cannot separate them," Liu said. 
"Before, nomads were quite selfless. It was very important to help 
each other when they moved around and in groups. But now each family 
settles in one place with their own plots of land, and they don't rely 
on each other as much."

Liu is among a growing number of Chinese scholars who have argued that 
the grasslands need the regular grazing of animals to rejuvenate. 
Officials who have studied settlement issues said it could take 10 
years to strike the right balance. But expecting nomads to protect the 
environment is unrealistic, they said.

"Nomads are human beings -- they also want to maximize their 
interest," said Tanzen Lhundup of the Beijing-based China Tibetology 
Research Center. "It's impossible for them to protect the environment 
voluntarily. So they need guidance and control. In my opinion, the 
first step is control."

"If we don't do this, the grasslands will continue to disappear and in 
the end, the nomads will still suffer. So in the end, as the Chinese 
saying goes, short-term suffering is better than long-term suffering," 
Tanzen said.

Nomadic culture will not disappear, he added. "First, not all the 
nomads are being moved, just some of them. Second, nobody is stopping 
them from carrying on their culture, their religion, their customs. 
They can still sing and dance."

Researchers Liu Songjie and Zhang Jie contributed to this report.
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