ZENGSHOL, Tibet—In a massive campaign that recalls the socialist engineering of an earlier era, the Chinese government has relocated some 250,000 Tibetans—nearly one-tenth of the population—from scattered rural hamlets to new "socialist villages," ordering them to build new housing largely at their own expense and without their consent.
The government calls the year-old project the "comfortable housing program," and its stated aim is to present a more modern face for this ancient region, which China has controlled since 1950.
It claims that the new housing on main roads, sometimes only a mile from previous homes, will enable small farmers and herders to have access to schools and jobs, as well as better health care and hygiene.
But the broader aim seems to be remaking Tibet—a region with its own culture, language and religious traditions—in order to have firmer political control over its population. It comes as China prepares for an influx of millions of tourists in the run-up to next year's Summer Olympic Games.
A vital element in the strategy is to displace a revered leader, the Dalai Lama, now 71, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for advocating resistance to the communist government. The government hopes to replace him after he dies with a state-appointed successor, and in the meantime it's opened the gates of Tibet to greater numbers of ethnic Han Chinese and tightened control of religious activity.
It's pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into road-building and development projects in Tibet, boosting the economy, maintaining a large military presence and keeping close tabs on the citizenry through a vast security apparatus of cameras and informants on urban streets and in the monasteries.
Some Tibetans, including farmers interviewed in the village of Zengshol, say they're happy to be in better quarters than their primitive, ancestral homes of mud brick. In other villages, Chinese escorts prevented a visiting reporter from speaking with residents.
Other than a state media account that proclaimed that "beaming smiles" were "fixed on the faces of farmers and herders" as they built and moved into new housing in what it called "socialist villages," the Chinese news media have given almost no coverage to the forced relocation.
Foreign reporters, under tight strictures that largely prevent them from traveling to Tibet except on once-a-year trips under Foreign Ministry guidance, risk being removed from the region if they openly interview people. This report was prepared while undertaking tourism in Tibet.
The first critical account of the remaking of the Tibetan landscape came from New York-based Human Rights Watch, which quoted Tibetans who fled the country, trekking across the Himalayan mountains into Nepal.
On several trips outside Lhasa last month, a McClatchy reporter traversed 800 miles of roads and witnessed the forced transformation of the countryside.
In the new settlements, cookie-cutter houses line the roads at regular intervals, striking in their uniformity. The settlements varied in size but were mostly towns, larger than the abandoned villages. The red flag of China flew atop every house.
In Zengshol, the faces weren't exactly beaming, but the farmers were reluctant to voice complaints.
Some experts say the relocations have lifted up the impoverished peasantry and could bring prosperity.
"It's created a building boom," said Melvyn C. Goldstein, a social anthropologist and expert on Tibet at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "I think it's phenomenally successful, more than I would've believed."
Human Rights Watch's witnesses told a different story. Peasants must take out loans of several thousand dollars to pay for the houses, which cost an average of $6,000, even though annual rural incomes hover around $320 in this deeply impoverished region.
"None of those interviewed reported being given the right to challenge or refuse participation in the campaign," the advocacy group said.
Local officials frequently embezzle allocated funds, the group said, and some land that peasants have vacated is being used for mining and other projects. Farmers who can't repay their bank loans forfeit the right to occupy the homes.
Probably the strongest criticism of the program concerns the way it came about—without consultation or consent. The campaign has come with no public debate, a throwback to past eras when rural people served as pawns on a development chessboard.
Chinese experts said that congregating Tibetans was the only way to provide them with opportunities to break rural poverty in the deep mountain valleys.
"There is no water, no electricity; very cold areas without even grass. It's almost impossible to help them without moving them," said Liu Hongji of the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing, a government-established research center.
Some outside experts have a different take, asserting that the relocations may generate the kind of social resentment that China is eager to quell.
"There seems to be a lot of dissatisfaction," said Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University. "It's a massive project of social—I don't want to call it engineering—but of forced, heavily regulated social change without normal safeguards of consensus and consultation."
It falls short of Joseph Stalin's "social engineering" which involved uprooting whole peoples within the Soviet Union, such as the Crimean Tatars and the Chechens, and moving them vast distances from their homelands.
There are many arguments the Chinese can make for modernizing the region. One is that new housing will force Tibetans to stop living in the same dwellings as their animals, thereby fighting endemic disease linked to proximity to livestock.
But the downside, which Tibetans refugees in Nepal cited to Human Rights Watch, is that the relocated villagers have no place to keep their animals, which are the main source of their livelihood. They must also walk farther to reach their fields.
In view of the near-collapse of the Chinese health system and the government's inattention to food processing, which has led to a major pet-food scare in the United States and Canada, critics will argue that the health benefits are more window dressing than the central purpose of what they see as largely a drive to assert political control.
There are vast sociological implications to the program.
Goldstein noted that the settling of Han Chinese in Tibet's major cities already has weakened the influence of traditional Tibetan elites. "The cities are a loss," said Goldstein, referring to demography from a Tibetan point of view. "The last hope is to keep the villages intact. If there's a battleground for Tibetan identity, it's in the rural areas."
And the rural areas, at least in appearance on a reporter's 11-day tour, are coming under ever greater Chinese control.