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China trots out yak and pony show for journalists on Tibet tour

August 3, 2015

Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2015 - Qiongbo, an erstwhile Tibetan nomad who has for decades herded yaks across China's southwestern grasslands, heaped nothing but praise on a government program that settled his family into a permanent homes.

Greeting reporters in his state-subsidized bungalow, the 52-year-old recounted how the plan to urbanize nomadic herders in Aba prefecture helped him boosted his income and tide over bitter winters that sweep across the Tibetan Plateau.

“Without this house, my whole family—including my mother, who is in her eighties—would have to continue staying in tents on the mountains,” said Mr. Qiongbo, who like many Tibetans goes by one name. “During winter, the tents can’t keep out the winds and the snow.”

Later, prompted by reporters, the father of two said he was more than a beneficiary: Mr. Qiongbo is also a member of the local Communist Party organization that helped implement the resettlement program in Aba, a mountainous tract of Sichuan province called Ngawa in Tibetan and dominated by nomadic Tibetan herders.

A two-day media tour of Aba last week organized by Chinese propaganda officials showcased what the government is calling the success of a program that it says has urbanized millions of nomadic herders across China’s borderlands.

The tour itself offered a glimpse of Beijing’s efforts to shape perceptions of its turbulent rule over ethnic-Tibetan regions, where it has enacted tight media curbs and staged choreographed publicity efforts—while some ethnic Tibetans protest and even set themselves on fire to call attention to what they see as China’s oppressive policies there.

The tour came as China prepares to declare success on a 15-year effort to herd nomads across its peripheral regions—from Xinjiang and Tibet in the west to Inner Mongolia in the north—into more sedentary, urban lifestyles. In Aba, the government has spent more than 2.9 billion yuan ($467 million) since 2009 to usher roughly 210,000 nomads into 614 resettlement sites, local officials say.

Officials say the program brings a measure of modernity and economic opportunity to people long deprived of public services like health care and education, while curbing environmental damage blamed on pastoral agriculture. Rights advocates and researchers decry Beijing’s efforts as socially and ecologically destructive, accusing the Communist Party of using coercive methods to erode ancient cultures and extend its control over nomadic people.

Beijing has sought to counter such criticism with positive state-media portrayals of the resettlement program, backed by upbeat testimonies similar to that offered by Mr. Qiongbo, whose family of seven now splits their time between their home in Rekun village and their summer grazing grounds kilometers away.

“In the past, we carried everything we owned everywhere we go. The elderly, the young, the sick and the able, all had to stay on the move,” said Mr. Qiongbo, gesturing from his black-leather armchair in a living room cluttered with modern tools and trinkets, ranging from a small stereo to a government-provided portable television set. “Now we can store our things at home and the elderly have a place to stay… We can also diversify our sources of income—taking odd jobs to earn more money.”

Mr. Qiongbo until last year was the Communist Party branch secretary for Rekun, a village of 1,000 people in central Aba, home to many resettled nomads now leading semisedentary lives. He remains a representative at the local county people’s congress, a post he has held for 15 years.

His political pedigree emerged when a reporter asked about photographs of local officials displayed on a living-room cabinet. “I’m in all those photos,” he said through an interpreter—a county propaganda official—before explaining his status as a local assemblyman and a former party branch secretary, a post he had held since 2007.

Reporters were also shown counties in Aba prefecture that have booming tourism and solid infrastructure that helped resettled nomads find new livelihoods or bolster agricultural incomes. Areas that have been wracked by ethnic-Tibetan protests and self-immolations in recent years— including Aba county itself—were absent from the itinerary.

Researchers say the tour appeared tailored to avoid areas where resettlement has proved contentious.

The policy “is implemented quite differently in different areas. The lucky ones do get to stay on their land, in a new house,” said Gabriel Lafitte, a retired Australian academic who still studies development issues in Tibet. “The unlucky ones are herded off their land and into distant settlements, badly built by cost-cutting contractors, where they are utterly disempowered, leading wasted lives.”

Such outcomes, rights groups say, has fueled resentment in a region already beset with ethnic unrest, particularly after Tibetan communities across western China staged an uprising in 2008 that was quickly quashed by security forces. That episode had prompted Chinese officials to organize a media trip to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, which backfired after Buddhist monks disrupted the tour to denounce Beijing’s assurances of religious freedom in Tibet.

In last week’s tour, however, officials denied that the nomad-resettlement program was aimed at defusing ethnic unrest.

“There’s absolutely no link between the resettlement project” and the self-immolations, said Bai Yingchun, deputy chief of the Aba prefecture information office. Asked if the relocations helped soothe ethnic tensions, Mr. Bai repeated his denial. “No, there’s no relationship between the two.”

Neither was the trip deliberately timed just weeks ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s establishment on Sept. 1, officials said.

“The reason we’ve brought you on this trip is to showcase a developing, changing Tibetan region to you in an objective and truthful manner,” said Shou Xiaoli, a propaganda official who organized the tour. “In China, there’s a saying: Take what you hear to be false, only believe it when you see it.”

–Chun Han Wong. Follow him on Twitter @ByChunHan

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