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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Kyegu earthquake: six months on

October 20, 2010

ICT report
October 18, 2010

On April 14, 2010, a devastating 6.9 magnitude
earthquake flattened the town of Kyegu in a
sparsely populated, Tibetan rural area in
present-day Yushu (also referred to as Jyekundo
or Kyegudo), Qinghai province. The earthquake
left 2,6981 dead and 100,000 homeless2 according to the official count.

This ICT report addresses the impact of the
earthquake and the Chinese authorities’ response,
six months afterwards. It finds that:

The decision by authorities to scrap plans for
temporary homes in shelters means that it is
unclear how many families will survive the winter.

There is serious concern about the decision by
authorities to exclude NGO expertise. Reports
indicate the precarious status of NGO work, with
local NGOs subject to surveillance and
uncertainty about access for outside
organisations to help with relief efforts. The
Chinese government has controlled the
appropriation of funds from NGOs to the Chinese
authorities, although much aid has got through to those who need it.

The authorities have excluded Tibetan involvement
in the reconstruction planning process, although
Yushu is a Tibetan area with a strong Tibetan
identity and historically significant religious and cultural institutions.

Aid from outside Tibet has been essential in
helping Tibetans to survive the devastating
impact of the earthquake. It has provided hope
and broken through the sense of isolation,
exacerbated by the frustration many Tibetans feel
as the Chinese government controls reconstruction
in Yushu.  Tibetans and others involved in relief
work report on the spirit and resilience of
ordinary people in surviving the quake.

Surviving the winter

Despite the millions of dollars donated for
relief and reconstruction efforts, the people of
Yushu face severe hardship as the bitter Tibetan
winter approaches. The authorities stated in May
that it would not put up temporary homes to
provide shelter in order to avoid "waste."
Instead it will invest in building permanent
structures ("New socialist villages"), which it
estimates will take between one and three years
to complete. The Tibetan Village Project, a small
NGO engaged in relief on the ground in Yushu,
stated: "It is not clear how families and
children will survive in the upcoming winter.”3

Amid the technical and weather-related challenges
of the reconstruction, the political situation in
Yushu has become increasingly sensitive. One NGO
worker with contacts in the region told ICT that
residents had been willing to speak about the
reconstruction efforts and other developments in
the region, but the politicization of the
reconstruction process, including the lack of
transparency over how the $1.5 billion in aid
money that allegedly has been donated is being
handled, has made many fearful of government
retribution for speaking about the current situation.

For now, six months on, the most immediate
concern for locals is the coming winter. A source
in contact with Tibetans in Yushu told ICT that
government offices, construction companies, and
NGOs are housed in temporary units, while winter
tents are being handed out to some local
residents. A family of four is eligible to
receive a winter tent, while smaller families are
given about 1000 yuan (US $150). The same source
said that in some areas of Yushu local officials
have ordered military relief workers to assemble
the tents in areas outside of town. Residents who
are currently staying on their land to protect it
against the uncertainties of the reconstruction
process are reportedly being told that they must
move to the areas outside of town, or receive no tent at all.

Winters in Yushu are known for their harsh
conditions. Construction is expected to halt once
the ground freezes and, while residents are
receiving food supplies such as rice and flour,
many are anxiously hoping to receive stoves and fuel for the winter.

Despite vague promises by officials in the six
months since the earthquake, questions still
abound over what plan is actually guiding the
reconstruction process. A few small villages
located near Kyegu town have already been
rebuilt, but the reconstruction of homes in Kyegu
town has not started yet, according to one ICT
source. The same source told ICT that the
construction of schools, hospitals and water
projects are currently visible in the area, with
other areas having been designated for parks,
wider roads, and other yet unnamed projects.

Sources with contacts in the area have told ICT
that Tibetans have been effectively excluded from
the planning process. Multiple projects have been
proposed, and while local Tibetans have either
lodged strong complaints or protested each one to
date, local officials have responded that Beijing
authorities are responsible for the planning and
there is nothing the local officials can do.
According to a report by Radio Free Asia (RFA) in
June, hundreds of Tibetans protested after
officials began evicting them from their land in
order to claim the best locations for building
schools, government offices and parks. Sources
told RFA that many Tibetan families have refused
to accept the government’s offer of new, yet
significantly smaller, reconstructed homes in exchange for their land.4

Confusion and uncertainty surrounding the
reconstruction process continues, as one source
with contacts working in the Yushu region told
ICT, "The only thing that is clear is that there
are no final plans for reconstruction that have
been approved." The same source told ICT that the
main concern of Tibetans is over losing their
land and being moved into the government-built
permanent housing, which will be in apartment or
townhouse-type complexes, that is significantly
smaller than the homes they lost in the
earthquake. Those residents fortunate enough to
have a house that survived the disaster have
recently been told they may be eligible to keep
their home, as long as it passes a quality
inspection and is certified as structurally sound.

A report from the ground in June stated: "Reports
about the rebuilding plans for Jyekundo continue
to shift week by week.  Some residents will have
to give up their present home sites and relocate
to a different part of Jyekundo because of plans
for road widening, and for a new park and
market.  News reports indicate that many
residents were upset due to fear that their home
sites would be taken for government buildings; it
is unclear so far as to whether or not that will
actually happen. The manner in which residential
homes will be rebuilt is not yet clear either,
with concern expressed about reported plans to
build very small (800 square foot) houses for
large Tibetan families.  Even those families who
have somewhere else to go are trying to keep some
family members in the city to keep track of the
rebuilding situation.” (

During a May 1, 2010 meeting on post-disaster
rehabilitation and reconstruction, Chinese
Premier Wen Jiabao was reported (Xinhua, May 2,
2010) to have commented that the rebuilding of
public facilities including schools and hospitals
would be prioritized. During a visit to a Tibetan
Buddhist temple he also said that the government
would assist in the reconstruction of local
monasteries. However, a government advisor
overseeing the reconstruction of Kyegu also added
that the rebuilt town would be "an eco-friendly
tourist city," which may suggest that
reconstruction is to be more sympathetic to the
interests of outside speculators rather than those of the local Tibetans.

According to a source with contacts in Yushu,
local Tibetans have been excluded by private
Chinese companies from jobs created by the
reconstruction process in favor of Chinese
laborers.  The same source reports that the
private companies compete for government
contracts by bribing officials, furthering
concerns over the accountability and lack of
transparency for the millions of dollars in
relief money that has flooded the area. Calls to
include Tibetans in the reconstruction planning
have also been voiced by the U.S. Congress, which
passed a resolution on May 20, 2010 expressing
condolences to those affected by the earthquake
and highlighting the integral role Tibetans
should have in the reconstruction. Representative
Mike McMahon (D-NY), the sponsor of the
resolution, characterized Yushu as “a cradle of
Tibetan culture and religion for centuries,” and
encouraged the Chinese government to “include the
local Tibetan population in reconstruction plans.”5

The Yushu area is known for its strong Tibetan
identity, with Tibetans making up 97% of the
population. Although Tibetan businesses dominated
the area prior to the earthquake, there has been
concern from the immediate aftermath of the
earthquake that Tibetans who lost everything in
the devastation and are trying to recover will be
crowded out by Chinese migrants who will rush in
to set up small businesses among the Chinese-run reconstruction efforts.

Moreover, Yushu is a relatively rural area that
includes many nomads who live on less than $100 a
year.  They would be hard hit by socioeconomic
changes, and their vulnerability highlights the
need for transparency and accountability to
ensure those most in need would be taken of
first, before outside interests benefit from the reconstruction process.

While government officials have yet to articulate
a specific plan to guide the reconstruction
process, it is clear from measures that have
already been taken and from comments made by
authorities6 that the eventual plan will fall
firmly within the Western Development Strategy,
which defines the overall development policy for
western regions of the People’s Republic of
China.7 Under this model for development,
launched by then Chinese President Jiang Zemin in
1999 and affecting over 70% of the present day
PRC, western regions are meant essentially to
serve as resources-providers for the raging
economic development in the central and eastern
regions.  Indeed, criticisms leveled against the
reconstruction process in Yushu, including the
construction of “new socialist villages,” the
exclusion of Tibetans from construction and other
economic opportunities, and the absence of
consultations with local Tibetan stakeholders,
are characteristic of how the Western Development
Strategy is generally carried out in Tibet.

There are also serious concerns about the
implications of excluding non-governmental
expertise. Reports indicate that local NGOs are
subject to constant surveillance and NGOs from
outside Yushu are uncertain about whether and how
long they will be able to access donations to
support relief efforts.8 In an unexpected move,
officials have required NGOs to relinquish all
private donations for the Yushu earthquake to the
Qinghai provincial government.9 In a Caixin
online article about the government’s
appropriation of earthquake funds and exclusion
of NGO expertise, Wang Zhenyao, the former
director of the Department of Disaster and Social
Relief at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said:
“Government investment all goes to construction
of infrastructure. It lacks the targeted
precision for small projects that the victims
need. If charitable organizations with private
donations can handle these projects, they can
offer a lot of personalized, flexible services
that can increase the well-being of victims.”10

Despite restrictions, some NGOs have been
successful in providing vital aid and resources
to people in the region, including delivering
food, water, and emergency supplies in the
immediate aftermath of the earthquake. In a
coordinated NGO initiative, emergency supplies
were successfully delivered to the area with the
knowledge of local authorities. Other NGO
initiatives include the reconstruction of schools
and a Tibetan hospital that had been completely destroyed by the earthquake.

Outside aid money, carefully coordinated and
spent down, could contribute to the long-term
viability of the region. Some NGO workers are
helping to re-establish Tibetan businesses that
were lost and, while local monasteries have been
promised government support in rebuilding,11
private efforts are already underway, such as at
Thrangu monastery, where efforts are being
coordinated to construct a new school for the monks.12

Kyegu: an historic center of Tibetan Buddhist culture

Yushu county is the northwestern region of Kham,
known locally as Gawa.  Under the Chinese
political system, Kyegu town (Tibetan: skye rgu
mdo or skye dgu mdo)13 is the administrative
capital of six counties belonging to the Yushu
Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai
province. Most of Qinghai, including the
earthquake zone, is officially designated by the
Chinese authorities as "Tibetan autonomous."

Jamyang Norbu, in a blog entitled ‘Kyegu on my
mind’, writes: "Kyegudo has traditionally been
one of the most important centers and crossroads
for trade and commerce in Tibet. It is the hub of
many important routes." He writes that huge
caravans, sometimes consisting of as many as 3000
yaks, would traverse through the region, and even
while it wasn’t such a large town, many merchants
had permanent homes there and that the town of
Kyegu was rich and prosperous in the decade
before the invasion. Surrounded by grasslands,
nomads kept herds of yak that lived off the
pasture and even though summers were short-lived
at that high altitude, barley, beans and various
crops grew plentiful.”

After the earthquake, the images of hundreds of
maroon-robed monks digging in rubble with their
bare hands, disposing of corpses or praying for
the dead, focused attention on the crisis as a
Tibetan one, in contrast to the headlines
worldwide of an earthquake in "western China."

It is not only the loss of lives from the
earthquake that is devastating, but the impact on
Tibetan religious culture, imperiled even prior
to April 14th due to China's political and
strategic objectives in the region. Yushu's
landscape is scattered with remote hermitages,
ancient monasteries and religious settlements.
The destruction of monasteries, such as the
1300-year old Thrangu
(, and the death
of monks, further deepens Tibetans' sense of dispossession and loss.

Despite the devastation, Tibetans in the area
have maintained their strong faith and spirit. A
Tibetan from the area told ICT: "Tibetan Buddhist
tradition is the center of life in Yushu. As we
all know, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s pictures
are banned in Tibet but from the ruins in Yushu
emerged so many pictures of His Holiness. And as
the dead were being cremated, you could hear so
many people chanting, praying to His
Holiness.  So this really shows what people truly
think and need in this difficult time."

For many years, but particularly since March,
2008, the Beijing authorities have sought to
prevent large gatherings of Tibetans for fear of
unrest and as part of their strategy to ensure
control. But in Yushu, immediately after the
earthquake, hundreds of monks arrived from
monasteries throughout the area to work on relief
efforts, often side by side with People's
Liberation Army troops. These monks were actively
engaged in exactly those constructive,
community-building activities that were needed on
the ground, including praying for the dead. Their
activities represented a challenge to the Chinese
state typically seeks to convey the impression
that the Chinese Communist Party is the sole
benefactor and architect of the region's
rebuilding. Consequently, officials ordered the
monks to leave, ostensibly because more
experienced relief workers were needed for work
related to disease prevention and repairing
building infrastructure, and the presence of the
monks would complicate efforts.14 There was
distress later, too, when the monks’ role in
rescue and relief was air-brushed out of the
official news coverage, even though many reports
from the area indicate that Tibetan monks were
often the first on the scene to assist Tibetans
directly, and the last to leave.15

In the six months since the earthquake struck,
the people of Yushu have faced trauma,
deprivation, frustration and fear.  They and many
in the NGO world continue to look for creative
ways to break through official barriers. As
Phuntsog Wangyal of the Tibet Foundation in
London, said of the local Tibetans following a
trip to the region: “In the face of such
overwhelming destruction and damage… the people
[are] extremely courageous, showing no sign of
despair but looking forward to rebuilding their lives for a better future."

Press contact:
Kate Saunders
Director of Communications, International Campaign for Tibet
Tel: +44 (0) 7947 138612


[1] ‘China puts final death toll from Qinghai
quake at 2,698,’ Xinhua, May 31, 2010,

[2] ‘Tents on the way for 100,000 homeless in
quake-hit northwest China: ministry,’ Xinhua,
April 15, 2010,

[3] The Konchog Foundation also noted that the
government had dropped its earlier plan to erect
large numbers of temporary structures in refugee
camps, saying: "The government has meanwhile been
urging everyone to leave the city during the
rebuilding process; it is unclear where people
will go, especially those residents who don’t have a home elsewhere."

[4] ‘Tibetans Protest Over Land,’ Radio Free
Asia, June 3, 2010,

[5] ‘U.S. House passes resolution on Yushu
earthquake; calls for Tibetans to be included in
reconstruction efforts,’ ICT, May 20, 2010,

[6] For example, the "reconstruction efforts will
require scientific planning and organization."
See: ‘Quake reconstruction efforts and civil
society,’ Al Jazeera, September 20, 2010,

[7] See report: ‘Tracking the Steel Dragon: How
China’s economic policies and the railroad are
transforming Tibet,’ ICT, February 28, 2008,

[8] A rare and informed critique by a Chinese
blogger on the authorities’ role in Yushu
following the earthquake was posted on April 21,

[9] ‘Yushu’s 5 Billion Yuan Abyss,’ Caixin
online, August 12, 2010,

[10] Ibid. Also see blog by Al Jazeera
correspondent Melissa K Chan

[11] ‘Chinese Premier calls for scientific
rebuilding of quake zone,’ Xinhua, May 2, 2010,

[12] See: and

[13] Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu says on his
blog: "The area where the earthquake struck is
known as Ga Kyegudo (spelled skye rgu mdo or skye
dgu mdo), the Ga or Gaba (sga-pa) being name of
the people of the area. Khampas tend to pronounce
Kyegudo as Jyekudo or Jyegundo, softening the
hard “k” sound to a softer “j or “ch”. They also
do this in the case of the official title
“dzasak” which Khampas pronounce as “chassak”.
“Jyegundo is sometimes contracted to Jyegu, or
these days, to the more sinicized Jiegu. One
explanation I have come across for the name Kyegu
is that it is a contraction of “kyelwa gu” or
nine lives. The claim being, I suppose, that one
life lived in these beautiful and blessed
grasslands is as fulfilling as nine lives lived
elsewhere.[…]” (

[14] ‘China to monks: Exit quake zone,’
Associated Press, April 24, 2010,

[15] See,
which cites
The Communist Party paper the People's Daily even
complained that Western media agencies published
too many photos of the help from Tibetan monks
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