For two years after a cataclysmic earthquake struck a remote and wild part of China’s northwestern Qinghai province, Baobao and 29 other homeless ethnic Tibetan residents occupied the area outside several government buildings to denounce a land grab.
But no officials in Gyegu – known in Chinese as Yushu – would listen to their pleas, said Baobao, 41, a burly Tibetan odd-job laborer, who goes by only one name.
Government officials, he said, were threatening to forcibly relocate some 600 people – mostly Tibetans – from what was prime real estate in order to rebuild Gyegu as what officials billed as an “ecological tourism centre”.
The move has triggered resentment as two of China’s most volatile social issues – land grabs and perceived mistreatment of ethnic minorities – combine to raise tensions and threaten social stability in the region.
Just down the street, officials’ homes have been spared from the land seizure, according to Baobao.
“What we don’t understand is why the officials’ homes can be left alone, but the ordinary people’s homes have to be snatched away,” he told Reuters in the tent he set up next to his home that is still standing.
“There must be two kinds of policies: one for officials and another for ordinary people.”
Land disputes are common across China, but the issue takes on new ramifications in areas dominated by ethnic Tibetans.
Tibetans make up one of the most discontented minorities, resentful of the ruling Communist Party and the majority Han Chinese. Thirty-four Tibetans have set themselves on fire to denounce Chinese rule since March 2011.
While most Tibetans live in what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region, large communities are scattered across the neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan, in what is often termed “historic Tibet”.
There have been no self-immolations or violent unrest in Gyegu, but many Tibetans said they felt deprived of economic opportunities and hope.
The 6.9 magnitude earthquake on April 14, 2010 killed nearly 3,000 people, devastated Gyegu and forced about 80 percent of its residents to seek shelter in squalid camps.
Thousands live in tents lacking running water and reliable electricity, pitched alongside damaged houses or in an open area previously used to race horses.
While many government structures were rebuilt, residential areas were laid to waste and many residents live amid rubble alongside a canal that stinks of human excrement and rubbish.
“I told the county secretary: ‘You’re all robbers. You’re looting a burning house”, said Baobao, a former soldier with the People’s Liberation Army.
Baobao and other witnesses said that on April 12, almost two years to the day after the disaster, the government dispatched an eight-man anti-riot squad to the street where many protesters live to try to frighten them into backing down.
But the demonstrations continued unabated.
An official with the prefecture government said he had no knowledge of the situation.
Baobao said he was the only resident offered compensation — 220,000 yuan ($34,000) for his home, far below its 800,000 yuan valuation.
In March 2011, 4,000 Tibetans demanding their land be left untouched blocked a road leading to the provincial capital, said Jamdrol, 63, a former nomad. On the third day, police broke up the protest and detained several participants.
INFLUX OF HAN
The eco-tourism plans have fuelled fears of a mass influx of Han Chinese, few of whom learn Tibetan.
“If this large-scale migration is realised, then it will have a very large impact on the traditional culture of ethnic Tibetans,” said Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer based in Beijing.
Though Tibetan residents say they have secured some financial help from the government, many are critical of the pace and the policies of reconstruction.
Tibetans also say the government has barred locals from rebuilding. Most of the construction of schools, hospitals and buildings owned by Chinese companies are done by Han Chinese workers – mostly migrants from Sichuan.
Repeated calls to officials seeking comment went unanswered.
Gyegu is 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level on the Tibetan highlands. Most of the Yushu prefecture’s 380,000 residents are ethnic Tibetans and many are former nomads, among the poorest groups in Qinghai, itself China’s third-poorest province.
After the earthquake, the authorities told Amdo, a former nomad, that the 2 hectares (five acres) of grassland he had owned would be taken by the government. They gave no reason.
Officials had first promised Amdo a free house and money in 1995 in exchange for him giving up his herd and relocating to the nearest town. He moved but got nothing in return.
“I petitioned the government to solve my housing problem but there was no effect,” said Amdo, dressed in a sheepskin robe.
Trinley Palmo, 56, another nomadic herder, said the authorities tore down her house in the grasslands after the earthquake, citing safety concerns. Her family was moved into an 80 square-meter (850 sq.foot) brick home in a resettlement area on the outskirts of Gyegu – one of almost 70,000 such households.
An official with Gyegu’s Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Department said resettlement “should not have any detrimental impact” on the nomads’ cultural and religious beliefs.
“Most of the farmers and herdsmen are still in favour of resettlement,” the official, identifying himself by his surname Li, said by telephone.
But Andrew Fischer, an expert in rural development in Tibetan areas at the Netherlands-based International Institute of Social Studies, said the policy was “poorly conceived”.
“They (The nomads) are coming from fairly prosperous subsistence-based rural areas … so it’s a bit of an insult to their dignity to assume that they can huddle into the market and sell bread or something alongside local traders,” he said.
Many residents said they had seen no benefits. Tashi Nyima, 35 and a former herder, worried about feeding his family.
“If the government policy changes, I would go back to herding,” he said, after trading goods outside a storefront.
After snowstorms last week, Jamdrol said life was tough in the two-room 20 sq. meter tent pitched outside his house. The interior was lined with wooden benches, with strips of carpet on them. His wife, Tselha, was chopping firewood for warmth.
The government may seize his land, but he says he is unafraid.
“I will persist in telling the government the land belongs to me,” Jamdrol said. “Even if they want my life, I’ll never give it up,” he said, moving his finger across his throat.