The program is known as the New Socialist Countryside, and has provided up to 2.1 million Tibetans with running water, electricity, and access to improved healthcare and education in the past 7 years. Run by planners in Beijing, the program is ostensibly aimed at raising living standards and improving the economy of Tibet, one of the poorest regions within China.

However, a recent report by Human Rights Watch suggests that the program has had a severe effect on the traditional Tibetan way of life. Says Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch, “…while it may be true that some Tibetans have benefitted, the majority have simply been forced to trade poor but stable livelihoods for the uncertainties of a cash economy in which they are often the weakest actors.”

Having observed the income disparity between rural and urban dwellers, the Chinese government has relocated nearly three-quarters of Tibetans to urban areas. However, upon arriving in cities, rural Tibetans can’t compete with immigrants from other regions of China, nor with educated locals who speak Mandarin. As such, large portions of the population are being moved, supposedly voluntarily, but not being given a support structure once resettled that would allow them to survive in a setting wholly foreign to their previous nomadic lifestyle.

There are many claims for the motives of the government, including protecting the ecologically fragile grasslands of the Tibetan plateau, and facilitating improved utility distribution for the population, but at the same time the thought lingers that the relocations have more to do with control of the population and improving rural incomes to avoid unrest.

120 self-immolations have taken place in Tibet in the past five years. Sadly, civil unrest is an ongoing theme in Tibet, and with governmental policies such as New Socialist Countryside, improvement is a double-edged sword.

– David Wilson

Sources: NY Times, Huffington Post