Tibetan herders get used to their new lives as China tackles poverty

Jun Mai
·7-min read

Deji Baizhen cannot remember how many lunches she skipped in the first few months after more than 600 Tibetan herdsmen settled in her village in 2017.

Phone calls poured in, as she ran between houses to change light bulbs for her fellow Tibetans, who reported power outages. Unclogging toilets filled with daily garbage was not uncommon.

The herdsmen used to live in tents and followed the seasonal grass on the mountains, and had little knowledge of modern amenities and appliances.

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“Their old lifestyle seemed very traditional but they have to be changed to get rid of poverty,” said Baizhen, the Communist Party chief of Caiqutang village, which is 90km (56 miles) from Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet autonomous region in western China.

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The village is part of a social engineering project to relocate 266,000 people, or 8 per cent of the region’s population, away from their homes in impoverished areas to places with better jobs, education and health care.

“I’m also from an ordinary herdsmen family,” said Baiznen, 36, who is fluent in both Mandarin and Tibetan. “I’m not trying to force them to change their lifestyle, it’s just that we have to pursue better lives,” she said, insisting the programme was voluntary.

Baizhen said she also helped to “phase out negative religious influence” of her fellow Tibetans.

“It’s in my talking points for every village meeting,” she said. “The Communist Party provides us with good houses and [other] policies. [Our life has benefited from] these policies and they are not offerings for the Buddhas.”

Baizhen is one of many officials who have been sent to villages to fulfil Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge to lift the rural population above the national poverty line – set at the annual household income of 4,000 yuan – by the end of this year.

The poverty alleviation campaign involves relocating people from remote areas, building new residential areas, providing state-subsidised education, retraining adults and developing employment programmes.

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In Tibet, about 74.5 billion yuan has been spent on poverty alleviation programmes since 2016, two-thirds of which came from the central government, according to official figures.

Baizhen’s village was built in 2017 to accommodate 150 families, all of which previously lived below the poverty line and had been classed as having “fallen into poverty because of illness”.

Each family has at least one member with a serious rheumatic disease, which is common in high altitude areas.

Medical facilities, including a hot spring centre, were built in the village to help treat the patients.

One villager said the government paid for the relocation, treatment and jobs training.

The average household income in the village is now about 16,000 yuan a year, Baizhen said.

A village house in Shigatse. Photo: Jun Mai
A village house in Shigatse. Photo: Jun Mai

“The relocations do contribute to human development in terms of education, health care and opportunities for broadened cultural interactions,” said Barry Sautman, an expert on Tibetan issues at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“Poverty alleviation programmes are an investment in political stability in Tibet as they are everywhere.”

But such programmes alone cannot guarantee stability, he said.

“Policies that address non-economic concerns are also needed.”

A man herds yaks in Gyangze county, during a government-organised tour of the Tibet autonomous region. Photo: Reuters
A man herds yaks in Gyangze county, during a government-organised tour of the Tibet autonomous region. Photo: Reuters

More than 90 per cent of Tibet’s more than 3 million residents are ethnic Tibetans many of whom follow the exiled Dalai Lama, the religious leader Beijing regards as a separatist.

The issue is at heart of the region’s political stability. Ethnic unrest rocked Lhasa in the late 1980s and in 2008, and there were dozens of self-immolation of Tibetan monks in 2011 and 2012.

International pressure on Beijing’s Tibetan policies, which critics say suppress religious freedoms and expression, has been on the rise, especially in the past year amid US-China tensions.

The US government passed a bill in January that bolstered Washington’s support for human rights in Tibet. In October, Lobsang Sangay, the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, became the first political head of the exiled group to be hosted in the US state department.

Beijing has dismissed all international support for Tibet’s human rights as interference in its domestic affairs, arguing that it has brought prosperity to the region.

“We must question the central government’s reliance on economic development as the sole indicator of progress,” said Todd Stein, a former US state department official under Barack Obama who worked on Tibet and human rights issues in China.

“In the case of nomads, their economic indicators may go up if they are resettled in government-built housing, but they may feel poorer in terms of social, spiritual or self-identity ways,” Stein said. “It is a function of the central government’s paternalism.”

Stein said all decisions are primarily made within a power structure dominated by the Han majority and Communist Party ideology.

But officials like Baizhen say they are saving lives. She said a villager was sent to a surgery hours after reporting a stroke last year.

“He said if he was still in his old pastureland, the result would have been different,” she said, adding that communication and traffic was far worse in the vast areas of the Tibetan plateau.

The villager recovered and now works at a tourism project in the village.

During a reporting trip to the region, journalists were shown a chicken factory in Xietongmeng county near the city of Shigatse, where breeding chickens were sold to nearby villagers at cost, if their families were identified as impoverished.

Another factory produces biscuits and brews beer using highland barleys bought from villagers at about 10 per cent above the market price. A manager of the company said the company had yet to find a stable market for the products as Chinese customers were not familiar with them.

Neither of the factories is profitable.

People work at a fungi farm in Shigatse. Photo: Reuters
People work at a fungi farm in Shigatse. Photo: Reuters

Scott Rozelle, a development economist at Stanford University, said China needed to look at the challenges it would face after 2020.

“China’s future problems will be about finding employment for large shares of those in the rural economy as China’s economy moves towards becoming a high income, large scale, high technology economy,” he said.

Wages in the informal economy were growing slower and there would be fewer jobs available in the formal sector as China upgraded its industries, he said.

But for Baizhen, the toughest battle was about to end. She said the herdsmen had changed much in the past three years, and she no longer needed to convince them to sell their cattle – something traditional Tibetans caution against because of their Buddhist beliefs.

Gone were the frustrations when she first tried to convince a nearby factory to hire the herdsman, who all walked out on the second day because they were not used to a fixed schedule.

“They start to want different things in life now, they want to make money, they want better clothes,” she said.

“The next stage will be trying to make the projects sustainable … and the continuation of the ‘four talks and four loves’.”

Zhawang is a former herdsman who now lives with his family in Caiquhong, where he works as a security guard. Photo: Jun Mai
Zhawang is a former herdsman who now lives with his family in Caiquhong, where he works as a security guard. Photo: Jun Mai

Tibetans are no strangers to the idiom. Zhawang, 43, a former herdsman who works in the village’s kindergarten as a security guard, has a poster on his wall that reads: “Talk about gratefulness for the party, love the core; talk about unity, love the motherland,” read the poster in the living room. “Talk about contribution, love your home; talk about being civilised, love your life.”

Also hanging in the living room is a sketched portrait of Xi, drawn by Zhawang’s eldest son, who is in college.

“He was a translator for a poverty alleviation programme last summer [when he drew it],” he said.

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