In the middle of a lengthy 2012 polemic against self-immolations in Tibet, a senior Communist Party leader said: “To improve the living standards of monks and nuns in the Tibet autonomous region, authorities have built roads to monasteries and worked to provide basic water and electrical services.”

It is not enough to denounce the burning bodies as a foreign plot; China must have an answer that negates any reason for such sacrifices. Electricity is China’s answer to any need or reason for burning the body in protest.

Tibetans might find it hard to connect these two. But to China’s leaders, roads, electricity and especially “comfortable housing” are the long term answer to all problems of Tibet. Development will solve everything. Once Tibetans have a comfortable life, even in remote areas, they will realise that they are better off under the rule of the CCP.

This might not seem obvious to Tibetans, but China’s central planners are serious. The result is that environmental concerns, development issues and Chinese politics all converge, at a specific point. That intersection is the policy blandly called “comfortable housing.”


With such a name, the policy sounds benign, or at least unobjectionable. Who would not wish for comfort? Yet this policy, in its actual implementation centralises Tibetans, removes them from ancestral pastures, brings them under the gaze of state surveillance, negates traditional livelihoods, often increases Tibetan indebtedness and poverty, and reduces proud nomads to urban fringe dwellers with no skills relevant to the modern urban cash economy.

In other countries this has been called “villagisation” or “hamletisation.” These are the words used, for example, in Ethiopia and in the Vietnam War by the US to round up scattered, decentralised populations and keep them under the eye of the state. This is a recurring impulse of imperial powers and centralising states. When Papua New Guinea was an Australian colony, the process of “civilising” the “natives” often began with bringing them down from their mountainous homes to “line villages” laid out with geometric precision, close to the coast. But the new line villagers were now exposed to malarial mosquito infections. That is just one example of the unintended consequences of the “civilising mission” driving metropolitan capitals to impose their will in remote areas.

From the perspective of the Chinese centre, whenever remote villagers have potable water on tap, road access to a market town, electricity or comfortable housing, a rebuilt monastery, or even basic human rights, all these things are the gift of a benevolent state. Since the local input, and hard work involved, and capital invested by the villagers, are all ignored, everything is attributed to the kindness of the centre, for which the poor, remote, backward local people should be grateful. Since it was the initiative of the state to grant such privileges, it is also the prerogative of the state to withdraw such privileges if the beneficiaries fail to be appropriately grateful. This applies equally to human rights, which in the minds of central leaders, are not inborn rights of everyone born human, but privileges extended or withdrawn by the state, according to how well behaved the local people are.


The “comfortable housing” at the heart of China’s answer to all Tibetan problems requires a much closer look. There are two extreme positions which people take, and both are wrong. At one extreme is the Chinese propaganda view, in which all new housing occupied by Tibetans is beneficial, wherever it is, irrespective of who actually bears the cost, and whether it allows people to continue living on their own land. At the other extremes some exile Tibetan activist NGOs use China’s publicised statistics on “comfortable housing” as proof that every rehoused Tibetan has been forced off their land, displaced, losing land tenure rights, livestock and livelihood. This too is an extreme.

We could say that the vague term “comfortable housing” intentionally blurs distinctions between quite differing policies, as implemented in different areas. It is hard to generalise in a sweeping way because the ways in which national policies are implemented at local level depends on local government, which is the only actual government in the lives of ordinary people. Local leaders and cadres who are of the same ethnicity as the people they govern often sympathise with local hardships, and may soften hard-line policies. Less sympathetic cadres, of ethnicities that are not local, may be more hard-line.

The most hard-line policies are enforced in Golok and Yushu prefectures, in the area China considers to be the source of its great rivers, where, in Chinese eyes, the downstream water supply is threatened by rangeland degradation which is caused by destructive nomads. In this large area, nomads are frequently “villagised” in “line villages” that are far from their customary grazing land, their land tenure documents are torn up, they are required to sell their livestock, and the new concrete settlements they are moved to may be a hundred kilometres or more from their usual pasture.

Officially they are removed in the name of a huge scientific experiment in grassland rehabilitation, which has been scientifically assessed by experts as requiring three or five years, sometimes more, with grazing pressure removed, so that the rangeland will once again become a grassland wilderness. In reality, it is now nine years since China announced, in 2003, its policy of tuimu huancao, removing animals to grow grass. But it is very hard to find any areas where drogpa nomads have been allowed to legally return. In some areas, even in the Golok and Yushu core urbanisation zone, drogpa are allowed to continue raising livestock, but with strict limits on herd size that reduce nomads to poverty, and expensive compulsory fencing (and fence maintenance) that the nomads must pay for, often requiring them to go into debt. This is unsustainable, and effectively drives nomads off their land because they cannot produce enough to meet even basic subsistence needs. This is what development experts call immiserisation or destitution.


At the other extreme are the policies being implemented in many areas of U-Tsang, or Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). This is where China’s propaganda of benevolence most closely matches reality. China is pouring money into rural TAR, in the belief that raising the incomes of rural people, even reducing the enormous gap between urban and rural incomes, is indeed the answer to China’s Tibet problem. Not only does this involve building “comfortable” housing, but a wide range of inducements and attractions designed to make Tibetans into Chinese citizens, loyal to the central state. For Tibetan families who understand that schooling (even if it has to be in Chinese medium) is essential to handling today’s world, new housing often means a move towards a town, where schools are available. Many township primary schools are closing, and much bigger primary and middle schools are constructed at county capitals, further encouraging centralisation.

As Tibetans gradually move closer to towns in TAR, more sources of income can be found, especially for young adults able to migrate seasonally into the towns and cities to work as unskilled labour on construction sites, or road building. For those who remain in the countryside, but not far from cities, China even has income generating schemes that enable Tibetan women to turn the land around the house into a chicken factory, raising chicks until they are big enough to be taken to the city for slaughter. Under this scheme, villagers are provided with day old chicks and the manufactured feed; and when the chickens have grown, they are collected and taken in to nearby Shigatse. All the villagers have to do is turn their allocated plot of land into a fenced chicken run and feed each batch for a few weeks, until they are despatched and replaced. Even though Tibetans traditionally have a deep distaste for raising animals solely for slaughter, this scheme seems to work. But not many villages are close to a major centre of urban demand, where a largely immigrant population has both the desire for meats popular with Chinese, and the income to buy them regularly. Pork consumption, based on enclosed, intensive pig rearing close to towns, is also rising quickly.
While national policy implementation varies from county to county, we could generalise and say the TAR policy is to increase cash incomes, workforce participation rates and material comfort; while the policy in areas China refuses to consider as Tibet, including Qinghai and the Tibetan Autonomous Counties of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan, are treated less favourably and even punitively.

This is an old distinction, often made by China, going back to the 18th century Qing dynasty policy, which invented Qinghai as a way of pushing the Tibetans and Mongols apart, with maximum force deployed to destroy Mongol power and the deep cultural connections of these two overlapping peoples.

In the 1950s, there was a sharp contrast between the seductive promises made to the kudrak aristocracy in U-Tsang, while China pursued ruthlessly punitive policies to subdue Kham and Amdo, which has seldom been adequately documented.
These very different approaches are all called “comfortable housing.” The concept of comfort is now the ideology of a regime that has long abandoned revolution but seeks legitimacy by holding out to all the promise of “comfort”, in the face of daily evidence that a small class of new rich bosses monopolise wealth creation.

Decoding the concept of “comfort”

“Increase living comfort” was a slogan of the 1980s encouraging sedentarisation, the building of mud walled or concrete walled houses on nomadic winter pasture. This early use of the key term “comfort” is a proxy for “civilised” which makes it appear that the welfare of the inhabitants is the purpose, rather than their productivity and contribution to China’s growth of comprehensive national power. Now comfort has become the dominant ideology.

Lenin once defined communism as socialism plus electricity. China now defines the purpose of life, and the reason Tibetan protests will fade and must fade away, to be replaced by comfort plus electricity.


Official: Tibet immolations were instigated, China Daily 3 March 2012, quoting Zhao Qizheng, spokesman for Chinese People’s Consultative Committee

“Waiting Here for Death” Forced Displacement and “Villagisation” in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region, Human Rights Watch 2012

Andreas Gruschke, Nomads without Pastures? Globalization, Regionalization, and Livelihood Security of Nomads and Former Nomads in Northern Khams, Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, 4, 2008

Melvyn C. Goldstein, Geoff Childs and Puchung Wangdui Beijing’s “People First” Development Initiative
For The Tibet Autonomous Region’s Rural Sector—A Case Study From The Shigatse Area, China Journal, 63, 2010

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1 Comment

  1. “Development will solve everything. Once Tibetans have a comfortable life, even in remote areas, they will realise that they are better off under the rule of the CCP.”

    … when the original premise that one begins action from is COMPLETELY FLAWED, no good can come from the action. In this case, the actions take decades and radically change the environment. So sad.

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