Export Credit

Tibetans oppose World Bank project

June 15, 1999

The World Bank has admitted that a number of Tibetans have objected to a project involving the immigration of tens of thousands of Chinese farmers into a Tibetan area of Qinghai province despite the risks they face of expressing their views in public. Ten per cent of Tibetans interviewed by a Chinese governmental organisation for the Bank said that they opposed the project and another 29% refused to express support for the development scheme, which has also been criticised by the US government and international campaign groups. Local farmers and herdsmen expressed concern about the ecological impact of the project and the risks of unrest due to the influx of immigrants. The Chinese government does not allow national minorities to express any opinions that are different to those of the state, claiming that this would be “detrimental to the Motherland”.

The World Bank has postponed its decision to fund the Chinese Western Poverty Reduction project following the controversy, delaying the project’s presentation to the Board of the Bank from 8 June to 22 June. The Dalai Lama, who was born in one of the counties where the new settlers will come from, Pingan (Tsongkhakhar in Tibetan) in Haidong prefecture, has appealed to the Bank to reconsider the project because of the long-term implications for the survival of Tibetan culture and national identity in the area, while US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said earlier this month that the US government was “enormously concerned” about the project and “inclined to oppose it”.

The delay may affect China’s eligibility for concessionary interest rates from the Bank, which loans more money to China than any other financial institution. It also threatens the close relationship between China and the World Bank, which provided more than US$2 billion of loans and grants to China last year. According to a reliable source, Chinese officials have told World Bank representatives in different countries that lack of support for the project will call into question their economic relationship with China.

The proposed China Western Poverty Reduction Project is a major poverty alleviation scheme which includes the relocation of 57,775 poor farmers from eastern Qinghai province – mainly Han and Hui Muslim Chinese but also including 3,466 Tibetans – west to Dulan county (Tulan in Tibetan) in the Qaidam Basin in western Qinghai. The population transfer would increase the Chinese population of the area and make Tibetans and Mongolians an even more marginal minority there, reducing the percentage of Tibetans in the area from 22.7% to 14.0%, according to World Bank figures. A summary document issued last week by the World Bank acknowledged that the percentage of Mongolians, the other indigenous inhabitants of the area, would also fall dramatically. The percentage of Hui Muslims in the area would rise from 4.6% to 33.6% and that of Han Chinese from 26.3% to 41.3%, according to World Bank figures.

A spokesman for the World Bank told TIN that 9.9% of 56 Tibetan households in the project area expressed opposition to the relocation scheme during the formal consultation process, even though officials were present and despite the risks of expressing their opinions in public. Tibetans can receive prison sentences for expressing their views in Tibet; the Chinese government does not allow national minorities to claim to any conflict between their interests and those of the Chinese state. Only 29% of the Tibetan households consulted in the survey, which was carried out by the state-controlled Qinghai Plateau Geographic Research Institute, said that they welcomed the Dulan component of the poverty alleviation scheme, with the remaining 62% stating that they were “neutral” about the implications of the project. A World Bank spokesman said that they were “encouraged” by the level of opposition to the project, as it indicated that some free expression appeared to be permitted to Tibetans. The spokesman also said that the neutrality expressed by Tibetans appeared to be “positive”.

All of the farmers and herdsmen interviewed in Dulan county expressed concern about the effects of the project on the ecology of the area, according to a second survey carried out by the World Bank among 159 households representing Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian inhabitants of the county. The Environmental Impact Assessment published by the Bank states that 100% of farmers and herdsmen interviewed in different areas in the move-in region (Balong township, Chasuhe, Qingshuihe and Yikegaoli) worry that “the cutting of vegetation will destroy the ecological environment and the wild animal and plant resources”. Twenty-one per cent of the farmers and herdsmen of different nationalities interviewed worry that the influx of immigrants and the increase in population “will cause more social unrest”, according to the World Bank report. The survey also states that the majority of these interviewees (93%) in the presence of officials “expressed their willingness to follow the arrangement of the government, willing to accept immigrants”. This response, when set in the context of the misgivings expressed regarding the environment and social unrest, suggests an awareness among the sample interviewees that to object to government policies is illegal. It is not known whether the real level of apprehension about “social unrest” between national minorities is reflected in the statistics given.

The World Bank spokesman said last week that the Bank had not been aware before carrying out the survey that Tibetans can be sentenced for offences that include “damaging national ethnic unity”. TIN is in possession of official Chinese sentencing documents which classify the “creation of ethnic disputes” or “attempts to eliminate the unity of the nationalities” as criminal offences. Three Tibetans were sentenced in 1994 in Haixi prefecture, which incorporates Dulan county, for offences that were described as “criminal activities for splitting and damaging ethnic unity”. One of the Tibetans, 29-year old Namlo Yag, was imprisoned for four and a half years for offences including “illegally organising a counter-revolutionary group” and “engaging in Tibet independence activities”. Namlo Yag, who escaped from Tibet in February and is now living in exile, said that his criticism of Chinese immigration into Tibet was included among these “independence activities”. “I opposed Chinese immigration to Tibet because it endangers the cultural and social identity of Tibetans, as well as their jobs,” Namlo Yag told TIN yesterday. “My own experience shows just how dangerous it is for Tibetans in Tibet to express their opposition to such politically sensitive issues. The Tibetans who expressed their concern about the World Bank project are really brave. It is not surprising that they have objected to a project like this, as they know better than anyone about the long-term consequences of the influx of people into a place like Dulan. It will increase tensions between Tibetans, Mongolians, and Chinese, and will lead to even more people coming in from China. Those Tibetans who expressed their dissent have stepped off the cliff. Now my biggest wish is that they should be protected, and that international organisations should do what they can to help them.”

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported today that Tibetans in the Dulan area had “expressed their vigorous support” for the project. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue was quoted as saying at a briefing today (15 June) that reports from “Western media and Tibetan splittist organisations” that “China assimilates Tibetans” were wrong. Zhang said that the World Bank funded project in Qinghai is proven to meet all criteria for World Bank loans, and that it was “in accordance with the choice of the locals, including Tibetans, who have expressed their vigorous support.” She extended an invitation to any overseas journalists to visit Qinghai “at any time” to carry out research on the issues involved.

A World Bank official who visited Dulan county last week, Director of Strategy and Operations Julian Schweitzer, said yesterday that Tibetans had given him two letters about the project. Both letters expressed support for the project and appeared to represent the viewpoint of the local authorities. “Mongolians, Tibetans and Han Chinese have been living in the Qinghai region for many generations, and Qinghai belongs to all the people in the region,” stated one of the letters, which was addressed to the President of the World Bank. “The movement of people to different areas will not affect the identity of a nationality. We welcome the financial assistance of the World Bank and our government’s support.” Julian Schweitzer said that it would be the highest priority for the World Bank to ensure that there were no consequences for the Tibetans who had expressed opposition to the project during the consultation process.

China-World Bank ties under threat

The controversy over the project following a news report by TIN on 27 April has called into question the World Bank’s close relationship with China. Last month Chinese officials were reported to have said that they may “re-evaluate their relationship with the World Bank” and even stop borrowing from the Bank unless the project was approved. A reliable source indicates that the World Bank’s President, James Wolfensohn, is aware that the resolution of the controversy over the project may be seen as indicative of the level of success of reforms he has tried to introduce at the Bank. Since he became President of the Bank in June 1995, Wolfensohn has aimed to introduce a greater degree of accountability within the Bank, incorporating a more effective response to criticism of Bank projects by external organisations and individuals. If the project is approved by the Board, the only further recourse for groups critical of the project is to the Bank’s Inspection Panel.

The timing of the presentation of the Dulan project to the Board this month is particularly sensitive, as China’s eligibility for International Development Association (IDA) funds expires at the end of June, and a delay would mean that the Bank would have to reclassify the funds. The aim of IDA funding is to offer concessionary terms to countries judged to be too poor to borrow at commercial rates; interest-free loans, technical assistance and policy advice are provided to promote growth and reduce poverty in a number of countries including China. Borrowers pay a fee of less than one per cent of the loan to cover administrative costs and repayment is extended over a period of about 40 years.

China has been a member of the World Bank since 1981 and has been the Bank’s largest recipient of investment financing since 1992. World Bank lending to China in the 1998 fiscal year totalled $2.62 billion (including $293.4 million in IDA funds) for 31 projects in 23 provinces in China. “Close collaboration with the Chinese government has been established,” the World Bank states in the Staff Appraisal Report for the China Western Poverty Reduction Project, which includes the relocation of farmers into Dulan county as the Qinghai component. “The Bank Group has played an active role in the development of the new national strategy for reducing absolute poverty in the 1990s.” According to their Country Brief on China in September 1997, the World Bank’s priorities in China include reform of the tax system and of state-owned enterprises; budget management; the building of railways, highways, ports, power stations and other parts of the infrastructure, and the intensification of agriculture and energy efficiency.

The World Bank states that the aim of the China Western Poverty Reduction Project is to alleviate poverty in the region. World Bank funding will also contribute towards the fulfilment of the Chinese government’s aim to develop an infrastructure in the region in order to exploit mineral resources. “It is likely that Tibetans will view the Dulan project as an effort to import non-Tibetan farmers who will feed non-Tibetan workers who have come to the prefecture of Haixi to exploit the region’s abundant mineral deposits – which China’s constitution appropriates to Beijing as ‘state property’,” states a briefing paper issued by the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) on 8 June. “It is a formula in which Tibetans view themselves as predetermined losers, culturally, demographically and economically. The Bank is equally likely to be viewed as complicit in this wider effort, whether or not the Bank acknowledges awareness of the economic landscape beyond Dulan.”

Criticism by Tibetans in exile

A Tibetan nun who left Dulan county in 1996 has told TIN that the continued influx of Hui Muslim and Han Chinese into the county adversely affects the livelihoods of Tibetans. “More and more Han Chinese and Salar people [who are Muslims of Turkic origin, and also not indigenous to the region] are coming into Dulan,” the Tibetan nun, who now lives in exile in India, told TIN. “This project will bring in many more people. This really harms the livelihood of Tibetans because we lose more of our land. Also, it means we have to pay more tax in order to subsidise the economic development of the county.”

The Tibetan nun, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions for her relatives in Tibet, confirmed that mining in the county was a key priority for the local authorities. “Iron, copper and lead are currently being mined in Dulan and there is a great deal of mineral prospecting for different ores throughout the county, frequently causing environmental damage; the grass often doesn’t grow properly in the pasturelands and so our livestock are affected,” she said. “Most of the people who work in the mines are Chinese and Muslims (Salar or Hui people).”

The Tibetan nun said that she feared for the future of Tibetans in Dulan county if the World Bank scheme went ahead. “Our parents used to tell us that the Panchen Lama was dead and that the Dalai Lama is in India, so we should not speak up; if we complained we would suffer consequences from the authorities. It is only now I am in exile that I can express my opinion that the relocation of people into Dulan county should not go ahead.”

Another Tibetan from Qinghai province, who is also living in exile, told TIN that birth control policies became more “aggressive” when there was an influx of Chinese into an area. “People in Qinghai worry about the birth control policies becoming more aggressive because the government tells locals that there is ‘too little land for too many people’, and so they must have stricter quotas on the number of children allowed per family,” the Tibetan said. “Many Chinese people have been moving into Qinghai province since the early 1960s, and they have taken a great deal of the good land for farming and industrialisation. As a result of this, many Tibetans and Mongolians are forced to abandon the nomadic life because of the shortage of grassland.”

Further opposition to the project among Tibetans was expressed in two letters received from Dulan county by the International Campaign for Tibet, with one of the letters stating that the relocation project was “evidence of the Chinese policy of the ethnic cleansing of the Tibetan people.” A World Bank official told TIN: “The letters expressing the feelings of Tibetans concerned underscore the enormous sensitivity of this project, and they echo concerns that have been consistently expressed in recent meetings by World Bank staff and management with various groups. These concerns basically indicate that there were many dimensions to this project that we frankly did not appreciate at the time of project preparation.”

The Bank official also said that the visit of one of his most senior colleagues, Julian Schweitzer, the Director of Strategy and Operations, to Dulan last week reflected the concern of the Bank over criticisms expressed of the project. “It is unprecedented for such a senior official to visit the project area at this stage,” said the Bank spokesman. “It is a very unusual step for us and reflects very clearly our desire to check up on as much of the detail and the queries raised as possible.” Julian Schweitzer told TIN that he saw no evidence of “tensions” in the region and that there was evidence that the cultural identity and religion of Tibetans was being preserved.

The summary paper released by the World Bank last week claims that the project will not “dilute the Tibetan population” of Dulan county because the relocation is to be carried out in the same province, Qinghai. However, although Qinghai was declared a province of China in 1929, absorbing the traditional Tibetan area of Amdo, there was little centralised control. Earlier this century, thousands of people in Qinghai died as indigenous Tibetans and Mongols resisted armed colonisation by Chinese Hui Muslims. The ICT briefing paper states that the World Bank “has inadvertently positioned itself to rekindle hostilities which have cooled during the past 50 years”. The ICT paper states: “It is unlikely that Tibetans in Dulan county would view the arrival of nearly 50,000 Chinese, Hui and Salar as being significantly different in nature than what their fathers and grandfathers may have died resisting. Tibetan expressions of anger at this project are not made lightly. While the Bank has compared this to a move ‘from Paris to Lyon’, a more appropriate comparison might be from Belgrade to Pristina.”

Mongolians and Tibetans are the indigenous inhabitants of Dulan county; the displacement and marginalisation of Tibetan farmers on the river plains began in the 1920s, and accelerated after the Communist Party came to power in 1949. The continued dilution of the Tibetan population could lead the area to lose its status of “nationality autonomy” – Dulan is officially designated an area of “Tibetan” autonomy within Qinghai. Despite assurances from the provincial authorities in Qinghai to the World Bank that the autonomous status of the prefecture would continue to be respected and that the province would continue to guarantee the rights of Tibetans, the final decision on any change of status for an autonomous prefecture is made by the State Council in Beijing, and not at provincial level.

The proposed transfer of settlers into the Qaidam Basin area in Qinghai is part of a major World Bank development project involving other parts of Qinghai, neighbouring Gansu province and Inner Mongolia and costing $334 million. The $40 million of resettlement funds proposed by the World Bank to fund the resettlement of the farmers from five counties to Dulan county in Haixi prefecture is in part a loan to be repaid by the new settlers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s