The End of the Roam? under a Banner of Modernisation and Conservation, China Is Quietly Moving Tibet's Nomadic Peoples from Their Land. Poorly Educated, Unskilled and Ruthlessly Exploited by Corrupt Officials, Many Are Now Struggling to Survive

By McGuire, Lizzie | Geographical, September 2006 | Go to article overview

The End of the Roam? under a Banner of Modernisation and Conservation, China Is Quietly Moving Tibet's Nomadic Peoples from Their Land. Poorly Educated, Unskilled and Ruthlessly Exploited by Corrupt Officials, Many Are Now Struggling to Survive


McGuire, Lizzie, Geographical


Cheola and her three children live in a brothel. The derelict three-storey building in central Ganzi, eastern Tibet, is also used as a toilet; human faeces cover the staircase and abandoned rooms, and rats scuttle about in the darkened corners.

But the 32-year-old has still managed to make a home out of her small concrete box; the smashed window is lined with plastic she found on the rubbish tip, keeping the snow, sleet and midnight chills outside. Below it sits a small framed picture of the Dalai Lama and some wildflowers in a plastic vase.

With a ten-month-old baby on the breast, two children aged seven and nine, no literacy skills and speaking little Mandarin, it's almost impossible for Cheola to find work. The family survives off the loose change her children collect from the religious pilgrims who pass through town; concerned neighbours foot the 30 RMB (2 [pounds sterling]) monthly rent for the brothel's threadbare room. "If it wasn't for my neighbours. I would probably be dead," she says. A former nomad, Cheola is one of many who've been driven off their traditional grazing land by the Chinese government's quest to develop the country's hinterland.

I came to know Cheola through her seven-year-old daughter Tsering-Dolma an indomitable, magnetic little waif I invited to breakfast one cold spring day. It was -10[degrees]C in Ganzi Chinese bao-zi shops a refuge from the snow and sleet. She was dressed for a balmy summer's day; a torn synthetic coat only just concealing her thin arms, broken flip fops shielding mud-caked toes.

It was taxation that sent Cheola and her family bankrupt. They were forced to pay levies on everything her family produced, including milk cheese, wool and meat, as well as on the grazing land and grass they used, schooling (although they couldn't afford to send the children to school), their children and their animals. Eventually evicted from the land that had sustained their ancestors for several thousand years, the family was sent to Ganzi, a former garrison town on the highway to Lhasa. Her husband left to find work in China's cities, and after a few nights sleeping on the streets, Cheola came to the brothel. She says government officials still ask her for money, but with the children only managing to scrounge around 3 RMB a day from begging, it's unlikely she'll be able to pay what she owes any time soon.

Taxed into submission

Officially, collecting taxes from China's nomadic populations was outlawed by Beijing during the 14th Party Congress in 1994. But unable to gain access to such information and hounded by corrupt officials, many continue to pay. Demands range from the obscure--a 'medicinal plant' tax, for example--to the ridiculous: a 'milk tax' not only bore upon yaks used for milking, but male yaks, sheep and, in some cases, even dogs. People are often forced to pay the same tax twice or three times a year. The Tibetan government in exile has reported that others have been murdered for not complying.

Tax isn't a foreign concept to the tribes of eastern Tibet. Formerly living in feudal serfdoms, the nomads were obliged to remunerate tribal chiefs or monastery lamas in return for access to grazing land and protection from warring neighbours. Slavery was also common.

China's occupation and subsequent 'liberation' of the region brought eastern Tibet in from the cold. Redistributing the former kingdoms into Chinese provinces, they introduced schools and hospitals and built infrastructure. Most acknowledge that they are better off under Chinese rule: there is more money, more opportunity and a significant increase in life span. And now that the horrors of the Cultural Revolution--which saw almost 80 per cent of eastern Tibet's cultural and religious artifacts destroyed--are over, religion is practised more freely. However, China's modernisation has come at a price.

In Beijing's eyes, yak herding is an irrational, economically unviable use of grazing resources, and Tibet's nomads are being pressured to give up life in a tent and join China's booming economy. …

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