BEIJING -- In an effort to reshape rural Tibet, the Chinese government is pursuing a mass relocation project that since 2006 has moved more than two million farmers and other people from centuries-old villages into concrete, roadside settlements that often cut off inhabitants from their traditional sources of income, according to a study released Thursday by Human Rights Watch.
Citing official figures, the report said that more than two-thirds of the region's 2.7 million people had been relocated to look-alike townships.
The development project, called the New Socialist Countryside by planners in Beijing, is aimed at raising living standards and improving the economy in one of the poorest and most isolated corners of China. The program has provided as many as 2.1 million Tibetans with running water, electricity and access to better health care and schools.
But researchers at Human Rights Watch say the program has had a devastating impact on traditional Tibetan society by fracturing families, forcing nomads to give up their livestock and requiring many residents to pay for some of the costs of relocation, leaving them with sizable debts.
"It's a tectonic shift that is radically altering the way of life for the vast majority of Tibetans who have no say in the design and implementation of these policies," said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch who helped write the report, which is based on official documents and on interviews with local residents. "Many Tibetans do not know what hit them."
Coupled with a crackdown on dissent and "stability maintenance" efforts that include stepped-up surveillance in communities across the Tibetan plateau, the study paints the portrait of a society increasingly shaped and managed by the state. Since its invasion by Chinese troops in 1950, the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as Tibet is officially known, has been transformed by generous investment from Beijing, but also by restrictions on religious life at Buddhist monasteries and educational policies that favor instruction in Mandarin over the Tibetan language in local schools.
Many of those policies have intensified since 2008, when deadly ethnic rioting rocked Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Since then, long-simmering grievances have found expression in a spate of self-immolations, with at least 120 monks, nuns and ordinary Tibetans setting fire to themselves in a protest campaign that has led to even greater restrictions.
Beijing has sealed off large areas of the Tibetan plateau to outsiders, barring foreign journalists and limiting access by diplomats, Western tourists and non-Chinese researchers. Earlier this week, Gary F. Locke, the American ambassador to China, began a rare three-day visit to Tibet, the first time an ambassador from the United States had been given permission to visit the region since 2010, according to an embassy spokesman.
Robert J. Barnett, the director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University, said the plan of mass relocations was created a decade ago in response to data suggesting an alarming income gap between rural and urban Tibetans. "Beijing wanted to bring up rural incomes to avoid unrest," he said. "They've been really successful in doing that, but they got the unrest anyway."
Such Maoist-style social engineering is not new in China, but researchers say it has an especially detrimental effect on the Tibetan nomads who for centuries ranged across the high-altitude pastures spanning Tibet and parts of four adjoining provinces. According to the state media, over the past decade more than a million herders have been resettled in townships, a relocation effort that officials often describe as voluntary.
But Mr. Barnett and other outside experts say the relocations, which are ostensibly designed to protect the ecologically fragile grasslands, are coercive, leaving nomads without the goats and yaks that sustained them. Unable to compete with ethnic Han Chinese migrant workers or educated Tibetans who speak Mandarin, many former herders survive off government subsidies and the odd construction job. Alcoholism is common, he and other experts say. "The cultural cost of disrupting this nomadic life is hard to measure but the price is high," he said.
Zha Luo, an ethnic Tibetan and a rural development expert at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, rejected the suggestion that government-run relocation programs were hurting Tibetan culture.
"It's not like they are relocated to Henan or mixed into other communities," he said, referring to a province in central China. "They still keep their calendar, holidays and customs."
He added that most Tibetans were eager for the creature comforts of modernity. "I grew up in a herder family," he said. "It is miserable in the winter. When the bitter cold comes, the elderly have no hospital to go to and no medicine."
The new housing does not come free. Despite glowing reports in the official media that feature appreciative Tibetans, Mr. Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said that residents were sometimes required to pay up to 75 percent of the cost of new homes that even government inspectors have found deficient. A 2009 report issued by the State Council, China's cabinet, noted that some of the developments lacked "a rational design" or had been built in areas prone to landslides.
Still, the researchers found a degree of satisfaction among some Tibetans, especially those who had prospered from the housing boom. But many others worried about how they would survive once construction ended and government stipends ran out.
"They don't have any other skills than farming, and won't have any herds or land worth speaking of anymore," Tenzin Gyaltso, a villager from Gyama, told researchers. "How is the next generation to survive as Tibetans?"
For Mr. Bequelin, the program has become another means for managing a population that has long resisted government control. Arrayed alongside major roads, the settlements make it more cost effective to provide utilities, he said, but also allow closer supervision by the authorities.
"Since the state couldn't reach the Tibetan countryside," he said, "they decided the Tibetan countryside should be moved to make it more accessible to the state."
Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.