GANGCA, China — It is 1 p.m. in the small Tibetan restaurant. Four middle-aged men crowd around a low table strewn with bottles of beer. As the afternoon goes on, more men join them, sporting gold teeth and thick sheepskin robes slung over jeans. They are resettled nomads, and without their flocks, I am told, they don’t have much else to do but drink.
Media attention on Tibet has focused on Tibetans who set themselves on fire to protest political and religious repression under Chinese rule. But in places like this small, dusty town, located high on the Tibetan plateau in the western Chinese province of Qinghai, the most widespread problem is the dislocation of nomadic communities that comes with rapidly enforced top-down development.
For most herdsmen, life on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau had changed little for centuries before the Chinese Communist Party began to ramp up its investment there two decades ago. Professing to know what was best for Tibetans, Beijing set out on a “civilizing mission” in these regions, with decidedly mixed results.
On the one hand, even the Dalai Lama says Tibetans should be grateful for what China has bought them: roads, infrastructure, health care and schools. On a visit to Gangca earlier this month, I saw a large new hospital and well-maintained sports fields at the school. Housing developments painted a cheery canary yellow dotted the slopes behind the main street.
But Beijing has also severely curtailed freedoms for Tibetans across China, prompting the Dalai Lama to accuse it of “cultural genocide.” Tibetan-language schools have been closed down. Monasteries are often subject to permanent police surveillance and compulsory patriotic Chinese education. Last year, Beijing distributed over one million portraits of Communist leaders and Chinese flags to display in temples, schools and rural homes in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Images of Tibet’s own spiritual leader the Dalai Lama are forbidden.
The Chinese government has also undermined Tibetan nomads’ claim to land by ordering the fencing of private pastures and resettling populations, often forcibly. Since that campaign started in the 1990s — accelerating over the last decade — more than one million Tibetan herders across the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Tibetan-populated regions of western China have been resettled. According to the state-run China Daily, the government spent almost $550 million from 2009 to 2012 on the resettlement of Tibetan nomads in Qinghai.
Herders have traded their livestock and their lifestyle for a small annual stipend. They often relocate to compounds in town — like the colorful ones I saw — where local officials can monitor their activities more easily. “People who live in these houses look at it like a jail,” one young Tibetan told me. “The community is gone.”
What’s left of it is being turned into a social underclass. Many older Tibetan nomads are illiterate, and aside from irregular construction work there is little they can find to support themselves once their stipend runs out. Those who cannot speak Chinese complain of being treated with contempt; they say shopkeepers of ethnic Han origin order them not to touch produce.
One bright young teacher who speaks fluent English told me he dreams of heading to the provincial capital Xining, just over three hours away by bus. But with his patchy Mandarin, the city is like a different world, and for now he is stuck working in his tiny hometown.
A few are luckier. My guide, an astute, self-deprecating 30-year-old, grew up on the plateau in a semi-nomadic family. Thanks to educational opportunities that weren’t available to his parents, he speaks both English and Mandarin well. During our visit, he sported an expensive Nike coat and used an iPhone 5. He has a job in Chengdu, a vast Chinese metropolis, which pays almost $1,300 a month, and seems excited about the future.
When we went to his old house — one of a scattering of pretty winter cottages on vast grasslands where yaks graze — his family and friends were exuberant about his good fortune, as he handed out gifts for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. But their joy was mixed with wistfulness: This young man’s success, which has taken him away from his home village, also marks the erosion of his community.
“Once you have been to school, it’s really hard to go back to being a nomad,” he said. “Right now I can’t go back to watching animals. It’s boring.”
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore