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Reconstruction slow in Tibetan town


Adrienne Mong

Very little reconstruction can be seen in the centre of Jiegu town.

YUSHU, QINGHAI PROVINCE— If the pace of reconstruction after an earthquake were measured by the to-ing and fro-ing of traffic, Jiegu should have been rebuilt by now. 

The town, which is also known as Gyegu or Jyekundo by Tibetans, sits on the Tibetan Plateau some 12,000 feet above sea level.  In April last year, it was leveled by a quake measuring 6.9, killing around 2,700 people.

The main road running through the town is now clogged with vehicles: trucks ferrying all manner of construction materials (steel, lumber, rocks, cement), bulldozers, minivans transporting people, green-colored taxis, and police vehicles.  (The last were especially prominent; we reckoned one out of every five vehicles was a police car.) 

Before the quake struck, Jiegu was a dusty town known for its vibrant Tibetan population (estimates ranged from 90 to 97 per cent of the 80,000 people as being ethnic Tibetans) and its convenience as a base from which to explore the magnificent valley of Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province. 

Reconstruction where?

Today, Jiegu is one giant tent city.

Although there were some newly-built homes along the main road leading from the Yushu airport into town, everywhere else was dotted with tell-tale bright blue canvas.  The townspeople had endured winter in these tents—which for the most part have no heating or power although we did see the occasional generator and a Tibetan later told me that some families had stoves inside the tents.

So what of the government’s $4.87 billion-redevelopment effort?

Adrienne Mong

Tent cities in Yushu County, 15 months after the quake struck.

Despite reports by state-run news agency Xinhua that reconstruction has been steaming ahead, we saw a community that still looked as though it had just emerged from a quake. 

Rubble was strewn everywhere, even if at times it was tidy.  The main road was torn up, unpassable in some parts when the rain rendered it to mud.  Collapsed buildings still sit along the edge of Jiegu.

For once, in a Chinese town, I saw virtually no cranes.  In fact, very few construction sites could be spotted anywhere in town.  Bulldozers, when they weren’t driving up and down the road, remained idle in lots.  The main hive of construction activity was a section of road being repaired.

In the centre of Jiegu, in Gesar Square, only one thing remained completely intact: the enormous and rather fearsome-looking statue of King Gesar.  Surrounding it, in a neat grid formation, are more tents.

Although it wasn’t obvious on the rainy afternoon we walked around the Square, most of these tents were occupied by ethnic Chinese migrants who’d flocked to Yushu to work on reconstruction projects.  The Tibetan residents, I later learned, had been moved to the outskirts.

From a distance, rows of what looked like more tents were lined up on a hill overlooking the fork in the main road.  Upon closer inspection, the “tents” were greenhouses for growing produce that local ethnic Chinese told me were for “migrant workers.”

A Chinese city like any other

Adrienne Mong

The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall outside Jiegu is considered the world's largest, with an estimated two billion "prayer" stones.

“The government wants to make Yushu an eco-tourist destination,” a Tibetan scholar who wished to be unnamed told me.  A Qinghai native, he has traveled to the region over the years.  “They want it to look like Zhongdian [another predominantly Tibetan city in Yunnan].”

Indeed.  Locals told us the buildings that had survived the quake were all torn down, even the ones that had escaped damage.

“They were fine, no damage,” said a Chinese taxi driver.  “The government got rid of them because they want to put up all new buildings.  The town will be completely new.”

None of that is a secret.  In fact, it was reported earlier this year that provincial authorities are seeking to promote Yushu as a major Tibetan tourist destination.

But individuals involved with rebuilding in Jiegu told me confidentially that they’ve seen the local government’s blueprint for the new town, and “it looks just like any other Chinese city.”

Moreover, they say and reports suggest, officials are managing the reconstruction much like they’ve managed the upgrade of Chinese cities across the country: by force, with little public consultation, and without fair compensation to residents who have been relocated.

Families in Jiegu have been told they will be allocated homes measuring 861 square feet (80 square meters) regardless of the size of the household or of their previous home.  Moreover, the new residences will be located nowhere near their original site.  And compensation, according to Woeser, a Tibetan writer who runs a popular blogsite in China, is only a fraction of their market worth.

“People feel insecure,” said the individuals who told me about the town plan.   “They don’t know whether they will really get a new home and they don’t trust what’s going to happen to them.”

Reasons for the delay

Adrienne Mong

Collapsed buildings still sit on the side of the road out of Jiegu.

Ordinary Chinese working in Yushu agreed the reconstruction was moving at a snail’s pace.

The woman who managed the hotel at which we stayed hails from Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital--near the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake that left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing. 

She came to Jiegu back in September to help run the hotel that was constructed after the quake, a rare building with power and running hot water.

“This is nothing like the reconstruction in Sichuan,” she said.  “They’re rebuilding much faster there.”

“It’s the Tibetans,” said Mr. Luo, an ethnic Chinese from Nanchong, also in Sichuan, who moved to Jiegu two years ago, because it was cheaper here to buy a car and make money as a cab driver. “They are preventing the rebuilding from happening quickly.  It’s hard to communicate with them.”

Reports in the state-run media that have acknowledged delays have, in turn, attributed them to the harsh weather and high elevation. 

But Caixin Weekly, an independent Chinese-language publication, suggests it’s “people and institutions.”  In a comprehensive report, the magazine details conflicts at every step and every level: between local and provincial authorities, between residents and officials, between government agencies, and between local officials and state-owned companies awarded the construction contracts.

And there are other signs tension is building.  Earlier this year, during the spring, there were reports that thousands of Tibetans had staged a sit-in to protest their treatment in the reconstruction.

Finger-pointing of a familiar tenor is also evident, with the authorities seeking to cast blame for problems on external “forces.”

"The formerly thriving NGO (nongovernmental organization) community there has been decimated and stifled by official threats and paranoia,” said Robbie Barnett, Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. 

Barnett noted that the Politburo Standing Committee’s first official reaction to the quake, in which policy for the disaster was being set, was to say, “Foreign hostile forces have attempted to disrupt relief work.” 

While the Chinese language papers carried the statement by Politburo member Jia Qinglin, the English-language papers and Xinhua in English left out the remark, saying instead “should warmly receive all overseas Tibetans who requested to donate to the quake-hit areas or come back to China.”

But for some of the ethnic Chinese living in Yushu, the delays are no matter. 

“The local economy is very hot right now,” said Mr. Luo, the cab driver.  “I’ve had very good business.”  He plans to continue working through the reconstruction period and then will decide whether to stay on.  “It’s okay.  It’s taken me a while to get used to the place.  I like it, but the local people are not easy to work with.”

With additional research by Xu Yuan.