Following Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s second visit to Kyegudo since the devastating earthquake struck the region on April 14 killing over two thousand people, details are beginning to emerge in the official Chinese press of reconstruction plans for the worst-hit town of Kyegu, Yushu (the Tibetan area of Kham) and its surrounding areas. According to comments attributed to Premier Wen at a May 1 meeting on post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction, priority will be given to rebuilding public facilities including schools and hospitals. He also said during a visit to a temple that the government would help in the rebuilding of local monasteries. However, a government advisor overseeing the reconstruction of Kyegu also added that the rebuilt town would be “an eco-friendly tourist city,” which may suggest that reconstruction is to be more sympathetic to the interests of outside influences than those of the local Tibetan people. (Xinhua, May 2, 2010.)

The meeting on May 1 came amid reports that building new homes for Kyegu’s 100,000 homeless residents and 20,000 migrants – described as “mostly herders and farmers” – will take up to three years, and will largely be financed by the central government. (Xinhua, May 2, 2010.) ICT sources with close contacts in the region disputed the assertion that reconstruction would take three years, saying that local Tibetans would be able to rebuild their homes far sooner if they had access to the necessary materials. The same sources said that many people were unlikely to wait in Kyegu for reconstruction to start, preferring instead to stay with friends or family elsewhere – in particular while the only alternative for the time being is to remain in tents.

Given that the central government is to fund and manage reconstruction, there are concerns that local people may not have a significant role in the decision-making process surrounding reconstruction. Excluding local people from local decision-making processes already occurs under the system of “regional ethnic autonomy” in operation throughout all of Tibet, and which grants executive powers at the local level to the central authorities as a means of guiding and overseeing central government funding. Officials reportedly would not confirm whether Kyegu is to be rebuilt in the same location or elsewhere. (Xinhua, May 2, 2010.)

Environmental concerns are likely to be a significant factor in rebuilding Kyegu and other communities impacted by the earthquake. The Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow Rivers all rise within Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai, but following decades of questionable agricultural policies the area has seen rapid desertification. In an attempt to address the environmental degradation, the Chinese authorities have been pursuing a controversial policy of taking huge tracts of land out of pasture, and settling the nomadic families who lived there into purpose-built communities often on the edge of existing towns or along roads. Details of the impact of the earthquake on the pre-fabricated buildings that constitute many of these communities are not yet known. Criticism of the nomad settlement policy has so far largely been based on concerns about ending the nomadic tradition on the Tibetan plateau and the benefits it potentially has for environmental protection and biodiversity, and about the “ghetto-like” conditions arising in many of the communities. In the wake of the earthquake, there is also concern that some victims would probably have survived or escaped injury and economic loss had they still been out on the grasslands.

Kyegu is a centuries-old center of Tibetan cultural and religious traditions, and a hub of ancient trading and pilgrimage routes fanning out across Tibet and beyond. The area is home to over 100 monasteries and temples, including Thrangu Monastery, founded 1300 years ago and which was flattened in the April 14 earthquake with significant loss of life among the monastic community. (ICT report, Petition to Hu and Wen calls for Dalai Lama to visit Tibetan quake area: hundreds of monks join relief efforts – April 16, 2010.)

According to the Tibetan writer and activist Jamyang Norbu, many of the monasteries in the area suffered significant damage during a 1956 rebellion against Chinese rule; those that remained were then almost entirely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when sacred mani stones were used as paving blocks and to build latrines for Chinese military forces. (Jamyang Norbu, Kyegu, On My Mind – April 24, 2010.)

Despite the destruction of the monasteries and the decimation of the monastic community in Kyegu before and during the Cultural Revolution, the years of relative liberalization in the early 1980s saw a resurgence of religious and cultural identity in the region. The reinvigoration of local traditions then was started and led by the local community with guidance and encouragement from senior figures including the 10th Panchen Lama, while a significant amount of funding came from the central government. Premier Wen Jiabao has already said that the central government would again help with the rebuilding of the monasteries following the April 14 earthquake, but it remains to be seen this time what degree of involvement and “ownership” of the rebuilding process will be granted to the local population.