The authorities have announced that following the devastating earthquake in April, 2010, they are rebuilding the Tibetan town of Kyegu in the rural county of Yushu into a new tourist city with a Chinese name. The news intensifies concern about the exclusion of Tibetans from the reconstruction process in an area with a strong Tibetan identity, recognised by the Chinese authorities as ‘Tibetan autonomous’ and where Tibetans make up more than 90% of the population.

On April 14, 2010, a devastating 6.9 magnitude earthquake flattened the town of Kyegu in Yushu (also referred to as Jyekundo or Kyegudo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province, leaving nearly 3,000 people dead and 100,000 homeless. (ICT report, The Kyegu earthquake: six months on – October 18, 2010). Qinghai provincial governor Luo Huining said last week: “In light of the post-quake rebuilding work and Qinghai’s urbanization drive, we will build Yushu County into a city with a new temporary name of Sanjiangyuan [The Three River Sources].” (Xinhua, January 18, 2011.)

Mary Beth Markey, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Although the authorities recognize Yushu as a ‘Tibetan autonomous’ area, they are excluding Tibetan involvement in this reconstruction of a new city that is now being given a Chinese name. This contravenes their own ‘ethnic autonomy’ laws and creates further distress among those already devastated by loss and dispossession. There is also a danger that historic Tibetan buildings that survived the quake may now be razed in the reconstruction.”

A resolution was passed by the U.S. Congress on May 20, 2010 expressing condolences to those affected by the earthquake and highlighting the integral role Tibetans should have in the reconstruction. Representative Mike McMahon (D-NY), the sponsor of the resolution, described Yushu as “a cradle of Tibetan culture and religion for centuries,” and encouraged the Chinese government to “include the local Tibetan population in reconstruction plans.”

Sources with contacts in the area have told ICT that multiple projects have been proposed, and while local Tibetans have either lodged strong complaints or protested each one to date, local officials have responded that Beijing authorities are responsible for the planning and there is nothing the local officials can do. According to a report by Radio Free Asia (RFA) in June, hundreds of Tibetans protested after officials began evicting them from their land in order to claim the best locations for building schools, government offices and parks. Sources told RFA that many Tibetan families have refused to accept the government’s offer of new, yet significantly smaller, reconstructed homes in exchange for their land (RFA, Tibetans protest over land – June 3, 2010).

Although Tibetan businesses dominated the area prior to the earthquake, there has been concern in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that Tibetans who lost everything in the devastation and are trying to recover will be crowded out by Chinese migrants who will rush in to set up small businesses among the Chinese-run reconstruction efforts. According to one source with contacts in the area, local Tibetans have been excluded by private Chinese companies from jobs created by the reconstruction process in favor of Chinese laborers. The same source reports that the private companies compete for government contracts by bribing officials, furthering concerns over the accountability and lack of transparency for the millions of dollars in relief money that has flooded the area.

The politicization of the reconstruction process, including the lack of transparency over how the $1.5 billion (1.1 billion Euros) in aid money that allegedly has been donated is being handled, has made many fearful of government retribution for speaking about the current situation. Head of the Yushu prefectural government, Wang Yuhu, was quoted by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua as saying: “We rename Yushu County as Sanjiangyuan City with a view to highlighting the area’s strategic geological significance of being the source of three rivers [referring to the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers]. We will strive to build Gyegu Town into a commerce and logistics center and a tourist city featuring ethnic traditional Tibetan culture and ecological preservation.” (Xinhua, January 18, 2011.)