On April 14, 2010, a devastating 6.9 magnitude earthquake flattened the town of Kyegu in a sparsely populated, Tibetan rural area in present-day Yushu (also referred to as Jyekundo or Kyegudo), Qinghai province. The earthquake left 2,698 dead[1] and 100,000 homeless[2] according to the official count.

This ICT report addresses the impact of the earthquake and the Chinese authorities’ response, six months afterwards. It finds that:

  • The decision by authorities to scrap plans for temporary homes in shelters means that it is unclear how many families will survive the winter.
  • There is serious concern about the decision by authorities to exclude NGO expertise. Reports indicate the precarious status of NGO work, with local NGOs subject to surveillance and uncertainty about access for outside organisations to help with relief efforts. The Chinese government has controlled the appropriation of funds from NGOs to the Chinese authorities, although much aid has got through to those who need it.
  • The authorities have excluded Tibetan involvement in the reconstruction planning process, although Yushu is a Tibetan area with a strong Tibetan identity and historically significant religious and cultural institutions.
  • Aid from outside Tibet has been essential in helping Tibetans to survive the devastating impact of the earthquake. It has provided hope and broken through the sense of isolation, exacerbated by the frustration many Tibetans feel as the Chinese government controls reconstruction in Yushu. Tibetans and others involved in relief work report on the spirit and resilience of ordinary people in surviving the quake.

Drugchu (Chinese: Zhouqu), viewed from the south, winter 1995/1996. (Steven Marshall and Susette Cooke)

Surviving the winter

Despite the millions of dollars donated for relief and reconstruction efforts, the people of Yushu face severe hardship as the bitter Tibetan winter approaches. The authorities stated in May that it would not put up temporary homes to provide shelter in order to avoid “waste.” Instead it will invest in building permanent structures (“new socialist villages”), which it estimates will take between one and three years to complete. The Tibetan Village Project, a small NGO engaged in relief on the ground in Yushu, stated: “It is not clear how families and children will survive in the upcoming winter.”[3]

Amid the technical and weather-related challenges of the reconstruction, the political situation in Yushu has become increasingly sensitive. One NGO worker with contacts in the region told ICT that residents had been willing to speak about the reconstruction efforts and other developments in the region, but the politicization of the reconstruction process, including the lack of transparency over how the $1.5 billion in aid money that allegedly has been donated is being handled, has made many fearful of government retribution for speaking about the current situation.

For now, six months on, the most immediate concern for locals is the coming winter. A source in contact with Tibetans in Yushu told ICT that government offices, construction companies, and NGOs are housed in temporary units, while winter tents are being handed out to some local residents. A family of four is eligible to receive a winter tent, while smaller families are given about 1000 yuan (US $150). The same source said that in some areas of Yushu local officials have ordered military relief workers to assemble the tents in areas outside of town. Residents who are currently staying on their land to protect it against the uncertainties of the reconstruction process are reportedly being told that they must move to the areas outside of town, or receive no tent at all.

Winters in Yushu are known for their harsh conditions. Construction is expected to halt once the ground freezes and, while residents are receiving food supplies such as rice and flour, many are anxiously hoping to receive stoves and fuel for the winter.

Despite vague promises by officials in the six months since the earthquake, questions still abound over what plan is actually guiding the reconstruction process. A few small villages located near Kyegu town have already been rebuilt, but the reconstruction of homes in Kyegu town has not started yet, according to one ICT source. The same source told ICT that the construction of schools, hospitals and water projects are currently visible in the area, with other areas having been designated for parks, wider roads, and other yet unnamed projects.

Sources with contacts in the area have told ICT that Tibetans have been effectively excluded from the planning process. 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.[4]

Confusion and uncertainty surrounding the reconstruction process continues, as one source with contacts working in the Yushu region told ICT, “The only thing that is clear is that there are no final plans for reconstruction that have been approved.” The same source told ICT that the main concern of Tibetans is over losing their land and being moved into the government-built permanent housing, which will be in apartment or townhouse-type complexes, that is significantly smaller than the homes they lost in the earthquake. Those residents fortunate enough to have a house that survived the disaster have recently been told they may be eligible to keep their home, as long as it passes a quality inspection and is certified as structurally sound.

A report from the ground in June stated: “Reports about the rebuilding plans for Jyekundo continue to shift week by week. Some residents will have to give up their present home sites and relocate to a different part of Jyekundo because of plans for road widening, and for a new park and market. News reports indicate that many residents were upset due to fear that their home sites would be taken for government buildings; it is unclear so far as to whether or not that will actually happen. The manner in which residential homes will be rebuilt is not yet clear either, with concern expressed about reported plans to build very small (800 square foot) houses for large Tibetan families. Even those families who have somewhere else to go are trying to keep some family members in the city to keep track of the rebuilding situation.”

During a May 1, 2010 meeting on post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was reported (Xinhua, May 2, 2010) to have commented that the rebuilding of public facilities including schools and hospitals would be prioritized. During a visit to a Tibetan Buddhist temple he also said that the government would assist in the reconstruction 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 speculators rather than those of the local Tibetans.

According to a source with contacts in Yushu, 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. Calls to include Tibetans in the reconstruction planning have also been voiced by the U.S. Congress, which passed a resolution 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, characterized 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.”[5]

The Yushu area is known for its strong Tibetan identity, with Tibetans making up 97% of the population. Although Tibetan businesses dominated the area prior to the earthquake, there has been concern from 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.

Moreover, Yushu is a relatively rural area that includes many nomads who live on less than $100 a year. They would be hard hit by socioeconomic changes, and their vulnerability highlights the need for transparency and accountability to ensure those most in need would be taken of first, before outside interests benefit from the reconstruction process.

While government officials have yet to articulate a specific plan to guide the reconstruction process, it is clear from measures that have already been taken and from comments made by authorities[6] that the eventual plan will fall firmly within the Western Development Strategy, which defines the overall development policy for western regions of the People’s Republic of China.[7] Under this model for development, launched by then Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1999 and affecting over 70% of the present day PRC, western regions are meant essentially to serve as resources-providers for the raging economic development in the central and eastern regions. Indeed, criticisms leveled against the reconstruction process in Yushu, including the construction of “new socialist villages,” the exclusion of Tibetans from construction and other economic opportunities, and the absence of consultations with local Tibetan stakeholders, are characteristic of how the Western Development Strategy is generally carried out in Tibet.

There are also serious concerns about the implications of excluding non-governmental expertise. Reports indicate that local NGOs are subject to constant surveillance and NGOs from outside Yushu are uncertain about whether and how long they will be able to access donations to support relief efforts.[8] In an unexpected move, officials have required NGOs to relinquish all private donations for the Yushu earthquake to the Qinghai provincial government.[9] In a Caixin online article about the government’s appropriation of earthquake funds and exclusion of NGO expertise, Wang Zhenyao, the former director of the Department of Disaster and Social Relief at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said: “Government investment all goes to construction of infrastructure. It lacks the targeted precision for small projects that the victims need. If charitable organizations with private donations can handle these projects, they can offer a lot of personalized, flexible services that can increase the well-being of victims.”[10]

Despite restrictions, some NGOs have been successful in providing vital aid and resources to people in the region, including delivering food, water, and emergency supplies in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. In a coordinated NGO initiative, emergency supplies were successfully delivered to the area with the knowledge of local authorities. Other NGO initiatives include the reconstruction of schools and a Tibetan hospital that had been completely destroyed by the earthquake.

Outside aid money, carefully coordinated and spent down, could contribute to the long-term viability of the region. Some NGO workers are helping to re-establish Tibetan businesses that were lost and, while local monasteries have been promised government support in rebuilding,[11] private efforts are already underway, such as at Thrangu monastery, where efforts are being coordinated to construct a new school for the monks.[12]

Kyegu: an historic center of Tibetan Buddhist culture

Yushu county is the northwestern region of Kham, known locally as Gawa. Under the Chinese political system, Kyegu town (Tibetan: skye rgu mdo or skye dgu mdo)[13] is the administrative capital of six counties belonging to the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai province. Most of Qinghai, including the earthquake zone, is officially designated by the Chinese authorities as”Tibetan autonomous.”

Jamyang Norbu, in a blog entitled ‘Kyegu on my mind’, writes: “Kyegudo has traditionally been one of the most important centers and crossroads for trade and commerce in Tibet. It is the hub of many important routes.” He writes that huge caravans, sometimes consisting of as many as 3000 yaks, would traverse through the region, and even while it wasn’t such a large town, many merchants had permanent homes there and that the town of Kyegu was rich and prosperous in the decade before the invasion. Surrounded by grasslands, nomads kept herds of yak that lived off the pasture and even though summers were short-lived at that high altitude, barley, beans and various crops grew plentiful.”

After the earthquake, the images of hundreds of maroon-robed monks digging in rubble with their bare hands, disposing of corpses or praying for the dead, focused attention on the crisis as a Tibetan one, in contrast to the headlines worldwide of an earthquake in “western China.”

It is not only the loss of lives from the earthquake that is devastating, but the impact on Tibetan religious culture, imperiled even prior to April 14th due to China’s political and strategic objectives in the region. Yushu’s landscape is scattered with remote hermitages, ancient monasteries and religious settlements. The destruction of monasteries, such as the 1300-year old Thrangu (www.thranguemergency.org), and the death of monks, further deepens Tibetans’ sense of dispossession and loss.

Despite the devastation, Tibetans in the area have maintained their strong faith and spirit. A Tibetan from the area told ICT: “Tibetan Buddhist tradition is the center of life in Yushu. As we all know, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s pictures are banned in Tibet but from the ruins in Yushu emerged so many pictures of His Holiness. And as the dead were being cremated, you could hear so many people chanting, praying to His Holiness. So this really shows what people truly think and need in this difficult time.” (ICT blog, Kyegu ‘Dhondup Lungpa’)

For many years, but particularly since March, 2008, the Beijing authorities have sought to prevent large gatherings of Tibetans for fear of unrest and as part of their strategy to ensure control. But in Yushu, immediately after the earthquake, hundreds of monks arrived from monasteries throughout the area to work on relief efforts, often side by side with People’s Liberation Army troops. These monks were actively engaged in exactly those constructive, community-building activities that were needed on the ground, including praying for the dead. Their activities represented a challenge to the Chinese state typically seeks to convey the impression that the Chinese Communist Party is the sole benefactor and architect of the region’s rebuilding. Consequently, officials ordered the monks to leave, ostensibly because more experienced relief workers were needed for work related to disease prevention and repairing building infrastructure, and the presence of the monks would complicate efforts.[14] There was distress later, too, when the monks’ role in rescue and relief was air-brushed out of the official news coverage, even though many reports from the area indicate that Tibetan monks were often the first on the scene to assist Tibetans directly, and the last to leave.[15]

In the six months since the earthquake struck, the people of Yushu have faced trauma, deprivation, frustration and fear. They and many in the NGO world continue to look for creative ways to break through official barriers. As Phuntsog Wangyal of the Tibet Foundation in London, said of the local Tibetans following a trip to the region: “In the face of such overwhelming destruction and damage… the people [are] extremely courageous, showing no sign of despair but looking forward to rebuilding their lives for a better future.”

[1] ‘China puts final death toll from Qinghai quake at
2,698,’ Xinhua, May 31, 2010, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90776/90882/7006506.html

[2] ‘Tents on the way for 100,000 homeless in quake-hit northwest China: ministry,’ Xinhua, April 15, 2010, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-04/15/c_13252946.htm

[3] The Konchog Foundation also noted that the government had dropped its earlier plan to erect large numbers of temporary structures in refugee camps, saying: “The government has meanwhile been urging everyone to leave the city during the rebuilding process; it is unclear where people will go, especially those residents who don’t have a home elsewhere.”

[4] ‘Tibetans Protest Over Land,’ Radio Free Asia, June 3, 2010, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/land-06032010112635.html

[5] ‘U.S. House passes resolution on Yushu earthquake; calls for Tibetans to be included in reconstruction efforts,’ ICT, May 20, 2010, https://savetibet.org/media-center/tibet-news/us-house-passes-resolution-yushu-earthquake-calls-tibetans-be-included-reconstruction-efforts

[6] For example, the “reconstruction efforts will require scientific planning and organization.” See: ‘Quake reconstruction efforts and civil society,’ Al Jazeera, September 20, 2010, http://blogs.aljazeera.net/asia/2010/09/20/quake-reconstruction-efforts-and-civil-society

[7] See report: ‘Tracking the Steel Dragon: How China’s economic policies and the railroad are transforming Tibet,’ ICT, February 28, 2008, https://savetibet.org/tracking-the-steel-dragon/

[8] A rare and informed critique by a Chinese blogger on the authorities’ role in Yushu following the earthquake was posted on April 21, at http://blog.ifeng.com/article/5041705.html

[9] ‘Yushu’s 5 Billion Yuan Abyss,’ Caixin online, August 12, 2010, http://english.caing.com/2010-08-12/100170077.html

[10] Ibid Also see blog by Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa K
Chan http://blogs.aljazeera.com/blog/asia/quake-reconstruction-efforts-and-civil-society

[11] ‘Chinese Premier calls for scientific rebuilding of quake zone,’ Xinhua, May 2, 2010, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010-05/02/c_13276134.htm

[12] See: http://www.thranguemergency.org and http://thrangumonastery.org/donate

[13] Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu says on his blog: “The area where the earthquake struck is known as Ga Kyegudo (spelled skye rgu mdo or skye dgu mdo), the Ga or Gaba (sga-pa) being name of the people of the area. Khampas tend to pronounce Kyegudo as Jyekudo or Jyegundo, softening the hard “k” sound to a softer “j or “ch”. They also do this in the case of the official title “dzasak” which Khampas pronounce as “chassak”. “Jyegundo is sometimes contracted to Jyegu, or these days, to the more sinicized Jiegu. One explanation I have come across for the name Kyegu is that it is a contraction of “kyelwa gu” or nine lives. The claim being, I suppose, that one life lived in these beautiful and blessed grasslands is as fulfilling as nine lives lived elsewhere.[…]” (http://www.jamyangnorbu.com/blog/2010/04/24/kyegu-on-my-mind/)

[14] ‘China to monks: Exit quake zone,’ Associated Press, April 24, 2010, http://www.philly.com/dailynews/national/20100424_China_to_monks__Exit_quake_zone.html

[15] See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kate-saunders/beyond-the-headlines-the_b_550281.html, which cites http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gdspdDB0WaMv_An4A-NvHB_DwmCwD9F7IEB80). The Communist Party paper the People’s Daily even complained that Western media agencies published too many photos of the help from Tibetan monks (http://chinatibet.people.com.cn/6958633.html).