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U.S. envoy to China in Tibet visit amid 'mass relocation' claim

By Hilary Whiteman and Feng Ke, CNN
June 27, 2013 -- Updated 1025 GMT (1825 HKT)
HRW say hundreds of thousands of Tibetan nomads (like these in this file image taken from 2008) have been relocated.
HRW say hundreds of thousands of Tibetan nomads (like these in this file image taken from 2008) have been relocated.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S.: Locke meeting officials to impress importance of preserving Tibetan culture
  • Envoy also stressed the need to open up access to Tibet to foreign diplomats
  • Since 2006, 119 monks have self-immolated in protest against Chinese policies
  • HRW report alleges mass relocation of millions of Tibetans to "New Socialist Villages"

(CNN) -- U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke is nearing the end of a three-day visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region where he has been meeting with local officials to impress the importance of preserving Tibetan culture, according to the U.S. embassy.

Locke, who took the trip with his family, several embassy officials and Chengdu's consulate general, also stressed the need to open up access to Tibet to foreign diplomats, tourists and journalists, the embassy said in a statement.

There has been no mention of the trip in Chinese media, which follows Locke's visit last September to Tibetan monasteries in western China, where a number of Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire.

OPINION: Obama must turn up the heat on Tibet

Since 2006, 119 monks have self-immolated in protest against Chinese policies they say violate their basic rights, according to Human Rights Watch.

More claims of repression of Tibetan rights came Thursday with a report from HRW, which condemned China's mass relocation of millions of Tibetans to what it called "New Socialist Villages."

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The report, entitled "They Say We Should Be Grateful," accused the Chinese government of committing "extensive rights violations" of Tibetans by forcing residents in a number of counties to abandon their houses and move to new purpose-built housing estates.

The HRW report included aerial images of Tibetan counties, which showed photos of villages before and after new homes were built. HRW has accused the Chinese government of failing to adequately compensate villagers whose homes have been demolished, and of not restoring residents' livelihoods.

"The scale and speed at which the Tibetan rural population is being remodeled by mass rehousing and relocation policies are unprecedented in the post-Mao era," said HRW's China director, Sophie Richardson.

"Tibetans have no say in the design of policies that are radically altering their way of life, and -- in an already highly repressive context -- no ways to challenge them," she added in a statement.

When asked to comment on the report, Hua Chunying, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson said: "The organization you just mentioned has been consistently making irresponsible remarks and groundless accusations against China. I'll not spend time to read the report or comment on it."

According to the report, since 2006 more than two million Tibetans have been "rehoused" -- through government-ordered renovation or construction of new houses -- in the Tibet Autonomous Region, while hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders in the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau have been relocated.

The massive rehousing project is part of China's policy to "Build a New Socialist Countryside" in Tibetan areas, which was announced by former premier Wen Jiabao in 2006. At the time, the government pledged to increase spending in rural areas and committed billions of dollars to raise the living standards in the countryside.

Earlier this year, as part of its Report on China's Economic and Social Development, the government vowed to "give high priority to developing the western region on a large scale."

"We will more quickly open up the region to the outside world, and create a number of leading areas to open up and develop border regions and the hinterland. We will implement the policies and measures to develop Xinjiang, Tibet, and Tibetan ethnic areas in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces in leaps and bounds," the report said.

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