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Yumai | Settling the frontiers

Until 1996, there were only three residents in the border village of Yumai, located in Tibet in the foothills of the Himalayas, a few kilometres from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates India and China. By 2011, 25 others would join Zhoigar, a Tibetan herder, and her two family members, but Yumai would still hold the distinction of China’s least populated village. It is, also, as remote as border villages come, a long 200-km drive from Lhunze, the county capital, which itself is a 400-km drive from Lhasa.

All that would change in 2017, when the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government embarked on a plan to build what it calls moderately well-off villages in border areas. Under the plan, 628 “first line and second line villages” — referring to those right on the border, like Yumai, and others in remote areas slightly further within — would be redeveloped in the prefectures of Ngari, Shigatse, Shannan, and Nyingchi, along China’s borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal.

A total investment of 30.1 billion yuan (about ₹30,000 crore) was announced for the plan, covering 62,160 households and 2.4 lakh people. Under the plan, funds poured into Yumai. So did new residents brought in by the government, some of whom were herders living elsewhere in Tibet. Yumai’s population jumped seven-fold to 191 residents. New houses were built, as well as a hydropower generator and transmission infrastructure that connected the village to the national grid.

Yumai became a model village for others on Tibet’s borders when in 2017, China’s President Xi Jinping sent a letter to Zhoigar, replying to a letter he had received from her, and mentioned her in his annual new year televised address. Mr. Xi praised her patriotism and said he hoped Yumai’s story “will motivate more herders to set down roots in the border area like galsang flowers, and become guardians of Chinese territory”.

That same year, Zhoigar was nominated to China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), its ceremonial legislature, as a member of Parliament.

Most of the projects envisioned under the 2017 plan, set to be completed by 2020, are now seeing fruition, with consequences for India and Bhutan, which share disputed borders with China. In some areas, small hamlets, with one or two herding households as was the case in Yumai, are being expanded into larger permanent settlements with authorities “stepping up efforts in relocating people to the border to boost both national security and quality of life”, as State media reported last year.

Remote location

Considering the remoteness of the location, national security appears to be the abiding priority. Some of the new settlements are in disputed territory, as in the case of the new village of Pangda, built last year 2-3 km into what Bhutan sees as its land. On January 18, another newly built village, barely 30 km from Yumai and 4-5 km into what India sees as its territory in Arunachal, came to light via satellite images, completed sometime before last November. Indian officials said this land has been under China’s effective control since 1959 and there were military barracks there.

The civilian settlements are, however, a way for China to solidify its territorial claims and effectively settle the dispute unilaterally. In Shannan prefecture, border counties like Lhunze, where Yumai is located, and Cona, administer thousands of square kilometres of disputed territory along the LAC.

Cona county alone covers 34,979 sq. km “of which 10,094 sq. km are in the LAC,” the Communist Party-run Global Times reported last year. The county last year began relocating 3,222 people from 960 families “to weakly controlled areas” right up to the LAC, the newspaper reported, with “distances between the relocation destinations and LAC [to be] shorter than 2 km in a straight line and 5 km on the ground”. Some of these settlements will likely be on what India sees as its territory, as the alignment of the LAC is in dispute in at least eight different areas in this sector. China has refused to exchange maps showing its claimed LAC.

“The residents always patrol around and write ‘China’ with brushes and red paint on some mountain walls and stones,” the newspaper reported. “Some people also use stones to make five stars or sickles and axes of the Party emblem, and paint all the stones red.”

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 9:51:39 AM |

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