The Chinese government's resettlement of more than two million rural ethnic Tibetans away from their traditional lifestyle violates international human rights laws, according to a report released Thursday by Human Rights Watch.
Under its New Socialist Countryside plan, Beijing has forcibly uprooted more than two-thirds of the region’s 2.7 million rural people into inadequate townships where many cannot find work, the report said.
"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 Human Rights Watch 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," Richardson added.
Beijing claims the policy is intended to improve the lives of poor nomadic herders and other rural populations who live without running water, electricity and access to schools and modern health care.
Hua Chunying, China's foreign ministry spokeswoman, criticized the report, saying Human Rights Watch might "remove their colored glasses" and "should have a correct understanding of China's ethnic and religious policies and respect for the Chinese people's chosen path of development."
Robert Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, told The New York Times the program, created a decade ago, was meant to help solve an income gap between rural and urban Tibetans.
The Human Rights Watch report states some Tibetans have benefited from the program, but its researchers say "many are concerned about their ability to maintain their livelihood over time. Most consider themselves targets of policies that they are powerless to oppose or affect."
“The Chinese government claims that it is bringing economic benefits to Tibetans by building modern ‘New Socialist Villages,’” Richardson said. “And while it may be true that some Tibetans have benefitted, the majority have simply been forced to trade poor but stable livelihoods for the uncertainties of a cash economy in which they are often the weakest actors.”
At least 117 Tibetans have self-immolated in China since 2009 to protest Beijing's policies. Of them, more than 90 have died.
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