A New York-based human rights group says millions of Tibetans have been forced to leave their homes and livelihoods as part of a mass government relocation program aiming to control the ethnic group.
Human Rights Watch says in a newly released report
Beiing's efforts to build what it calls a "New Socialist Countryside" in the Tibet Autonomous Region are "radically altering" Tibetans' traditional lifestyle.
It says over two million Tibetans have been rehoused through government-ordered renovations or new home constructions since 2006, while hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders have been relocated.
The government says the program is helping improve the living standard of Tibetans. It denies that forced evictions take place, insisting the relocations are entirely voluntary and that Tibetans are grateful for the new housing.
But Human Rights Watch says it has found that large numbers of those relocated did not move voluntarily. It says many were forced into often sub-standard housing and now face financial difficulties as a result of the move.
U.S. officials say the American Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, is in Tibet for a three-day visit to meet with residents and check on human rights conditions. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said this is the first time a U.S. ambassador has traveled to Tibet since 2010.
The group's report included before-and-after satellite photos of Tibetan villages, some of which appear to have been almost entirely demolished and replaced with "New Socialist Villages" made of identical houses in rows.
The Chinese government has made it very difficult for rights groups and journalists to monitor the human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China. The region has become even more restricted to outsiders following a series of mass anti-government demonstrations and riots in 2008.
More recently, Tibetan areas of China have been hit by a wave of self-immolation protests. Since 2009, at least 119 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest what they see as Chinese repression of their religion and culture.
Many of the self-immolators have also called for the return of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who fled China in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese occupation.
Beijing views the Dalai Lama as a separatist who is looking for Tibetan secession, despite the spiritual leader's insistence that he is only seeking greater autonomy for Tibet.
But despite the insistence by many rights groups that heavy-handed Chinese policies are only creating further unrest, there are few signs that Beijing plans to back down.
Human Rights Watch says the government has already announced plans to relocate more than 900,000 people by 2014.
In its Thursday report, the New York-based group warned that forging ahead with such programs "in a broadly repressive environment will only fuel tensions and widen the rift between Tibetans and the Chinese state."
A spokesperson for China's foreign ministry on Thursday rejected the Human Rights Watch report, saying the organization "always makes groundless and irresponsible" accusations against China.
The spokesperson said the group does not have the right to comment on China's policy on ethnic and religious affairs, and insisted that China has "made progress" in these areas.