The head of the regional government in Tibet has defended a scheme designed to find work for local people in other parts of China, saying it is completely voluntary and anyone taking part in it is free to return home any time they like. Qizhala, the chairman of the autonomous region, said on Thursday that the “labour transfer programme” was designed to create jobs and improve Tibetans’ living standards. “We give them subsidies for round-trip travel to destinations outside Tibet,” he said. “They are welcome to return if they want and we are more than willing to let them see the world outside.” Qizhala, who goes by just one name, is an ethnic Tibetan from southwest China’s Yunnan province who previously served as Communist Party secretary of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Western critics of the Tibetan labour programme have sought to liken it to the internment camps set up in Xinjiang in which an estimated 1 million ethnic Uygurs are reported to have been subjected to political indoctrination and a form of detention akin to forced labour. The US government has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the Xinjiang programme, accusing them of human rights violations. Qizhala’s statement came just hours after Robert Destro, an assistant US secretary of state, was appointed as America’s special coordinator for Tibetan issues, a position that had been vacant since 2017. Chinese President Xi Jinping turns focus onto Tibet border security Beijing has pledged to lift the entire Chinese population out of absolute poverty – with the threshold at 4,000 yuan (US$600) a year – by the end of 2020. Vocational training programmes and labour transfer schemes have been widely implemented in rural areas as a means to that end. According to China’s most recent census, conducted in 2010, the Tibet autonomous region is home to about 3 million people, of whom 2.7 million are ethnic Tibetan. Qizhala said the regional government had set a target of finding jobs for 630,000 Tibetans elsewhere in China every year and had already met its goal for 2020. Where possible, people taking part in the scheme would be found work that matched their preferences, he said. “We conducted surveys and found that many people were interested in learning how to drive … while others were keen to learn skills related to construction.” US House approves Tibet bill in latest human rights challenge to Beijing Qizhala said that taking part in the scheme and getting an education would help Tibetans to free themselves from “negative religious influences”. “There are old bad habits in Tibet, which come from mostly negative religious influences, such as giving greater priority to the afterlife than [finding] happiness in the present life,” he said. “This is why we need to take special measures in Tibet to address poverty alleviation by looking after both people’s stomachs and minds.” Such measures included propaganda and educational campaigns to convince people they could have a better life by learning new skills and “voluntarily be grateful to … and follow the Communist Party”, Qizhala said.