CHINA’S NEW COERCIVE STRATEGIES IN TIBET
A new phase of China’s strategy on Tibet was set in place at the Seventh Tibet Work Forum in August 2020. This top-level conclave was presided over by Xi Jinping and established the direction of policy for the next five to ten years. The Forum mapped out an expansion and strengthening of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) coercive capability in Tibet, with the objective of “breaking lineage, breaking roots, breaking connections, and breaking origins”1. To achieve this, the CCP is deploying a pernicious combination of systematic, harsh measures bringing together ideological indoctrination beginning at childhood; the restructuring and dismantling of rural economies through mass relocation, labour mobilization and transfer programmes and other measures, and a systematic intensification of data-driven policing and surveillance.
The intent of these policies is obscured beneath a proactive official discourse of “modernisation”, “economic development”, “poverty alleviation”, “labour skills training” and “bilingual education”. Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Wu Yingjie was less oblique when he stated on 31 December 2020 that official priorities were to “control the belly” and to “control the brain”2. In other words, to render the Tibetan population both more dependent upon the state for their livelihoods, in order to ensure complete control, and to embrace Chinese cultural nationalism, the concept of ‘Zhonghua minzu’3. Ding Yexian, a senior leader in the TAR and head of the leading group on education, described this orchestrated campaign imposed from the top down by Xi Jinping, saying that: “Socialist ideology with Chinese characteristics in the new era informs the whole process of shaping the soul and educating people on a grassroots level.”4
The protests that swept across Tibet in 2008 laid bare the reality that Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule remained strong, despite years of systematic repression by Beijing. Chinese leaders were no longer content with merely suppressing dissent in Tibet and moved from a strategy of “suppression to prevention”. Rather than merely reacting to events once they have taken place, Chinese officials are now seeking to pre-emptively catch any signs of potential and perceived opposition, or even mild critique. The intention is to change the way that Tibetans think and act in order to ensure compliance with CCP policy; to create a society in which not only is there no dissent, but the very idea of it is not even contemplated. In order to achieve this, there has been an increasingly heavy emphasis on techniques of indoctrination and “controlling the mind.”
A ‘cradle to grave’ system of displacement, control and cultural erasure has emerged in Tibet. New methods of “controlling minds” have been imposed from an early age, with Tibetan toddlers increasingly being subjected to ideological education in hundreds of new and expanded kindergartens across Tibet. Such measures have been prioritized by Xi Jinping and in the Tibet Autonomous Region, are being implemented with zeal under Wu Yingjie’s leadership in order to secure the loyalty of a new generation to the CCP.
But compliance and loyalty to the CCP cannot be achieved by indoctrination alone, particularly in a resilient population with a deeply rooted sense of cultural and religious identity. This focus is combined with an intensified campaign to remodel rural economies and livelihoods. A stepped-up programme of ‘labour mobilisation’ is being implemented across the plateau contributing to the breaking apart of rural Tibetan communities and the destruction of traditional livelihoods. According to official figures – likely to be inflated in order to give the impression of meeting quotas – over the past five years 2.8 million rural Tibetans have been ‘transferred’ from the agricultural sector to secondary and tertiary industry in urban areas, including numerous projects that fulfil China’s strategic and economic objectives such as involvement in hydropower or mining projects.
This transfer of rural Tibetans into the urban wage economy emerges from the devastating impacts of relocation and resettlement of the Tibetan rural population over two decades, which has seen high numbers of herders and nomads ‘sedentarized’, often moved into concrete block encampments in semi-urban areas far from their grasslands, with no sustainable means to provide for themselves and their families. They are now described by officials as ‘surplus’ rural labour drafted into ‘training’ programmes and new jobs in urban areas.
This new labour programme does not just target Tibetans in rural areas, but also political prisoners and released prisoners, who are regarded as a ‘threat’ to the Chinese state due to their views. The programmes prioritise the Chinese language and redeploy prisoner labour into construction or other projects, including in the heavily militarised area of Nyingtri (Chinese: Linzhi) close to the Tibet-India border.
As part of the broader effort to break connections, lineages, lifestyles and loyalties, the CCP has simultaneously deepened its political crusade against religion, which strikes at the heart of Tibetan identity. Wu Yingjie is spearheading a new drive to separate religious beliefs “from life” and remove the Dalai Lama’s influence entirely. Criticism of religion is an increasingly important theme of compulsory political education in Party training facilities, villages, neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces and Tibetan monks and nuns continue to be heavily subjected to tough ‘re-education’ campaigns. A handful of accounts even testify to the imprisonment, torture and the rape of Tibetan nuns. These measures aim to create a ‘Sinicized’ official Buddhism, dissociated from the Dalai Lama, with the intention that future generations will only remember him as an enemy.
This new phase of coercive assimilation represents an escalated level of threat to Tibet’s linguistic, cultural and religious identity that far surpasses previous political campaigns and policy measures. It aligns Tibet with strategies being applied in East Turkistan (officially known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), for which Tibet served as a lab to pioneer and trial oppressive and dystopian control measures that were then amplified and accelerated against millions of Uyghurs subjected to mass internment and forced labour (with some then reapplied in Tibetan areas). A comprehensive network of inter-connected political mechanisms and facilities now operational in Tibet aims to drive the influence of the CCP deeper into people’s lives. As in Uyghur areas, increasingly intrusive surveillance of Tibetans’ everyday lives has been implemented, involving data-driven and predictive policing.
This is coupled with efforts by Beijing to push a vision of ‘non-interference’ at the United Nations in order to further undermine democratic principles, human rights standards and accountability at the global level. This has only served to weaken and subvert one of the main mechanisms available to democracies to hold governments accountable for their human rights violations and has permitted a situation in which these large-scale violations in Tibet are not met with a well-coordinated international response or punishment. It is in this environment that calls by over 50 UN experts for the establishment of an independent monitoring mechanism to assess China’s rampant human rights violations, including in Tibet, continue to go unheard5 and reprisals against human rights defenders has become routine6.
SHAPING A NEW GENERATION FROM INFANCY
- New methods of “controlling minds” have been imposed from an early age, with Tibetan toddlers increasingly being subjected to ideological education in hundreds of new and expanded kindergartens across Tibet.
- ‘Military style’ political education now features in the kindergarten curriculum with Tibetan toddlers required to wear Chinese military uniform and march with army personnel.Chinese flag-raising and national anthem ceremonies with the Tibet Police Academy also feature.
- The State-led kindergartens in Tibet are required to become ‘bilingual’ which in practice means Chinese language teaching is prioritised over Tibetan, depriving Tibetan children of learning and understanding their mother tongue, a core element of Tibetan cultural identity. This has a deep impact on families; sometimes when they come home from residential schools, children are unable to speak to grandparents who cannot communicate in Chinese.
- Increasing numbers of Tibetans are being sent away to residential schools where they are “paired” with Chinese teachers and students for monitoring purposes. They are often required to pledge to uphold “ethnic unity” and be patriotic citizens. These policies are reminiscent of ones used by colonial powers who forcibly removed indigenous children in Australia, Canada and the US in order to assimilate them into ‘settler’ society.
LABOUR TRANSFER PROGRAMME AND RESTRUCTURING OF RURAL COMMUNITIES
PURGING RELIGION FROM THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF BUDDHISTS
- Under Wu Yingjie’s leadership, there has been a new focus on separating the Dalai Lama from religion in the minds of Tibetan Buddhists, and separating “religion from life”, as Wu Yingjie phrased it. This shift represents a final, dangerous stage in the Party’s efforts to ‘Sinicize’ Tibetan Buddhism and ‘control’ Tibetan minds.
- In Tibet, disturbing accounts have come to light of torture, sexual abuse and imprisonment in specific ‘‘transformation through education’ facilities targetting Tibetan monks and nuns for ‘correction’.
- Religious practitioners report being forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and memorize political CCP propaganda.
- Released monks and nuns have had their rights further restricted, included by being banned from re-enrolling with other monasteries or relocating elsewhere. As unaffiliated “mobile religious personnel” they are prevented from carrying out religious rituals in public in the TAR unless they have a special permit.
To the Chinese authorities:
- Immediately halt ‘political and militarised education’ in the school curriculum, particularly for pre-school children, which aims to neutralise a sense of Tibetan identity from an early age.
- Ensure that all Tibetan children are able to learn and use Tibetan language in all aspects of their school curriculum, from kindergartens upwards; and reverse the damaging ‘bilingual education policy’ which has resulted in the replacement of Tibetan with Chinese, as the medium language of instruction in Tibetan schools.
- Ensure that Tibetans schoolchildren are permitted to learn about their own history, culture and religion, including China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet.
- End the imposition of “ethnic mingling” measures in Tibetan education and the placement of Tibetans in residential schools where they are “paired” with Chinese students for monitoring purposes and to further promote Chinese patriotism and undermine the Tibetan identity.
- Ensure that promotion of “ethnic unity” does not violate basic civil and cultural rights and does not restrict the public debate in the educational system and elsewhere.
LABOUR TRANSFER SYSTEM, DISPLACEMENT AND RELOCATION
- Immediately cease the ‘political re-education’ of Tibetans as part of the large-scale system of ‘vocational training’ and other similar training programmes.
- Immediately end the punitive quota system in the ‘vocational training’ programme, which raises serious concerns around its voluntary nature and which places Tibetans at risk of forced labour.
- End the highly intrusive social control ‘grid management’ (网格化管理, wanggehua guanli) system, the “double-linked household” (双联户, shuang lian hu) system, and other compulsory programmes aimed at surveilling and controlling Tibetans.
- Ensure that any and all vocational training programmes teach appropriate skills and are not merely designed for low-level/low-paid employment which are inadequate for involvement in the cutting edge technologies and the rapid remodeling of Tibet’s urban areas; and ensure that all Tibetans herders and farmers are afforded with opportunities to advance their livelihoods in areas in which they hold a comparative advantage, such as woollen products and dairy goods.
- Ensure Tibetans undertaking any vocational training are able to do so in the Tibetan language.
- Impose a moratorium on relocation and rehousing until an independent, expert review of existing policies and practices is carried out to determine whether they comply with international law. The review should assess all government policies that require or lead to the displacement and resettlement of rural Tibetans, confiscation of their property, or imposed slaughter of their livestock.
- Allow any Tibetan nomads and farmers coerced to give away their land and animal herds to state-run cooperatives as part of a ‘poverty alleviation’ to return to their land and be given adequate compensation as required by Chinese law.
- Recognise and uphold the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association to ensure that Tibetans and others are able to engage in peaceful activities and raise concerns and criticisms, including of the Chinese government’s labour transfer programme, relocation and rehousing policies and practices.
- Immediately halt the ‘political re-education’ component of all vocational training programmes designed for former and serving Tibetan prisoners, who are specifically targeted for ‘rectification’ or ‘correction’.
- Ratify and implement the four fundamental ILO Conventions, which China has yet to ratify: No. 29 on Forced or Compulsory Labour, No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, No. 98 on Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, and No. 105 on Abolition of Forced Labour.
CRACKDOWN ON TIBETAN MONKS AND NUNS
- Immediately halt the use of so-called ‘transformation through education’ facilities which seek to rid Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns of their faith and eliminate any perceived loyalty to the Tibetan spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama; and immediately end the harassment and intimidation of all Tibetan Buddhist practitioners.
- Immediately conduct thorough and independent investigations into the reports of ill-treatment, torture and sexual abuse in ‘transformation through education’ and other similar facilities, including, by not limited to, the facility in Sog (Chinese: Suo) county, Nagchu (Naqu) Prefecture in the TAR and bring those responsible for these crimes to justice through fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.
- Urgently provide information on the whereabouts of nuns and monks expelled from religious institutes in Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu, who were returned to the TAR, given credible reports on their incarceration and torture in facilities where ‘re education’ is carried out.
- Provide statistics on how many Tibetans have been impacted by the demolitions and forced evictions at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Buddhist monasteries in Eastern Tibet, and arrangements for re-housing them, as well as details of their welfare. The information should be made public and appropriate steps should be taken to allow for effective remedy and redress by affected individuals.
- Repeal or significantly amend the Criminal Procedure Law and Counter-Terrorism Law to ensure that criticism of government policy and practice, as well as other forms of protected speech, are not criminalised as “separatist,” “terrorist” or “undermining national unity”.
- Respond promptly and positively to any and all requests to visit China by UN Special Procedures and provide them with unrestricted access to Tibet, including the request by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief which has been outstanding since January 2003.
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