Exclusive: China sharply expands mass labor program in Tibet

BEIJING (Reuters) - China is pushing growing numbers of Tibetan rural laborers off the land and into recently built military-style training centers where they are turned into factory workers, mirroring a program in the western Xinjiang region that rights groups have branded coercive labor.

Beijing has set quotas for the mass transfer of rural laborers within Tibet and to other parts of China, according to over a hundred state media reports, policy documents from government bureaus in Tibet and procurement requests released between 2016-2020 and reviewed by Reuters. The quota effort marks a rapid expansion of an initiative designed to provide loyal workers for Chinese industry.

A notice posted to the website of Tibet’s regional government website last month said over half a million people were trained as part of the project in the first seven months of 2020 - around 15% of the region’s population. Of this total, almost 50,000 have been transferred into jobs within Tibet, and several thousand have been sent to other parts of China. Many end up in low paid work, including textile manufacturing, construction and agriculture.

“This is now, in my opinion, the strongest, most clear and targeted attack on traditional Tibetan livelihoods that we have seen almost since the Cultural Revolution” of 1966 to 1976, said Adrian Zenz, an independent Tibet and Xinjiang researcher, who compiled the core findings about the program. These are detailed in a report released this week by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based institute that focuses on policy issues of strategic importance to the U.S. “It’s a coercive lifestyle change from nomadism and farming to wage labor.”

Reuters corroborated Zenz’s findings and found additional policy documents, company reports, procurement filings and state media reports that describe the program.

In a statement to Reuters, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly denied the involvement of forced labor, and said China is a country with rule of law and that workers are voluntary and properly compensated.

“What these people with ulterior motives are calling ‘forced labor’ simply does not exist. We hope the international community will distinguish right from wrong, respect facts, and not be fooled by lies,” it said.

Moving surplus rural labor into industry is a key part of China’s drive to boost the economy and reduce poverty. But in areas like Xinjiang and Tibet, with large ethnic populations and a history of unrest, rights groups say the programs include an outsized emphasis on ideological training. And the government quotas and military-style management, they say, suggest the transfers have coercive elements.

China seized control of Tibet after Chinese troops entered the region in 1950, in what Beijing calls a “peaceful liberation.” Tibet has since become one of the most restricted and sensitive areas in the country.

The Tibetan program is expanding as international pressure is growing over similar projects in Xinjiang, some of which have been linked to mass detention centers. A United Nations report has estimated that around one million people in Xinjiang, mostly ethnic Uighurs, were detained in camps and subjected to ideological education. China initially denied the existence of the camps, but has since said they are vocational and education centers, and that all the people have “graduated.”

Reuters was unable to ascertain the conditions of the transferred Tibetan workers. Foreign journalists are not permitted to enter the region, and other foreign citizens are only permitted on government-approved tours.

In recent years, Xinjiang and Tibet have been the target of harsh policies in pursuit of what Chinese authorities call “stability maintenance.” These policies are broadly aimed at quelling dissent, unrest or separatism and include restricting the travel of ethnic citizens to other parts of China and abroad, and tightening control over religious activities.

In August, President Xi Jinping said China will again step up efforts against separatism in Tibet, where ethnic Tibetans make up around 90% of the population, according to census data. Critics, spearheaded by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, accuse the Chinese authorities of carrying out “cultural genocide” in the region. The 85-year-old Nobel Laureate has been based in Dharamsala, India, since he fled China in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese authorities.

ELIMINATE ‘LAZY PEOPLE’

While there has been some evidence of military-style training and labor transfers in Tibet in the past, this new, enlarged program represents the first on a mass scale and the first to openly set quotas for transfers outside the region.

A key element, described in multiple regional policy documents, involves sending officials into villages and townships to gather data on rural laborers and conduct education activities, aimed at building loyalty.

State media described one such operation in villages near the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. Officials carried out over a thousand anti-separatism education sessions, according to the state media report, “allowing the people of all ethnic groups to feel the care and concern of the Party Central Committee,” referring to China’s ruling Communist Party.

The report said the sessions included songs, dances and sketches in “easy to understand language.” Such “education” work took place prior to the rollout of the wider transfers this year.

The model is similar to Xinjiang, and researchers say a key link between the two is the former Tibet Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who took over the same post in Xinjiang in 2016 and spearheaded the development of Xinjiang’s camp system. The Xinjiang government, where Chen remains Party boss, did not respond to a request for comment.

“In Tibet, he was doing a slightly lower level, under the radar, version of what was implemented in Xinjiang,” said Allen Carlson, Associate Professor in Cornell University’s Government Department.

Around 70% of Tibet’s population is classified as rural, according to 2018 figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics. This includes a large proportion of subsistence farmers, posing a challenge for China’s poverty alleviation program, which measures its success on levels of basic income. China has pledged to eradicate r