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China Assaults Tibetan Cultural Identity

By the Tibet Advocacy Coalition

Read full report here.


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”. 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”. 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’. 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.”

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 unheard and reprisals against human rights defenders has become routine.

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