Tibet Was China’s First Laboratory of Repression
Xi Jinping is bringing methods honed in Xinjiang back to the Himalayas.
In the early 2000s, the Free Tibet movement galvanized the world. From celebrity endorsements to Simpsons cameos, the media launched the plight of Tibet into the Western imagination; the suffering of Tibetans under a foreign regime became well known. But today, with atrocities in Xinjiang and Hong Kong dominating the narrative and Tibet now more sealed off than ever, news about the Himalayan region has been reduced to stray sentences in coverage on Chinese aggression.
Yet oppression in Tibet has only gotten worse. On Aug. 29, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced plans to “strengthen unity and socialism” in Tibet by building an “impregnable fortress” to ward off splittism. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views Tibetan disobedience, violent or nonviolent, as separatism, which, in Beijing’s eyes, threatens national security and expansionism. So when the 2008 Tibet protests erupted, fomented by discontent with decades-long repression, the CCP ruthlessly responded by killing and arbitrarily arresting protesters. But these immediate measures were not enough. The CCP began to plan a long-term policy of forced assimilation.
Chen Quanguo, then a rising star in the CCP, arrived in Tibet as the new party secretary in 2011 and rapidly transformed Tibet into one of the most pervasive police states in the world, a model that would soon be adopted in Xinjiang against the Muslim Uighurs. Chen implemented an urban design—a panopticon-like system that is euphemistically referred to as “grid-style social management”—that enables CCP police officers to easily surveil Tibetans. Also in the name of counterterrorism, Chen oversaw the formation of “double-linked households,” an Orwellian social system in which family members are encouraged to report one another to the authorities at any hint of transgression. In 2016, Chen became Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary and nationalized these policies, bringing the techniques practiced on Tibetans to Xinjiang.
China has additionally seized the opportunity presented by a saturated news cycle to facilitate sinister policies against Tibetans. While the Hong Kong protests have absorbed fervent worldwide attention since last summer over an alarming extradition bill, Nepal and China signed a contentious extradition treaty in January. Xi arrived in Nepal to negotiate diplomatic proposals between the two countries. One proposal was a treaty that would extradite newly arrived Tibetan refugees from Nepal. After initial reports that Nepali officials would not authorize the treaty, Xi met secretly with Nepal’s foreign minister, Pradeep Gyawali, to sign it. This agreement condemns captured Tibetan refugees in Nepal to the rarely merciful penal system of mainland China. The Hong Kong bill and protests may draw attention, but an independent government shifting its policies to appease Beijing is just as worrying.
Meanwhile, the techniques honed in Xinjiang may be returning to their birthplace in Tibet. The CCP passed a bill titled “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region” this spring, which aims to Sinicize Tibetans. While the bill’s title seems innocuous, similar ethnic unity regulations in Xinjiang preceded the detention camps for Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. The CCP strives to promote an “All ethnic groups in China are one family” narrative, since CCP totalitarianism necessitates conformity and obedience—anything to the contrary is considered a threat to CCP legitimacy. It has become clear what this means in Xinjiang. Ethnic unity means incarcerating millions of Uighurs in political reeducation camps, where detainees are forced to renounce Islam and profess devotion to communism. Ethnic unity means that children can be forcefully separated from their parents at a CCP official’s whim. Ethnic unity means that the Uighur identity must be beaten out of the individual.
Although attention has been understandably focused on Xinjiang’s vast network of prison camps, the increasing oppression of Tibetan human rights should cause equal alarm. The new ethnic unity bill in Tibet is likely to presage a new round of cruel ethnonationalist policies under the guise of reeducation in Tibet. This June, the CCP ordered the destruction of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags, justifying it as “behavioral reform,” and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are steadily restricted by CCP-appointed officials. The CCP is fixated on “fostering ethnic unity” by dismantling Tibetans’ and Uighurs’ faith; after all, according to Karl Marx, religion is the opium of the masses. Though state-ordered family separation is not as common in Tibet, enforced political reeducation has been integral to Tibetan prisons. Other than the erasure of religion, increased language Sinicization will almost surely occur given that the CCP considers the Tibetan language as a vessel for separatism. The ethnic unity dilemma may not be reserved for Tibetans and Uighurs either. Recently, the CCP widened its language Sinicization; teachers in Inner Mongolia will be forced to replace Mongolian-medium education with Chinese-medium education beginning in September.
The upcoming months may see an international resurgence of Tibet coverage. In a rare move, five independent mandate holders at the United Nations, including two working groups and three special rapporteurs, recently demanded that the CCP provide more information regarding the whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima—Tibet’s 11th Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama’s lama rank in Tibetan Buddhism, was kidnapped by the CCP in 1995 as a 6-year-old and was replaced by a Chinese-chosen figure. The U.S. Congress is on the brink of passing the new Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019, which passed the House of Representatives with a bipartisan supermajority vote and now awaits approval in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The new Tibetan Policy and Support Act would update a 2002 U.S.-Tibet policy to account for a robust U.S. stance on Tibetan religious freedom in addition to the support of environmental protection of the Tibetan Plateau.
Understanding the future fate of Uighurs and Hong Kongers can be strengthened by studying the historical and ongoing repression of Tibetans. The Associated Press first reported in June on the Chinese government’s accelerated forced sterilization of Uighurs—a genocidal policy that was diabolically imposed on Tibetans decades ago. Now, more than ever, journalists and foreign-policy makers must focus on Tibet to contextualize current events across the Asia-Pacific and to bear witness to the splintering human rights of Tibetans; the lack of human rights has become so unbearable that 156 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009. Based on the history of repression of Tibetans and Uighurs, which seems to work in tandem, the new ethnic unity bill in Tibet is a menacing harbinger for what may come next.