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China's occupation of Tibet has marginalized a Tibetan national identity that dates back more than 2,000 years. Beijing's modern-day claim to the region is based solely on Mongolian and Manchurian imperial influence over Tibet in the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively. China invaded Tibet in late 1949, and in 1951, formally annexed the country. In an apparent effort to undermine Tibetan claims to statehood, Beijing incorporated roughly half of Tibet into four different southwestern Chinese provinces beginning in 1950. As a result, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which Beijing created in 1965, covers only about half the territory of pre-invasion Tibet.
In what is perhaps the defining event of Beijing's occupation, Chinese troops suppressed a local uprising in 1959 by killing an estimated 87,000 Tibetans in the Lhasa region alone. The massacre forced the Tibetan spiritual and political leader, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, to flee to Dharamsala, India, with 80,000 supporters.
The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists in 1960 called the Chinese occupation genocidal and ruled that between 1911 and 1949, the year China invaded, Tibet had possessed all the attributes of statehood as defined under international law. Mao's Cultural Revolution devastated Tibet, as China jailed thousands of monks and nuns, burned many sacred texts, and destroyed nearly all of Tibet's 6,200 monasteries.
As resistance to Beijing's rule continued, Chinese soldiers forcibly broke up peaceful protests throughout Tibet between 1987 and 1990. Beijing imposed martial law on Lhasa and surrounding areas in March 1989 following three days of antigovernment protests and riots during which police killed at least 50 Tibetans. Officials lifted martial law in May 1990.
Since the 1989 demonstrations, Tibetans have mounted few large-scale protests against Chinese rule in the face of a blanket repression of dissent. In addition to jailing dissidents, officials have stepped up their efforts to control religious affairs and undermine the exiled Dalai Lama's religious and political authority. Foreign observers have reported a slight easing of repression since late 2000, when Beijing tapped the relatively moderate Guo Jinlong to be the region's Communist Party boss. Guo, who served on several party committees in Sichuan Province and the TAR, replaced Chen Kuiyan, the architect of recent crackdowns.
One reason for the change in Tibet's top governmental post may have been Beijing's anger over the escape to India in late 1999 of the teenager recognized by the Dalai Lama, and accepted by Beijing, as the seventeenth Karmapa. The Karmapa is the highest-ranking figure in the Karma Kargyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Beijing had interfered in the Karmapa's selection and education as part of an apparent effort to create a generation of more pliant Tibetan leaders. In an even more flagrant case of interference with Tibet's Buddhist hierarchy, China in 1995 detained six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and rejected the Dalai Lama's selection of him as the eleventh reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is Tibetan Buddhism's second-highest religious figure. Officials then stage-managed the selection of another six-year-old boy as the Panchen Lama. Since the Panchen Lama identifies the reincarnated Dalai Lama, Beijing potentially can control the identification of the fifteenth Dalai Lama.
China made several goodwill gestures in 2002 that some analysts interpreted as an effort to influence international opinion concerning the situation in Tibet. China hosted visits to Beijing and Lhasa by two of the Dalai Lama's envoys, the first formal contact between Beijing and the Dalai Lama since 1993. Beijing also brought several press and diplomatic delegations to Tibet and released at least six Tibetan political prisoners before the end of their sentences.
One of those released, Jigme Sangpo, 76, was Tibet's longest-serving political prisoner. He was jailed in 1983 for putting up a wall poster calling for Tibetan independence and had his sentence extended for nonviolent protests while behind bars. At year's end it was not clear whether China's moves were solely cosmetic or perhaps also reflected a willingness to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama on autonomy for Tibet and other issues.
Under China's occupation of Tibet, Tibetans enjoy few basic rights, lack the right to determine their political future, and cannot change their government through elections. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rules the TAR and neighboring areas that historically were part of Tibet through officials whose ranks include some Tibetans in largely ceremonial posts. While ethnic Tibetans have served as TAR governor, none has ever held the peak post of TAR party secretary. Most of China's policies affecting Tibetans apply both to those living in the TAR and to Tibetans living in parts of pre-invasion Tibet that Beijing has incorporated into China's Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces.
Political dissidents face some of the worst human rights abuses of any Tibetans. Security forces routinely arrest, jail, and torture dissidents to punish nonviolent protest against Chinese rule, according to the U.S. State Department, the London-based Tibet Information Network (TIN) watchdog group, and other sources. Dissidents have been severely punished for distributing leaflets, putting up posters, holding peaceful protests, putting together lists of prisoners, possessing photographs of the Dalai Lama, and displaying Tibetan flags or other symbols of cultural identity.
The CCP-controlled judiciary routinely hands down lengthy jail terms to Tibetans convicted of these and other political offenses. Tibet's jails held 188 known political prisoners as of February 2002, according to TIN. The number of political prisoners has declined in recent years, although the reason for this is not clear. At least 37 Tibetan political prisoners, or about 1 in 50, have died since 1987 as a result of prison abuse, TIN said in 2001.
Throughout Tibet, security forces routinely beat, torture, or otherwise abuse detainees and inmates, according to the U.S. State Department and other sources. "Poor conditions of detention coupled with widespread torture and abuse make life extremely harsh for all those jailed in Tibet," the human rights group Amnesty International said in April. In one of the most notorious cases of abuse in recent years, officials responded to protests at Lhasa's Drapchi Prison in May 1998 by torturing and beating to death nine prisoners, including five nuns and three monks.
Prison officials reportedly at times also sexually abuse female inmates, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report covering 2001, released in March 2002. At some jails and detention centers, they also reportedly require inmates to work, often for nominal pay and the possibility of sentence reductions, the report added.
A senior lama and another Tibetan from the Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province were sentenced to death in December following a closed trial in connection with a series of bombings in Sichuan Province that resulted in one fatality. In keeping with Chinese practice, the lama's suspended sentence will likely be commuted. The sentences handed down to the outspoken lama, Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, 52, and one of his supporters, Lobsang Dondrub, were the first reported instances in many years of Tibetans being sentenced to death on grounds that may be politically motivated.
Chinese officials permit Tibetans to observe some religious practices, but since 1996 they have strengthened their control over monasteries under an intense propaganda campaign that is aimed largely at undermining the Dalai Lama's influence as a spiritual and political leader. Under China's "patriotic education campaign," government-run "work teams" visit monasteries to conduct mandatory sessions on Beijing's version of Tibetan history and other political topics, according to the U.S. State Department report. Officials also require monks to sign a declaration agreeing to denounce the Dalai Lama, reject independence for Tibet, not listen to Voice of America radio broadcasts, and reject the boy the Dalai Lama identified as the eleventh Panchen Lama, the report added.
The intensity of the patriotic education campaign has recently died down somewhat. In past years, though, officials expelled from monasteries hundreds of monks and nuns who refused to comply with these rules.
In addition to trying to force monks and nuns to renounce their beliefs, the government oversees day-to-day affairs in major monasteries and nunneries through state-organized "democratic management committees" that run each establishment. The government also limits the numbers of monks and nuns permitted in major monasteries, although these restrictions are not always enforced. Officials have also restricted the building of new monasteries and nunneries, closed many religious institutions, and demolished several others.
Hundreds of religious figures hold nominal positions in local "people's congresses," although Tibetan members of the CCP and Tibetan governmental workers are banned from most religious practice. Since 1994, governmental workers have also been banned from displaying photographs of the Dalai Lama in state offices.
The government, however, appears to be easing tough restrictions on certain lay religious practices imposed in 2000 that targeted not only party cadres and governmental workers but also students and pensioners. The TAR government that year threatened civil servants with dismissal, schoolchildren with expulsion, and retirees with loss of pensions if they publicly marked the Buddhist Sagadawa festival in Lhasa. Officials also warned Lhasa students that they could be thrown out of their schools if they visited monasteries or temples during the summer holidays.
Beijing's draconian one-child family planning policy is in theory more lenient towards Tibetans and other ethnic minorities. And in keeping with stated policy, officials generally permit urban Tibetans to have two children, while farmers and herders often have three or more children. Officials, however, frequently pressure party cadres and state workers to have only one child, the U.S. State Department report said. Moreover, authorities reportedly are applying a two-child limit to farmers and nomads in several counties, TIN said in 2000.
As one of China's 55 recognized ethnic minority groups, Tibetans also receive some preferential treatment in university admissions and governmental employment. Tibetans, however, need to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to take advantage of these preferences. Many Tibetans are torn between a desire to learn Chinese in order to compete for school slots and jobs and the realization that increased use of Chinese threatens the survival of the Tibetan language. Chinese has long been the language of instruction in middle schools and reportedly is now being used to teach several subjects in a number of Lhasa primary schools, TIN said 2001.
In the private sector, employers routinely favor Han Chinese for jobs and give them greater pay for the same work, according to the U.S. State Department report and Tibetans also find it more difficult than Han Chinese to get permits and loans to open businesses. As in the rest of China, officials reportedly subject farmers and herders to arbitrary taxes.
Thanks in part to heavy subsidies from Beijing and favorable tax and other economic policies, living standards have improved in recent years for many Tibetans. Han Chinese, however, have been the main beneficiaries of the growing private (business) sector and many other fruits of development. This is seen most starkly in certain areas of Lhasa where Han Chinese run almost all small businesses.
Moreover, the influx of Han Chinese has altered the region's demographic composition, displaced Tibetan businesses, reduced job opportunities for Tibetans, and further marginalized Tibetan cultural identity. Possibly because of these rapid social and economic changes and dislocations, prostitution is a "growing problem" in Tibet, particularly in Lhasa, the U.S. State Department report said. Some 3,000 Tibetans flee to Nepal as refugees each year, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
In yet another sign of Beijing's tight grip on the region, the government controls all print and broadcast media in Tibet, except for around 20 clandestine publications that appear sporadically, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders press freedom group said in 2000.