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While the Chinese government continued to extol the economic benefits that its Western Development Program was bringing to the region, notably the new Qinghai–Tibet railway, concerns have been raised that the resulting increase in the number of Han Chinese traveling to Tibet would further jeopardize the region’s distinct culture and future prospects for autonomy. Separately, in September 2006, a foreign television crew recorded footage of Chinese soldiers shooting and killing Tibetans who were trying to flee across the border into Nepal.
China’s occupation of Tibet has marginalized a Tibetan national identity that dates back more than 1,600 years. Beijing’s claim to the region is based on imperial influence during China’s Mongol and Manchu dynastic periods in the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively. Communist China invaded central Tibet in 1950 and, in 1951, formally annexed Tibetan territory. In an effort to undermine Tibetan claims to statehood, Beijing split up the lands that had traditionally comprised Tibet, incorporating the eastern portion into four different Chinese provinces. The core central and western portions, which had been under the administration of the Dalai Lama’s government, were designated the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1965.
The defining event of Beijing’s rule took place in 1959, when Chinese troops suppressed a major uprising in Lhasa, following widespread fighting over the previous three years. A reported 87,000 Tibetans were killed in the Lhasa area alone. The massacre forced the Tibetan spiritual and political leader, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, to flee to India with some 80,000 supporters. During the next six years, China closed 97 percent of the region’s monasteries and defrocked more than 100,000 monks and nuns. During Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), nearly all of Tibet’s 6,200 monasteries were destroyed.
Resistance to Beijing’s rule continued and was ruthlessly suppressed throughout Tibet. Under reforms introduced in 1980, religious practice was allowed again—with restrictions—and tourism was permitted in certain areas. Protests resumed in 1987, and some 200 mostly peaceful demonstrations were mounted over the next six years. Four large-scale protests against Chinese rule took place in Lhasa. After three days of antigovernment protests in March 1989, martial law was imposed on the city and the surrounding areas; it was not lifted until May 1990.
In addition to jailing dissidents, Beijing in the mid-1990s stepped up efforts to control religious affairs and undermine the exiled Dalai Lama’s authority. In 1995, six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was detained by the authorities and his selection by the Dalai Lama as the eleventh reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was rejected. The Panchen Lama was the highest religious figure to have remained in Tibet after the mass exodus in 1959. Beijing then orchestrated the selection of another six-year-old boy as the Panchen Lama. Since one of the roles of the Panchen Lama is to identify the reincarnated Dalai Lama, Beijing could control the eventual selection of the fifteenth Dalai Lama. Beijing has also tried to manipulate the identification and education of other religious figures.
In recent years, the Chinese government has made a series of goodwill gestures that may be aimed at influencing international opinion on Tibet. Several Tibetan political prisoners have been freed shortly before the end of their sentences. China hosted envoys of the Dalai Lama in 2002, the first formal contacts between Beijing and the Dalai Lama since 1993, and the fifth round of the ongoing dialogue was held in February 2006. Since 1988, the Tibetan government-in-exile has sought to negotiate genuine autonomy for Tibet, having dropped earlier demands for independence. While official statements suggest Beijing is willing to have contacts with the Dalai Lama, the government disputes his view that an autonomous Tibet should include territory that has been incorporated into Chinese provinces and rejects his aspirations for a democratically elected government within the autonomous area. Other Tibetan groups remain firmly in favor of independence.
At September 2005 celebrations marking the fortieth anniversary of the TAR, the Chinese government praised the achievements of the past 40 years, particularly the economic development, social progress, and stability brought by the Western Development Program. The central achievement of the program is the Qinghai–Tibet railway, inaugurated in July 2006, which links Lhasa with five major Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Xining, Chengdu, and Guangzhou. Within five years, the railway will be extended from Lhasa to the urban centers of Shigatse and Nyingtri. The Chinese leadership has asserted that it will boost trade, create jobs, and raise living standards. Tourism revenue is expected to exceed $700 million by 2010, and the number of visitors is set to jump from 1.8 million in 2005 to 10 million by 2020. The Chinese government is also eager to exploit the region’s rich natural resources, inviting international companies to carry out oil and gas exploration.
While many Tibetans have benefited from such development, particularly the infrastructural improvements, the changes have disproportionately benefited Han Chinese. Scholars predict that the new railroad will increase Han Chinese migration to the TAR, heightening ethnic tensions and Tibetan fears of cultural assimilation.
Meanwhile, Beijing continues to tighten political control over the region, jailing dissidents and restricting freedoms. The ongoing disregard for human rights was vividly illustrated in September 2006, when a foreign television crew recorded footage of Chinese soldiers shooting and killing Tibetans who were trying to flee across the border into Nepal.
The Chinese government rules Tibet through administration of the TAR and 10 Tibetan autonomous prefectures in what were traditional Tibetan areas in nearby Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan Provinces. Under the Chinese constitution, autonomous regions have the right to formulate their own regulations and implement national laws and regulations in accordance with local conditions. In practice, the TAR mirrors the rest of China and is governed through the local legislature or people’s congress system, with representatives sent annually to attend the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Unlike China’s provinces, which are run by a governor, autonomous regional governments have the post of chairman, usually held by a member of the largest ethnic group. Jampa Phuntsog, an ethnic Tibetan, has served as chairman of the TAR government since 2003, but few of the other senior positions are held by Tibetans. No Tibetan has ever held the top post of TAR Communist Party secretary. Zhang Qingli, a Han Chinese, was appointed to the post in May 2006. The authorities in the TAR continue to strictly limit basic freedoms guaranteed under the Chinese constitution.
Corruption remains a problem in Tibet. In October 2006, Tibet University students demonstrated against official corruption and discrimination in the allocation of civil service jobs to predominantly Han Chinese, a major cause of discontent among ethnic Tibetan graduates. International concerns have also been raised about criminal organizations using the new Qinghai-Tibet railway to smuggle endangered plant and animal species.
China controls the flow of information in Tibet, tightly restricting all media and regulating internet use. Tibetan-language radio programming by Voice of America, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Norway-based Voice of Tibet are jammed along with their Chinese-language counterparts. Increased availability of the internet in urban areas has provided some Tibetans with more access to information, although people must show identity cards before using the internet in public facilities.
An update to the 2000 restrictions on internet content was introduced in late September 2005 as a way of preventing the distribution of uncensored information through websites or e-mail, including all news related to “politics, economics, military affairs, foreign affairs and social and public affairs.” This ban includes any information relating to Tibetan independence, the government-in-exile, and human rights abuses. In April 2005, the Tibet Culture Website was closed down, and in October 2006, a series of online blogs written by Tibetan poet and intellectual Oeser were also closed by the Chinese authorities. A media clampdown under way throughout China is being enforced all the more strictly in ethnic minority areas, including Tibet.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 human rights report, issued in March 2006, the government’s record on respect for religious freedom “remained poor.” While some religious practices are tolerated, officials “forcibly suppressed activities they viewed as vehicles for political dissent or advocacy of Tibetan independence.” Possession of pictures of the Dalai Lama can still lead to imprisonment. Communist Party members and senior officials in Tibet must adhere to atheism and cannot practice a religion. The Religious Affairs Bureaus (RABs) continue to control who can and cannot study religion in the TAR. Officials allow only boys over the age of 18 to become monks, and they are required to sign a declaration rejecting Tibetan independence, expressing loyalty to the Chinese government, and denouncing the Dalai Lama. Since 1996, Beijing has strengthened control over monasteries under a propaganda campaign intended to undermine the Dalai Lama’s influence as a spiritual and political leader. The government announced the end of this “patriotic education campaign” in 2000, but government-run “work teams” continue to visit monasteries to conduct mandatory sessions. In 2005, 40 out of 50 nuns practicing at the Gyarak Nunnery were expelled for refusing to participate in such sessions. Since Zhang Qingli was appointed Communist Party secretary in Tibet in May 2006, he has called for an intensification of the “patriotic education” campaign for monks and nuns.
The government manages the daily operations of monasteries through Democratic Management Committees (DMCs) and the RABs. The government approves all committee members so that only “patriotic and devoted” monks and nuns may lead DMCs. Since 1995, laypeople have also been appointed to these committees. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 human rights report, released in March 2006, Beijing claims that Buddhist monasteries are associated with proindependence activism in Tibetan areas. As a result, spiritual leaders have encountered difficulty reestablishing historical monasteries, facing a lack of funds, restrictions on monastic education, and denial of government permission to operate religious institutions.
In universities, professors cannot lecture on certain topics, and many must attend political indoctrination sessions. The government restricts course materials, prohibiting information deemed “politically sensitive,” in order to prevent campus-based political and religious activity. According to the U.S. State Department, students at Tibet University are barred from religious practice.
Independent trade unions, civic groups, and human rights groups are illegal. Some international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on development and health care operate in Tibet, under highly restrictive agreements signed with Chinese government agencies. However, cumbersome registration requirements and the clampdown on NGOs following the “color revolutions” in some former Soviet republics in 2003–05 make it increasingly difficult for these organizations to operate.
While some progress has been made in establishing the rule of law in other parts of China, the judicial system in Tibet remains abysmal, with most judges lacking any legal education. There is a lack of access to legal representation, and trials are closed if the issue of “state security” is invoked. In January 2005, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a senior lama sentenced to death in December 2002, had his sentence, which had been temporarily suspended, formally commuted to life in prison under pressure from the international community. In a trial that Human Rights Watch said “lacked any pretense of due process,” he was found guilty in 2002 of causing explosions and inciting separatism. His alleged co-conspirator, Lobsang Dondrup, was executed in January 2003.
Following the September 2006 videotaping of Chinese soldiers shooting Tibetan civilians, there has been a crackdown on people trying to flee across the border to Nepal. In October 2006, some 53 Tibetans were detained for allegedly acting as guides for asylum seekers.
Although the Chinese government allowed the UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, to visit Tibet in December 2005, political dissidents continue to face particularly severe human rights abuses. Security forces routinely engage in arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and execution without due process, punishing even nonviolent protests against Chinese rule. Former detainees who manage to escape overseas after release, such as Jigme Gyatso, recount stories of torture and forced confessions.
Owing to strictly controlled access to the TAR, it is difficult to determine the exact number of political prisoners. According to the 2006 annual report of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, there were a total of 103 known political detainees, down from 145 in 2004. However, 24 political detentions took place in 2005, an increase from 15 in 2004. In January 2006, two monks and three nuns were sentenced to up to three years’ imprisonment for distributing posters critical of the Chinese government. Separately, Phuntsog Nyidron was permitted to travel to the United States for medical treatment in March 2006, having served 14 years in prison for participating in a peaceful political protest.
As members of one of China’s 55 officially recognized “minority” groups, Tibetans receive preferential treatment in university admissions. However, the dominant role of the Chinese language in education and in careers in government, business, and academia limits opportunities for many Tibetans. Furthermore, the illiteracy rate among Tibetans (over 47 percent) remains five times greater than that of Han Chinese (around 9 percent). In the private sector, employers favor Chinese for many jobs, especially in urban areas. Tibetans find it more difficult than Chinese to obtain permits and loans to open businesses.
China’s restrictive family-planning policies are more leniently enforced for Tibetans and other ethnic minorities than for Han Chinese. Officials limit urban Tibetans to having two children and encourage—but do not usually require—rural Tibetans to stop at three children.