Tibet * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Tibet *

Tibet *

Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Tibet received a downward trend arrow due to new regulations that require Chinese government approval for reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist teachers, as well the intensification of forced resettlement of traditionally nomadic Tibetan herders.

Fearing instability in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese authorities amplified their repressive policies in 2007. In addition to the intensification of forced resettlement of traditionally nomadic herders, regulations announced or implemented during the year effectively increased the authorities’ control over Tibetan Buddhism, escalating tensions and sparking clashes between police and Tibetans across the Tibet Autonomous Region and surrounding provinces.

Communist China formally annexed Tibetan territory in 1951. 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 remaining area, which had been under the administration of the Dalai Lama’s government, was designated the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1965.

In 1959, Chinese troops suppressed a major uprising in Lhasa in which 87,000 people were reportedly killed. Tibet’s spiritual and political leader—the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso—was forced 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 the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–76), nearly all of Tibet’s 6,200 monasteries were destroyed.

Resistance to Beijing’s rule continued and was ruthlessly suppressed. Under reforms introduced in 1980, religious practice was allowed again—with restrictions—and tourism was permitted in certain areas. Beginning in 1987, some 200 mostly peaceful demonstrations were mounted. After antigovernment protests in March 1989, martial law was imposed; it was not lifted until May 1990.

In addition to jailing dissidents, Beijing 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 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was rejected. 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, the move was seen as a bid by Beijing to control the eventual selection of the 15th Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government has made a series of goodwill gestures that may be aimed at influencing international opinion on Tibet. Several 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 sixth round of the ongoing dialogue was held in June 2007. 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 that 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.

The Chinese government extols the economic development brought to Tibet by its Western Development Program, particularly the Qinghai–Tibet railway, inaugurated in July 2006; Beijing asserts that it will 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. In a related move, in line with the latest Five-Year Plan (2006–10), Beijing has intensified efforts to forcibly resettle traditionally nomadic Tibetan herders in permanent-housing areas.

Fearing instability in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the authorities amplified their repressive policies in 2007. In October, China lodged a diplomatic protest after the Dalai Lama was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, and the government intensified its anti–Dalai Lama “patriotic education” campaign. Regulations implemented or announced in 2007 effectively increased the authorities’ control over Tibetan Buddhism, escalating tensions and sparking clashes between police and Tibetans. The unrest resulted in arrests and detentions across the TAR and surrounding provinces.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The Chinese government rules Tibet through administration of the TAR and 10 Tibetan autonomous prefectures in traditional Tibetan areas within nearby Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces. Under the Chinese constitution, autonomous regions have the right to formulate their own regulations and implement national legislation 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 governors, 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. Basic freedoms guaranteed under the Chinese constitution are strictly limited.

Corruption remains a problem in Tibet. Official reports noted that 74 cases of corruption and dereliction of duty were being dealt with in 2006. There are concerns that criminal organizations are using the Qinghai–Tibet railway to smuggle endangered plant and animal species. Tibet is not ranked separately on Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Chinese authorities control the flow of information in Tibet, tightly restricting all media and regulating internet use. International broadcasts continue to be jammed. Increased availability of the internet in urban areas has provided more access to information, although identity cards must be shown to use the internet in public facilities. Internet restrictions in place in China are enforced all the more stringently in the TAR. Restrictions on internet content introduced in 2005 prevent distribution of uncensored information through websites or email; this ban includes any information relating to Tibetan independence, the government-in-exile, or human rights abuses. In July 2007, a Tibetan-run website known as the Lamp was reportedly closed, followed in October by tibetti.com, tibetcm.com, and blogwww.tibetcm.com.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report, issued in March 2007, 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 Dalai Lama–related materials can still lead to imprisonment; in March 2007, businessman Penpa received a three-year sentence after he was found in possession of Dalai Lama CDs. 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. TAR regulations implemented in January 2007 and national regulations announced in July endow the authorities with unprecedented control over Tibetan Buddhism, notably requiring government approval for the recognition and education of reincarnated teachers and restricting travel for the purpose of practicing religion.

Since 1996, Beijing has strengthened control through a propaganda campaign intended to undermine the Dalai Lama’s influence. The government announced the end of this “patriotic education campaign” in 2000, but “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 party secretary in 2006, the campaign has intensified. Police clashed with Tibetans in Kardze, Sichuan province, in August 2007, and nomad chief Runggyal Adak and several of his family members were detained. The propaganda campaign was then extended to the general populace, and in October 2007 two Tibetans were reportedly arrested for refusing to participate. Beijing protested conferral of the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal on the Dalai Lama in October 2007, and there were reports of numerous clashes between police and monks celebrating the event. In one incident, three monks were reportedly detained at Drepung monastery.

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 2006 human rights report, Beijing claims that Buddhist monasteries are associated with proindependence activism in Tibetan areas. As a result, spiritual leaders have encountered difficulty reestablishing historical monasteries.

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.

Chinese law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly; however, it is severely restricted in 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. However, cumbersome registration requirements and a clampdown on NGOs since the 2003–05 “color revolutions” in three former Soviet republics 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.

Owing to strictly controlled access to the TAR, it is difficult to determine the exact number of political prisoners. According to the 2007 annual report of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, there were a total of 100 known political detainees, down from 145 in 2004. Of the 13 political detentions that took place in 2006, 11 detainees were reportedly monks and nuns. The Chinese government allowed the UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, to visit Tibet in December 2005, but 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.

Following the September 2006 videotaping of Chinese soldiers shooting Tibetan civilians as they attempted to seek refuge in Nepal, there has been a crackdown on people trying to flee across the border. Although Beijing issued denials, there were reports in October 2007 that three Tibetans were arrested and nine others were missing after being shot at by police in the same area.

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 career fields 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.

In line with the latest Five-Year Plan (2006–10), Beijing has intensified efforts to forcibly resettle traditionally nomadic Tibetan herders in permanent-housing areas. Some 56,000 people were relocated in the first year of the plan, and half of the TAR’s rural population could be forcibly resettled by 2010.

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.