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China Accused of ‘Coercing’ Tibetans Into Re-Education Program

Ziryan Aziz exposes the concerning news of Tibetan re-education camps in China

Photo by Sergio Capuzzimati

In a recent report, China has been accused of coercing thousands of Tibetans into a re-education program, similar to that which is seen for Uighur Muslims in neighbouring Xinjiang, where ethnic Tibetans undergo a mix of vocational and political training.

The report, published by the Jamestown Foundation, a US based institution that researches American interests abroad, has collated policy and official state documents, as well as media statements from 2019 to the present.

Images and documents reviewed by Reuters also produce a glimpse into the new military style vocational training scheme, which is currently being implemented in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). 

The TAR is a province in South Western China which is home to the Tibetan people, who make up 90% of the population. It was an independent country until 1950, when it was annexed by the newly established communist state, the People’s Republic of China. 

After an uprising in 1959, it has become one of China’s most policed regions, where basic freedoms are heavily suppressed. For example, talking positively of the former Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama or owning an independence flag can land you lengthy jail sentences.

In line with President Xi Jinping’s goal of ending rural poverty by the end of 2020, Tibetans, of whom 70% live rurally, have been the focus of a government project to retrain the Tibetan population, making them fit to work in industry, both in Tibet and other areas of China. However, this retraining is being condemned by some as an attempt to erase the Tibetans’ traditional lifestyles and culture.

What Does the Report Say?

According to the report, the aim of the project is to not only provide vocational training to Tibetans so that they will be skilled for work transfers out the region, but also to push forward with political education, changing the culturally unique mindset of the Tibetan people.

An example can be seen in a village close to the Tibetan capital, where according to state media, officials went to the village to gather data on labourers, as well as providing anti-separatism lectures involving songs and dancing, so that “the people of all ethnic groups to feel the care and concern of the Party Central Committee”.

Another example is provided by policy documents from the Nagqu City government website, where officials entered a village with the intent to change the “can’t do, don’t want to do and don’t dare to do” mindset which it is perceived that Tibetans inherently have. That same document also calls for the elimination of “lazy people”.

The report highlights the “military-style” nature of the vocational training. State-published photos depict Tibetans in military uniform perform military drills with army instructors, with the aim of correcting “backwards thinking” and strengthening Tibetans’ perceived weak work discipline. What this makes clear is a profoundly negative attitude in China towards the minority group, with the report going so far as to reference poverty alleviation reports which advise that the state should stop “stop raising up lazy people.”

The pace of the program in 2020 has been boosted by the deadline for the end of the year, as quotas for the number of labourers to be distributed within China have been set by the government in Beijing. Policy documents featured in the report talk of “strict rewards and punishments” applied to officials regarding quotas. 

The government’s goal for Tibetan labourers to be disseminated into regular employment across the country is seen by the government as reducing poverty, but it will also dismantle and undermine the minority’s traditional way of life. Some farmers have already allegedly been coerced into handing over their land to state cooperatives, taking away financial independence.

Similarities with Xinjiang?

The camps bear some similarities with the treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang province. Over a million Uighur Muslims are currently being detained in what China labels ‘vocational centres.’ The program in Tibet is being directed by Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of Xinjiang who also directed the detention of Uighurs.  

The report stresses that the program is “potentially less coercive” than in Xinjiang, given that some Tibetans have participated voluntarily, and as a result, some will gain a higher source of income after completing their training. 

However, what cannot be ignored is the context behind the program. Minorities within China, especially Tibetans, have a complicated relationship with the state, given that whilst special benefits are available to them, many Tibetans are viewed with suspicion by the majority Han Chinese, and the state. 

Negative stereotypes of Tibetans such as laziness, backwardness, and dependence on state guidance still persist. Judging by the language used in this report, and with the emphasis on military-style education, it’s easy to see why the intentions of the authorities are viewed with suspicion by the international community.

Anti-religious education is an especially concerning element of the program. For Tibetans, practising the Tibetan version of Buddhism is an important aspect of their identity. Yet, in recent years, laws such as banning students from taking part in religious activities over summer holidays or studying in monasteries have brought accusations of repression, which the state excuses as prevention of separatism or terrorism.

Even if there is a global outcry surrounding the developments in Tibet, it is unlikely to deter the Chinese authorities. When the camps in Xinjiang were exposed to the wider world, the outrage spanned every continent, but China persisted with the program and hasn't backed down since. With this softer approach in Tibet, it’s unlikely to catch the same attention, especially considering the US election around the corner, Brexit, and a world still dealing with a global pandemic. 


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