Through forced displacement, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is slowly dissolving Tibetan communities. In the western frontier of China, the Tibetan people, a longstanding source of dissent for the CCP, are undergoing a period of aggressive Sinicization, the intentional assimilation of Chinese ethnic cultures into the mainstream norms of the majority Han Chinese. Han Chinese are encouraged to migrate to Tibet and fill the gaps, particularly in education and employment. Local protests against these discriminatory policies resulted in violent clashes with police, while internationally, human rights groups have called it cultural genocide.
Starting in 2006 with the “Comfortable Housing” project, the CCP began relocating millions of Tibetans to state designed communities. Between 2006 and 2012, an estimated 2 million people were moved into new houses, or renovated their existing homes. In tangent, the CCP initiated legislation to organize nomadic Tibetans into similar communities. Over the course of 5 years, the CCP relocated roughly 65% of Urban Tibetans, as well as restricted the movement of over 90% of nomadic pastoralists, destabilizing many communities and effectively erasing a nomadic lifestyle and culture which has existed in the unique Tibet ecosystem for thousands of years.
The displacement for many Tibetans was involuntary and absolute, and Tibetans impacted by the policy made a variety of complaints. Human Rights Watch interviewed Tibetans as a part of the Comfortable Housing project, and many took issue with the involuntary nature of the policy along with the “loss of tangible and intangible assets and dissolution of communities.” Others were frustrated that there were no “avenues for challenging or seeking remedies for wrongful eviction orders” and further commented on the financial burdens attached to housing renovations and resettlement. Apart from social or economic reasons, some of the displaced people interviewed were concerned by the lack of communication or consultation with the local communities most affected by the policy.
Regardless of these complaints, the CCP insists that the Comfortable Housing policy is crucial to the ongoing development of Tibet. any locals and international groups, however, are convinced that these programs are not to benefit Tibetan communities, but rather Han Chinese migrants. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet who has been in exile since 1959 due to Chinese persecution, asserts that “under the guise of economic and social development, Beijing encourages its population to migrate to Tibet with the clear aim to marginalize Tibetans from the economic, educational, political and social life of the region.”
According to a US State Department analysis of Tibet’s human rights status, many of the infrastructure projects implemented in Tibet exclude local residents. The report states that “large state owned enterprises based outside the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) engineered or implemented many major infrastructure projects across the Tibetan Plateau, with Han Chinese professionals and low-wage temporary migrant workers from other provinces, rather than local residents managing and staffing projects.” Nevertheless, Beijing approved the urbanization plans proposed by Lobsang Jamcan, the Chairman of the regional Tibetan government, who said “Tibet’s urbanization still lags behind many regions…and Tibet must improve public services in small cities and towns to attract more talent and to boost local economy.” Meanwhile, these housing reforms proved to decimate the local pastoral economy.
Apart from urbanizing Tibet’s local communities, the CCP has economic and geo-political incentives to displace Tibetans. With 90% of nomadic Tibetans relocated to Comfortable Housing communities, the CCP is free to mine pastures rich with untapped precious minerals. Any protests against these mining policies were seen as protests against the state. Ironically, one of the main arguments for the relocation of nomadic Tibetans was the unsubstantiated claim that the pastoral economy was harmful to Tibet’s unique ecosystem. Now, Chinese state-owned enterprises are mining that same ecosystem.
Additionally, Tibet is the freshwater source of six of Asia’s largest rivers: the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong Rivers in China, and the Indus, Sutlej, and Ganges Rivers in India. Whichever country controls the sources of these rivers potentially controls access to fresh water for billions of people in Asia. Heavier CCP presence in Tibet strengthens China’s access to fresh water, particularly as border tensions with India are on the rise.
The dissolution of Tibetan communities also weakens the influence of Buddhist communities in Tibet, particularly as it relates to education. In 2018, the CCP forbade informal Buddhist classes and in 2019, prevented any classes being taught in the Tibetan language except for students in first grade. In Tibetan boarding schools, Tibetan children are taken from their families and placed in boarding schools outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Finally, any Tibetan government candidate has to disavow allegiance to the Dalai Lama prior to accepting their position. By weakening Tibetan culture, Buddhism, and Tibet’s connection to the Dalai Lama, the CCP can reduce what they claim to be the risk of Tibetan religious extremism and separatism aided by India.
Tibetan community displacement is just another step in a decades-long struggle between Tibet and the CCP, beginning with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, and the subsequent persecution of the Dalai Lama and the culture he represents. Any protests regarding the CCP’s policies have been met with harsh resistance. In 1995 the Dalai Lama named his spiritual successor, known in Buddhism as the Panchen Lama. The CCP proceeded to kidnap the 11th Panchen Lama, then six year old Gedhun Cheokyi Nyima along with his family, and replaced him with a CCP approved candidate.
In March 2008, protests erupted in Lhasa during the celebration of Tibetan Uprising Day, which commemorates a failed Tibetan revolt against the CCP that originally occurred in 1959. The initial protests were peaceful, though once they were dispersed by the police, they became violent and ethnically charged, with protesters attacking non-Tibetans, such as Han and Hui people. In the crackdown after the protests, the Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetan leaders stated that at least 400 people had been killed along with thousands of Tibetans arrested.
International human rights groups have denounced China’s policies in Tibet, most recently the displacement of Tibetan communities and the disappearance of the Panchen Lama. On May 7th, 2020, 159 organizations submitted a joint petition for the immediate release of the 11th Panchen Lama. In addition, the petition asserted that “communist China is destroying the foundations of Tibetan Buddhism. It is interfering in the sacred Buddhist traditions of Tibetans with unjust laws,” and urged the UN to allow “an independent fact-finding mission to assess the human rights violations against Tibetans.”
While the CCP’s discriminatory policies remain active in Tibet, the unique Tibetan tradition is at risk. Through displacement, Tibetan communities are being dissolved, erasing the social and cultural history of Tibet. The pastoral economic tradition of Tibet has been dismantled by the Comfortable Housing project, and the religious practices of Tibetan Buddhists have been supplanted by the CCP’s replacement Panchen Lama. Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Free Tibet, and the International Campaign for Tibet continue to advocate for the people of the Tibet plateau, but without substantial intervention, the authentic Tibetan culture will continue to slowly decline under the CCP.