On December 9, one day before International Human Rights Day, the United States sanctioned dozens of individuals and entities “connected to corruption or human rights abuse across nine countries.”
Two of those individuals were accused of “serious human rights abuse” in China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). They are Wu Yingjie, formally the provincial party secretary, and Zhang Hongbo, China’s police chief in Tibet.
Under their watch, the U.S. Treasury Department said, Tibetans suffered “arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, and physical abuse, as part of the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] efforts to severely restrict religious freedoms.”
On December 12, China reacted harshly to those sanctions, calling U.S. claims about rights abuses in Tibet and other parts of China “full of falsehoods and bias.”
“The so-called ‘repressive policies in Tibet’ is a distortion of facts,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin.
That is false.
As in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, Tibetans have faced a campaign of Sinicization – in which Tibetans are forced to assimilate into Chinese society at the expense of their own language and culture.
These campaigns have entailed state-directed abuses and a curtailment of fundamental rights.
Prior to China’s forced annexation of Tibet in 1951, which China falsely calls a “peaceful liberation,” Tibet functioned as a de facto independent state.
The Dalai Lama, forced into exile in 1959, is the highest spiritual leader in Tibet and was previously the head of government and head of state. After decades in exile, many Tibetans remain staunchly loyal to the Dalai Lama.
Forced assimilation in Tibet has had religious repression at its core, with popular shows of support for the Dalai Lama criminalized.
In its 2022 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., that promotes democracy and liberty worldwide, noted: “[A]uthorities are especially rigorous in suppressing any signs of dissent among Tibetans, including manifestations of Tibetan religious beliefs and cultural identity.”
Amnesty International reported in 2020 that Tibetans are “arbitrarily detained for ordinary religious practices that authorities deemed ‘signs of extremism’ under cover of so-called ‘De-extremification Regulations’.”
New York City-based Human Rights Watch documented how 20 Tibetan monks from Tengdro monastery in Tibet’s Tingri county were detained simply on suspicion of communicating with Tibetans living abroad.
Four of the monks were tried “in secret on unknown charges” and received “extraordinarily harsh sentences” of up to 20 years, “with little regard to the evidence in the case.”
Police and prison authorities in Tibet routinely employ violence.
In February 2021, Kunchok Jinpa, a tour guide who was sentenced to 21 years for reporting on unrest in Tibet, died after being tortured in prison, where he suffered a brain hemorrhage and was reportedly paralyzed.
A 19-year-old Tibetan monk who was arrested in 2019 and rearrested the following year died from beatings and mistreatment in custody, Human Rights Watch said. He had been detained with other monks, who were sentenced up to five years in prison for peacefully advocating for Tibet’s independence.
Also in 2019, another political prisoner, identified as Norsang, died in unclear circumstances upon his release from a Tibetan prison, where local sources say he also faced torture, according to Radio Free Asia. (RFA is a sister U.S.-funded news organization to Voice of America and Polygraph.info.)
Thabgey Gyatso, a Tibetan monk, and Kelsang Tsering, a protester, served lengthy prison terms for demonstrating against the Chinese government in 2008. Both men suffered lingering health consequences from torture endured while in prison.
The niece of leading monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche alleged in 2016 that her uncle died after being repeatedly tortured in prison, Reuters reported.
Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso, spent more than three decades in prison, where he allegedly suffered various acts of torture, including losing his teeth after guards rammed electric prods into his mouth. He escaped to India, where he died in 2018.
In its 2021 human rights report on China, the U.S. State Department said that “impunity for violations of human rights was pervasive” in Tibet. The report said there was no evidence that authorities who engaged in unlawful killings or other abuses against prisoners were ever investigated or punished.
Tibetans have also been arrested for celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and a Tibetan shopkeeper was sentenced to five years behind bars for carrying a flag with a picture of the Dalai Lama on it, RFA reported.
Twenty seven years ago, China “disappeared” Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Panchen Lama, or second-highest religious authority in Tibetan Buddhism.
Six-years-old at the time of his disappearance, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has been called the world’s youngest political prisoner.
In its rights report, the State Department said that Gen Sonam, a senior manager of the Potala Palace (previously the Dali Lama’s winter residence) was reportedly detained in 2019, with his whereabouts unknown.
Tibetans are reportedly banned from hanging prayer flags outside of their homes, and cannot conduct the Sang Sol, or smoke offering ceremony, an incense-burning for special occasions, on environmental grounds.
At the same time, China has cracked down on Tibetans protesting environmental damage, sentencing one man to seven years in prison in 2019 for complaining about illegal mining and hunting of protected wildlife online.
In September 2021, two Tibetans living in exile told Radio Free Asia that five Tibetans had been arrested and tortured for burning incense and praying for the Dalai Lama. One of the individuals, identified as Chugdhar, died.
To quell popular discontent, Tibetans have been targeted by China’s “grid management” surveillance system since 2014.
This system grew out of an earlier “Benefit the Masses” campaign, which Human Rights Watch called “Orwellian.”
That campaign involved dispatching 21,000 Communist Party cadres across 5,000 villages, which a party leader described as turning every town into “a fortress” in “the struggle against separatism” and the Dalai Lama.
“Since their deployment in 2011, the teams have carried out intrusive surveillance of Tibetans in villages, including questioning them about their political and religious views, subjecting thousands to political indoctrination, establishing partisan security units to monitor behavior, and collecting information that could lead to detention or other punishment,” Human Rights Watch said.
This has come with a more robust police presence and the expansion of “security centers” in Tibet, particularly the capital, Lhasa.
In September, Human Rights Watch, citing official government documents and reports, said new evidence had surfaced of mass DNA collection in Tibet.
The reports include the systematic collection of blood samples from children as part of efforts to strengthen the state’s “surveillance capabilities.”
The International Tibet Network, a global coalition of Tibet-related nongovernmental organizations, described Tibet as “China’s laboratory for repression; a place where the Chinese authorities have tested, and sought to perfect, systems of mass surveillance and abject control.”
Freedom House reported this year that more than half a million Tibetans have been placed in “military-led ‘vocational training’ facilities” since 2020.