Tibet under Xi Jinping: Five years of suffocation

15th November 2017

by Gray Sargeant

Five years after coming to power Xi Jinping continues to push China’s voice on the world stage all the while covering up his crackdown in Tibet

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping secured another five year term. He used the setting, the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to consolidate his grip on the party, leaving open the possibility of him extending his term limit. He also made his mark by having his thoughts on socialism, known as ‘Xi’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’, incorporated into the party constitution. All of which has renewed questions among China analysts about whether or not Xi is the new Mao.

Whatever his new status may be there is no doubt that Xi’s rule has already had a profound impact. Under his leadership China has played a more assertive role on the world stage with the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt One Road Initiative, as well as aggressive island building in the South China Sea.

Xi Jinping

At home Xi’s political opponents have been rooted out by a nationwide corruption campaign. Human rights activists and lawyers have also been hit hard. Freedom of speech and assembly continue to be suppressed and new laws to curb the influence of foreign non-governmental organisations have been introduced.

Among those worst affected are the people of Tibet. At the 19th Party Congress, Tibetans (along with Uyghurs, Hong Kongers and the Taiwanese) were issued a threat from Xi: 

We will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.

Yet this is nothing new from the CCP. Nor is the brutal treatment of Tibetans.

Beijing has consistently introduced measures to curb Tibetan resistance ever since the People’s Liberation Army invaded and occupied the country in 1950. Xi, despite the hopes of some commentators that he’d follow in his father’s more liberal footsteps, has continued crackdowns against Tibetan resistance. 

Tibetans under arrest by China's soldiers

Tibet remains under de-facto marshal law and those who resist face violent crackdowns. Basic human rights are denied to Tibetans and many face severe punishments simply for waving the Tibetan flag or keeping photos of the Dalia Lama.

International human rights organisations generally agree that the situation has become worse under Xi. While occupied Tibet has always scored poorly in assessments made by Freedom House in recent years it has been rated the second worst place for freedom across the world. This puts it below North Korea and only just above war-torn Syria.

None of this should come as a surprise given his remarks in 2011 on a trip to Lhasa while serving as vice-president:

[We] should thoroughly fight against separatist activities by the Dalai clique by firmly relying on all ethnic groups... and completely smash any plot to destroy stability in Tibet and jeopardise national unity.

Xi’s fixation with territorial integrity has carried through into his presidency. Under his rule, the most significant change affecting freedom in Tibet has been the securitisation of the country. Policies aiming to root out suspected “splittists” and “saboteurs” have been expanded. This can be seen in the indefinite extension of the CCP surveillance programme known as “Benefit the Masses”, in which over 20,000 CCP officials, police and security personnel were deployed to Tibet to monitor residents. A new National Security Commission has also been established.

Some of the political prisoners currently held in Tibet

Between 2013 and 2015 Human Rights Watch reported on 479 individuals detained or tried for political expression or criticism of government policy. Free Tibet has also regularly highlighted China’s harsh treatment toward Tibetans seeking to preserve their environment, their culture, or, like Tashi Wangchuk, their language.

In Tibet, Xi’s rule has been overseen by Xi loyalist Chen Quanguo, who ran the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as Communist Party Secretary between 2011 and 2016.

Chen Quanguo - Communist Party Secretary (2011 - 2016)

Under Chen, recruitment into the local police forces surged as hundreds of new police stations were established in urban areas. This has segmented towns and cities into grid systems, making it far easier for police and security services to monitor Tibetans in their daily lives. This surveillance is made all the easier when combined with CCTV and big data analytics.

Chen has been praised by party officials in the state-run media for, as they see it, stamping down on unrest in the TAR, which has been the scene of numerous protests since 2008. Since leaving Tibet he has taken up the same role in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region where he has already implemented similar security strategies.

This ‘stabilisation’ does not reflect a diminishing desire amongst Tibetans to determine their own future – it merely shows that the repression is having a profound effect.

Xi Jinping

"We will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China."

- Xi Jinping

One area where this effect can be seen is in self-immolation protests. Labelled by Beijing as ‘intentional homicide’, there have been almost 150 such protests in Tibet since 2009 - although the exact number is impossible to obtain given China’s tight controls on information coming in and out of Tibet.

Since 2012, severe prison and death sentences have been given to those accused of aiding or inciting ‘intentional homicide’. In some areas, where self-immolations were more common, authorities have stepped-up the severity of punishments to deter protesters since 2012.  New regulations have allowed authorities to punish the protester’s family and their entire village.

Nearly 70 years of occupation, with five of them under Xi’s expanding security state, have not dampened the Tibetan people’s desire to decide their own future. The CCP’s attempts to cover up or suppress Tibetans’ grievances rather than addressing them will count among the failures of Xi Jinping’s five years in power. As Tibetans continue to be denied basic human freedoms by Beijing and the CCP continue to crack down on dissent, it is crucial that the international community stands with them. Governments and civil society must heed Tibetans’ calls for freedom and human rights and speak out with courage and conviction. Safe from the repression that Tibetans face for raising their voices, it is the very least they can do.

About the author: Gray Sergeant joined Free Tibet’s campaign team in June 2017 after spending a number of years as a Labour Party activist in South Essex. He is interested in human rights in East Asia, including Tibet, and is critical of the current UK government's efforts to forge a 'Golden Era' in relations between Britain and the People's Republic of China. Alongside work, Gray is also undertaking a masters course in Chinese Politics at SOAS, University of London.