Historical failure to defend Tibet as an independent nation has left India with a failed conscience

India has been overcautious in dealing with the Tibet issue. But following the stand-off in eastern Ladakh, the gloves must come off

Historical failure to defend Tibet as an independent nation has left India with a failed conscience
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V Venkateswara Rao

“When it comes to human rights violations in China, Tibet was Patient Zero,” Lobsang Sangay, the president of the Tibetan government in exile, known as the Central Tibetan Administration, told a US columnist during his visit to Washington last week. “Xi Jinping is now reintroducing labour camps back into Tibet...what’s new is the speed and the scale of it and the military style that they are bringing to it,” he added.

In 2019 and 2020, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) introduced new policies to promote the systematic, centralized, and large-scale training and transfer of “rural surplus labourers” to other parts of the TAR, as well as to other provinces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the first 7 months of 2020, the region had ‘trained’ over half a million rural surplus labourers through this policy, as per a report by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington D.C. based institute for research and analysis, published in September.

Of this total of half a million, almost 50,000 have been transferred into jobs within Tibet, and several thousand have been sent to other parts of China. Many end up in low paid work, including textile manufacturing, construction, agriculture, cleaning, mining, cooking and driving. Rural workers who are moved into vocational training centers receive ideological education.

The policy documents of China, referred to by Reuters in an article published by it, describe a teaching program that combines skills education, legal education and “gratitude education,” designed to boost loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Though the Chinese Officials claim that the labour transfer programs and the 'military-style' training programs are voluntary, the element of state-sponsored coercion driving these programs can't be denied.

“This is now, in my opinion, the strongest, most clear and targeted attack on traditional Tibetan livelihoods that we have seen almost since the Cultural Revolution” of 1966 to 1976, said Adrian Zenz, an independent Tibet and Xinjiang researcher. “It’s a coercive lifestyle change from nomadism and farming to wage labour,” Jamestown Foundation commented in its report. Critics, spearheaded by Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, accuse the Chinese authorities of carrying out “cultural genocide” in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Reuters news agency, in its report, said that it was unable to ascertain the conditions of the transferred Tibetan workers. Foreign journalists are not permitted to enter the Tibet region, and other foreign citizens are only permitted on government-approved tours.


Some of the policy documents and state media reports reviewed by Reuters make reference to unspecified punishments for officials who fail to meet the quotas (for the mass transfer of rural labourers within Tibet and to other parts of China) assigned to them.

In recent years, Xinjiang and Tibet have been the target of harsh policies in pursuit of what Chinese authorities call “stability maintenance.” These policies are broadly aimed at quelling dissent, unrest or separatism and include restricting the travel of ethnic citizens to other parts of China and abroad, and tightening control over religious activities.

The similarities of TAR labour transfer programs to Xinjiang’s inter-provincial transfer scheme are significant: unified processing, batch-style transfers, strong government involvement, financial incentives for middlemen and for participating companies, and state-mandated quotas. However, the Tibetan labourers may not be as securitized as that of Uyghur workers and the methods of labour transfer mechanisms are potentially less coercive for the Tibetan labourers.

As with the Uighurs in Xinjiang, overcoming Tibetans’ resistance to labour transfer is an integral part of the entire mechanism. Government documents, quoted by Jamestown Foundation, state that the “strict military-style management” of the vocational training process causes the “masses to comply with discipline”, “continuously strengthens their patriotic awareness”, and reforms their “backward thinking.” This may also involve the presence of local party cadres to “make the training discipline stricter.”

A United Nations report has estimated that around one million people in Xinjiang, mostly ethnic Uighurs, were detained in camps and subjected to ideological education. China initially denied the existence of the camps, but has since said they are vocational and education centers, and that all the people have “graduated.”

In both Xinjiang and Tibet, the Chinese state-mandated poverty alleviation consists of a top-down scheme that extends the government’s social control deep into family units. The state’s preferred method to increase the disposable incomes of rural surplus labourers in these restive minority regions is through vocational training and labour transfer.

The CCP runs at least 380 concentration camps or "gulags" which China prefers to call “re-education” camps in occupied East Turkestan, now called Xinjiang, and at many as 10 camps in occupied Tibet for political prisoners and dissidents. However, the new vocational training facilities in TAR represent a huge expansion of China’s program to involuntarily mass relocate rural Tibetans.

As per an article published by The Washington Post, the goal of these training camps is threefold: Beijing wants to appropriate Tibetan land to commercialize its natural resources; the CCP uses the camps to forcibly assimilate Tibetans by snuffing out their culture, language and religion; and the third goal, using Tibetans as cheap forced labour.

In recent times, the US has taken a major initiative to protect the Tibetan culture and their way of life from the assimilation-onslaught from CCP. "The Tibetan Policy and Support Act" would make it official United States policy that the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, including the succession of the Dalai Lama, be left solely to Tibetan Buddhists to decide, without interference from the Chinese government. The bill was approved by the U.S. Congress on December 21, 2020. Chinese officials that interfere in the process of selecting Tibetan Buddhist leaders would be subject to sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, including denial of entry into the United States.

More importantly, the new law updates the original Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 to call on China to negotiate directly with the Tibetan government in exile based in Dharamshala, toward what the Dalai Lama calls the “Middle Way Approach” - a compromise to give Tibetans limited autonomy within the Chinese system.


Beijing's aggressive reactions to any sort of perceived interference in Tibet affairs by other countries, has led to downgrade the Tibet issue by the US administration since Barack Obama's presidency. Hopefully, President-elect Joe Biden may not fall into the same mould of downgrading the uncomfortable issue of Tibet 'in order to maintain smooth relations with China'.

China invaded Tibet in 1950, annexing it in 1951. India suddenly found itself sharing a land border with China. A large number of Tibetans regard China as an oppressive occupying power. They draw sustenance from - and declare loyalty to - the current Dalai Lama based in Dharamshala. At 85, the Dalai Lama knows China is breathing down his neck. It will, on his demise, appoint its chosen Panchen Lama as the Dalai Lama’s successor. That would effectively end the centuries-old institution of the Dalai Lama.

India has been overcautious in dealing with the Tibet issue. The Dalai Lama is not allowed to make political statements. But following the stand-off in eastern Ladakh, the gloves must come off. India must consider allowing political activity among Tibetan refugees and by the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala. The historical failure to defend Tibet as an independent nation has left India with a failed conscience.

Ignoring of the Tibet issue by the world powers and regional powers will embolden Beijing to expand its repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, threaten Taiwan and incentivize its expansionist designs in Ladakh, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.

(V Venkateswara Rao is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired corporate professional.)

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