The portion of Tibet that the Chinese government calls the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is likely to see an expansion of current jails and detention facilities, according to a new RAND Europe research brief. According to a RAND analysis from 2021, these results suggest a “shift towards longer detentions and imprisonments,” which is consistent with recent data from Xinjiang.
The study has some unsettling features. The first is the widespread attack on the Tibetan people and the catastrophic effects of long-term incarceration. The second is the deliberate export of a ruthless policy of control from the Uyghur homeland, where crimes against humanity have been suspected by the United Nations. However, the third is the importance of the study approach used by RAND Europe.
RAND Europe analyzed 79 TAR prison centers by using satellite images and evening illumination data. A larger number of evening lights was found to be present in the 14 buildings classified as “higher security.” The results showed that from 2019 to 2020, prisons as a whole increased their use of evening lighting, while from 2021 to 2022, high-security prisons did the same. The rate of increase in illumination at lower security sites seemed to plateau in 2017.
Human rights violations have long since been exposed by satellite images. Human rights researchers have used digital technologies to discover rights breaches that authorities would like keep secret, while governments have exploited cutting-edge surveillance technology for repression. The scope of the Uyghur region’s detention facilities was uncovered in large part thanks to satellite photos. East Turkistan’s religious sites were similarly documented in a study by the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
The alarming decline in Chinese data availability, however, cannot be ignored. According to Ruth Harris, director of defense and security at RAND Europe, as quoted by The Guardian, “Tibet remains an information black hole.” Senior Tibet Watch researcher Tenzin Choekyi said, “Because of the information delay and disarray, it’s difficult to tie together a coherent narrative of what’s happening in the TAR.”
Crucial demographic statistics, including birth rates broken down by region, population numbers broken down by nationality and region, and birth control statistics broken down by region, were conspicuously absent from the most recent Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook, released in March 2021 and covering data for 2019. It is concluded by Ruser and Leibold that “those omissions seek to make the study of demographic trends in Xinjiang more difficult and to censor politically sensitive information confirming the sharp decline in birth-rates among minority nationalities in Xinjiang.” Furthermore, Chinese academic article databases were closed to foreign researchers in March 2023 owing to “security concerns.”
Xi Jinping has said that becoming a worldwide powerhouse by the year 2050 is in China’s destiny. China’s existing global impact, however, does not need quantitative restatement. Both politically and economically, it has global repercussions. The Chinese model of government and business will eventually affect the lives of billions of people throughout the world.
Given China’s influence, researchers, academics, politicians, and commercial sector players should all be lobbying for more information from the country. We are all aware that China manipulates and controls information, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK. As China’s influence grows, so does its ability to control the information we have access to. Should we not keep pressing for more transparency from a government that is expanding its sphere of influence across the world?
Human rights breaches in China and abroad won’t be uncovered unless experts keep digging through databases, poring through satellite photographs, and interviewing survivors. A better understanding of China’s ascent and how to control it requires greater information about the plight of the Uyghurs and Tibetans.
In addition to calling for a halt to rights violations, scholars should urge policymakers and other players to ensure that their representatives consistently push China on freedom of information as a condition of participation. If this weren’t the case, the Chinese official would have a much harder time denying and deflecting responsibility for human rights abuses.