There has been fresh international criticism regarding China’s decades-long persecution of Tibetans in the autonomous area after new study measured evening illumination data from detention facilities in Tibet.
Analysts believe there is some evidence showing a fundamental change in policing, but the report’s results only provide limited insights into the present condition of imprisonment throughout the area.
According to a new report by the non-profit RAND Europe research center, there has been an uptick in activity at high-security detention facilities over the last several years, which may indicate a transition from short-term to long-term incarceration in the autonomous territory.
To better understand China’s “stability maintenance” efforts in Tibet, which the researchers characterize as a “information black hole” to the international community, RAND Europe used satellite-based sensors to measure nighttime lighting consumption at detention facilities.
Ruth Harris, director of defense and security at RAND Europe and one of the report’s authors, told VOA, “State actors, human rights organizations, academics, and the Uyghur diaspora have all worked to increase our understanding of the situation in Xinjiang in recent years, but we have not had a similar focus on Tibet.”
She said she is looking forward to seeing how the report “sheds light on security and detention facilities” in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The survey looked at 79 prisons throughout TAR and found that since 2019, 14 maximum security prisons had increased their use of evening illumination. An examination of the details reveals a rise in high-security prisons in 2019 and 2020, and an increase in high-security detention facilities in 2021 and 2022.
While both detention centers and high-security prisons in TAR have comparable degrees of security, the latter are more like cellblocks while the former feature relaxation facilities.
There may not have been any major changes to the TAR’s detention system between 2014 and 2022, according to Harris’ analysis of nighttime lighting data, but the recent increase in lighting at higher-security facilities may indicate “a possible shift toward longer-term imprisonment and detention of Tibetan dissidents.”
That’s consistent with what’s been happening in Xinjiang, where over a million Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minorities have been incarcerated or sent to re-education camps in recent years.
Some analysts have argued that there has been no evidence to support the conclusion that RAND Europe’s results reflect a shift to longer-term imprisonment in Tibet.
Expert on Tibet at King’s College London Robert Barnett told VOA, “We do know cases of very long detention, but there is no evidence suggesting an increase in those kind of detentions.” He continued by saying that the data points to a rise in proactive police and neighborhood watch.
According to Barnett, over the last fifteen to twenty years, China’s police strategy in Tibet has been predicated on preventative policing, which seeks to identify potentially dangerous people and control them via a variety of means before they engage in behavior that China considers undesirable.
Grassroots control methods, such as party organizations in Tibetan villages and other types of tight surveillance of people, are expanding rapidly in recent years, as Barnett highlighted. “The authorities use technology or local officials and neighborhood committees to keep tabs on the kinds of people who are likely to be a political problem.”
Barnett and other commentators noted that, despite Beijing’s new approach to controlling Tibet, political incarceration is still occurring in the TAR. Some Tibetans are under residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL), a kind of de facto home imprisonment used by Chinese authorities against dissidents instead of sending them to detention facilities or prisons.
Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy researcher Ngawang Lungtok told VOA, “Some Tibetans are in residential surveillance and others are subject to pre-trial detention at unknown locations.”
He also mentioned the possibility of torture and intimidation against Tibetans living under RSDL, both of which might lead to self-censorship.
Crimes against humanity
Since the People’s Liberation Army invaded and conquered Tibet in 1951, China has ruled the area. When it comes to the events in Tibet, Beijing uses the term “peaceful liberation,” whereas the Tibetans use the term “invasion.”
Human rights organizations claim that China has been actively suppressing Tibetan culture and religion for decades now. After widespread protests erupted in 2008, Beijing took drastic measures to reassert its authority in the region, including the implementation of extensive surveillance programs, the targeting of individuals and organizations that supported Tibetan independence, the enrollment of Tibetans in compulsory reeducation and forced labor transfer, and the arrest of numerous intellectuals, activists, and religious figures.
Since 2015, a program characterized as voluntary has allegedly been used by China to “transfer” Tibetans from their customary rural lifestyles into low-skilled and low-paid jobs. This practice has been met with “concern” by a panel of independent experts inside the United Nations human rights system in April. However, according to the experts, in reality, their cooperation has been forced.
The U.N. experts also claimed that “vocational training” in Tibet threatens Tibetans’ cultural identities and that the government discourages Tibetans from speaking their language and practicing their religion.
Human rights experts have concluded that China has developed a systemic strategy to strip the rights of a specific ethnic minority, as seen by the situation in Tibet.
A shift in the system may have a troubling consequence, since many Tibetans living overseas are worried about losing their language and culture, as Barnett told VOA.
China has claimed it has achieved “progress” on human rights issues in Tibet despite widespread worldwide condemnation of its treatment of Tibetans.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region in China has “social stability, economic development, ethnic solidarity, and religious harmony,” Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, stated during a news conference on April 28. As one such expert put it, “the so-called ‘concerns’ of the relevant special procedures’ experts are completely unfounded.”
a lack of communication
As a result of restrictions on movement, information from within Tibet has been hard to come by for those on the outside.
Chinese border inspections were stepped up in early 2008, and as a result, “Tibetans were largely prevented from joining exiles in India via Nepal,” as Barnett put it.
The number of persons leaving TAR has dropped drastically since 2012, he said, when Chinese officials tightened the administrative hurdles for Tibetans to get passports.
Experts told VOA that local authorities have shut down online sources of information and criminalized information exchange with persons outside of China, which discourages publishing specific material on social media platforms and also limits Tibetans’ ability to leave the area.
According to Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson, “essentially no one is coming through the border, and platforms like WeChat are heavily surveilled that authorities can prosecute people for sharing information on those platforms.” Richardson made these comments to VOA. This explains why news has become harder to get out of Tibet recently.
King’s College’s Barnett said that despite the severe restrictions on the flow of information, some Tibetans are nevertheless willing to put themselves at danger in order to provide “anecdotal fragments” through social media.
According to him, the biggest problem is that no one else can check the claims being made.