a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Freedom of Expression: Tibetans who spoke to foreigners or foreign reporters, attempted to provide information to persons outside the country, or communicated information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent through cell phones, email, or the internet were subject to harassment or detention under “crimes of undermining social stability and inciting separatism.” During the year authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas sought to strengthen control over electronic media and to punish individuals for the ill-defined crime of “creating and spreading of rumors.”
Tashi Wangchuk continued to be held without trial after being charged in 2016 with “inciting separatism.” If found guilty, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
Press and Media Freedom: Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and this permission was rarely granted. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China’s annual report stated reporting from “Tibet proper remains off-limits to foreign journalists.” This same report noted many foreign journalists were also told that reporting in Tibetan areas outside the TAR was “restricted or prohibited.”
Authorities tightly controlled journalists who worked for the domestic press and could hire and fire them based on assessments of their political reliability. In May the TAR Press, Television, and Radio Bureau announced job vacancies with one of the listed job requirements to “resolutely implement the Party’s line, principles, policies, and political stance, fight against separatism, and safeguard the motherland’s unity and ethnic unity.” CCP propaganda authorities remained in charge of local journalist accreditation in the TAR and required journalists working in the TAR to display “loyalty to the Party and motherland.” The deputy head of the TAR Propaganda Department simultaneously holds a prominent position in the TAR Journalist Association, a state-controlled professional association to which local journalists must belong.
Violence and Harassment: Chinese authorities arrested and sentenced many Tibetan writers, intellectuals, and singers for “inciting separatism.” Numerous prominent Tibetan political writers, namely Jangtse Dokho, Kelsang Jinpa, Buddha, Tashi Rabten, Arik Dolma Kyab, and Gangkye Drupa Kyab, reported that security officers closely monitored them following their release from prison between 2013 and 2016. In addition, they were banned from publishing and were no longer able to receive public services and benefits such as public-service jobs, bank loans, passports, and membership in formal organizations.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Domestic journalists were not allowed to report on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment.
Since the establishment of the CCP’s Central Leading Small Group for Internet Security and Informatization in 2014, the TAR Party Committee Information Office has further tightened the control of a full range of social media platforms. According to multiple contacts, security officials often cancelled WeChat accounts carrying “sensitive information,” such as discussions about Tibetan language education, and interrogated the account owners. Many sources also reported it was almost impossible to register websites promoting Tibetan culture and language in the TAR.
The Chinese government continued to jam radio broadcasts of Voice of America and RFA’s Tibetan and Chinese-language services in some Tibetan areas as well as the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway.
According to multiple sources, authorities in Qinghai and Sichuan provinces confiscated or destroyed “illegal” satellite dishes in many Tibetan areas. In addition to maintaining strict censorship of print and online content in Tibetan areas, Chinese authorities sought to censor the expression of views or distribution of information related to Tibet in countries and regions outside of mainland China. In March Tashi Norbu, a Tibetan painter based in the Netherlands and whose work featured the Dalai Lama and previously was shown in an exhibit in Dharamsala, India, was forced to cancel a scheduled live-painting performance in Macau after authorities in Beijing threatened to arrest and deport him if he tried to enter a Chinese-administered region. According to Norbu, a gallery official told him a high-level Chinese military official stated that Norbu was blacklisted and forbidden entry into Macau. Norbu was advised to leave Hong Kong for his own safety.
As in the past year, authorities curtailed cell phone and internet service in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time, during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. In addition, local observers reported authorities disrupted internet service in areas where self-immolations occurred. They also claimed authorities threatened community members with sentences of up to 15 years for those who shared images, videos, and information of the self-immolations outside Tibetan areas. When internet service was restored, authorities closely monitored its usage. There were widespread reports of authorities searching cell phones they suspected of containing suspicious content. Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings and being briefly detained and interrogated after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information. In July the TAR Internet and Information Office received approval from the Chinese National Social Science Foundation to complete a key research project known as “Countermeasures to Internet-based Reactionary Infiltration by the Dalai Lama Clique.”
In 2016 the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a cybersecurity law that further strengthened the legal mechanisms available to security agencies to surveil and control content online. Some observers noted that provisions of the law, such as Article 12, disproportionally affected Tibetans and other ethnic minorities. Article 12 criminalizes using the internet to commit a wide range of ill-defined crimes of a political nature, such as “harming national security,” “damaging national unity,” “propagating extremism,” “inciting ethnic hatred,” “disturbing social order,” and “harming the public interest.” The law also codifies the practice of large-scale internet network shutdowns in response to “major [public] security incidents,” which public security authorities in Tibetan areas have done for years without a clear basis in law. On March 8, the TAR reported that the newly established TAR branch of China’s National Cyberspace Administration has been actively engaging in a “Tibet-related cyberspace battle” both inside and outside of China.
Throughout the year authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Well-organized computer hacking attacks originating from China harassed Tibet activists and organizations outside China.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
As in recent years, authorities in many Tibetan areas required professors and students at institutions of higher education to attend regular political education sessions, particularly during politically sensitive months, in an effort to prevent “separatist” political and religious activities on campus. Authorities frequently encouraged Tibetan academics to participate in government propaganda efforts, such as making public speeches supporting government policies. Academics who refused to cooperate with such efforts faced diminished prospects for promotion and research grants.
Academics in the PRC who publicly criticized CCP policies on Tibetan affairs faced official reprisal. The government controlled curricula, texts, and other course materials as well as the publication of historically or politically sensitive academic books. Authorities frequently denied Tibetan academics permission to travel overseas for conferences and academic or cultural exchanges. Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.
In May senior officials of the state-run TAR Academy of Social Science encouraged scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” and held a conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “fight against separatists” under the guidance of Xi Jinping.
Policies promoting planned urban economic growth, rapid infrastructure development, the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expansion of the domestic tourism industry, forced resettlement and the urbanization of nomads and farmers, and the weakening of Tibetan-language education in public schools and religious education in monasteries continued to disrupt traditional living patterns and customs and accelerate forced assimilation.
Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese are official languages in the TAR, and both languages appeared on some, but not all, public and commercial signs. Inside official buildings and businesses, including banks, post offices, and hospitals, signage in Tibetan was frequently lacking, and in many instances forms and documents were available only in Mandarin. Mandarin was used for most official communications and was the predominant language of instruction in public schools in many Tibetan areas. Private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval to print in the Tibetan language, but it was often difficult to obtain approval.
A small number of public primary schools in the TAR continued to teach mathematics in the Tibetan language, but since June 2016, observers reported that TAR officials have replaced Tibetan language mathematics textbooks in all middle and high schools with Mandarin versions. Observers also reported that WeChat users in the TAR discussing the issue were subsequently visited by public security officers and punished for spreading rumors.
According to sources, there were previously 20 Tibetan language schools or workshops for local children operated by Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Sichuan Province’s Kardze TAP. After the 2015 release of the Kardze TAP Relocation Regulation for Minors in Monasteries, authorities forced 16 of these schools to close and relocated their students to government-run schools.
The Kardze TAP has the highest illiteracy rate (above 30 percent) in Sichuan Province, compared with a national rate of 4 to 5 percent. Despite the illiteracy problem, in 2016 the central government ordered the destruction of much of Larung Gar, the largest Tibetan Buddhist education center and a focal point for promoting both Tibetan and Chinese literacy. The central government reportedly also ordered the destruction of Yachen Gar, another Tibetan Buddhist education center in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Prefecture, where both Tibetan and Chinese are taught.
China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law states, “schools (classes and grades) and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the media of instruction.” Despite guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, many primary, middle, high school, and college students had limited access to officially approved Tibetan language instruction and textbooks, particularly in the areas of modern education.
China’s most prestigious universities provided no instruction in Tibetan or other ethnic minority languages, although classes teaching the Tibetan language were available at a small number of universities. “Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and ethnic Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, offered Tibetan language instruction only in courses focused on the study of the Tibetan language or culture. Mandarin was used in courses for jobs that required technical skills and qualifications.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Even in areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize and play a meaningful role in the protection of their cultural heritage and unique natural environment. Tibetans often faced intimidation and arrest if they protested policies or practices they found objectionable. In 2015 authorities in Rebkong County in the Tibetan Region of Amdo, now administered under Qinghai Province, circulated a list of unlawful activities. The list included “illegal associations formed in the name of the Tibetan language, the environment, and education.” As was the case in the previous year, sources in the area reported this list remained in force and that no new associations had been formed since the list was published.
In July local contacts reported that many monasteries and rural villages in Tibetan areas in Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces received official warnings not to organize gatherings, including the celebration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday. According to these contacts, many Tibetan students at various nationality universities were instructed not to organize gatherings and parties in March (Tibet Uprising Day) and July (His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday).
At the Sixth Tibet Work Forum in 2015, the CCP ordered a large-scale campaign to expel students and demolish living quarters at Larung Gar, the world’s largest center for the study of Tibetan Buddhism. The expulsion and demolition campaign commenced in 2016. According to local contacts, authorities reduced the resident population to 5,000 and demolished more than 3,000 residences by August. Before the campaign began, the population at Larung Gar was estimated to be as large as 30,000. Since July 2016, authorities have banned foreign tourists from visiting the area. In August the government appointed a prefecture police chief to serve as president of Larung Gar.
d. Freedom of Movement
Chinese law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government severely restricted travel and freedom of movement for Tibetans, particularly Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns.
In-country Movement: Freedom of movement for all Tibetans, but particularly for monks and nuns, remained severely restricted throughout the TAR as well as in other Tibetan areas. The PAP and local public security bureaus set up roadblocks and checkpoints on major roads, in cities, and on the outskirts of cities and monasteries, particularly around sensitive dates. Tibetans traveling in monastic attire were subject to extra scrutiny by police at roadside checkpoints and at airports.
Authorities sometimes banned Tibetans, particularly monks and nuns, from going outside the TAR and from traveling to the TAR without first obtaining special permission from multiple government offices. Many Tibetans reported encountering difficulties in obtaining the required permissions. This not only made it difficult for Tibetans to make pilgrimages to sacred religious sites in the TAR, but it also obstructed land-based travel to India through Nepal. Tibetans from outside the TAR who traveled to Lhasa also reported that authorities there required them to surrender their national identification cards and notify authorities of their plans in detail on a daily basis. These requirements were not applied to ethnic Chinese visitors to the TAR.
Even outside the TAR, many Tibetan monks and nuns reported it remained difficult to travel beyond their home monasteries for religious and traditional Tibetan education, with officials frequently denying permission for visiting monks to stay at a monastery for religious education. Implementation of this restriction was especially rigorous in the TAR, and it undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced teachings from a select number of senior teachers based at major monasteries scattered across the Tibetan Plateau.
Foreign Travel: Many Tibetans continued to report difficulties in obtaining new or renewing existing passports. Sources reported that Tibetans and other minorities had to provide far more extensive documentation than other Chinese citizens when applying for a Chinese passport. For Tibetans, the passport application process could take years and frequently ended in rejection. Some Tibetans reported they were able to obtain passports only after paying substantial bribes. Tibetans continued to encounter significant obstacles in traveling to India for religious, educational, and other purposes.
In 2016 Chinese officials in the Tibetan Regions of Kham and Amdo under the administration of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu Provinces visited the homes of Tibetan passport holders and confiscated their documents. Officials claimed they collected the passports in order to affix new seals on them, but Tibetans suspected the timing was intended to make it impossible for them to attend an important religious ceremony known as the Kalachakra, which the Dalai Lama conducted in India in January. Additional reports in 2016 indicated that travel agencies in China were told by local authorities to cancel trips to India and Nepal during this same period. The apparent travel ban also reportedly extended to ethnic Chinese travelers. Tibetans who had traveled to Nepal and planned to continue to India reported that Chinese officials visited their homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. Sources reported that explicit punishments included placing family members on a blacklist, which could lead to the loss of a government job or difficulty in finding employment; expulsion of children from the public education system; and revocation of national identification cards, thereby preventing access to other social services, such as health care and government aid. As a result of these measures, approximately 7,000 Tibetans who were already in India legally for the 2017 Kalachakra missed the event as they had to return to the PRC or face severe repercussions. In September news reports speculated that in preparation for the 19th Party Congress meeting the government barred foreigners from entering Tibet borders between October 18 and October 28, and foreigners already travelling in the area were required to leave during those dates.
Tight border controls sharply limited the number of persons crossing the border into Nepal and India. From January to October, 41 Tibetan refugees transited Nepal through the Tibetan Reception Center, run by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kathmandu, en route to permanent settlement in India. This was fewer than in previous years, with 120 refugees able to register at the center in 2016, 89 in 2015, and 80 in 2014.
The government restricted the movement of Tibetans in the period before and during sensitive anniversaries and events and increased controls over border areas at these times. In January there were reports that travel agents in Chengdu, Xining, and Kunming were forbidden to sell package overseas tours to Tibetans for the months of March and July, the periods around Tibet Uprising Day (March 10) and the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 6).
The government regulated travel by foreigners to the TAR, a restriction not applied to any other provincial-level entity in the PRC. In accordance with a 1989 regulation, foreign visitors had to obtain an official confirmation letter issued by the TAR government before entering the TAR. Most tourists obtained such letters by booking tours through officially registered travel agencies. In the TAR, a government-designated tour guide had to accompany foreign tourists at all times. It was rare for foreigners to obtain permission to enter the TAR by road. In what has become an annual practice, authorities banned many foreign tourists from the TAR in the period before and during the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Foreign tourists sometimes also faced restrictions traveling to Tibetan areas outside the TAR.
Foreign officials were able to travel to the TAR only with the permission of the TAR Foreign Affairs Office and only on closely chaperoned trips arranged by that office. With the exception of a few highly controlled trips, authorities repeatedly denied requests for international journalists to visit the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see section on Freedom of Expression).