a. Freedom of Speech and Press
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 including via mobile phones, and internet-based communications, 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 poorly defined crime of “creating and spreading of rumors.” Supporting the CCP, criticizing the Dalai Lama, and “not creating and spreading rumors” were some of the major requirements Tibetans had to fulfill to apply for jobs and receive access to government benefits during the year.
On May 22, the government sentenced Tibetan language rights advocate Tashi Wangchuk to five years of imprisonment on the charge of “inciting separatism” for his 2015 video-recorded interview with The New York Times. On August 13, the Yulshul (Chinese: Yushu) Intermediate People’s Court rejected Tashi Wangchuk’s appeal. In a September 7 statement, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) stated the decision “not only violates Tashi’s right to free speech as stipulated in China’s constitution, but sends a message to sources they could be severely punished for accepting interviews with international media.”
Press and Media Freedom: Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and the authorities almost never granted this permission.
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 hired 26 individuals to fill positions for which one of the listed job requirements was 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 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, including Jangtse Donkho, Kelsang Jinpa, Buddha, Tashi Rabten, Arik Dolma Kyab, Gangkye Drupa Kyab, and Shojkhang (also known as Druklo), reported security officers closely monitored them following their releases from prison between 2013 and 2018 and often ordered them to return to police stations for further interrogation. In addition, the authorities banned the writers from publishing and prohibited them from receiving services and benefits such as government jobs, bank loans, passports, and membership in formal organizations.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The authorities prohibited domestic journalists from reporting on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment.
The TAR Party Committee Information Office maintained tight 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 with the government, as required by law.
The Chinese government continued to disrupt radio broadcasts of Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan and Mandarin-language services in Tibetan areas, as well as those of the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway.
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.
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 (see section Tibetan Self-Immolations). Observers 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 with people outside Tibetan areas. When the authorities restored internet service, they 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, in advance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Radio Free Asia reported authorities warned Tibetans from using social media chat groups to organize gatherings or celebrations of the spiritual leader’s birthday. The TAR Internet and Information Office is continuing a research project known as “Countermeasures to Internet-based Reactionary Infiltration by the Dalai Lama Clique.”
In July, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie urged the region to “resolutely manage the internet, maintain the correct cybersecurity view, and keep in mind Tibet serves as the frontline in the fight against separatism.”
Throughout the year authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Technically sophisticated hacking attempts originating from China also targeted Tibetan activists and organizations outside mainland 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, both domestically and overseas, 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 the Party had not organized or approved. Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.
The state-run TAR Academy of Social Science continued to encourage scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” in its annual July conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “fight against separatists” under the guidance of Xi Jinping.
In May the TAR Academy of Social Sciences hired five young scholars. One of the requirements listed for these positions was “to demonstrate loyalty to the Party and to criticize the Dalai Lama in both words and deeds.”
In accordance with government guidance on ethnic assimilation, state policies continued to disrupt traditional Tibetan living patterns and customs and accelerated forced assimilation through promoting the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expanding the domestic tourism industry, forcibly resettling and urbanizing nomads and farmers, and weakening Tibetan-language education in public schools and religious education in monasteries.
Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese are the official languages of 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. To print in the Tibetan language, private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval, which was often difficult to obtain.
During the year the Communist Party continued to bring Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, two prominent Tibetan Buddhist educational centers, under tighter Communist Party control, giving Communist Party cadres authority over the institutions’ management, finances, security, and admissions. This was part of an ongoing effort, started in 2016, to reduce the population of these institutes by evicting around 5,000 monks and nuns and destroying as many as 1,500 homes.
The 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-day education,” which refers to nontraditional, nonreligious education, particularly computer, physical education, arts, and other “modern” subjects.
The country’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. Freedom 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 government intimidation and arrest if they protested official policies or practices.
In February the TAR Public Security Office announced it would consider as criminals those who promote “economic, people’s livelihood, environmental, traditional, and cultural development in Tibetan areas” on behalf of the “Dalai clique” and “foreign hostile forces,” and would label these “spokespersons” as criminals.
In July local contacts reported that many monasteries and rural villages in the TAR and Tibetan areas in Sichuan and Qinghai provinces received official warnings not to organize certain gatherings, including the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday. In one instance, Radio Free Asia reported authorities from Malho (Chinese: Huangnan) TAP of Qinghai province deployed large numbers of armed police to Tibetan villages and towns to discourage such celebrations. According to these contacts, many Tibetan students at various nationality universities were instructed not to organize gatherings and parties in March (Tibet Uprising Day) or July (the Dalai Lama’s birthday).
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
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 as well as lay persons whom the government considered to have “poor political records.”
In-country Movement: The People’s Armed Police (PAP) and local public security bureaus set up roadblocks and checkpoints in Tibetan areas 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. 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 certain other ethnic minorities had to provide far more extensive documentation than other citizens when applying for a Chinese passport. For Tibetans, the passport application process sometimes required years and frequently ended in rejection. Some Tibetans reported they were able to obtain passports only after paying substantial bribes and offering written promises to conduct only apolitical or nonsensitive international travel.
Tibetans continued to encounter significant obstacles in traveling to India for religious, educational, and other purposes. 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.
According to local contacts, very few Tibetans from China were able to attend teaching sessions held by the Dalai Lama throughout the year in many parts of India, as local Chinese officials refused to issue passports. Many Tibetans who possessed passports were concerned the authorities would place them on the government’s blacklist, and therefore did not travel. In January the Tibetan Journalreported the Chinese government issued orders for the immediate return of Tibetans on pilgrimage in India and Nepal or attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings, with serious consequences for those who refused.
Tightened border controls sharply limited the number of Tibetans crossing the border into Nepal and India. Between January and July, 23 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 reflected a decrease for two straight years.
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. According to local contacts, travel agents in the cities of Chengdu, Xining, and Kunming were forbidden to sell overseas package 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).
In February, shortly after the Tibetan New Year and in advance of Tibet Uprising Day and the convening of China’s national legislature, Radio Free Asia reported that immigration authorities at Chengdu international airport detained three ethnic Tibetans holding non-Chinese passports and valid Chinese visas for eight hours before denying them entry to China and requiring they depart on the next international flight. During their detention, immigration officials and police officers interrogated and searched their web chats and notebooks as well as made copies of their telephone contacts.
The government strictly regulated travel of international visitors to the TAR, a restriction not applied to any other provincial-level entity of the PRC. In accordance with a 1989 regulation, international visitors had to obtain an official confirmation letter issued by the TAR government before entering the TAR. Most foreign tourists obtained such letters by booking tours through officially registered travel agencies. In the TAR, a government-designated tour guide had to accompany international tourists at all times. It was rare for foreigners to obtain permission to enter the TAR by road. As with prior years, authorities banned many international tourists from the TAR in the period before and during the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising as well as other periods in which the Chinese government deemed politically sensitive. International tourists sometimes also faced restrictions traveling to Tibetan areas outside the TAR during such times.
The TAR government routinely denied foreign diplomats’ requests for official travel. When foreign officials were allowed to travel to the TAR, the Foreign Affairs Office only allowed closely chaperoned trips. Authorities repeatedly denied requests for international journalists to visit the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see Freedom of Expression section).
Although foreign officials were able to travel more freely in Tibetan areas outside of the TAR, the PAP and local public security bureaus often subjected them to multiple checkpoints.