02/16/2021 – CPIFC Briefing SeriesBehind Bamboo Curtains: Sinicization of Tibet

Posted on Feb 16, 2021

By Jianli Yang and Rui Liu

On August 2020, the 7th Central Symposium on Tibet Work was held in Beijing. China under Xi Jinping has strengthened its grip over Tibet by various measures to deepen its tentacles into the Tibetan fabric, its culture and society. In the meeting held on August 28-29, 2020 Chinese President Xi Jinping called for efforts to build a “new modern socialist Tibet”. President Xi also underlined the need to fully implement the Communist Party of China’s (CCP’s) policies on governing Tibet for a new era. In the comprehensive address Xi outlined his policy of “Sinicization of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism” which calls for accomplishing twin objectives of one, bringing non – Chinese (Non – Han Communities)into the mainstream fold of society under the political system nurtured and pursued by the CPC and two implementing Xi’s vision of system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. 

Tibet under Xi Jinping: Significance & playbook
China refers to Tibet as ‘Xizang’ Autonomous Region. Xizang as it means for Tibet in China loosely means ‘western treasure’. Geostrategically placed on a plateau, connecting China with Central Asia including being a part of ancient silk route and important trading ports. As a third pole of the earth, it remains a storehouse of fresh water along with several other natural resources like gold, silver, copper, lithium. With tourism revenue totaling seven billion from 40 billion tourists in 2019, Tibet remains central to China from strategic and economic point of view. With every change in leadership China has tightened its grip over Tibet through its repressive policies. Xi Jinping’s predecessor and sixth President of PRC Hu Jintao imposed martial law in Tibet, as the then Communist Party Secretary in Tibet between 1988 – 1992 he crushed an uprising. His successor President Xi Jinping wants to build a fortress of suppression of basic human rights to Tibetans in Tibet. For instance, Xi Jinping issued new policy directions to strengthen political and ideological education in Tibet’s school. It is a move to weaponize the young minds to be more loyal to Communist Party and Xi’s thoughts through influencing young minds. The adults are forced to work in labor training camps and China’s control over Tibet includes indoctrination, forced disappearances, mass jail and resource plunder.

China and Communist Party under Xi employs a methodological approach to assimilate Tibet and dissolve its distinct culture, tradition, language and socio-economic-politico way of life of Tibetans. This ideological trio is ‘Sinicization of Tibet’. It is to make ‘Communist Party’ the primary organ and Communist ideals along with Xi’s thought of ‘Rejuvenation of the Great Chinese Dream’ the vision to be adopted by Tibetans. As a culmination of which any movement for freedom of basic rights is treated as dissent and crushed. The ‘Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism’ is to infuse ‘Buddhism with Chinese Characteristics’ as what President Xi Jinping fancies. Herein, labor training camps are subtly labelled as ‘re-education’ camps thereby replicating the Xinxiang Model Playbook.

As part of crackdown further on religion especially in Tibet, a series of new rules is being mulled to prohibit religious extremism, indicating ‘Sinicization of religion’ by China under Xi Jinping. It alters the Tibetan people’s religious belief and the reincarnation system, which is perceived as Tibetans as a misguided attempt. Worried about the dissent that is brewing in Tibet is a cause of concern for China, which is employing ‘ideological indoctrination’ as an insurance against ‘Tibetan struggle for Independence and basic human rights’. There is an insistence by China for securing jobs even within the Tibet Autonomous Region, knowledge of Chinese language is a must by way of clearing exams, it means a subtle way of bringing down the importance of Tibetan language thereby relieving of its independent character. 

Officials are strengthening border defense and frontier security in Tibet parallelly. Post the 19th party Congress President Xi Jinping has come back stronger with ground reality portraying hardening of stance and positions in Tibet. The velvet glove is more visible than iron fist by way of expanding party surveillance and party’s penetration into Tibet. 
With the increasing migration and settlement into the Tibetan region by the majority Han ethnic people the Tibetan culture and way of life is under duress by way of change in demographic dynamics. The Dalai Lama – PRC talks broke down in 2010. Two issues flagged were one, has Tibet ever been a part of China and two, the McMahon Line that borders India and Tibet is unacceptable to China. China also restricted and shrinked the strategic space of the present Dalai Lama. To intensify efforts, China tries to undermine the influence of the Dalai Lama within the Tibetan community and abroad. But the question on the minds of Chinese leaders is, Will the Tibetans remain peaceful post the Dalai Lama’s departure? For China, the question of Dalai Lama is both a religious and political question raising insecurities. It is well aware of the fact that a dual Dalai Lama post the departure of the present 14th Dalai Lama could spell trouble in the long run as the Tibetans still refuse to acknowledge and revere or even call the Panchen Lama appointed by China as even Panchen Lamas. They are just called/termed as ‘learned monks.

In conclusion, China under Xi Jinping has undertaken a mix of carrot and stick approach through mix of developmental projects for Tibet, indoctrination via education and coercive policies. These signal Beijing’s insensitivities towards Tibet. Transforming the Tibetan landscape favors China to put pressure even on neighbors like India and press forceful claims against Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh which is considered as ‘Southern Tibet’ by Beijing. With Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘Rejuvenation of Great Chinese Dream’ it remains to be seen how China desires to shape a historical narrative to favor its agenda. As Mao called Tibet as one of the fingers in his famous ‘Five Finger’ strategy, if Xi Jinping manages to make Tibet under its fold unanimously nothing much can stop Beijing from asserting its dominance over the entire Himalayas stretching from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh calling for Mandarins in New Delhi to stitch a strategic coherence in its policies towards Tibet vis – a – vis in its dealing with China.

Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China
Rui Liu is a research associate of Citizen Power Initiatives for China