Reports out of Tibet in September 2020 have revealed that in the past two years, China has implemented and expanded a program of mass labor camps and military-style training facilities in the region. Chinese state media has reported that, through these programs, over half a million Tibetans have been re-trained from nomadic or farming-based lifestyles to wage labor, with some 50,000 of those being sent to work in factories in Tibet.
These revelations are disturbing not only for their effect in Tibet but also for their similarities to another mass labor program being conducted by China on the Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. The expansion of the Tibetan program amid international outcry over forced detentions and accusations of genocide in Xinjiang has human rights groups rightfully worried. However, reports on the situation in Tibet make sure to note that the program in Tibet is “potentially less coercive” and some Tibetans may join voluntarily for increased wages. For poor farmers, the worry surrounding these camps comes second to concerns over low incomes; it is undeniable that industrial jobs provide higher wages than agricultural ones. Despite this, the abundance of red flags for coercion and indoctrination still present worrying developments.
Reports from Tibet describe accounts of “enforced indoctrination, intrusive surveillance, military-style enforcement, and harsh punishments for those who fail to meet labor transfer quotas.” In response to these claims and calls from Tibetan leaders, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said: “What these people with ulterior motives are calling ‘forced labor’ simply does not exist. We hope the international community will distinguish right from wrong, respect facts, and not be fooled by lies.” Given the repressive nature of the labor programs being implemented and the general repression of information out of Tibet by Beijing, much is still unknown about specifics regarding the new coercive programs.
China has controlled Tibet since 1950 when troops from the People’s Liberation Army took control of the region and “peacefully liberated” it into the People’s Republic of China as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Since then, the region has faced some of the harshest restrictions and stability measures in the country due to its high population of ethnic Tibetans. The geopolitical importance of Tibet only compounds the situation. Tibet’s strategic importance as the border with neighboring India makes controlling the region a priority for Beijing, but the distinct culture of Tibet and geographic isolation from Chinese population centers have made taming the region challenging.
While there is a history of military-style camps and labor programs in Tibet run by the Chinese government, the mass coercion program of the past two years represents a major enlargement in policy and strategy. With a largely rural population, China hopes to develop the TAR and shift excess labor into an industrial capacity. Shifting surplus rural labor into industry jobs has long been part of China’s strategy to drive economic growth and urbanization; however, in both Tibet and Xinjiang, regions with high populations of ethnic minorities, this labor shift is accompanied by a troubling emphasis on ideology training and disruption of traditional family structure and social networks.
The force behind both the detention centers in Xinjiang and new labor programs in Tibet seems to be former Tibet Communist Party Secretary, Chen Quanguo. After testing small scale indoctrination programs in Tibet, Chen took over the same post in Xinjiang in 2016 and began developing the labor camp system that now holds some one million Uyghurs. Chen’s heavy-handed approach to governing may have made him the target for human rights groups and Western governments, but his success at economically developing desolate regions has won him praise domestically.
Mass labor and indoctrination programs in Tibet and Xinjiang are part of a larger strategy from Beijing and Chinese President Xi Jinping to tame border regions that are ethnically diverse from the majority-Han population of the country. In speeches, President Xi proclaims his hope that “a shared awareness of Chinese nationhood [will] take root deep in the soul;” For non-traditional Chinese groups like Tibetans and Uyghur Muslims, this means cultural destruction and, in the case of Xinjiang, mass internment and torture.
Despite widespread reporting on the internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, including a leak of over 400 documents that detail the sophisticated campaign for mass detentions, the international outcry has failed to bring about real changes; given the smaller scale of the programs in Tibet and the Uyghur issue dominating Chinese human rights headlines, it’s unlikely that the United States or European Union will take a strong stand. Unlike Xinjiang, which has deep ties to the Chinese cotton industry, giving international actors an economic means to protest the internment camps, the Tibetan program must rely on preexisting activists to raise awareness. Many of these activists are the same ones whose calls to end Chinese occupation and investigate human rights abuses have gone unanswered for decades.
Read more about what’s happening in Tibet:
“Xinjiang’s System of Militarized Vocational Training Comes to Tibet” — Jamestown Foundation
“China ‘coercing’ thousands of Tibetans into mass labor camps” — BBC