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China committing human rights abuses in Tibet through its labour programme

By Juan Carlos | August 11th 2021

Workers take a break sitting on the railway tracks. [Courtesy]

China has occupied Tibet against the will of the Tibetan people for nearly three generations now. Its claim to Tibet has no legal basis and rests solely on self-serving historical narrations which are Sino-Centric, inaccurate and highly misleading.

In recent years, Tibet has been the target of harsh policies in pursuit of what Chinese authorities call ‘stability maintenance’. Tibetans are trained in various skills by local administration under poverty alleviation programme such as cooking, tailoring, welding work, driving construction work among others before being sent to other areas of Tibet and mainland China to work in factories and construction sites as Beijing claims the training eliminate poverty.

Unlike in China where moving surplus rural labour into industry used to boost the economy Beijing uses ideological and military-style management with coercive elements.

Chinese authorities, however, maintain that the policies are aimed at quelling dissent, unrest or separatism and include restricting the travel of ethnic citizens to other parts of China and abroad and tightening control over religious activities.

China’s labour transfer policy decrees that pastoralists and farmers are to be subjected to a centralised ‘military-style’ vocational training, which aims to reform ‘backward thinking’ and includes training in ‘work discipline’, law and the Chinese language.

Under the programme, Tibetan farmers and herders are forced to give up their traditional lifestyles to undergo mandatory training in centralised vocational facilities.

A report released by the Jamestown Foundation, a US research institute and compiled by Dr. Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist and an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), exposed how China is expanding a ‘mass labour programme’ in Tibet mirroring the forced labour operations in Xinjiang (East Turkistan).

The programme includes rigorous military-style training, forced indoctrination and intrusive surveillance of the participants. The report revealed how Beijing has tried and tested oppressive policies in Tibet, resulting in half a million Tibetans forced to take part in a coercive programme in the year 2020.

Reuters in its report further corroborated findings from Tibet’s regional government website released between 2016- 2020 that confirmed that almost 50,000 Tibetans have been transferred for jobs within Tibet and several thousand sent to other parts of China.

It also indicates that the Chinese government has ramped up its repressive tools to crackdown regions under its occupation. The report further claimed that many end up in low paid work including textile manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. The programme is ostensibly meant to ease poverty, but in reality these measures are designed to destroy the Tibetan culture and way of life.   

However, responding to Reuters, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the involvement of forced labour saying workers are predominantly volunteers and have been adequately compensated. Top officials in Chinese-administered Tibet also defended vocational training programme that some critics have called coercive. In response to a question on whether nomads are forced to participate in the training programmes, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) chairman Qi Zhala said, “There is no element of coercion,” and emphasised that people are trained in skills they want, such as driving or welding. Qi also said Tibetans should not “overdo” religious consumption, and should follow the country’s ruling Party for a “happy life”.

Meanwhile, responding about restrictions that bar foreigners from going to Tibet outside of government tours, Wu Yingjie, the TAR Party Secretary, said officials believed the region’s environment was too dangerous for foreigners to travel independently.

Following the news of China’s coercive labour programmes in Tibet, IPAC, which works to reform how democratic countries deal with China, called upon governments to take immediate action to condemn these atrocities and to prevent further human rights abuses.

A total of 63 lawmakers from 16 countries had also issued a joint statement, urging the United Nations Secretary-General to install a Special Rapporteur to investigate ‘forced labour’ and ethnic persecution in the People’s Republic of China. During the Westminster Hall debate on ‘China’s rapid expansion of the labour programme in Tibet’, British MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith urged the British government to support Magnitsky style arrangements against the Chinese officials responsible for the forced compulsory labour in Tibet and called for mandatory sanctions such as travel bans or freezing of assets.

International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) President Matteo Mecacci stated that Chinese government has expand these programmes, including ‘thought training’ with the government’s coordination, which represent a dangerous escalation. Similarly, Lobsang Sangay, former Sikyong, Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), during a webinar by Tibet Interest Group (TIG) in the European Parliament, spoke on the labour camps in Tibet and illustrated the ways, China has almost managed to change the basic concept of human rights.

The World has grown largely silent on Tibet due to China’s bully and aggressive behaviour. It is high time we took a hard look at the implications of our silence on the legitimacy of China’s presence in Tibet and not actively countering Beijing’s historical narrative on Tibet.

Many governments succumb to Chinese pressure to state that they consider Tibet to be a part of China, the compliance with Beijing’s demands have contributed not only to china’s rise but also to its bullying. The only way to stop bullying is to collectively stop complying with China’s demands, at least those demands which clearly violate international legal norms and moral ones.




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