May 2023

Countering colonialism

Over seven decades since China imposed colonial rule on Tibet, The Democracy Forum hosted a webinar on Chinese hegemony in the region, to coincide with a UK visit by H.E. the Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration

TDF’s latest online debate shone a spotlight on China’s ongoing policy of forcing a state hegemony on Tibet’s indigenous population, who face denial of religious freedom and a deliberate displacement of their cultural identity.

‘This is a topic of undeniable international relevance and concern,’ said TDF President Lord Bruce.  The webinar’s title – ‘Seventy-two years of Chinese colonial rule in Tibet – was chosen deliberately to describe a political system which has evolved over a period of 70 years and continues to exert a level of control over the lives of 6.7m indigenous Tibetan people, despite being clearly incompatible with the universally accepted language of human and civil rights. Lord Bruce cited a recent Freedom in the World Report published by Freedom House, which identified Tibet as the least free country on Earth – in a worse ranking than North Korea, and sharing the bottom spot with South Sudan and Syria. This score was based on circumstances prevailing in the Tibet Autonomous Region regarding indicators such as the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, freedom of expression and belief, personal autonomy and the rights of the individual.

Reminding us that colonialism is a relationship in which an entire society is ‘robbed of its historical line of development, externally manipulated and transformed according to the needs and interests of the colonial rulers’, Lord Bruce noted that, for over 60 years, criticism of China’s subjugation of Tibet as a colonial project has been aired frequently at the UN General Assembly, with resolutions debated and passed to that effect. Indeed, a UN investigation into the treatment of human rights in Tibet – including the right to education and the freedom to practise religion – generated a report, published in February as an open letter to the Chinese government, which exposed the cultural alienation of over one million indigenous children, cloistered remotely in residential boarding schools, revealing to the world perhaps the most existential and egregious example of ‘a policy of forced assimilation of the Tibetan identity into the dominant Han-Chinese majority, through a series of oppressive actions against Tibetan religious, and linguistic institutions’. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Chinese government has yet to respond.

tdf webinar 24th april 2023
SPEAKING OUT FOR TIBET: Panellists at TDF’s April 24 webinar

The Tibetan movement is still very strong, said H.E. Sikyong Penpa Tsering, and, while we may not hear so much about Tibet these days due to other issues, such as events in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the perpetrator, China, is always the same, hence the message to the international community remains the same. He spoke of how, 72 years ago, Tibet was forced to sign the Seventeen-Point Agreement under threat of war. The Dalai Lama tried to live under this agreement for almost eight years, but from 1956, China’s ‘nice’ face turned and His Holiness soon came to see how China worked, which he compared unfavourably with India, where he had seen how democracy functioned.

‘Our culture is dying a slow death’

From 1959 matters deteriorated further, through Mao’s Cultural Revolution, with more than 6000 Tibetan monasteries destroyed and over 1.2 million Tibetans dead as a direct or indirect result of Chinese aggression in Tibet. ‘Our culture is dying a slow death’ as a result of 72 years of Chinese colonialism, said Mr Tsering, as is the Tibetan religion and environment, with the Chinese government employing many forms of AI to surveille the Tibetan people, all aimed at control, and more control. China argues that nations such as the US and Australia did not treat their indigenous people well; but those countries are trying to redress this balance, he argued, which China is not. The Sikyong also highlighted China’s desire to be responsible for the reincarnated Dalai Lama, and noted how many young Tibetans are now self-immolating in protest at their plight, in the hope that the international community will come to their aid. The Sikyong believed there was hope for the future, though China’s determined Sinicisation of the region and people will continue to have serious consequences for Tibetans. He urged the international community not to keep repeating that Tibet is part of the PRC, as this removes reasons for China to come to the negotiating table with Tibet.

Democracy, human rights and international law are all interlinked and if one is compromised, all three deteriorate, argued Chris Law MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Tibet, who added that Tibet had been the testing and training ground for future oppression in Xinjiang. He lamented how families were losing their young children to ‘education’ boarding camps, with 4-to-6-year-olds taken away to learn Mandarin, Chinese culture and politics, and nothing about their own Tibetan history and culture. When they return home, they are withdrawn and show symptoms of PTSD, and the world needs to call China out on this, Law insisted.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

We must see China as a colonial power rather than a military aggressor

So, where is Tibet now and where do we go from here? Law saw a political disconnect between the UK and Tibet, which was exacerbated by the British government in 2010 to allow the so-called ‘Golden era’ in UK-China relations to prosper. However, thing are now changing across the House regarding Tibet, the Uighurs, Hong Kong, etc, and Britain has its own concerns over Chinese surveillance in the UK.  As one of the biggest buyers of Chinese goods, Britain has a role to play in putting pressure on China, and for those who value democracy, the minimum we must do is call out China on their oppressive practices and rights violations. ‘Silence is complicity,’ Law concluded, for when we remain quiet due to our need to foster economic ties, we undermine our own democracy, as well as human rights and international law.

Geography stands at the heart of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s Middle Way Policy, argued Dr Martin Mills, Director of the Scottish Centre for Himalayan Research at the University of Aberdeen. He spoke  of how Tibetans’ capacity for political agency has clearly diminished, especially in the last 20 years, and wondered what can be done to address this, both by Tibetans in exile and the wider world. Regarding the Middle Way Policy, which sought to negotiate with the PRC and the Chinese Communist Party genuine autonomy for Tibet within the PRC, in a distinct move away from the previous goal of full independence, the essence of this puzzle is the question of self-determination.

Yet today, we are looking at the prospect of a civilisation dying off in our lifetime, said Mills, which is horrifying for the world, as humanity needs as many diverse voices as possible to add to the mix of solutions to environmental and other concerns. He also underscored the realpolitik at play in the Tibet question, given its proximity to China, one of the most powerful countries in the world with a  huge military, and the vast mountain ranges that make Tibet inaccessible to foreign journalists. The cumulative reality of all this is that the political situation in Tibet cannot be resolved in any peaceful or sustainable way without the willing cooperation of China. If you want any genuine autonomy for Tibet, Mills concluded, you have to transform China.

Geography stands at the heart of the Middle Way Policy

Dibyesh Anand, Head of the School of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster, emphasised why we must see China as a colonial power rather than a military aggressor. He underscored the difference between Chinese colonialism in Tibet and certain previous forms of colonialism, where some citizens could feel a measure of solidarity with the colonial power, in that we are not only dealing with colonial occupation, but colonial occupation by an authoritarian state. China sees itself as a state that has liberated the Tibetan people from feudal occupation and the old theocratic system, but there is a constant need, argued Anand. to remind the world that, just because China has brought modern development to Tibet, it is still colonialist, presenting the colonised as weaker, less sophisticated.

Professor Anand also stressed the role of India as the most important actor vis-à-vis Tibet, due to its size and the fact that the Tibetan Government-in-Exile is based there. Yet, while the status of Tibetans in India is secure while the Dalai Lama remains there, that could change after he is gone.

Barry Gardiner MP, Chair of TDF, referenced the recent ‘Vibrant Villages’ visit by Indian Home Minister Amit Shah to Arunachal Pradesh, who described AP as ‘an integral and inalienable part of India’. China, for its part, objected to the visit, claiming AP is part of South Tibet and that the visit by an Indian Home Minister was ‘not conducive to the peace and tranquillity of the border situation’. Indeed, today China deploys almost 50,000 soldiers to the Indo-Tibet border areas, with a large Indian military presence there too, but, despite the huge cost, Gardiner did not see demilitarisation of the Tibetan plateau as realistic for the future.

Gardiner also highlighted Xi Jinping’s assertion that infrastructure building and investment projects in Tibet are aimed at ‘maintaining national unity… and promoting ethnic unity’. Are these arguably cynical moves working? Gardiner asked. Where there is carrot, he warned, there is also stick, such as the mass training camps, which speak more of ethnic and national uniformity than unity.

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada