Robert Barnett is a Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; an Affiliate Researcher at King’s College, London; and former Director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. Recent edited volumes include Conflicting Memories with Benno Weiner and Françoise Robin, and Forbidden Memory by Tsering Woeser. This piece was produced in collaboration with an ongoing group research project into policy developments on Tibet.
Since the wave of mass detentions in Xinjiang became known internationally, a secondary proposition has begun to circulate in the media and among a number of politicians: the claim that Tibetans are experiencing similar abuses to those faced by Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, the other vast, colonized area in what China sees as its far western territory. That claim is incorrect. Although Chinese policies in Tibet are exceptionally restrictive and repressive, as far as is known they do not include the extreme abuses found in Xinjiang. Of course, we should encourage such questions to be raised and assessed, but scholars, the media, and opinion leaders need to discriminate more carefully between speculation and knowledge, and between advocacy and scholarly findings. The lines between these categories have been blurred increasingly, perhaps deliberately, and can damage everyone if not restored.
Policy Variations: A Bit of History
The central premise of the Tibet-Xinjiang equivalence claim is that China’s Tibet and Xinjiang programs are similar in terms of mass abuses. Proponents note correctly that mechanisms, terminology, aims, and underlying theories used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Tibet and Xinjiang are similar, and that the current Party Secretary of Xinjiang formerly served in Tibet. These continuities reflect the shared repertoire of Communist jargon and history from which all CCP officials draw, as well as their adherence to the CCP’s overall policy regarding nationalities, which has shown an increasingly assimilationist approach since 2014. However, despite their constant declarations of unity with the Party Center, regional officials are not expected to implement the Center’s policies in identical ways in each region.
In fact, Chinese policies in Tibet and Xinjiang have often differed widely in implementation. This divergence reflects topography, history, and logistics, but also continues the deep-seated debates among revolutionaries since at least the time of the Jacobins and Girondins about how rapid or gradual revolutionary reforms should be. Much the same debate took place within the CCP from even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It focused particularly on areas inhabited by peoples such as the Tibetans, Mongolians, or Uyghurs. In such areas, radicals in the CCP—notably leaders of the Northwest Military Region—insisted on rapid, often violent social transformation. Gradualists, such as those in the Southwest Military Region in the first half of the 1950s, argued that Tibetans, being more backward in their view, should be won over by allowing feudal practices to continue while slowly building initial alliances with local elites. The details of this debate have been carefully documented by Benno Weiner in his recent book on the factions that respectively opposed or promoted the gradualist strategy known as the United Front in Tibetan areas of Qinghai in the 1950s. Weiner shows that the gradualist approach lasted in those areas until 1958, when policy switched to immediate reforms of society, land ownership, and religious practice, which usually meant the use of force and culminated with the Cultural Revolution. The gradualist approach was reintroduced throughout China in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping came to power. Not coincidentally, Deng had been the Political Commissar of the Southwest Military Region in 1950; arguing that China was still in the “primary stage of socialism” and thus not yet ready for full communism was a return to the praxis advocated by his faction forty years before.
There was nothing new or specifically communist about this debate over how to manage minorities. In the late Qing empire, Chinese reformers had argued over the same question: whether to incorporate non-Han Chinese peoples within the empire rapidly by force or gradually through education, industrialization, acculturation, or some longer process. In Xinjiang, the Qing had resorted to direct control by invading the region in 1877 and turning it into a Chinese province; Tibet had negligible Han Chinese or Manchu presence at that time. By 1910, the proponents of rapid, forced reform had persuaded the Qing court to allow a policy of direct rule and rapid assimilation of Tibetans, which the Qing representative in Sichuan, Zhao Erfeng, carried out until the fall of the dynasty a year later. Some scholars trace the differential ways of managing minorities in China to much earlier perceptions in Chinese political thought as to which minorities were more “raw” or “untamed” relative to those considered somewhat “civilized” and thus amenable to softer tactics. Today, arguments of this kind are diplomatically concealed behind milder-sounding arguments, such as the current view among CCP policymakers that there are two kinds of religion in China—so-called “non-indigenous religions,” which include Islam, and “indigenous religions” such as Buddhism (notwithstanding that in fact it originated in India, not China). We can easily imagine Chinese policymakers arguing that followers of an “indigenous” Chinese religion are more easily managed and so can be won over with less brutal policies than those who follow a monotheistic, “non-Chinese”—read, less civilized—religion.
Since 9/11, this diffracted version of global Islamophobia has been commonly expressed in China in terms of terrorism, which the current Xinjiang policies are supposed to forestall. By contrast, the spectre of terrorism is rarely invoked in Tibet. There, the threat consists primarily of an idea that Beijing seeks to eradicate: the insistence by “the Dalai” that Tibet was independent in the past. This effort by Beijing has led to extraordinarily extensive forms of repression, control, and social engineering in Tibet, which are increasing almost by the day. But in terms of violence, China has been cautious in Tibet, as demonstrated by the fact that there have been only two or three known judicial executions of Tibetans in politically related cases over the last 35 years, as opposed to scores of executions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Whatever the rationale, the Chinese state has often enacted policies in different ways in different areas, even if the policy names and objectives are similar. This is what was so significant about China’s decision to scale back Mongolian language instruction in Inner Mongolia last year: until then, China’s policy of assimilation and bilingual education in Inner Mongolia had followed a wholly different and more accommodating model of policy implementation from those in Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, or any other area. The change announced for classroom teaching in Inner Mongolia’s primary schools was significant because it meant that, after several years of giving primacy to local culture, the region was switching from a gradual to a rapid, forced approach to implementing policy on a non-Han Chinese population.
Mass Detention in Tibet
The contention that Tibet and Xinjiang are coterminous in terms of mass abuses has been made by a number of commentators, journalists, and politicians, including Lobsang Sangay, the current head of the exile Tibetan administration. Sangay has said, among other things, that forced detention camps exist currently in Tibet. There have been some occasions in the last decade when camps were created to hold Tibetans detained without being accused of any crime. Two of those occasions involved serious abuses. These occurred in camps created in 2017 to house monks and nuns expelled from a number of monasteries in eastern Tibetan areas, notably Larung Gar, and then returned forcibly to their home areas within the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where they were detained for “legal education.” One of these camps was created in the eastern Tibetan area of Nyingtri to reeducate a number of nuns, while the second was in Sog, Nagchu, in northern Tibet, where the detainees seem mainly to have been monks. The detained nuns, comprising at least 30 women, were forced to sing or dance in front of officials to the tune of patriotic Chinese songs, in at least one case while wearing military-type outfits. In the case of the center at Sog, there is one account by a monk who was held for four months in 2017, and it describes incidents of forced reeducation, humiliation, torture, and sexual harassment. These are instances of grave abuse, but they are not similar in scale or duration to the systematic, mass practices of detention and cultural eradication in Xinjiang, where detainees are held and abused for years, forced repeatedly to abjure religious belief entirely, and made to use a language not their own.
There have been at least three other recent occasions in Tibet—in March 2008, January 2012, and May 2012—when camps were created temporarily in hotels, schools, or converted army bases to hold Tibetans for purposes such as “legal education.” The 2008 camp held several hundred monks from monasteries in Lhasa whose place of registration was outside the TAR, and the 2012 detentions were of an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 lay Tibetans held for two months after attending religious teachings by the Dalai Lama in India. In addition, a Tibetan reported being held for two months in a detention center in Driru, Nagchu, in 2016, and I know of two individuals held for about two weeks each in 2019 in some office buildings in a Tibetan area of Sichuan for failing to implement supposedly voluntary “poverty alleviation” measures.
Further details of these cases have not yet emerged, and others may well come to light. However, these cases again differ markedly from the Xinjiang camps in terms of scale or degree, involving an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people over a decade or more—around 1.4% of the lowest estimate for detainees in Xinjiang during the last four years. In addition, as far as one can tell from interviews with former inmates or those close to them, the Tibetan camps appear to have lasted for at most six months, but usually much less; included limited amounts of re-education, if any; and, apart from the two camps in 2017, are not reported to have involved cultural denigration, physical abuse, or cruelty.
Labor Programs and the Coercion Claim
In September 2020, a report appeared by a scholar that appeared to show evidence of forced labor camps in Tibet and other Xinjiang-style policies in the TAR. That scholar, Adrian Zenz, has done well-regarded work on Tibet and Xinjiang in the past. His more recent work has been attacked and abused by Chinese state media and others, including smears about his religious beliefs by a pro-Chinese denialist called Max Blumenthal, demonstrating a particularly ugly form of hypocrisy. He is also being sued by Chinese companies in Xinjiang and has been sanctioned by the PRC government.
Nevertheless, there are some technical problems with Dr. Zenz’s article on Tibet. Although scholarly in nature, the article was not peer-reviewed, involved no field verification, and did not refer to work by other researchers with expertise on labor, employment, and statistics in Tibet. In addition, the article was coordinated with a prominent media campaign, including simultaneous release of an op-ed in the New York Times, a lengthy article by Reuters, an editorial by the Wall Street Journal, and a report by a political lobby group, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).
Dr. Zenz and like-minded writers described a mass program initiated by Chinese authorities to provide labor training for Tibetans, and in some cases to arrange for them to be transferred to other locations for work. These writers are entirely correct that training programs claiming to involve huge numbers of people have been set up in Tibet, alongside a program arranging for people to move to different areas for work. They are also correct that in Xinjiang a program with a similar name appears to have involved abuses on a vast scale. But details of the Tibet scheme are unclear and—so far—do not yet indicate Xinjiang-style implementation: so far at least, around 94 percent of what are described in these reports as labor transfers in Tibet are apparently local, at least some of the small number of intra-provincial ones claim to be short-term, and there is no evidence yet that either of these programs in Tibet has involved force or abuse.
As for actual cases of coercion, there are none in the reports by Dr. Zenz, Reuters, or any other outlets. When I asked a Tibetan colleague about his own research, he described a Tibetan family of seven, all of whom had registered for labor training programs. Only one, however, had in fact attended a course, and the family had not reported any threat of force or pressure to comply. This seemed to suggest that, at least in that case, local officials were aiming primarily to put names on registration forms in order to inflate the number of apparent participants in the program.
This case does not prove anything, but it does raise doubts. If we go back to the article by Dr. Zenz, we will see that it consists of two entirely different statements: one that correctly summarizes Chinese official documents giving numbers for registration or inclusion in labor training schemes and work placements, and one that is purely inference about a possibility of labor camps (as opposed to voluntary training camps) and of the use of force. Those inferences are based on references in official documents to such things as “military-style” training and to photographs of trainees in military clothes. Such an inference is possible. It is not, however, reliable: every school and university student in China has military-style training for a week or so each year and many department stores have military-style training every morning. These trainings involve drills, but not necessarily the use of force, and many people in Tibet and China wear military garb because it is tough and cheap.
Dr. Zenz himself noted in his original report that he had found no evidence for any Xinjiang-style labor camps in Tibet: "There is so far no evidence of accompanying cadres or security personnel, of cadres stationed in factories, or of workers being kept in closed, securitized environments at their final work destination.” He added that “there is also currently no evidence of TAR labor training and transfer schemes being linked to extrajudicial internment." He later stated categorically that he had never mentioned labor camps.
The Reuters report also had two types of findings: one confirmed the existence of the labor programs, citing two or three official documents not used by Dr. Zenz, while the other repeated the evidence about coercion offered by Dr. Zenz without new evidence. Therefore, the question of force was not part of its “investigation.” The article even said that “Reuters was unable to ascertain the conditions of the transferred Tibetan workers”and that “Researchers and rights groups say…without access they can’t assess whether the practice [of labor transfer] constitutes forced labor.” Nevertheless, it still repeated the same allegations of abuse and force, attributing them to “rights groups.” It added a fact that appeared to be corroborative, stating that “small-scale versions of similar military-style training initiatives have existed in the region for over a decade,” but gave no details of such cases, apart from that of the 30 nuns in 2017, noted above.
The qualifications that the authors of these reports provided were correct and appropriate, but they were too little and too late. The reports included multiple references to coercion, albeit speculative, and more categorical assertions were made in accompanying op-eds and oral presentations. Such speculation is often justifiable and necessary, not least because evidence of major abuses might yet come to light. Tibetan exiles and others are not wrong to be concerned. But the initial reports by Dr. Zenz and Reuters led to a wave of secondary reporting that, regardless of intention, blurred the solid data about the existence of labor training and work placement schemes with speculation about coercion.
Those secondary reports acknowledged Dr. Zenz’s article as the source of their information, but claimed incorrectly that he had reported the existence of labor camps and alleged use of force, about which he had only speculated. The Times of London said China was “accused of imprisoning 500k Tibetans in labor camps” and “as many as half a million Tibetans have been forcibly moved into labor camps this year,” making it a single-source report, with no corroboration, claiming incorrectly that Zenz had alleged imprisonment and labor camps. The BBC declared that the Zenz report had found China to be “‘coercing’ thousands of Tibetans into mass labor camps” and said this had been corroborated by Reuters, although Zenz had not said this, while Reuters had confirmed only the existence of labor programs, not the existence of labor camps or coercion. The BBC added that “the scale of the programme as detailed in this study indicates it is much larger than previously thought,” although in fact this was the first mention of the program outside China. The Guardian was more cautious and only referred to coercion in quoted remarks from Zenz, but, like the BBC, said the Zenz report had been corroborated by Reuters, implying this applied to camps and coercion as well as labor programs. The New York Times did not report the news, but carried an op-ed by Zenz which made stronger assertions about the use of compulsion than his original article had, this time without any caveat. Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald reported without qualification and without any second source that “China is pushing hundreds of thousands of Tibetans into forced labor camps,” none of which is known to be true.
Not surprisingly, this apparent unanimity in the mainstream media implying an equation between the labour training scheme and coercive detention was quickly taken up in the political arena. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China referred to “an apparent widespread system of forced labor” and “a large-scale mandatory ‘vocational training’ program” in Tibet, again relying on one source, and again fusing the substantive issue of labor programs with speculation about it being “forced” and “mandatory.” The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, based in Washington, D.C., held a hearing partly based on reports of what one speaker, Matteo Mecacci, called “forced labor” in Tibet; the British House of Commons organized a debate on the issue at which a senior British politician, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, asserted categorically that the Tibet labor programs were “mandatory,” “forcible,” and involved “people … being taken from one place and put into camps;” and the Democracy Forum in the UK held a discussion in part about the fact that, according to its chair, China “has sent over half a million Tibetans to labor transfer camps under strict military supervision.”
I have found just one media report that correctly reported on the Zenz report: a tiny media outfit called TLDR. TLDR published a video summary of the Zenz report which is accurate as well as succinct, yet manages to detail the factual claims about the labor training schemes separately from Zenz’s speculation about the possible use of force, which it bracketed as an as yet unverified but potentially important addendum.
Since then, the rhetoric has escalated. The most striking case is that of a scholar and a former journalist affiliated to universities in Australia who hosted a podcast originally called “Tibet-The Final Solution?” The title was taken from a statement by a Tibetan activist that China plans the total annihilation of Tibet or its culture, which was used as the trailer for the program. The actual podcast, the title of which was later changed amid complaints, did not discuss or debate this claim—it was added after the discussion had been recorded and was designed, apparently, only as click-bait to attract an audience. What is going on when a serious journalist, let alone an academic, proposes that China is a Nazi state trying to annihilate Tibetan people or Tibetan culture? China is indeed minimizing the role of the Tibetan language in schools, insulting the Dalai Lama, denying Tibetan history, persecuting dissidents, relocating nomads, and trying to adapt popular understandings of Tibetan Buddhism so that the religion emphasizes or mimics (“Sinicizes,” as the state puts it) neo-Confucian values, amid numerous other repressive policies. But to equate this with the Wannsee Conference is deeply offensive and unethical. Apart from insulting the memory of those who died, for one thing, there is no evidence of any attempt, at least in the post-Mao era, to annihilate the Tibetan people. As for culture since the death of Mao, as Dr. Zenz himself documented in his earlier work on Tibet, certain aspects of Tibetan modern culture have thrived, particularly prose fiction, poetry, film, fine art, popular music, and to some extent the Gesar epic, horse racing, and certain local festivals. Publications of traditional religious texts run into the thousands. Lay religious events still involve thousands of people. There is an enormous amount of repression, which should be widely studied and publicized, and there are understandable reasons why many Tibetans fear for their culture, alarmed as many are by, for example, the prioritization of Chinese as the language of instruction in many or most schools. But this is not the same as genocide or annihilation: Tibet is not Xinjiang.
Activists and others should of course be encouraged to argue their perspectives and present whatever evidence they have. But for a mainstream media outfit, let alone a university, to use such a proposition as click-bait is disturbing. In the long run, this kind of ideologically-inflamed, anti-Chinese rhetoric will damage Tibetan people and their situation in Tibet, since they and others will have to waste time on debates about what is exaggerated and what is fact. The underlying issue here is not that scholars should not speculate, nor that activists and community members should not raise deeply held concerns: they should do both. But serious writers, publications, and media need to maintain sharp distinctions between what is speculation and what is reliable, confirmed information. The quality of discourse, and even the possibility of developing effective responses to mass abuse, suffers on all sides if exacting standards of evidence and discussion are discarded.