The Question of Tibet-Xinjiang Equivalence: China's Recent Policies in Its Far West
Tenzin Dorjee is a Senior Researcher and Strategist at the Tibet Action Institute and a PhD candidate at Columbia University.
In a post published on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound blog on March 29, Tibetologist Robert Barnett admonishes what he sees as the blurring of lines between advocacy and scholarship in the discourse on Tibet. The article, whose stated goal is to dispel the notion of a “Xinjiang-Tibet equivalence,” begins with legitimate arguments for distinguishing knowledge from speculation, urging the media and the academic community to refrain from overstating China’s repression in Tibet.
However, in cautioning against overstatement, Dr. Barnett goes much too far in the opposite direction, downplaying the severity of China’s repression and painting a picture of Tibet that deviates sharply from the lived reality of Tibetans. The version of Tibet that he depicts has little in common with the experience of ordinary Tibetans, who are routinely deprived of their freedom of expression, movement, religion and assembly. His description also sits uneasily with the fact that Freedom House has ranked Tibet as one of the least free places in its 2021 “Freedom in the World” report, assigning it a combined score of 1 out of a possible 100 for civil liberties and human rights –– by comparison, Syria scored 1/100 and North Korea scored 3/100.
The titular argument of Dr. Barnett’s article is that the level of repression in Tibet cannot be equated with that in Xinjiang. There is nothing novel or controversial about his thesis that the internment camps of Xinjiang do not exist in Tibet. So why bother to state the obvious? Because, according to Dr. Barnett, “a number of commentators, journalists, and politicians” have equated Tibet with Xinjiang “in terms of mass abuses.”
Among those guilty of this transgression, he first names Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the outgoing head of the Tibetan government in exile. To be sure, Dr. Sangay drew comparisons between Xinjiang and Tibet. But he was quick to point out where the comparison ended. In a BBC interview in July 2019, Dr. Sangay said there were “detention camps” in Tibet but “not as large” as in Xinjiang. If analyzed in its proper context, it is clear he was referring not to Nazi-style death camps but to the garden-variety re-education centers that have been a feature of China’s indoctrination programs in Tibet.
Dr. Sangay’s main message was that Chen Quanguo, the architect of the Uyghur internment camps, was deploying against the Uyghurs the tools of tyranny he had sharpened in Tibet. This was hardly an overstatement: before Chen took the reins in Xinjiang, he had indeed been the Party Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region from 2011 to 2016. Xinjiang specialists like James Leibold as well as rights monitoring groups like Human Rights Watch have also made the observation that Tibet served as a laboratory of repression for Chen’s dystopian vision. Dr. Sangay was simply trying to connect the dots between Tibet and Xinjiang, which is not the same as equating them. In accusing him of equating the two regions, Dr. Barnett basically erects a straw man that he then proceeds to demolish.
Another individual who comes under censure is Adrian Zenz, the author of a report that points to the existence of a mass program of labor training in Tibet. Dr. Zenz, it is worth noting, is the German scholar whose research on Xinjiang was pivotal in alerting the world to the Uyghur genocide. In critiquing Dr. Zenz’s report on Tibet, Dr. Barnett contributes some interesting details that enrich and complicate our understanding of the labor training program. Yet the essence of his critique suffers from several flaws, two of which merit special attention.
Dr. Barnett’s first error is a conceptual one. Dr. Zenz, in discussing the nature of China’s labor training programs in Tibet, has highlighted the “systemic presence of numerous coercive elements.” While noting that there were “clear elements of coercion during recruitment, training and job matching,” he explicitly acknowledges in the report that there was “so far no evidence” of force being used. However, Dr. Barnett misses that conceptual distinction between force and coercion, using the terms interchangeably and thus misinterpreting one of Dr. Zenz’s key arguments.
In the voluminous literature on the strategy of conflict, coercion is said to operate when the threat of retaliation plays a role in getting someone to do something against their will. The direct use of brute force is not necessary for coercion to obtain; the threat of punishment often lurks in the shadows without ever appearing onstage. Dr. Barnett contends that there is no evidence of force having been used to recruit people into the labor training program and rushes to argue that coercion is therefore absent, basically conflating the two terms. This is akin to saying, “Since there is no evidence for the presence of A, we can conclude B is absent.” Besides, in the highly repressive climate of Tibet, the line between choice and coercion is extremely blurry, and yet Dr. Barnett fails to consider the range of direct or indirect negative repercussions Tibetans may face if they do not participate.
Second, one of the reasons he cites for questioning the validity of Dr. Zenz’s report is that its release was “coordinated with a prominent media campaign,” which included the publication of op-ed pieces in leading newspapers and a report by a political advocacy group. In Dr. Barnett’s view, Dr. Zenz’s report is tarnished by his ties to the media and the advocacy community. But this notion that engagement with the non-academic community disqualifies a research enterprise belongs to an elitist, and highly exclusivist, model of scholarship. True, in a bygone era, academics were expected to keep the subjects of their research at a distance –– though such an approach usually led to less knowledge, not more. In today’s more inclusive and decolonized models of scholarship, which put a premium on real-world impact, dialogue between academia and advocacy is considered not only ethically desirable but also epistemically beneficial.
Finally, Dr. Barnett rebukes the Australia-based hosts of the Little Red Podcast for equating Tibet with Xinjiang in a recent episode on which I was one of the guests. “Tibet is not Xinjiang,” he repeats. I find it strange that he ignores the entire first segment of the show where we discuss the historical and political reasons why Beijing’s repression in Tibet is different from that in Xinjiang. Starting at 11:45 minutes, I go to great lengths to suggest that the current repression gap between the two regions may be largely attributed to two factors: (1) the Dalai Lama effect, which includes a highly dedicated and fairly influential global network of advocacy groups using political leverage to constrain Beijing’s behavior in Tibet, and (2) the United States’ global “war on terror” that put the Uyghurs, who are Muslims, in an exceptionally vulnerable position vis a vis China. While noting that the tactics of repression are more sophisticated and therefore less brutal in Tibet –– largely out of necessity because of the transnational network of activists monitoring China’s behavior –– none of the guests on the show equate the two regions in terms of mass abuses.
Even so, the biggest problem with Dr. Barnett’s article is not how it misrepresents the Little Red Podcast, or Dr. Sangay or Dr. Zenz, but how it normalizes repression by minimizing the scope and scale of China’s totalitarian rule in Tibet. In his rosy view, Tibetan language, culture, and religion are neither under threat nor being targeted for eradication. He insists Xi Jinping’s China is merely trying to “adapt popular understandings of Tibetan Buddhism,” not seeking to destroy it. He points out that “publications of traditional religious texts run into the thousands.” The quantity of scriptural publications, however, is a misleading metric of religious life, which is more meaningfully measured by variables such as monastic enrollment and graduation rates, the breadth and depth of the curriculum, and the doctrinal and liturgical knowledge of the Sangha, etc.
In reality, Chinese authorities strictly control and suppress monastic enrollment in Tibet, forbidding anyone below eighteen to join the cloister. Tibetan children in Lhasa, for instance, are banned from visiting the Jhokhang temple or the Potala Palace –– such bans on religious activity often do not exist on paper and are easily missed by scholars relying purely on documentary evidence. Photos of the Dalai Lama have long been banned in monasteries and homes, but now Chinese authorities are seeking to expunge him altogether from Tibetan Buddhism, which goes far beyond merely “insulting the Dalai Lama.” (To understand what Tibetan Buddhism without the Dalai Lama might actually mean, imagine the Catholic Church without the Pope.) Whereas once the monastery used to be a liminal space relatively impervious to the state, now it is a panopticon filled with surveillance cameras watching the monastics at all times. Instead of spending their day studying the scriptures, monks and nuns are forced to attend political indoctrination programs and immerse themselves in Xi Jinping thought, which can hardly be called a “popular adaptation” of what the Buddha taught.
Even more pernicious than Beijing’s attack on Buddhism is its assault on the Tibetan language, a campaign that bears all the hallmarks of a multigenerational project to render a language dead and thus eliminate a people’s identity. In a report published by Human Rights Watch, Tibetan sources on the ground describe how China’s new education policy, deceptively labeled “bilingual education,” has been replacing Tibetan with Mandarin Chinese as the medium of instruction not only in primary schools but in kindergartens across the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). What Beijing calls “bilingual education” is more accurately described by the International Tibet Network as a “cradle to grave” education system, where “new methods of 'controlling minds' have been imposed from an early age, with Tibetan toddlers increasingly being subjected to ideological education in hundreds of new and expanded kindergartens across Tibet.”
In Lhasa, for instance, parents are required to place children as young as three in these kindergartens, where the children’s mother tongue is first downgraded, then marginalized, and finally banished into irrelevance. By some estimates, around 81,000 Tibetan children above the age of 3 were “in pre-schools and kindergartens” in the TAR by 2017. According to Xinhua, this number has now grown to 150,000, and the number of kindergartens in the region has increased tenfold over the last decade to roughly 2,200. Even the pro-Beijing Global Times has reported that recent policies have “left the Tibetan language in a precarious situation,” as parents complain that “there is nowhere to study Tibetan language.”
One story that was relayed to me by a Lhasa native illuminates the micro-level mechanism by which a language, and the culture it carries, can undergo annihilation. A Tibetan toddler, after attending the “bilingual kindergarten” for a couple of months, came home one day speaking only in Chinese. Her parents were horrified when they realized that their daughter could no longer communicate with her grandparents, who spoke only Tibetan. In Tibet, as in many traditional societies, grandparents play a foundational role in shaping children’s cultural development and orienting their worldview — if children inherit genes from their parents, they inherit culture from their grandparents. Seen in this light, the vast and growing network of state-led “bilingual kindergartens,” which permanently damage the children’s relationship with their grandparents, are clearly designed to stem the intergenerational transmission of culture and fundamentally reconfigure Tibetan identity.
Much of this is underreported in the media, for the simple reason that Tibet remains an information black hole. Even North Korea, the hermetically sealed nation, has allowed the Associated Press and the Agence France-Press to establish bureaus on the ground, but there is not a single foreign reporter in Tibet. Beijing uses big-data technology of surveillance and state-of-the-art infrastructure of repression –– including the “convenience police stations” and the “double-linked households system,” innovated by Chen Quanguo during his tenure in Tibet –– to keep Tibetans, much like Uyghurs, in a general state of fear. But China’s ambition goes beyond mere physical control of its restless peripheries. Calling its ethnic unity education “an engineering project of the soul,” Xi Jinping’s China aims for nothing less than to “transform ethnic cultures and identities” as a permanent solution to what it views as the two biggest challenges to its cultural unity and political stability: Tibet and Xinjiang.
To conclude, imagine a detective who, after failing to find a gun or a knife in the house of an abusive husband, decides that his battered wife calling for help has no reason to fear for her life. When, in fact, any number of items in the house can be retooled into a deadly weapon. Dr. Barnett looks for a single fatal wound on Tibetan culture, and failing to find it, is quick to exonerate the Chinese government. Meanwhile, as China wages its multifaceted campaign to displace Tibetan language, erase Tibetan Buddhism, and relocate the nomads from the grasslands into the ghettos, Tibetans get the unmistakable feeling that their culture is undergoing death by a thousand cuts. There is no single policy that destroys a people, no single bullet that kills a culture. It is the totality of state policies and strategies whose interaction creates a complex process that ultimately chokes a culture and lowers it into its coffin, not overnight but over time.
1. Human Rights Watch, China’s “Bilingual Education” Policy in Tibet: Tibetan-Medium Schooling Under Threat (2020)
2. International Tibet Network, Shaping the Soul: China’s New Coercive Strategies in Tibet (2021)
3. Schelling, Thomas, The Strategy of Conflict (1960)
4. Zenz, Adrian and James Leibold, “Chen Quanguo: The Strongman Behind Beijing’s Securitization Strategy in Tibet and Xinjiang,” China Brief, Volume 17, Issue 12 (September 2017).
5. Human Rights Watch, “China: Tibetan Children Banned from Classes,” January 30, 2019.
6. Human Rights Watch, “China: Ban on Tibet Religious Activity Toughened,” September 11, 2019.
7. Leibold, James, “Planting the Seed: Ethnic Policy in Xi Jinping’s New Era of Cultural Nationalism,” China Brief, Volume: 19 Issue: 22 (December 31, 2019).