First Xinjiang, Now Tibet

The Chinese government is using forced labor and large-scale ’re-education’ against another ethnic minority.

Last week marked the 70th anniversary of Tibet’s annexation by the People's Republic of China. For most Tibetans, it’s a somber milestone. “The anniversary means the destruction, the illegal occupation and the violent take-over of the Tibetan people,” Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan president-in-exile, recently said.

Yet as Tibetans struggle to maintain their cultural identity, the Chinese Communist Party is renewing their efforts to reshape the province through military-style training and labor transfers.

The CCP was widely denounced over the summer for its sweeping human rights violations against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, another prominent Chinese autonomous region. Between 800,000 and 2 million people in the province have been illegally detained and put through training programs by the Chinese government since April 2017. Reports have emerged of missing family members who never resurfaced, systematic organ harvesting, and the forced sterilization of Muslim women. The massive security apparatus that made these programs possible—nominally to curb terrorism threats from Xinjiang’s Islamic population—has its origins in the CCP’s repression of Tibetans. 

And now, the model of forced labor and large-scale “re-education” that developed in Xinjiang and has since garnered considerable criticism from the West has made its way to Tibet. 

Official reports from the Tibet autonomous region reveal that more than 500,000 Tibetans, roughly 15 percent of the province’s population, received some sort of vocational and ideological instruction in 2020. The CCP then transferred 50,000 of those workers to jobs elsewhere in Tibet, and more than 3,000 elsewhere in the People’s Republic. The transformation of pastoralists and farmers into “rural surplus laborers” serves the CCP’s end goal of eradicating poverty by providing them with a measurable income, even if it’s at a detriment to their overall quality of life. Many Tibetans who undergo training go on to enter predetermined menial labor occupations such as manufacturing, mining, construction, and driving. 

Xinjiang and Tibet are both subject to the Chinese government’s most extreme iterations of its police state, facilitating the coercive recruitment of people of all ages and genders into training facilities. The sprawling security apparatus that exists in both Xinjiang and Tibet can be attributed to Chen Quanguo, who was appointed the Party Secretary of Tibet in 2011. Chen instituted a series of social-control mechanisms including grid management and the “double-linked” households system, both of which encourage Tibetans to turn on their neighbors. The grid management system aids in the party’s surveillance by subdividing neighborhoods into smaller units with designated security staff, while “double-linked” households incentivize family members to report one another. These intrusive policies serve the dual purpose of asserting control over communities and tearing at the seams of the local social fabric.

To the latter end, Beijing also engages in the systematic destruction of local cultures, religions, and family structures in Tibet. “The CCP leadership has always been afraid of religious freedom since faith is the most difficult element for governments to control,” Tibet activist Kelsang Dolma told The Dispatch. “Not to mention the CCP has long implemented policies such as the forced sterilization of Tibetans, wanton imprisonments, and coercive Tibetan women-Han men marriages, policies that were designed to halt growth of the Tibetan population and cause intergenerational trauma.” She estimates that about 98 percent of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have been destroyed since the Peoples’ Liberation Army’s 1950s invasion.

When Xi Jinping turned his sights on Xinjiang, he pursued a similarly repressive policy against religion and religious groups. “The CCP began to see Xinjiang as the bigger problem in 2014. The Uighurs launched a number of violent acts of resistance, even terrorism, whereas the Tibetans did not. This really caused the CCP to change tracks and devise a plan to very thoroughly repress the Uighurs,” said Adrian Zenz, senior research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and expert on Xinjiang and Tibet. 

For this reason, it’s not a coincidence that Chen Quanguo left Tibet to become the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang. “I suspect that Chen Quanguo moved from Tibet to Xinjiang because of stirring discontent among Uighurs in Xinjiang (East Turkestan) of CCP policies, and the CCP took that opportunity to accelerate securitization under the guise of necessary Islamophobia,” said Dolma. 

According to Zenz’s seminal report on Tibet’s coercive vocational training and its origins in Xinjiang, “diluting the negative influence of religion” is key to the implementation of large-scale labor systems. Religion, family, and connection to the land are all deeply intertwined in the traditional way of life for Tibetan people, so dismantling one necessitates the removal of the others. Now, labor transfers to different parts of Tibet—and in many cases, to different parts of China—separate workers from their wives, children, and elderly family members.

According to Zenz’s report, the CCP sees the eradication of absolute poverty as a “battlefield” that necessitates the use of harsh measures and military-style training. The “re-education” facilities are overseen by the People’s Armed Police drill sergeants and employ a military-style command structure. “Eliminating poverty was a long-term plan and the state is doing anything it can to achieve the goal. One of the main obstacles in the course was people without sufficiently high measurable incomes, especially in more remote regions where there aren’t a lot of options,” Zenz told The Dispatch. “The final ultimate justification of the Communist party’s rule is to eliminate poverty, and that is done by raising rural incomes above a certain threshold.” 

To produce rural incomes, the CCP incentivizes or coerces Tibetans to hand over their land and herds to state-run cooperatives. In return, they receive a share in those cooperatives. The party aims to “stop raising up lazy people” by transforming rural workers into laborers, ridding them of their historic lands and historic livelihoods. 

If this strategy sounds familiar, it’s because history is riddled with failed attempts by communist regimes to collectivize the economy by eradicating traditional cultures and lifestyles. This hallmark Soviet strategy inflicted lasting damage across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where many countries are still reeling from its impact 30 years after the USSR’s fall. The former Central Asian socialist republics remain some of the most impoverished countries in the world, largely due to waves of Soviet economic reorientation. One-third of Kyrgyzstan’s population remains below the poverty line. 

Xinjiang and Tibet weren’t the first regions to suffer under communist programs of collectivization, mass labor, and forced cultural unity, nor will they be the last. Dolma predicts that other areas of China are soon to follow. “We are witnessing the CCP eyeing the Mongolians in Inner Mongolia, who are rebelling against the erasure of Mongolian languages in schools. There were many Tibetans who were subservient to CCP demands, and Inner Mongolians were thought to be one of the ‘model minorities,’ but hardly anyone is spared from the CCP's forced assimilation policies,” said Dolma. “As Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan president, often says, the occupation of Tibet began with a road. The Chinese Communist Party will pretend to bring friendship through sweetly worded economic favors, but ultimately they will use those roads to send in the tanks.”

Photograph by Purbu Zhaxi/Xinhua/Getty Images.