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China’s Ambition to Control Tibet is Leaving Hundreds Incarcerated, Abused and Forgotten

Steve Shaw examines how the infrastructure of surveillance and abuse, now being used against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, was first developed by China to target Tibetans in order to change their identity.

China’s Ambition to Control Tibet
is Leaving Hundreds Incarcerated, Abused and Forgotten

Steve Shaw examines how the infrastructure of surveillance and abuse, now being used against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, was first developed by China to target Tibetans in order to change their identity.

“Sacred place on earth, heavenly land” is how Tibet is described in a video produced for China’s annual Tibet Tourism and Culture Expo, an event that aims to promote cultural exchanges between Tibet and other parts of the world. It portrays Tibet as a place of beauty, nature and culture; a Himalayan utopia where people live in peace and prosperity.

Those taken in by the romantic portrayal can spend their time in the capital city of Lhasa where the tourism business – which is heavily restricted – has been booming.  The website for the Lhasa Paradise Hotel, which is operated by well-known British hotel chain InterContinental, tells visitors that they will be “mesmerised” by the “majestic views” of the Lhasa River and the city’s narrow streets.

It fails to mention the thousands of Tibetans who are currently languishing in prisons and detentions centres strewn across the region’s mountainous terrain – many accused of “crimes” such as flying the Tibetan flag, showing support for the Dalai Lama or speaking in support of their culture and language.

The website also fails to mention that adjacent to the five-star luxury hotel is the Gutsa Detention Centre, which is so close that the “majestic views” may include the chance to see some of the country’s natives – bloody, broken and in shackles.


Officially, Gutsa is known as the Lhasa Public Security Bureau Detention Centre and is used as a holding facility for prisoners before they are transferred to some of the more remote prisons in the region.

It has gained a reputation for brutal interrogations, with former prisoners describing torture with electric batons, attacks by dogs and shock treatment while being hung naked from the ceiling.

The number of prisoners held at the facility is impossible to know because China has made details of the Tibetan prison system virtually impenetrable. Officially, the Chinese Government denies detaining any political prisoners. This is because it defines the type of non-violent political activity associated with political detainees as endangering the state and its security, therefore regarding them to be criminals or separatists.

In May 2018, Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced to five years in prison for the crime of “inciting separatism”. His arrest was reported internationally because his alleged crime was appearing in a short documentary for the New York Times in November 2015, in which he outlined his fears for the long-term survival of the Tibetan language and culture under Chinese rule.

If the Chinese authorities can control Tibetan Buddhism, then they can control the Tibetan identity.

Bhuchung Tsering, International Campaign for Tibet

Two months after the video was published on the newspaper’s website, he vanished.

He didn’t reappear until March 2016 after apparently being tortured by security services and charged with the crime. His lawyers argued that he had no intention to “split the country” and that he was only calling for the implementation of China’s own laws and constitution, which guarantee the protection of ethnic minority languages. This was ignored. He was held in prison for another two years before being sentenced.

An appeal against his imprisonment was thrown out, with court documents stating that the 33-year-old had “distorted the facts, attacking the state’s policies on ethnic minorities, making remarks that undermine ethnic unity and national unity”. The documents acknowledged that lawyers had been concerned that Wangchuk’s confession had been obtained through torture and there was no denial that this was the case.

The case is one of thousands in which Tibetans have been punished for trying to defend their culture and religion.

Black Sites

The start of 2020 has seen China launch a clampdown in the east of the country, following the arrest of seven protestors who took part in pro-independence protests in November.

Advocacy group Free Tibet has described eye-witness accounts of the military parading the streets carrying weapons with live ammunition. 

Thirty villagers have since been arrested after they were found to have had contact with the outside world via social media and in possession of photos of the Dalai Lama. Some were put in jail, while others were forced to spend 15 days undergoing “political re-education”. The rest of the people living in the area have been told their movements are restricted and that they are banned from speaking of the protests.

Free Tibet has spent years investigating such cases and has attempted to identify the location of the prisons across the vast country. So far, it has found evidence of at least 20 facilities. It has also found numerous examples of hotels and disused buildings being used as “black sites” – similar to those associated with the CIA’s secret detention programme as part of the US’ ‘War on Terror’. Here, Free Tibet claims that security forces are free to torture and abuse prisoners. Any confessions extracted during this time will likely be used as evidence in a trial.

“In the last few years we have become greatly concerned with the repeated patterns of enforced disappearances in Tibet,” John Jones, campaigns director at Free Tibet, told Byline Times.

“The fact that a Tibetan could be snatched from their home, their monastery or the street and effectively be made to disappear must be one of the greatest causes of distress in what is already one of the most repressive places in the world. We have focused on several prisoner cases who exemplified this cruel practice. This included Thardhod Gyaltsen, a monk arrested in his monastery and sentenced to 18 years for the ‘crime’ of being found in possession of portraits of the Dalai Lama, and Sonam Lhatso, a nun arrested over a decade ago for her part in a protest.

“In some cases, such as that of Jamyang Lodru, who was hooded and dragged into a car in 2016, we cannot even identify a motive. He was arrested and there has been no trace of him since then. A key part of this practice are the detention facilities. We have attempted to identify their locations where we can, just to do something to pierce the darkness that hangs over these prisoners.

“There also appears to be many secret detention sites, which include hidden facilities and locations that have been adapted for the purpose of holding political detainees such as hotel rooms. Tibetans are likely to be held in secret because it places them outside of China’s legal system and, as a result, there is an increased likelihood of torture and ill-treatment during interrogations sessions. The detainee will be denied legal counsel during this period too. 

“Any confessions extracted under these conditions are likely to be used as evidence during a trial. In 2012, amendments were added to the Criminal Procedure Law, outlawing the use of confessions obtained under torture as evidence in court but this practice still continues. Given that we have been unable to find an example of an individual from the police or security services being held accountable for the torture of Tibetan political prisoners, it is not entirely clear why these locations would be kept secret while regular facilities which have reputations for brutality, are known to the public.

“The likely explanation is that Beijing likes to avoid as much scrutiny as possible, and, like almost every other country, would prefer not to have a reputation for using torture to extract confessions. Extracting confessions under torture is illegal under international law and China’s Criminal Procedure Law.”

China’s Architect of ‘Stabilisation’ 

Another organisation trying to shine a light on Tibetan prisons is an NGO, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), which – through satellite imagery – has revealed that Gutsa is one of many prisons currently being expanded.

The vice president of ICT, Bhuchung Tsering, said: “From looking at satellite images we have seen that the physical boundaries of Tibetan prisons have been expanded and it is our summation that this is because the buildings at these prisons and detention centres are being expanded, but we are not sure of the exact reason for this.

“It could be an expansion of the detention areas or it could be because they are building something else – that is yet to be understood. Unless someone has direct access to these places we cannot know for sure. Very few political prisoners have come out of Tibet in recent times.”

The NGO claims that the expansions are likely to be linked to “a more systematic securitisation” of Tibet, which was ushered in under Communist Party member Chen Quanguo, who was made party secretary of Tibet between 2011 and 2016.

After he began working in the region, Quanguo ordered officials to “make sure that the Central Party’s voices and images can be heard across 120 thousand square kilometres” and that “no voices and images of enemy forces and Dalai clique can be heard and seen”.

Within months of taking control of Tibet, more than 20,000 Communist Party officials were sent to Tibetan villages and, under the euphemism of “stability maintenance”, Quanguo divided the country up using a grid system. Police stations were placed in every village and town across the region, surveillance cameras were installed and guards were put on 24-hour patrols.

Passports were also confiscated, Tibetan TVs were saturated with Communist Party propaganda, the internet became heavily monitored and censored, and households were ordered to spy on each other.

“What we can see is a new, broader Chinese policy of trying to approach the Tibetan issue,” Tsering continued. “Their policy of suppression seems to have been altered into a policy of control and Chen Quanguo’s presence in Tibet saw some very distinct moves. First was this securitisation which was the introduction of a grid management system whereby the Tibetan people are monitored in small grid-like circles allowing every movement to be monitored and controlled.

“Secondly, they tried to wean Tibetan people away from religion, spiritualism and culture. That can be seen particularly in the standardisation of Buddhism. Buddhism is still in Tibet but China wants it to be of a Chinese identity and not of Tibetan. This has ramifications because Tibetan Buddhism has a deep relationship with the Tibetan identity and, if the Chinese authorities can control Tibetan Buddhism, then they can control the Tibetan identity.”

Quanguo’s methods were so successful that, once his policies were in place, Beijing moved him to another of China’s troubled territories named Xinjiang.

Hope from America

It took Chen Quanguo just two years to recreate the extreme police state of Tibet, using similar methods to imprison and suppress any dissent, for the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang.

A series of rare leaks from within the Chinese Government have now revealed that he then oversaw the creation of ‘re-education’ camps where, according to the UN, more than a million people are being arbitrarily detained. The aim of the camps is to eliminate what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called “unhealthy thoughts”. 

Internal documents also show that it was Quanguo who issued a sweeping order to “round up everyone who should be rounded up”. He also purged any official who raised concerns about how the camps could inflame ethnic tensions. Beijing hasn’t denied the existence of the camps but calls them vocational training centres that have helped contain religious extremism and the unrest which had broken out in the region in 2007.

As the world continues to try and hold China accountable for the detention centres in Xinjiang and police brutality against pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, the people of Tibet have been largely forgotten and few governments are willing to stand up to Beijing on the issue.

Perhaps the starkest example of this came in 2015 when, during a state visit by Xi Jinping to the UK, peaceful Tibetan protesters faced arrest by British police for simply displaying Tibetan flags – treatment they would have expected in their home country, not in a country that claims to defend human rights.

But the US has taken steps towards standing up for the Himalayan nation and a new bill could soon be introduced called the Tibetan Policy and Support Act which would restrict China from opening new consulates in America if it continues to prevent the US from opening open one in Lhasa. The bill, which is yet to be voted on in Congress, could also lead to sanctions being levelled against Chinese officials who attempt to pick the Dalai Lama’s successor.

“The human rights situation in Tibet has sadly and tragically worsened,” said one US senator during a hearing. “The polices of the Chinese Government have severely degraded Tibetan religion and culture, language, livelihood and the natural environment. The fate of Tibet, its people, resources and religions are a strategic interest to the United States. Above all they are entitled to freedom and they are entitled to democracy.”

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