Sinicization of Tibet

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Tibet "Peaceful Liberation" Monument, Potala Square, Lhasa in 2009 celebrating the People's Liberation Army entering Tibet

Sinicization of Tibet is a phrase used by critics of Chinese rule in Tibet to refer to the cultural assimilation which has occurred in Tibetan areas of China (including the Tibet Autonomous Region and surrounding Tibetan-designated autonomous areas) and has made these areas resemble mainstream Chinese society. The changes, evident since the incorporation of Tibet into the People's Republic of China in 1950–51, have been facilitated by a range of economic, social, cultural, religious and political reforms introduced to Tibet by the Chinese government. Critics cite the government-sponsored migration of large numbers of Han Chinese into the Tibet Autonomous Region as a major component of sinicization.

According to the government of Tibet in exile, Chinese policy has resulted in the disappearance of elements of Tibetan culture; this has been called "cultural genocide".[1][2] The government in exile says that the policies intend to make Tibet an integral part of China and control desire for Tibetan self-determination.

The Chinese government maintains that its policies have benefited Tibet, and cultural and social changes are consequences of modernization. According to the government, Tibet's economy has expanded; improved services and infrastructure have improved the quality of life of Tibetans, and the Tibetan language and culture have been protected.


Early developments[edit]

After the fall of the Qing dynasty and before 1950, the region roughly corresponding to the modern-day Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) was a de facto independent nation. It printed its own currency and postage, and maintained international relations. Tibet claimed three provinces (Amdo, Kham and Ü-Tsang), but only controlled western Kham and Ü-Tsang.[citation needed] Since 1950, China made eastern Kham part of Sichuan and western Kham part of the new Tibet Autonomous Region.[3]

During the early-20th-century Republic of China era which followed the Qing dynasty, Chinese Muslim general and Qinghai governor Ma Bufang is accused by Tibetans of implementing sinicization and Islamification policies in Tibetan areas.[4] Forced conversion and heavy taxes were reported under his rule.[5] After Mao Zedong won the Chinese civil war in 1949, his goal was the unification of the "five nationalities" as the People's Republic of China under the Communist Party of China.[6] The Tibetan government in Lhasa sent Ngabo (known as Ngabo in English sources) to Chamdo in Kham, a strategic town near the border, with orders to hold his position while reinforcements came from Lhasa to fight the Chinese.[7] On 16 October 1950, news arrived that the People's Liberation Army was advancing towards Chamdo and had taken the town of Riwoche (which could block the route to Lhasa).[8] Ngabo and his men retreated to a monastery, where the People's Liberation Army surrounded and captured them.[9] Ngabo wrote to Lhasa suggesting a peaceful surrender instead of war.[10] According to the Chinese negotiator, "It is up to you to choose whether Tibet would be liberated peacefully or by force. It is only a matter of sending a telegram to the PLA group to recommence their march to Lhasa."[11] Ngabo accepted Mao's Seventeen-Point Agreement, which stipulated that in return for Tibet becoming part of the People's Republic of China, it would be granted autonomy.[12] Lacking support from the rest of the world, in August 1951 the Dalai Lama sent a telegram to Mao accepting the agreement.[13] The delegates signed the agreement under duress, and the Tibetan's government's future was sealed.[14]

Although the incorporation of Tibet into China is known in Chinese historiography as the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama considers it a colonization[15] and the Tibetan Youth Congress agrees that it was also an invasion.[16] The Chinese government points to improvements in health and the economy as justifications for their assertion of power in what it calls a historically-Chinese region. According to the Dalai Lama, China has encouraged Han Chinese immigration into the region.[15]

Before the agreement, Tibet's economy was dominated by subsistence agriculture and the stationing of 35,000 Chinese troops during the 1950s strained the region's food supplies. When the Dalai Lama visited Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1954, Mao told him that he would move 40,000 Chinese farmers to Tibet.[17][18][19]

As part of the 1960s Great Leap Forward, Chinese authorities coerced Tibetan farmers to cultivate maize instead of barley (the region's traditional crop). The harvest failed, and thousands of Tibetans starved.[20][21]

Cultural Revolution[edit]

The Cultural Revolution, involving students and laborers of the Communist Party of China, was initiated by Mao and carried out by the Gang of Four from 1966 to 1976 to preserve Maoism as China's leading ideology. It was an intra-party struggle to eliminate political opposition to Mao.[22][23]

The Cultural Revolution affected all of China, and Tibet suffered as a result. Red Guards attacked civilians, who were accused of being traitors to communism. More than six thousand monasteries were looted and destroyed. Monks and nuns were forced to leave their monasteries to "live a normal life", with those who resisted imprisoned. Prisoners were forced to perform hard labor, tortured and executed. Although the Potala Palace was threatened, Premier Zhou Enlai intervened and restrained the Tibetan Red Guards.[24]

Recent developments[edit]

A sign (in Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese) indicating surveillance cameras near the Monument the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, Lhasa, Tibet, 2018

China's National Strategic Project to Develop the West, introduced during the 1980s after the Cultural Revolution, encourages the migration of Chinese people from other regions of China into Tibet with bonuses and favorable living conditions. People volunteer to be sent there as teachers, doctors and administrators to assist Tibet's development.[25] Citing an unqualified labour force and less-developed infrastructure, the Chinese government has encouraged migrants to stimulate competition and change Tibet from a traditional to a market economy with economic reforms set forth by Deng Xiaoping.[26]

Tibetans are the majority ethnic group in the Tibet Autonomous Region, making up about 93 percent of the population in 2008.[27][2][28] The 2008 attacks by Tibetans on Han- and Hui-owned property were reportedly due to the large Han Hui influx into Tibet.[29][30] [31]

According to George Fitzherbert, "To engage with China's arguments concerning Tibet is to be subjected to the kind of intellectual entrapment, familiar in the Palestinian conflict, whereby the dispute is corralled into questions which the plaintiff had never sought to dispute. Tibetans complain of being robbed of their dignity in their homeland by having their genuinely loved leader incessantly denounced, and of being swamped by Chinese immigration to the point of becoming a minority in their own country. But China insistently condemns such complaints as separatism, an offence in China under the crime of 'undermining national unity', and pulls the debate back to one about Tibet's historical status. Foreigners raise questions about human rights and the environment, but China again denounces this as a foreign intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, and pulls the debate back to Tibet's historical status."[32][33]

The Chinese government has attempted to develop Tibet as part of its China Western Development policy and has invested 310 billion yuan (about 45.6 billion U.S. dollars) in Tibet since 2001. In 2009 it invested over $7 billion into the region, 31 percent more than the previous year.[34] The Qinghai-Tibet Railway was completed in 2006 at a cost of $3.68 billion, leading to increased tourism from the rest of China.[35] The Shanghai government contributed $8.6 million to the construction of the Tibet Shanghai Experimental School, where 1,500 Tibetan students receive a primarily-Chinese education.[36] Some young Tibetans feel that they are Tibetan and Chinese, and are fluent in Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese.[37]


The Chinese government claims it will control how the 15th Dalai Lama will be chosen, contrary to centuries of tradition. Chinese government officials repeatedly warn "that he must reincarnate, and on their terms."[38]

When the Dalai Lama confirmed a Tibetan boy in 1995 as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-ranking leader of the Gelugpa sect, the Chinese government took away the boy and his parents and installed its own child lama. The Dalai Lama’s choice, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima's whereabouts are still unknown. The government’s selection appears at official events to praise Communist policy and is viewed as a fraud by Tibetans. The head of the Kagyu sect, the Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was also groomed by Chinese leaders, but at age 14 he fled to India in 1999. [39]

Education, employment and language[edit]

Since 1949 the Chinese government has used the minority-education system for Tibetans to acquire the Chinese language, considered a key tool of Sinicization pressure, contrary to UNESCO policy on cultural and linguistic diversity.[40] Since the early 2000s, however, there had been a process of Tibetanization of Tibetan education in Qinghai's Tibetan regions. Through grassroots initiatives by Tibetan educators, Tibetan had been somewhat available as the main language of instruction in primary, secondary and tertiary education.[41] The Tibetan language remains marginalized in government employment, with a small number of public-service positions mandating a Tibetan degree or Tibetan language skills.[42]

The Chinese Constitution guarantees autonomy in ethnic regions and says local governments should use the languages in common use. In 1987, the Tibetan Autonomous Region published more explicit regulations calling for Tibetan to be the main language in schools, government offices and shops. Those regulations were eliminated in 2002. In Tibetan areas, official affairs are conducted primarily in Chinese. It is common to see banners promoting the use of Chinese. Monasteries and schools often held classes on the written language for ordinary people, and monks gave lessons while traveling, but officials ordered monasteries and schools to end the classes.[43] The Chinese Communist Party issued orders in December 2018 forbidding informal classes taught by Tibetan monks or other unapproved groups, [44] and ordered schools to stop teaching all subjects in Tibetan, except the Tibetan language in first grade classes, in May 2019 in Golog, in Chinese, Guoluo, Tibet Autonomous Region.[45]

Tibetan entrepreneur and education advocate Tashi Wangchuk was detained for two years and then indicted in 2017 by court officials after speaking to The New York Times for a documentary video[46] and two articles on Tibetan education and culture.[47][48]

Nomadic herders resettlement[edit]

The Chinese government launched an initiative that forced the nomads[49] to relocate to urban housing in newly constructed villages in 2003.[50] At the end of 2015, in "what amounts to one of the most ambitious attempts made at social engineering, the Chinese government is in the final stages of a 15-year-old campaign to settle the millions of pastoralists who once roamed China’s vast borderlands," the Chinese government claimed it will have moved the remaining 1.2 million nomad herders into towns that provide access to schools, electricity and modern health care. This policy, based on the government view that grazing harms grasslands, has been questioned by ecologists in China and abroad claiming the scientific foundations of nomad resettlement are questionable. Anthropological studies of government-built relocation centers have documented chronic unemployment, alcoholism and the fraying of millenniums-old traditions. Human rights advocates say the many protests by herders are met with harsh crackdowns by security forces. [51][52][53]

In a 2011 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, criticized China’s nomad resettlement policies as overly coercive and said they led to “increased poverty, environmental degradation and social breakdown.”[54]

In 2017 Tibetan nomads previously forced from traditional grazing lands in a state-directed resettlement scheme in Qinghai were told to go back due to a new policy announced in 2016, so authorities could use their current homes for development as tourist centers and government employees housing. “After two years of living in the new towns, residents are now being forced to move back to their original grasslands without their animals, which are the main source of livelihood in Tibetan nomadic communities.”[55][56]

Population growth[edit]

Market in Lhasa, 1993

In 1949, there were between 300 and 400 Han-Chinese residents in Lhasa.[57] In 1950, the city covered less than three square kilometres and had around 30,000 inhabitants; the Potala Palace and the village of Zhöl below it were considered separate from the city.[58][59] In 1953, according to the first population census, Lhasa had about 30,000 residents (including 4,000 beggars, but not including 15,000 monks).[60]

In 1992 Lhasa's permanent population was estimated at a little under 140,000, including 96,431 Tibetans, 40,387 Han-Chinese, and 2,998 Chinese Muslims and others. Added to that figure were 60,000–80,000 temporary residents, primarily Tibetan pilgrims and traders.[61]


In 1989, high-profile French criminal lawyer Robert Badinter participated in an episode of Apostrophes (a well-known French television program devoted to human rights) with the Dalai Lama. Referring to the disappearance of Tibetan culture, Badinter used the phrase "cultural genocide".[62] In 1993, the Dalai Lama used the same phrase to describe the destruction of Tibetan culture.[63] During the 2008 Tibetan unrest, he accused the Chinese of cultural genocide in their crackdown.[64]

In 2008 Robert Barnett, director of the Program for Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, said that it was time for accusations of cultural genocide to be dropped: "I think we have to get over any suggestion that the Chinese are ill-intentioned or trying to wipe out Tibet."[65] Barnett voiced his doubts in a review in the New York Review of Books: "Why, if Tibetan culture within Tibet is being 'fast erased from existence', [do] so many Tibetans within Tibet still appear to have a more vigorous cultural life, with over a hundred literary magazines in Tibetan, than their exile counterparts?"[66]

See also[edit]



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  2. ^ a b Samdup, Tseten (1993) Chinese population – Threat to Tibetan identity Archived 12 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Burbu, Dawa (2001) China's Tibet Policy, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-7007-0474-3, pp 86–99
  4. ^ Woser (10 March 2011). "Three Provinces of the Snowland, Losar Tashi Delek!". Phayul. Retrieved 24 March 2011.
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  6. ^ Schaik 2011, p. 208
  7. ^ Schaik 2011, p. 209
  8. ^ Schaik 2011, p. 211
  9. ^ Schaik 2011, p. 212
  10. ^ Schaik 2011, p. 213
  11. ^ Schaik 2011, p. 214
  12. ^ Schaik 2011, p. 215
  13. ^ Schaik 2011, p. 218
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  • Schaik, Sam (2011). Tibet: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press Publications. ISBN 978-0-300-15404-7.

Further reading[edit]