How do Tibetans in Tibet maintain their cultural identity in the current repressive climate? How is information about Tibet’s situation disseminated to the world? How do exiles stay in touch with their families and homeland? Where can we find optimism for the future of Tibet and its people? The CDT has initiated this series of interviews to delve into these inquiries and gain a better understanding of the current state in Tibet, efforts to safeguard its religious and cultural legacy, and the crucial work being done by activists, writers, researchers, and others to aid and stand by Tibetans both within and outside the region. Take a look at past interviews in this series.
In March 2008, Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan began protesting in the streets for religious freedom and an end to oppressive political and social controls and economic inequalities. The People’s Armed Police responded with force, arresting thousands. The Chinese government expelled foreign journalists from the TAR, imposed strict restrictions on monasteries, blocked access to YouTube and foreign news sites, and closed the border with Nepal, a major route for refugees. These restrictions have remained in place for 15 years. Since 2009, at least 155 Tibetans have engaged in self-immolation as a desperate form of protest. (For more information on the 2008 uprising and subsequent crackdown, refer to reports from Human Rights Watch and the Central Tibet Administration.)
Upon coming into power in 2012, Xi Jinping intensified a policy of Sinicization and assimilation, where the histories, religions, and cultures of ethnic minority groups are absorbed into the overarching Chinese narrative. In Tibet, this is accompanied by heavy securitization and widespread surveillance. Family members of those who resist authorities are penalized. Any actions that assert Tibetan identity are viewed as political. Local schools have been replaced with boarding schools that aim to colonize, resulting in at least 80% of Tibetan children being separated from their families, language, and culture. Additionally, a targeted campaign of censorship and propaganda has aimed to eradicate Tibetan identity and advocacy from global awareness. According to Freedom House, Tibet is currently ranked as the least free region in the world.
“Lhadon Tethong is a founder and leader of Tibet Action Institute, an organization that utilizes technology to promote the cause of Tibetan independence. Prior to this role, she was the head of Students for a Free Tibet. During the preparations for the 2008 Olympics, she was arrested and expelled from China for her efforts to bring attention to China’s control over Tibet. In 2011, she received the inaugural James Lawson Award for Nonviolent Achievement from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.”
In 2021, the Tibet Action Institute released a report that brought attention to the practice of colonial boarding schools, where approximately 80% of Tibetan children between the ages of 6 and 18 are currently residing. The report also revealed the existence of hidden preschool boarding schools for younger children. This is the first part of an interview, with the second part focusing on the boarding schools to be published in the near future.
In response to the 2008 uprising in Tibetan regions, did you establish the Tibet Action Institute?
Lhadon Tethong:Yes, I was a co-founder of the organization. It was a result of the efforts of Students for a Free Tibet and our group of dedicated activists, which included both Tibetans and non-Tibetans. We had been collaborating for years before 2008, when significant events like the uprising in Tibet and the Beijing Olympics took place. This created a new environment for our work, and it was the perfect opportunity to reevaluate our strategies and find ways to both defend and attack in the future. We utilized information and communication technologies, which had become more accessible in Tibet, to stay informed about the situation and assist Tibetans inside the country in their organizing efforts. The digital landscape was vastly different, and we also made it a priority to educate others on how to safely utilize these tools, especially with the Chinese government also using them against us.
It was evident that a fresh cohort emerged and echoed the same sentiment that Tibetans have been expressing since the arrival of China, which is “China should leave Tibet.” This cohort consisted of Tibetans who grew up entirely under the rule of the Communist Party in Tibet and have no recollection of an autonomous Tibet. The protests and demonstrations that took place in central and eastern Tibet in 2008 demonstrated that strategic nonviolent resistance and other methods are viable for achieving change in Tibet – the spirit of resistance and longing for independence remained steadfast, even in the younger generation.
Can you describe the current state of surveillance and internet regulation in China and Tibet, specifically for the average Tibetan individual? For instance, if someone who is not an activist or dissident, but a regular person, owns an iPhone and wishes to use it to connect with their family in Tibet or abroad, or access news sources, what would their experience be like when they use their phone?
The main point is that everyone is aware of being monitored. Some individuals who possess iPhones from other countries may have a slightly better chance of avoiding surveillance, but overall, cameras are present everywhere, even in remote areas such as villages and monasteries. This means that nearly everyone is now required to be a part of the system, as their personal information is linked to their phone and bank accounts. For many Tibetans, this has drastically changed their way of life from a rural, nomadic existence to a highly regulated state-controlled one. It is no longer possible to avoid compulsory education, and even nomadic families must keep their children with them. Many have been forcefully relocated and placed in government housing, making it easier for authorities to monitor their movements and ensure compliance with state regulations. With the widespread use of cell phones and participation in modern Chinese society, it is becoming increasingly difficult to live a traditional Tibetan life. As an example, an acquaintance of mine recently shared that his mother passed away at the age of 80 without ever using Chinese currency while living in a traditional Tibetan village.
In recent years, we have witnessed a tightening grip of the state over monasteries, compulsory education, and the settlement of nomads. This has resulted in individuals being under the control of the state in various ways. For example, it is impossible to resist sending your child to school due to the lack of local schools. Even if you do not want to comply, there is a threat of losing social welfare benefits or your child being unable to receive further education in the future. Everyone is assigned a number and their actions are monitored, leaving the average person with no choice but to follow the rules.
How can Tibetans who desire to express themselves and obtain restricted information find ways to bypass these constraints?
Reworded: In the current political climate, individuals who are more skilled, knowledgeable, and well-connected are turning to VPNs to access blocked services. They also take advantage of new tools until they are no longer available. However, in more remote areas such as monasteries or nomadic communities, people still gather to share information that may have been acquired through unconventional means. Due to the geographical nature of Tibet, they are able to download content onto their phones and watch it offline with others. However, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, it has become increasingly difficult to engage in such activities. People are now very cautious about discussing sensitive topics online or on their phones, as anything can be deemed political. This is due to network surveillance, spyware, and targeted monitoring of individuals. Even if one is not directly involved in political activities, simply discussing the Dalai Lama can be seen as a violation. This fear of being caught has led to self-censorship among Tibetans, who used to communicate in coded language or engage in activities that were not of interest to the authorities. Now, the focus is on punishing not just the organizers of resistance, but anyone who deviates from approved topics. This has created a climate of collective punishment, where even a single individual’s actions can have repercussions for their entire family or community. As a result, many people are too afraid to take any action at all.
Can you explain how Tibetans in Tibet are maintaining their cultural identity and heritage under the Sinicization policy promoted by Xi Jinping?
Reworded: Despite restrictions, people continue to prioritize religious practices and gatherings, making an effort to bring as many family members as possible to observe Buddhist traditions. A recent example involved the fake Panchen Lama in Tibet, where Tibetans were compelled to pay their respects. However, some chose to attend slowly in protest, similar to stories of resistance against Hitler during World War II. There are also inspiring stories of Tibetans establishing underground schools and illiterate elders learning to read and write Tibetan.
Since 2008, there has been a significant movement to reclaim and reaffirm Tibetan culture, particularly in terms of language. This movement is still ongoing, although it has become more challenging due to increased caution in openly expressing cultural practices. Dr. Gyal Lo emphasizes the importance of preserving Tibetan identity and traditions, which serve as the core of the community. In light of the limitations on being in urban areas or visiting monasteries, families must find alternative ways to educate their children and instill cultural values. Some parents choose to relocate to urban centers, while others send their children to live with relatives in areas where Tibetan education is still possible. However, these options are becoming increasingly limited.
Is there any collaboration between Tibetan activists and other ethnic groups, such as Uyghurs or Mongolians, particularly within the diaspora?
Reworded: The growth of allied activist campaigns and organizations has been truly remarkable. This growth was particularly evident during the Olympics, when Tibetans, Chinese dissidents, and Uyghurs came together in larger numbers than before. Now, there is a diverse presence of groups, including Students for a Free Tibet, who are actively organizing cross-movement training camps and involving young Uyghurs and Hong Kongers. In the previous Winter Olympics, a Hong Konger, a Tibetan, and someone else hung a banner in Greece during the torch lighting ceremony. This collaboration and understanding of our interconnected fates is a message that I always convey to decision-makers. It is important to see that the plight of the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Hong Kongers are not isolated issues but part of a larger crackdown on all people and their rights and freedoms in China and its territories.
Tibetans used to be a tragic story, but there was always hope in the presence of civil society, the actions of China, Greenpeace, Canada’s training of judges, and the belief in not engaging in conflict or discussing independence in order to achieve genuine autonomy in the future. However, the current situation is a lesson for us to recognize the reality of the fall of Hong Kong and the threat to Taiwan. The people still hold hope, but it is the government and Xi Jinping’s hardline Communist Party that need to be challenged in every possible way. This challenge does not necessarily mean resorting to war, as many fear, but rather using other methods that have been neglected for too long. Our contribution to creating this issue, along with Western corporate interests and the international community’s tendency to view Tibet as an outlier, has led us to where we are now.
We must collaborate and governments should also collaborate. There is increasing collaboration, which allows us to all have a better understanding. Despite the lack of acknowledgement, I am still filled with hope. Tibetans in Tibet continue to resist and the Uyghurs are doing everything they can to resist, while the international community has shown support for their cause. However, there is still much work to be done. Personally, seeing Chinese students discussing the Uyghur situation during COVID lockdowns through the White Paper Revolution was unbelievable. My friends also shared their experiences of attending a protest at school organized by a group of 10 Chinese students, but to their surprise, 300 students were present. This shift in perspective and awareness of suffering under the current Chinese leadership is encouraging. We must make the most of any progress and find ways to collaborate. I am optimistic about this change.
How can CDT and our readers support Tibet?
Unfortunately, Tibet has been neglected by the international community. However, we are now bringing attention to the alarming situation of the boarding schools. This issue serves as a perfect example of the many problems faced by Tibet, such as cultural preservation, identity, and religious persecution. It is important for people to spread awareness and share information about the current situation in Tibet.
Those familiar with the state of Tibet are aware of its unfortunate state and the injustice it is facing. However, there is a younger generation of Americans and individuals outside of the region who are not knowledgeable about Tibet. By disseminating information and communicating with those in positions of power, we can bring attention back to Tibet, which China has tried to suppress. This is the least we can do.
The Chinese government is conducting propaganda by interviewing Tibetans and asking if they feel their language is valued. Although the responses may not be negative due to the nature of propaganda, Dr. Gyal Lo reminds us that this message still has a positive impact on the people by showing that the international community cares about the Tibetan language and supports its promotion. This can give them courage to continue fighting for their language. Even though the Chinese government may be creating propaganda to discredit us, our actions still send a message that we are still here and fighting to preserve the Tibetan language. This can have a significant impact, as even the Chinese government may be influenced to change their policies to prove us wrong and allow for more Tibetan content and education. We must continue to do our part in supporting the preservation of the Tibetan language.
Keep an eye out for the second installment of our conversation with Lhadon Tethong on CDT.