Last Updated: Friday, 25 July 2014, 12:52 GMT

Assessment for Tibetans in China

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Tibetans in China, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 28 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
China Facts
Area:    9,596,560 sq. km.
Capital:    Beijing
Total Population:    1,237,000,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Although the Tibetans have strong transnational support from various countries, and the lack of serious armed conflicts in neighboring countries may contribute to the avoidance of rebellion, the orientation of future Tibetan rebellion varies. The factors suggesting future rebellion include 1) a territorial concentration, 2) a high level of group organization and cohesion of the Tibetans. In addition, the high likelihood of rebellion remains if China 1) continues its cultural and religious restrictions, 2) refuses to have direct communication with the Dalai Lama, 3) insists on declining the Dalai Lama's request of regional autonomy, despite its economic development in Tibet.

In comparison to many ethnopolitical groups, the Tibetans continue to attract the attention of Western governments and various non-governmental organizations. Organizations such as the European Parliament regularly pass resolutions condemning China's human rights practices in Tibet. However, no country to date has challenged Beijing's claim that Tibet is a part of China. The unique role of the Dalai Lama is perhaps the major reason for Tibet's international exposure. His spiritual, non-violent approach and frequent travels around the world have not only generated much interest in Tibetan Buddhism but they also serve to maintain attention to the status of the Tibetans and Chinese practices in the region.

Analytic Summary

Since 127 B.C. (TRADITN = 1) Tibetans have inhabited the Plateau of Tibet, with the Himalayas to the south and the Kunluns to the north. Today half of the Tibetans in China reside in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and the rest live in the neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan (GROUPCON = 2). The Tibet empire reached its zenith between the 7th and the 10th century and fell during the period between 824 and 1247. Tibetans developed a unique culture and social structure dominated by a feudal theocracy of Buddhist Lamas and led by a spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama (BELIEF = 3). Tibetans experienced intervention by the Mongols in 1207, the Manchus in 1720, the Gorkhas and British in the 19th century, and finally the invasion of the People's Republic of China in 1950.

Under Chinese rule, the Tibetans are subjected to political, religious, and cultural repression. The repression began in the 1950s when various oppressive campaigns were brought against the Tibetans. In 1951, the Tibetans were forced to sign the 17-Point Agreement with Beijing, promising cultural and political autonomy but abdicating their independence. The Chinese destroyed monasteries and imposed collectivization, attempting to transform Tibet's feudal society into a communist society. In 1955, "democratic reforms" were launched by the Chinese in Amdo and Kham when nomads were tentatively settled in both areas.

The Tibetan resistance movement began in 1957. Protests and rebellion, clashes between civilians and Chinese troops took place, as well as attacks on Chinese cadres, officials, garrisons, work places, and Tibetan officials believed to be pro-Chinese. The authorities responded by besieging and bombing monasteries holding rebels and refugees. In 1959 the Chinese established a military government to intensify the "democratic reforms." More monasteries were destroyed, while hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were imprisoned, executed, or sent to labor camps. When the Chinese started to shell his residence in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama and more than 50,000 supporters fled to India and set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala.

During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, 98% of Buddhist monasteries and religious symbols were systematically destroyed, and any display of Tibetan culture was prohibited. Policies were excessively oppressive. When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, the Chinese conceded "past mistakes in Tibet", however blamed them on the Cultural Revolution. In the post-Cultural Revolution thaw Tibet was more open to the world. Some liberal reform programs permitted private trade and public manifestations of Tibetan culture, following Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang's visit to Tibet in May 1980. A major Tibet Work Conference was convened in Beijing by the Communist party in the early 1980s. The Chinese attempted to boost Tibet's economy by encouraging tourism and the resettlement of large numbers of Hans in Central Tibet. The settlement of Hans in Tibet entailed the emergence of a small but growing group of cooperative Tibetans, for its implementation was interpreted by many Tibetans as the marginalization, sinification and assimilation of the community. The Hans worked as agriculturalists and miners but they also held important professional and technical positions. The Tibetan government-in-exile asserted that the Hans have been the primary beneficiaries from the economic developments. Today the Tibetans experience certain demographic stress due to their migration to other countries for political reasons and the competition with other groups for settlement (DEMSTR99-03 = 4).

Although there are religious sects and political divisions, the Tibetans remain a strongly cohesive group (COHESX9 = 5), organized under the leadership of the Dalai Lama. Political negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama resumed after the Cultural Revolution, which was Beijing's external strategy in contrast to its internal economic strategy in dealing with the Tibet question. Beginning in 1978, a series of informal talks were held in Hong Kong between Beijing and Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's elder brother. In 1979 the Dalai Lama was first invited back to Tibet from exile by Deng Xiaoping. The Dalai Lama sent a fact-finding mission back to Tibet and encountered massive demonstrations calling for independence and the return of the Dalai Lama. In 1982 the Dalai Lama sent another delegation to negotiate with Beijing. Both the second Tibet Work Conference and the second meeting between Beijing and the Tibetan delegation took place in 1984. The Dalai Lama initiated a series of international campaigns beginning in 1986. A five-point proposal was presented by the Dalai Lama at his speech at the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus in September 1987, revealing China's illegal and relentless occupation of Tibet. In 1988, China claimed that the Dalai Lama was welcome to reside in Tibet (instead of Beijing) on the condition that he renounced pursuing independence. The Dalai Lama responded by proposing the Strasbourg Proposal at the European Parliament, offering the Chinese control of Tibetan foreign policy and defense in return for full internal autonomy, which deviated greatly from the Dalai Lama's original stance of full independence of Tibet.

Despite efforts of political accommodations, no significant consequences have been achieved. Negotiations failed and insurrections persisted in Tibet. On the political ground, Beijing is unwilling to devolve regional power to the Tibetans. A full autonomy of the region is perceived as indirect independence in the eyes of China.

The main grievance for the Tibetans regards not only the autonomy of the group, but the liberalization of restrictions on religious practices and preservation of their culture. China's internal reform strategies have not halted riots in Tibetan society. Throughout the 1980s strong calls for independence remained. Hundreds were shot dead and thousands arrested and imprisoned. Despite remedial relief in the early 1980s, in March 1989 martial law was declared following a large demonstration in the capital city of Lhasa, foreign tourists, journalists and diplomats were expelled. The martial law was lifted in May 1990, but restrictions on foreigners and small demonstrations continued. Conditions, however, further deteriorated in 1994, when Tibetans began resisting against a new series of restrictions on the practice of cultural and religious life. Restrictions included the display of photographs of the Dalai Lama except inside temples, limitation of the numbers of monks in each temple, elimination of the Tibetan tradition of polyandry, banning of Tibetan language schools and the use of Tibetan language in postsecondary institutions, and others. In addition, various unverified reports show massive human right violations such as torture, forced labor, killings of political prisoners in jails. The number of political prisoners, among whom many nuns and monks, has doubled since the mid-1990s. From 1994 onward, China has increased its political and military control of the Himalayan region. Special army units, in addition to regular Chinese forces, are now in place in Tibet and work teams have been stationed in key monasteries. The number of political prisoners in custody has steadily risen, with some 600 reported to be in jails as of 1998. Officials note periodic confiscations of weapons and explosives. In June 1999, the private ownership of knives, guns, and explosives was banned in Lhasa, reportedly to avoid them falling into "terrorist" hands.

In 1994 Beijing also controversially handpicked Urgyen Trinley as the successor of the Dalai Lama. In 1995 the Chinese government arrested the 5-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was announced as his own successor by the Dalai Lama, resulting the youngest prisoner in the world. Trinley, however, had already fled to Dharamsala in January 2000. His arrival in India did not only shock Beijing but also intensified the feud between his Karma Kagyu sect and Dalai Lama's Geluk sect. (Asiaweek, Oct. 20, 2000)

Since the early 1990s, there has been an escalation in both the campaign for Tibetan autonomy and/or independence and the Chinese government's efforts to repress Tibetan aspirations. Since 1996 there have been periodic bomb blasts in Lhasa and other areas along with violent resistence by monks and Tibetan political prisoners. The April 1998 death of a Tibetan activist by self-immolation in New Delhi, the first since the Chinese takeover in 1951, has been referred to as a watershed in the nonviolent struggle by the 13,000 member Tibetan Youth Congress. The TYC, the largest political organization representing the exiles, advocates an armed struggle for independence for the TAR and Tibetan regions in neighboring provinces. From 1999 on, there have been sporadic protests by civilians and monks but no major rebellions (PROT99-03 = 3, REB99-03 = 0).


Far Eastern Economic Review, 1990-97.

Human Rights Watch. Various reports. 2001-2003.

International Alert, Tibet: An International Consultation, (London: International Alert, 6-8 July 1990).

Keesings Record of World Events, 1990-93.

Mackerras, Colin, China's Minorities: Integration and Modernization in the Twentieth Century, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Lexis-Nexis news reports. 1990-2003.

Minorities at Risk, Phase I, overview compiled by Monty G. Marshall, 07/89.

Radin, Michele L., "The Right to Development as a Mechanism for Group Autonomy: Protection of Tibetan Cultural Rights", Washington Law Review, Vol. 68:695, 1993.

World Refugee Survey 1993

Search Refworld