The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) strongly rejects the false accusations made by the so-called “People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region” on the landmark Tibetan Policy and Support Act 2020 of the United States government.
Days after the United States government enacted the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, China’s state media reported that this rubber-stamp body “expressed its strong indignation and firm opposition to the passing of the US act on Tibet”. The “People’s Congress” alleges that the Tibet bill “grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs and gravely violates the fundamental principles of international laws and basic norms governing international relations” and “maliciously distorts Tibet’s social development, makes groundless accusations, denigrates China’s ethnic and religious policies, and interferes in the normal reincarnation procedure of living Buddhas under the pretext of human rights and religion”.
Forefronting “People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region” to condemn TPSA 2020 is nothing but a frail attempt to represent the voice of the people as is practised in a true democracy which in the case of China is widely known to be farcical. It is a common fact that the Tibetan people have no meaningful participation in the deliberations of “People’s Congress of TAR” or its decision making. On the contrary, Tibetans are afforded such positions only to rubber-stamp Communist Party decisions.
Secondly, the Tibetan Support and Policy Act of 2020, which is a major revision encompassing substantive issues of Tibet to the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002, addresses the urgent, deteriorating human rights, religious freedom, and environmental and other challenges faced by the Tibetan people inside Tibet. The deteriorating human rights situation in Tibet amounts to cultural genocide and suppression of rights under the guise of developmental policies such as urbanisation, economic and environmental development, and the politicisation of the sacred traditional system of the reincarnation of religious leaders, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama. These exacerbated conditions in Tibet and China’s failure to solve the fundamental problem facing its illegal occupation of Tibet in over more than 60 years have compelled the enactment of the Tibetan Policy and Support Act. Just to set the record straight, it is important to iterate here that Tibet historically was never a part of China and remained an independent nation until the invasion by troops of the People’s Liberation Army of China in 1949/50. There can be no argument that on the eve of China’s military invasion, which started at the close of 1949, Tibet possessed all the attributes of independent statehood recognised under international law: a defined territory, a population inhabiting that territory, a government, and the ability to enter into international relations. The Chinese military takeover constituted aggression against a sovereign state and a violation of international law. Today’s continued occupation of Tibet by the PRC government, with the help of several hundred thousand troops, violates international law and the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people.
As such, China’s attempt to discount the importance and purpose of the US act fails to convince the international community and more importantly the Tibetans inside Tibet who continue to remain the direct victims of China’s iron-clad rule. If anything, China’s own atrocious track record in trampling upon the human rights of the Tibetan people, the increasing attempts to undermine the Tibetan religious freedom and the appalling state of language rights is a testament to its misrule in Tibet. This naturally invalidates its own arguments.
The TPSA simply demands that the Chinese Communist Party act as every other responsible ruling regime, that is to address problems faced by its people and respect fundamental freedoms, human dignity, religious freedom for every one of their citizens. Moreover, through the enactment of the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, the US has made a global statement that the international community will not accept China’s interference in the selection of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s succession and will oppose China’s human rights abuses in Tibet for as long as they continue.
In view of this, it is in China’s own interest to accept the Middle Way Approach envisioned by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and adopted by the CTA as the official policy towards restoring freedom for Tibetans in Tibet. Through dialogue, the MWA seeks to achieve a coexistence between the Tibetan and Chinese people where Tibetans enjoy genuine self-rule within the constitutional framework of the PRC and are able to restore and preserve the unique Tibetan language and cultural heritage as well their once-pristine environment. There is a growing chorus of support from all corners of the world for the nonviolent and solution-oriented approach of the Tibetan people and their legitimate rights to chart their own future and to pursue their aspirations. With the inclusion of the Middle Way Approach in the TPSA, the US has set an important precedent for other countries to address the Tibetan people’s struggle for freedom.
The historical truth and current reality of Tibet cannot and will not be distracted by the cacophony of Chinese propaganda and political machinations. In light of the urgent need to preserve the Tibetan culture, heritage and identity, we remain committed to combating these disinformation efforts with facts and truths.
We felt it necessary to address these issues in a concise report shedding light on the traditional origins of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation system, the rampant human rights violations in Tibet and the ongoing destruction of Tibet’s ecology. The ongoing global pandemic has exposed that China’s restriction on free flow of information and lack of transparency is not a mere “internal matter”, but has consequences of global magnitude.
This report serves as a reminder, once again, to the PRC government that the CTA will continue to speak truth on behalf of the Tibetans inside Tibet whose voices remain muzzled by its repression.
The Chinese government’s so-called People’s Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s (TAR) recent claim over Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation system, particularly on the selection of the next Dalai Lama, is completely baseless and condemnable. The onus of selecting Tibetan Buddhist Tulkus, including the next Dalai Lama rests solely on the Tibetan Buddhist people and institutions. No other government or entity, least of all the Chinese Communist Government, can claim to determine or interfere in the selection process of the next Dalai Lama or any other Tibetan Buddhist Tulkus. This sacred and unique Tibetan Buddhist tradition should be carried forward based solely on the centuries-old spiritual tradition of the Tibetan people, as it has been since its inception.
The PRC government bases its claims on the Tibetan reincarnation system on the rare political interference of the Qing emperors in the selection of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations. However, this claim belies historical reality. The reincarnation system is a centuries old Tibetan tradition that has existed in Tibet since the Second Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism was recognised as the reincarnation of Karmapa Du-sum Khenpa in the 13th century. The role of the Qing in the selection process as claimed by the PRC is highly exaggerated. The Golden Urn system (Ser-bum) was imposed on the Tibetans by the Qing in the late 18th century. Since it lacks Buddhist spiritual quality, it was never accepted by the Tibetans in reality.
The PRC government’s repeated insistence on interfering in the Tibetan reincarnation system is not only irrelevant but also without historical basis. Its claims over the reincarnation system is politically-motivated to provide a pretext for controlling the selection of spiritual leaders of Tibetan Buddhism and to appropriate their legitimacy in traditional Tibetan society. As a self-proclaimed atheist and materialist regime, it has no justifiable reason to interfere in the Tibetan reincarnation system.
The PRC government has destroyed almost 90 percent of more than 6,000 Tibetan monasteries and has forced to disrobe thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. It also refuses to allow Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to function in traditional ways by instituting state-sanctioned “Monastery Management Committees”. Regulations such as the infamous “Order no. 5” which requires reincarnated lamas to be registered and certified by the Chinese government is one such attempt by the Chinese government to coerce Tibetan Buddhist Tulkus to achieve their political goals. It is a clear indication of China systematically undermining Tibet’s age-old culture and traditions to sinicise Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture.
Regarding the next Dalai Lama, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama himself has stated clearly in a promulgation made in September 2011 that the Chinese government has no right to meddle in the reincarnation system.
“It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Such brazen meddling contradicts their own political ideology and reveals their double standards. Should this situation continue in the future, it will be impossible for Tibetans and those who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to acknowledge or accept it,” His Holiness has said.
His Holiness has instead clarified that high lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, will decide whether the Dalai Lama institution should continue or not.
“When I am about ninety I will consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not. On that basis we will take a decision. If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue and there is a need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognised, responsibility for doing so will primarily rest on the concerned officers of the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust. They should consult the various heads of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the reliable oath-bound Dharma Protectors who are linked inseparably to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. They should seek advice and direction from these concerned beings and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with past tradition. I shall leave clear written instructions about this. Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognised through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China.”
After China’s invasion of Tibet, almost all of Tibet’s spiritual leaders including Bon religion came to exile following His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Over the years, the spiritual heads hold regular conferences to discuss the state of Tibetan religion inside and outside Tibet. Successive conferences of the Tibetan spiritual heads have unanimously rejected the Chinese government’s interference in the selection of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations. In the last conference of Tibetan spiritual heads in 2019, the spiritual heads of all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon have unanimously passed a resolution stating:
“The authority of decision concerning the way and the manner in which the next reincarnation of the XIV Dalai Lama should appear solely rests with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama himself. No government or otherwise will have such authority. If the Government of the People’s Republic of China for political ends chooses a candidate for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan people will not recognise and respect that candidate.”
The Conference of the Tibetan Spiritual Heads also passed resolutions stating:
“this Special General Meeting prays with a single-minded devotion, and in a single voice, that for as long as sentient beings remain extant on the Snowland of Tibet, the lineage of successive reincarnations of His Holiness the Dalai Lama may continue with imperativeness for the sake of the dharma and the sentient beings of this land.”
“That this Special General Meeting is of the position that with regard to the process for the discovery and recognition of the reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the entire task and power lies in His Holiness Himself and the duly empowered responsible officials of the Gaden Phodrang Trust of the Dalai Lama and in no way in any other entity, be it any nation, any government, any organisation of whatever description, or any private individual.”
“That this Special General Meeting is resolute in rejecting outright the efforts made and still being made by the government of China in the process for the discovery and recognition of reincarnations in Tibetan Buddhism in general and especially its coercive Order No. 5 declared in 2007 on the question of the recognition of reincarnations of tulkus and lamas in Tibetan Buddhism through which it sought to plot its interference in the recognition of the reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and this resolution has been unanimously so adopted.”
The statements of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan spiritual heads indicate that China has no role in the selection of the next Dalai Lama or the Tibetan reincarnation system. The only reason that a self-proclaimed atheist government is interested in the Tibetan reincarnation system is because of the fact that the Chinese government knows that it cannot rule Tibet without the legitimising influence of the Dalai Lama over the Tibetan people. Their claims over the Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation system is purely motivated by political ambitions. It knows that to effectively control the heart of Tibet and the soul of its people, it needs to occupy and colonise the Tibetan people’s spiritual realm in addition to its control of territorial Tibet. By making a claim on Tibetan spiritual authority, China is trying to wrest control over the soul of Tibet. Therefore, the recent Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA) made into law by the United States which bars the interference of the Chinese government in the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders is an early indication of how the world would react to China’s interference in the spiritual tradition of Tibet. The law is a timely reminder that the spiritual authority over Tibetan Buddhist traditions including the Tibetan reincarnation system lies solely with the Tibetan people and not the Chinese government.
China’s claims of Tibetans enjoying social and economic progress is not supported by facts. As a matter of fact, the prevailing situation inside Tibet is one of ever-increasing repression where freedom of religion, expression and other fundamental human rights are increasingly threatened. This is evident from the continuing crackdown in Tibet, and more recently the 155 known self-immolation protests by Tibetans in Tibet.
The constant assertion of its Sinicisation policy in every aspect of Tibetans’ lives in Tibet has aggravated the human rights violations. In fact, all that China has been doing in the last several decades is attempting accelerated Sinicisation of Tibet, be it Tibet’s religion and religious traditions – most evidently the system of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation – language, culture, environment, and even marriages.
B.1 Freedom of Religion
The Chinese constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion and prohibits any discrimination based on one’s religion. However, such rights exist only on paper as the ground reality showcases the actual opposite in Tibet. Like many other fundamental human rights, the Tibetan people are not only deprived of religious rights but are persecuted for exercising their freedom of religion and beliefs, religious practices, observation of religious festivities and customs.
The Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism has been a top priority and rule by controlling the reincarnation system serves as a master plan for China. The Chinese government’s assertion of its role in the recognition of the Eleventh Panchen Lama more than 25 years ago attests to this political ambition. More recently, passing regulations on “ethnic unity” requiring religious institutes to “persevere on the path of sinicising religion” and criminalising expression with sanctions for those who have “irresolute stances and attitudes on the fight against separatism”.
B.2 The Continued Enforced Disappearance of the Eleventh Panchen Lama
When Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was recognised as the Eleventh Panchen Lama at the age of six, he and his entire family were abducted by the Chinese government on 17 May 1995. Chadrel Rinpoche, the head of the Search Committee appointed by the Chinese authorities, was also detained, and his fate remains unknown. This year marks the 26th year of enforced disappearances of Tibet’s Eleventh Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, his family members and Chadrel Rinpoche. The United Nations’ human rights experts and government officials have repeatedly called on China over the years to reveal the whereabouts of Panchen Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, but have only received non-committal responses. On several occasions, including at the United Nations, China has made tacit admissions. For instance in a statement given by Baima Wangdui, representative of “TAR” delegation at a hearing held on 8 May 2018 at the Canadian Parliament’s Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, said, “he and his family members do not want to be interrupted by an external environment.” For more than 25 years, Tibetans, their supporters, and international human rights groups, including the UN Committee Against Torture, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Working Group on Enforced Disappearance, have called for information on the Panchen Lama’s wellbeing and whereabouts but no verifiable response has been provided. The Panchen Lama remains one of the world’s longest-serving political prisoners.
More recently, five UN independent experts issued a joint letter in June 2020, expressing concern over “the continued enforced disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, and the regulation of reincarnation of Tibetan living Buddha against the religious traditions and practices of the Tibetan Buddhist”. The UN experts demanded China to “provide prompt and detailed information” on Panchen Lama while endorsing “to allow an independent monitor to visit him to confirm his whereabouts and the extent to which he is able to enjoy and exercise his rights.”
The Chinese authorities’ direct interference in the management of Tibetan monasteries and nunneries through “Monastery Management Committees” have further intensified China’s control over the monks and nuns’ daily routine and religious practices, as well as its suppression of their freedom of movement, privacy and security among others.
The demolition of the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institutes such as the famous Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, while forcefully evicting thousands of practitioners and putting them in internment camps to undergo “political re-education” are stark violations of religious freedom. A case of a suicide of a nun who was evicted in May 2019 to avoid undergoing “patriotic education” emerged in early 2020. During the state-led demotion of Larung Gar in 2016, three nuns committed suicide in protest to the forced eviction and demolitions.
Elderly and retired Tibetans are restricted to go on kora, a religious circumambulation of holy sites. Tibetan children are also restricted to participate in religious activities during their school breaks, and the admissions of novices to monasteries and nunneries are highly curtailed. Authorities in Tibet also enforced restrictions on religious observance and expressions of faith, including prohibition on participating in religious events. Even celebrating holidays such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year, are also truncated of its religious significance. Instead, Tibetans are compelled to display portraits of Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders on their altars and forced to make offerings and prostrate, a religious practice of reverence reserved only to Buddha and high lamas.
B.3 Bilingual Policy and the Onslaught on Tibetan Language
China claims that Tibetans who are considered as one of the 55 “ethnic minorities” under PRC enjoy language rights. Yet through China’s bilingual policy, Tibetan language has been replaced by Chinese Mandarin as the medium of instruction in schools in Tibet. China implements policies such as the bilingual education policy that systematically target the Tibetan language, further suppress the learning and teaching of Tibetan language and hence marginalises the Tibetan language. Tibetan monasteries which are secondary sites for learning Tibetan language have been banned from receiving Tibetan students to teach Tibetan language. In 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination expressed concern that “Tibetan language teaching in schools,” in Tibet has “not been placed on an equal footing in law, policy and practice with Chinese, and that it has been significantly restricted.” The UN Committee called on China to preserve Tibetan language by encouraging its use in education and other fields.
In most cases, Chinese language is a prerequisite in acquiring a respectable job. Tibetan students graduating with specialisation in Tibetan language are deprived of any job prospects. Many young Tibetan graduates remain unemployed as recruitment examinations in Tibet require a good command of the Chinese language. Basic public services, including bank transactions or travel tickets are printed in Chinese, making travel difficult for Tibetans even within Tibet. The systematic onslaught on the Tibetan language is targeted towards destroying the identity of the Tibetan people. Resistance to discriminatory language policy results in persecution. Those who voice concerns over such state policies and advocate for the conservation of Tibetan language are arrested and sentenced, as was the case in Tashi Wangchuk and Sonam Palden who were arrested in 2016 and 2019 respectively. In February 2019, Tsering Dorjee was arrested for talking about the importance of Tibetan language education over the phone with his brother in India.
Tibetans in Tibet have absolutely no freedom of expression. Expressing any disagreement or grievances against the authorities result in them being detained, tortured, falsely charged with “separatism” and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. In the last decade, at least 155 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against China’s repressive policies in Tibet. The Tibetan self-immolators have called for freedom, human rights and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
B.4 “Interethnic” Marriage
China’s promotion and incentivising of marriages between ethnic Chinese and Tibetans seek “assimilation” of Tibetan identity, language and culture through marriages. In August 2014, Chen Quanguo, the highest Chinese official in charge of the “Tibet Autonomous Region” at the time ordered a run of stories in local newspapers promoting mixed marriages. For weeks, government-run newspapers in the “TAR” featured stories and images of happy mixed marriages in which the children are shown to love both cultures and speak in both Tibetan and Chinese. A 2014 report by the Communist Party’s research office in “TAR” said mixed marriages had increased annually by double-digit percentages for the past five years, from 666 couples in 2008 to 4,795 couples in 2013. Chen Quanguo, then the Party Secretary of “TAR” who chaired Ethnic Intermarriage Family Forum on 18 June 2014 implored party and government officials to act as “matchmakers.”
The “Ethnic Unity” regulation passed in January 2020 requires “all levels of government, companies, community organisations, villages, schools, military groups and religious activity centres [to] be responsible for work on ethnic unity,” while the Seventh Tibet Work Forum in August 2020 emphasised on national unity as well. As the “Ethnic Unity” regulation states, those “harming ethnic unity” by “taking part” or “discussing separatism” and jeopardising “social harmony” will face criticism and punishments. These policies and regulations are solely aimed at diluting Tibetan unique culture and identity.
B.5 Economic Development and “Poverty Alleviation”
The Chinese government’s statistical claims of “poverty alleviation” and “development” do not present the current reality of Tibetans inside Tibet. China’s promotion of “right to development” is prioritised over other human rights, mainly civil and political rights. The development projects in the so-called “TAR” and other Tibetan regions as administered by PRC are carried out at the cost of Tibet’s ecology and people. The so-called poverty alleviation that has been forced on Tibetans has caused great misery and resentment among the local population. Tenzin Nyima or Tamey, a 19-year-old Tibetan monk from Dza Wonpo in Sershul died on 19 January 2021, due to the local Chinese authorities’ beatings and torture. Tenzin Nyima was detained on 9 November 2019 after pro-independence protests erupted in Dza Wonpo, along with several others. The protests took place as the forcibly resettled nomads and local Tibetans in the area were pressured by the local officials to endorse the Chinese government’s “poverty alleviation” program. Further, the demolition of Larung Gar and Yachen Gar and the ensuing expulsion of over several thousands monks and nuns was carried out to make way for tourist attraction projects.
Under the guise of “poverty alleviation”, over half a million Tibetans were put through coercive military-style labour training and labour transfer policy in the “TAR” in just the first seven months of 2020. These rural Tibetans, mainly nomads and farmers were subjected to “centralised military-style vocational training”. Forced to move away from their centuries-old sustainable livelihood style, Tibetan nomads and farmers are made to hand over their herds and land to government-run cooperatives and then turned into wage labourers. In the forced relocation and mass housing programs from 2006-2012, Chinese government has pushed over 2 million Tibetan nomads into concrete housing. With no socio-economic support to sustain them in the long run, this drives many young people to lead a lifestyle fraught with criminal tendencies and poverty.
While there is some degree of economic development, the situation inside Tibet is far from the “socialist paradise” that China presents to the world. Moreover, Tibetans are not the true beneficiaries of the various development projects and implementations in Tibet. On the contrary, these “development” projects are to serve the Communist Party of China’s own interests. The infrastructure development in Tibet that the PRC has trumpeted facilitated effective political control over Tibet and ushered in the mass migration of Chinese people to Tibet, threatening the Tibetan culture, language, identity, environment and the very existence of the Tibetan people.
B.6 Surveillance and Censorship
The Chinese government’s intensive surveillance and censorship policy continue to upgrade in response to the crisis inside Tibet. Technologies such as the facial recognition and profiling obstruct free flow of information through censorship, this is aimed to monitor Tibetan people and their online activities. Every contact made between Tibetans inside Tibet and abroad are closely surveilled. Any “sensitive information” posted on social media such as issues concerning language rights, devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Covid-19 pandemic, and others which the Chinese state deems as “illegal” and “separatist” are punished. In one such known case, 10 Tibetans in Lhasa were arrested for alleged spreading of “rumors” about the Covid-19 breakout in March 2020 on WeChat. Tibetan singers Khando Tseten, Tsego and Lhundrup Dakpa were sentenced in 2020 while Lhamo was tortured to death for sending money abroad and for possessing a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
In a recent report, Chinese government has announced criminal prosecutions against internet users in Tibet for dissenting activities online. According to the notice, internet users are only allowed to use the online platform to praise the Chinese government’s policy and propaganda. Any online activities aimed “to split the country” are bound to be penalised.
The increasing rate of environmental degradation and the scale of ecological destruction in Tibet is largely due to lack of proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA) prior to any major mineral resource extractions, hydropower dam building and road or railway line construction activities in the region. The Chinese government’s inability to understand local ecological conditions, unwillingness to listen to local environmental concerns and blatant disrespect for local traditional belief in the sacredness of mountains and lakes have made Tibetans in Tibet utterly helpless.
Such a sense of helplessness simmering from continued refusal to acknowledge Tibetan people’s wishes and griefs by the Chinese government has forced many Tibetans to take desperate measures, particularly since 2008 as the Chinese government increased its repression across Tibet.
There were at least three reported self-immolations (Tsering Dhondup on 20 November 2012, Konchok Tsering on 26 November 2012 and Tsultrim Gyamtso on 19 December 2013) in Amchok in Northeastern Tibet between 2012 and 2013 as a desperate measure to protest against mining on their sacred mountain Gong Ngon Lari. They have, in letters left behind, expressed “unbearable sense of agony” caused by mining on their sacred mountains as the reason for their sacrifice.
A similar desperate measure was taken on 16 August 2013 during a large peaceful protest against mining on sacred mountain Garwa Choejad in Zatoe, in northern Tibet. Sokpo Choedup, who was part of the peaceful protest gathered at the mine site, stabbed himself in an instant and frantic reaction to an excessively brutal suppression by Chinese paramilitary forces. According to people who visited him in the hospital, Sokpo Choedup said, “I felt a sense of helplessness, as there was no one we could go for justice.”
The prevailing sense of helplessness and lack of institutional mechanisms to seek justice in Tibet under Chinese occupation has forced many Tibetans in Tibet to look for justice and support from outside China. Tibetans in Tibet are making enormous sacrifices for the ecological protection of the world’s highest and largest plateau — a plateau which not only feeds and sustains almost all of Asia’s largest rivers but also greatly influences the global climatic conditions. The Central Tibetan Administration and Tibetans spread across over 40 countries have been trying to bring to light the immense risks and efforts Tibetans in Tibet undergoes to seek environmental justice and protect the Tibetan Plateau from further degradation and destruction.
The historical enactment of the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020 (TPSA) is a clear recognition of the global ecological importance of the Tibetan Plateau as well as an acknowledgement of the lack of environmental justice in Tibet under Chinese occupation.
The Section 4 of the Act – Policy Regarding the Environment and Water Resources on the Tibetan Plateau– begins by highlighting the global and regional ecological importance of the Tibetan plateau. The policy states:
The Tibetan Plateau contains glaciers, rivers, grasslands, and other geographical and ecological features that are crucial for supporting vegetation growth and biodiversity, regulating water flow and supply for an estimated 1.8 billion people.
The policy also adds:
Traditional Tibetan grassland stewardship practices, which can be key to mitigating the negative effects of warming on the Tibetan Plateau, are undermined by the resettlement of nomads from Tibetan grasslands.
This rightly condemns the Chinese government for their lack of respect for Tibetan Nomads and their traditional way of life and its positive role in environmental conservation. The Chinese government has removed more than two million nomads from their land and pushed them into large-scale settlements with limited medical, educational or business opportunities to support a dignified and sustainable life. Tibet’s rangeland covers approximately 70 percent of its total area. The alpine grassland at high altitude covers, in turn, 60 percent of the total Tibetan rangeland. Pastoralism on the Tibetan plateau involves adaptation to a cold environmental condition at elevation above the limit of cultivation. Nomads have not only prospered but protected the plateau from further degradation by living an eco-friendly and sustainable life for more than 8,000 years. They are the actual stewards of the vast grassland.
Another extremely important issue the TPSA highlighted is the possible impact of an increasing number of large dams in Tibet in recent years. The policy warns:
The construction in Tibet of large hydro-electric power dams intended to be used in part to transmit power to Chinese provinces outside of Tibet, as well as other infrastructure projects, including the Sichuan-Tibet railroad, may also lead to the resettlement of thousands of Tibetans and transform the environment.
A new trend of fervent competition to build ever bigger dams in Tibet in recent years is threatening both the river ecosystem on the Tibetan Plateau as well as the lifeline of 1.8 billion people in Asia. There is an obvious but a well-disguised nexus between the Chinese Communist Party leadership and dam construction companies in China, which both fuel and sustain a new trend of building mega dams in Tibet, despite its immense ecological risk and social cost.
The year 2021 will see the completion of 1.2 GW Suwalong Hydropower Dam, the largest hydel dam in Tibet, and also the partly completed 295-meter tall Lianghekou (3000 MW) Hydropower Dams. Lianghekou would emerge as the tallest embankment dam in Tibet and the third highest earth-filled dam in the world.
The Suwalong hydropower dam, the biggest in Tibet, officially began its construction in 2016 and is expected to be completed by 2021. The dam built by China Huadian Corp is located on the border between Markham and Bathang in southeastern Tibet, at the lower range of the Drichu (Yangtze River) before it flows into China. The location of the dam has historically seen many earthquakes and landslides. The devastating landslide in Bolu in South-eastern Tibet on 3 November 2018, which blocked the Drichu, the longest river in Asia for 10 days, is only about 215km upstream of the Suwalong dam site. The river blockage from the landslide quickly led to inundation of much of Bolu in Palyul and caused flash floods in many regions located along the river.
Tibet has seen an unprecedented number of floods and landslides simultaneously occurring across the region since 2016. The increased cases of natural disasters are partly due to continued rise in temperature and increase in precipitation, but the situation is greatly aggravated by excessive construction and resource extraction activities. The intensity and the frequency of such disasters is most likely to increase in the coming years, putting immense risk on any major dam projects.
The Lianghekou Hydropower dam is currently being built on the Nyakchu (Yalong River) near Nyakchukha town in eastern Tibet. Even though the dam construction officially began in 2014, the preliminary constructions were carried out as early as 2009. A recent video clip, verified from local sources, clearly shows that people of Nyakchukha were in horror as they saw the river going completely dry near Nyakchukha Town. The partly-completed Lianghekou Hydropower dam, located only a few kilometres upstream from Nyakchukha town, is blamed for the sudden drying up of the river as the dam likely has begun storing water for operation of its first generator. Even though a paper published in 2014 by Ertan Hydropower Development Company, which constructs the dam, has officially stated that about 4,925 people would require to be resettled due to the dam construction, but local Tibetans claim that the actual forced relocation of Tibetans in the region is much greater. Homes in Drongnyi, Ngonde, Dragtog, Jathang, Drugal Chukha in Tawu and Nyakchukha were seriously affected. A local resident of Nyakchukha said in his statement in 2015 that the dam construction company provided no work opportunity for the local residents and that the Tibetans were prohibited from wandering anywhere near the dam construction site.
The immediate effect of the dam construction was the loss of thousands of homes, but the long-term impact could be even greater as the dam would gradually inundate vast areas of fertile farmlands, grazing areas, forest, sacred sites and disturb local ecological balance.
Unlike in the 1960s, the large Hydropower Dams are no longer considered eco-friendly and sustainable. According to a paper published on 5 November 2018 by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), countries in Europe and North America stopped building large dams since 1975 due to its negative social and environmental impacts. The paper also stated that such dams have damaged river ecology, displaced millions of people, and have both contributed to and impacted by climate change.
However, in Tibet, the Chinese government is on a dam-building spree on most of the major rivers in Tibet such as Gyalmo Ngulchu (Salween), Zachu (Mekong), Drichu (Yangtze), Nyakchu (Yalong) and Yarlung Tsangpo. A total of 11 hydel dams were planned on the 1600km stretch of Yarlung Tsangpo before it enters into India with Zangmu (510MW) and Gyatsa (320MW) already completed, Dagu (640MW) and Jeixu (560MW) under construction, Lengda received permission recently and more to begin soon as part of China’s 14th Five Year Plan.
The alarming pace of issuing permits as well as constructing mega dams in Tibet without any public participation and consultation is apparently in stark contrast to the official rhetoric about green development being propagated in Tibet.
Large dams inevitably lead to inundation of vast areas of land around it for water storage, leading to massive loss of vegetation and wildlife habitat. Dams also induce seismic activity, landslides and sudden change in local ecosystem.
Consequently, the rapid pace of building mega dams in Tibet in recent years will not only affect the Tibetan people and its fragile environment but will also have catastrophic consequences for 1.8 billion people in Asia, whose lives depend on a healthy flow of the Tibetan rivers. With the impending threat in sight, the Tibetan Policy and Support Act 2020 rightly calls for a “collaborative effort with Chinese and international scientific institutions to monitor the environment on the Tibetan Plateau” as well as to encourage formation of “a regional framework on water security”.
Department of Information and International Relations
Central Tibetan Administration
6 February 2021