“My message for the Chinese government is Free Tibet. Tibet belongs to Tibetans.” Enes Kanter Freedom is perhaps the one significant voice in 2021 that made the world stop and take note of the plight of Tibetans within their own country. The Celtics star rallied against China’s human rights violations in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Wearing his ‘Freedom Shoes’, Freedom highlighted the absence of freedom of expression in Tibet and how more than 150 Tibetans have immolated themselves for the cause .
However, despite the Tibetan cause catching the imagination of the world, 2021 has not exactly been a good year for the Tibetans. With predictions that 2021 would be a trip back to ‘normalcy’ getting misplaced, COVID19 continued to affect lives worldwide. Tibetans continued to be subjected to multiple instances of human rights violations, month after month.
The purpose of this report is to collate news of and from Tibet to provide a quick overview of the year that was. Events documented in the report provide evidence for increasing cases of grave human rights violations, deprivation of freedom and individual rights and intrusions into Tibetan culture, language and religion. The need to place the Tibetan plateau within the climate change discourse was discussed, with renewed vigor, in 2021 in the context of COP26. 2021 also saw people coming together to protest the violations and call for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022. The development of PRC's dual-use infrastructure in Tibet and frequent drills at the border raised many eyebrows.
2021 had major highs and lows when it comes to Tibet and the Tibetan cause. As 2021 draws to a close, this report tries to capture the key events related to Tibet.
Tibet until 1950 was an independent nation, with its national flag, anthem, passport and currency. With the Chinese invasion of 1949 and His Holiness the Dalal Lama seeking refuge in India, Tibet lost its sovereignty and the peaceful Buddhist country was reduced to a land where people are deprived of freedom of language, religion and speech, and reports of arbitrary detentions, school closures, prison deaths, surveillance, forced labor and environmental destruction rule the day. Over a million Tibetans have been killed, more than 150 Tibetans have immolated themselves for want of modes of expression and many more are languishing in Chinese jails for offenses as small as keeping a photo of Dalai Lama or being part of social media groups .
This report is an attempt to provide an overview of what changed in Tibet in 2021. This is a challenging task given that Tibet is under strict surveillance and getting information from and about Tibet is not an easy undertaking to embark on. According to TCHRD, "China's widespread and intrusive practices of mass surveillance and censorship have served as a perfect foil to continue to perpetrate human rights violations with impunity in Tibet". All information, online and offline, are tightly controlled by China and foreign correspondents are restricted from traveling to or reporting from occupied Tibet.
Under these circumstances, this report relies largely on publicly available sources like media reports, policy papers, social media updates, the CTA website, academic papers and reports from organizations like ICT, TCHRD and Free Tibet. Tibet Brief, the monthly newsletter by ICT, Weekly News Digest by Tibet Bureau and news reports by CTA, Tibet Post International, Tibetan Review, RFA, Free Tibet and Phayul have also been our key sources.
Reports: 2021 brought with it news that exposed the grim reality of Tibet; Tibet was rated Not Free, along with Syria, in Freedom House's annual World Report 2021. Tibet scored -2/100 in political rights and 3/60 in civil liberties.
Prison deaths: Tenzin Nyima, a 19-year-old monk died from injuries inflicted on him in prison. Tenzin Nyima, a monk from Dza Wonpo Monastery in Wonpo Township in Kardze, Sershul County was reportedly arrested in November 2019 for participating in a peaceful demonstration outside the local police station and for demanding Tibetan independence.
Self-Immolation: News of a Tibetan self-immolation protest that happened in 2015 surfaced in January 2021 after going unreported for five years. Shurmo, 26, set himself ablaze on Sept. 17, 2015, in the Tibet Autonomous Region's Nagchu (Chinese, Naqu) County. According to CTA, Shurmo is “one of the at least 155 Tibetans who have self-immolated in a sweeping wave of self-immolation that began in 2009 in the aftermath of the 2008 nationwide uprisings against China”.
Surveillance: Reports of Chinese campaigns against individuals who indulge in online activities "against China" also surfaced in early January. The Chinese authorities in Tibet Autonomous Region had announced criminal prosecutions against individuals who use online communication tools to engage in activities against China.
Elections: The Tibetan exile community voted to elect their next Sikyong and members of 17th Tibetan parliament in the preliminary elections of 2021 which were held in January.
Reports: TCHRD released a report, “Distorted Development: Chinese Discourses on the Right to Development and its Implementation in Tibet” in which China’s development drives in Tibet were identified to have “pulled the region closer to economic and cultural integration with Beijing but have failed Tibetans themselves”. This was said to have created a “dual economy”; rural Tibetans moved from traditional grazing lands into urban areas where Han Chinese dominated the job market which rendered the Tibetans jobless.
Enforced Disappearances: News about a Tibetan who was sentenced to 13 years in prison around July 2013 came out in February 2021. The Chinese government has deployed a strong surveillance system in Tibet that restricts the free flow of information.
Arbitrary Detentions: Kunchok Jinpa, a Tibetan tour guide who was arbitrarily detained died reportedly from prison injuries and mistreatment. He was serving a 21-year sentence for reporting protests in his native region seven years ago, according to Human Rights Watch.
Restrictions on Religion: Chinese authorities in Tibet imposed restrictions on religious practices and closed temples in Lhasa ahead of Tibetan New Year 2021. The reason cited for the closure and random searches was COVID19, but it was also a political agenda to prevent Tibetans from meeting each other, observed RFA.
Military Developments: Reports of China carrying out aerial drills over Tibet and the development of major military logistics hubs also came out, showing how China was using its military might to control Tibet.
Discipline Committees: Hundreds of Discipline Committees were set up by Chinese authorities which started imposing tightened security measures across Tibet. According to state media, 697 such committees were set up and were staffed by 1,960 inspectors . The groups tightened surveillance in and near border villages and demanded Tibetans traveling in those areas show travel documents.
Arbitrary Arrests: Three Tibetan teenagers living in western China’s Qinghai province were arrested, with one sent to a hospital with broken bones, for failing to register a chat group on the popular social media platform WeChat with Chinese authorities in March 2021. Four Tibetans were detained and interrogated by local police in Dzato County for burning incense and praying on a mountain.
62nd anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day: On March 10, 2021,62nd anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day was observed by Tibetans all around the world. The Senate of the Czech Republic hoisted the Tibetan National Flag on its building commemorating the 62nd year of the Tibetan National Uprising, in a first.
Demand for Bharat Ratna for His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Tsering Yeshi, 47, a former Special Frontier Force (SFF) member, started a bike journey across India on March 23, 2021, from McLeodganj demanding Bharat Ratna for the Dalai Lama.
Reports: TCHRD 2020 Annual Report on the human rights situation in Tibet released in April 2021 reported a “surge in arbitrary arrests and detention, extrajudicial killings enabling the culture of endemic and systematic torture”. United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2021 Annual Report was released on 21 April 2021 which mentioned how the “Chinese government continued its pervasive control and suppression of Tibetan Buddhism”.
Detentions: In April 2021, Chinese authorities carried out several arrests in Driru County in Nagchu and Chinese security officers detained 6 Tibetans across Serthar County in Sichuan province. Chinese police in Sichuan’s Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture arrested six Tibetans; Writer and environmental activist Sey Nam was taken into custody on April 2 in Kardze’s Serthar county.
Restrictions: China announced bans on 15 border activities in Tibet to “strengthen the border control” and maintain the security and stability in the border areas; “without a valid border pass or relevant approval, entering the border control areas, . . restricted military areas, forbidden military areas and areas with “No Entry” signs along the border”, was prohibited.
Enforced Disappearances: The 11th Panchen Lama, who is the world's youngest political prisoner, turned 32 on April 25, 2021, and calls for his release were reiterated by Tibetans and organizations.
Crackdown on Religion: Parents of Tibetan schoolchildren were asked not to carry rosaries, prayer wheels, or other religious items onto school grounds. Family members were also forbidden from reciting mantras or other prayers when visiting their children’s schools. Chinese authorities in Tibet’s Lhasa sharply cut visiting hours to just three and a half hours for Buddhist devotees at Jokhang temple, while leaving the temple complex and major pilgrimage site open twice as long for tourists.
White Paper: On 23 May 2021, to mark 73 years since the signing of the 17-point agreement between Beijing and Lhasa, China issued a White Paper titled "Tibet Since 1951: Liberation, Development and Prosperity," on “Tibet’s Peaceful Liberation” and its “development over the past seven decades”.
Custody Deaths: News that Tibetan political prisoner Norsang, 36, reportedly has died in custody back in 2019 after his release from political re-education detention in Nagchu prefecture also came out in May 2021.
Human Rights Committee in the German Bundestag issued a Declaration that called upon China to respect Tibetan human rights. The declaration sharply criticized the policies of the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet and recalled the controversial end of Tibet’s independence 70 years ago.
School Closure: Authorities in western China’s Sichuan province started closing private Tibetan schools offering classes taught in the Tibetan language . This forced students to choose government-run schools where they are taught in Chinese. This was perceived as an attack on Tibetan language and culture and an attempt to Sinicize Tibet.
U.S Innovation and Competition Act : The Act was passed in June 2021 that called for a Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues and a Tibet Unit within the Political Section of the United States Embassy in Beijing.
EU-US Summit raises human rights violations in Tibet: In a joint declaration following their summit held in Brussels, the European Union and the United States underlined their shared concerns about China’s human rights violations, including in Tibet . The EU was represented by the President of the European Council Charles Michel and the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, while President Joe Biden represented the US.
Xi Jinping’s visit to Lhasa: China's President Xi Jinping made an unannounced visit to Tibetan Capital Lhasa on July 22, 2021, in a first after he became Chinese Premier in 2013.
Threats: Chinese authorities in Tibet ordered Tibetan residents to turn over the names and other personal information of relatives living in exile communities outside Tibet, threatening loss of state benefits such as land and housing for noncompliance.
Language & education: A new rule that reduced the weight of Tibetan language scores on entrance exams for students in Tibetan areas of China was passed. This made it more difficult for Tibetans to gain admission to top-tier secondary schools or pursue the formal study of their mother tongue.
Arbitrary Arrests: Four Tibetan monks were sentenced to up to 20 years in jail in secret trials with no apparent evidence of criminal wrongdoing after a violent raid on a monastery in 2019. Konmay, a 45-year-old monk of Trotsik Monastery in Ngaba County, north-eastern Tibet was arrested by Chinese authorities on 20 July. Chinese officials in a Tibetan-populated region of Sichuan arrested two Tibetans for celebrating the 86th birthday this month of the Dalai Lama.
Detentions for possession of photos of Dalai Lama & social media posts: Police in western China’s Sichuan province arrested about 60 Tibetans found with photos of the Dalai Lama, intensifying a campaign against possession of the banned images. In Dza Wonpo township in the Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, 19 monks from a local monastery and 40 laypeople were arrested whose homes were thoroughly searched. Chinese authorities in Qinghai province arrested three men for sharing photos on social media. Police in Sichuan province arrested a Tibetan man who had refused to take part in a propaganda meeting organized by local authorities to praise the ruling Chinese Communist Party and instruct Tibetan residents in government objectives.
Prison Torture: Tibetan poet, Tsepa, known for publishing works critical of Chinese policies in Tibet died in August 2021 from health problems following periods of arrest and interrogation by Chinese police. Dorjee Tashi, a high-profile Tibetan businessman who had received a life sentence in 2010 is reportedly in serious health condition.
Military Training for Children: Tibetan students ages 18-21 were reported to be offered reimbursement of their school fees in exchange for enrolling in a two-year course of military training. School children were also being forced by Chinese authorities into programs of military training during summer vacation.
Forceful shutdown of Monastries: Authorities in Gansu forcibly shut down a Tibetan monastery in the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, evicting the monks and nuns by force.
Cancellation of Tibetan festivals: Chinese authorities in Lhasa announced the cancellation of all activities connected to the annual "Shoton” festival, citing the risk posed by the surge in COVID-19 cases in China. Shoton, or the “Yogurt festival.
China National Program for Child Development (2021-2030): Beijing released an updated blueprint for childhood development that removed a guarantee of the rights of minority children to be educated in their native language.
Prison Torture: A Tibetan monk sentenced to 15 years in prison for protesting Chinese rule in Tibet was released two years before finishing his sentence but was reported to be in failing health resulting from harsh treatment behind bars. Thabgey Gyatso, 46, was released in September after serving 12 years in prison. Tibetans detained in Kardze Language Rights arrests were reportedly denied proper food and medical care.
Education in the Mandarin language: A Chinese Ministry of Education (MoE) decree went into force to teach Mandarin Chinese to all preschool children.
A wave of detentions: Authorities in northwestern China’s Qinghai province detained two Tibetan students accused of opposing the use of the Chinese language as the only medium of instruction in Tibetan schools. Chinese officials arrested eight more Tibetans including six monks from Dza Wonpo Gaden Shedrup Monastery and two women from Dza Wonpo township, Sershul (Ch: Shiqu) county in Kham Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) on 3 September.
Dual Use Infrastructure: According to China’s state media, the country’s authorities are constructing 30 airports in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces to boost infrastructure. China had already launched a bullet train connecting Lhasa with Nyingchi which is a Tibetan border town close to Arunachal Pradesh.
School Closure: Authorities in Qinghai province shut down a Tibetan-run private school, forcing some students to enroll in government schools. Sengdruk Taktse School, located in Darlag county in the Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, was closed without explanation amid a region-wide clampdown on schools promoting Tibetan culture and offering instruction in the Tibetan language.
Monks Expelled from Monasteries: On 21/22 October 2021, teenage monks from Jakyung Monastery and Deetsa Monastery in Bayan County, Qinghai Province were expelled by state officials. As Religious Affairs Regulation on Oct. 1, had already seen monks aged 11 to 15 years expelled from Dhitsa monastery in Qinghai.
Language & Education: Authorities in north-western China’s Qinghai province blocked Tibetan children from taking classes outside their schools over winter holidays in a move aimed at further weakening connection to their native language. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and study centers were asked to translate classroom texts from Tibetan into Mandarin Chinese. Monks and nuns are also to learn and speak to each other in Chinese instead of their native language.
Arbitrary detentions & Prison Deaths: Chinese authorities banned public discussion about a popular Tibetan religious teacher Tulku Tenzin Delek six years after his death in a Sichuan prison, removing him from official religious histories and shutting down an online chat group devoted to his memory . Tibetan writer Lobsang Lhundup, arrested two years ago on unspecified charges was sentenced by a Chinese court to a four-year prison term, with no word given by authorities. Tibet Watch reported that around 117 Tibetans from Dza Wonpo Township detained en masse were released from 23 September onwards. The Chinese government confirmed that two Tibetan men are in its custody and that one of them has already been sentenced to prison for "inciting secession" and "jeopardizing national unity and social stability" in response to a letter sent by United Nations human rights experts in July 2021.
Revoking Permits for Tibetan Nomads: Chinese authorities started revoking permits for Tibetan nomads in Qinghai province to use their traditional grazing lands, under a 50-year-old agreement that transfers ownership to the state.
Climate Change: Chinese policies aimed at mitigating climate change on the Tibetan plateau are destroying traditional Tibetan approaches to managing the land and serve only to further government efforts to move nomads from their grazing grounds, according to the report “Unsustainable Futures” by TCHRD.
Military Camps: Chinese authorities in the central Tibetan province of U-Tsang announced the opening ceremony of its third military training summer camp for teenage schoolchildren in Nagchu City.
Enes Kanter Freedom: In a series of social media posts, Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter raised his voice against CCP “dictatorship” urging China to free Tibet . Speaker Khenpo Sonam Tenphel of the 17th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, on behalf of the Tibetans inside Tibet and around the world, expressed gratitude to Enes Kanter Freedom for his invaluable support for the cause of Tibet and urged for his continued support.
Ban on religious activities: A strict ban on religious activities was imposed on all former and current Party members and cadres in Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, in the Tibetan province of Amdo. In Darlag County in Golok, informers were deployed to ensure that no Tibetan party member engages in religious rituals such as going for kora, using a rosary, digital prayer beads, or other religious objects.
Demolition of Schools: Chinese authorities in Drakgo county in Tibet’s traditional Kham province ordered Tibetans to demolish a Tibetan Buddhist school after falsely alleging that the school has “violated” the land use law. Gedhen Nangten School, under the administration of Drakgo’s Ganden Rabten Namgyalling Monastery, was reportedly taken down by the school officials with the help of volunteer local Tibetans on 31 October 2021.
Three Kalons: Three Kalons of the 16th Kashag nominated by Sikyong Penpa Tsering and approved by the 17th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile were officially sworn-in.
New Developments: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday inaugurated a new international airport at Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh. Kushinagar is the final resting place of Gautam Buddha where he attained Mahaparinirvana after his death and is among the most important pilgrim spots for Buddhists.
Unemployment among Tibetans: Tibetan university graduates are finding it hard to get work in Lhasa, with Han Chinese flooding the job market and public-sector employment kept largely out of reach, reported RFA.
Surveillance: Chinese authorities in Tibet started giving cell phones to former Tibetan prisoners in a move aimed at monitoring their movements and conversations following their release.
Attack on Language & Religion: The Chinese government recently imposed a strict ban on religious activities on all Tibetan Party members and cadres in Tsolho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in Amdo. Chinese authorities also placed a ban on teaching the Tibetan language to children in the Qinghai province; the law banned even informal lessons in the Tibetan language.
Climate Change & COP26: A team of Tibetan environmentalists and five Tibetan NGOs (Student for Free Tibet, Tibet Watch, Free Tibet, International Tibet Network and International Campaign for Tibet) successfully participated at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow to highlight Tibet’s ecological importance and current environmental situation in Tibet.
Land Scuffles: Tibetan villagers and Chinese officials clashed this month over the failure of authorities to pay compensation for land taken for a construction project, with at least one scuffle breaking out at the worksite, local sources said.
New Developments: Biden raised human rights with China’s Xi during a meeting. Biden also raised concerns about China’s conduct in Tibet.
Arbitrary detentions and prison torture: Reports about a Tibetan man named Dhongye from Nagchu (Ch: Naqu) Prefecture who was arrested in 2018 on charges of “leaking state secrets” found in critical health came on December 14, 2021 . A punishment of 10-year prison term was given to Tibetan writer and educator, Go Sherab Gyatso, for expressing loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
Appointment of Uzra Zeya as US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues: Indian origin diplomat Uzra Zeya was appointed on December 20, 2021 as US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. Zeya has been tasked with promoting "substantive dialogue" between China and the Dalai Lama or his representatives in support of a negotiated agreement on Tibet, coordinating the US government policies and projects concerning Tibetan issues, consistent with the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away on December 26, 2021 at 90. An ardent supporter of the Tibetan cause, Tutu had received the International Campaign for Tibet’s Light of Truth award in 2006.
Surveillance & Censorship: A new surveillance unit was established in Nagchu prefecture to monitor the online activities of its Tibetan residents. Authorities in Qinghai province started questioning Tibetan children to discover what their parents have told them about the leader.
Education, Religion & Language: China launched an aggressive campaign to promote Mandarin, saying 85% of its citizens will use the national language by 2025 . Han Chinese now outnumber Tibetans in top government posts in Tibet by more than 2-to-1, reported media.
Reports: Reporters Without Borders Report 2021 cited worsening treatment of journalists and tightening of control over information in China, which it said, adding to an environment in which “freely accessing information has become a crime and to provide information an even greater crime” . Tibet Action Institute published a report on the colonial boarding school system in Tibet which exposed Chinese attempts to remove the Tibetan out of Tibetan children .
New Developments: TCHRD launched a new bilingual website, Decoding CCP, which claimed to “explain and decipher the meaning and connotations of key official jargon and slogans used by the Chinese Communist Party in present-day China . The Tibet Bureau in Geneva raised the situation in Tibet and called upon China to respect Tibetan people’s historical, social and cultural roots.
No Beijing 2022: Mr. Dhondup Wangchen, a former political prisoner, embarked on a tour of 15 European countries ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics . Two Tibetan students chained themselves to Olympic rings outside the Swiss headquarters of the International Olympic Committee to call for an international boycott of Beijing Olympics 2022 . More countries joined the diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games citing blatant human rights violations of China in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan .
2021 was no different from any other year when we consider the bleak instances of human rights violations and restrictions on personal and political freedom and curbs on fundamental rights. Arbitrary detentions, prison torture, unexplained disappearances, laws that limit Tibetans' right to practice their religion, language or culture transpired almost every month.
However, 2021 also saw the Tibetan plateau assuming significance in climate change dialogues. Tibetan activists were able to drive home the point that the Tibetan Plateau needs to be protected, not just for Tibet but for the health and sustainability of the entire world. The ‘COP26 Team Tibet’ sought to highlight the global ecological importance of the Tibetan Plateau and strongly urged world leaders gathered for the UN Climate Summit to make Tibetan Plateau central to any global climate change discussion.
As Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 approached, #NoBeijing2022 was a key movement that gathered momentum in the final leg of 2021. Many countries including the US and Australia declared a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics citing China's human rights record. Tibetan activists staged protests and demonstrations at various places across the world and drew global attention to the Tibetan cause and the blatant systematic violations of human rights happening in China-occupied Tibet.
Development of dual-use infrastructure by China in Tibet, closure of schools, decrees imposing Mandarin on school children, ban on religious rituals and closure of monasteries are steps that contribute to cultural genocide and Sinicization of Tibet.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the freedoms and rights that are to be universally protected and guaranteed to human beings across the world. Tibetans, within their own land, are denied the right to be free from torture, the right to freedom of expression, movement, learn in their mother tongue and the right to life and liberty. The global community should pay heed to the voices from Tibet and stand up for human rights in Tibet.