Tibet Can No Longer Be Overshadowed By Xinjiang

Tibet has fallen out of the international spotlight since evidence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang emerged in 2017. While international attention has rightly focused on the persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang, there is now a renewed need to focus the situation in Tibet.

After claiming sovereignty over Tibet in 1950 after the Chinese Civil War, the People’s Liberation Army annexed Qamdo in October of the same year where the Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet (Seventeen Point Agreement) was signed. Generally speaking, the agreement includes precepts for Tibetan sovereignty along with broad acknowledgement that the central government (China) will respect Tibet’s autonomy.

Recent developments suggest that this is no longer the case.

The Tibetan rights campaigner Tashi Wangchuk was released from prison earlier this week after a five years jail sentence for the specious crime of “inciting separatism.” According to the Seventeen Point Agreement – the very basis on which Sino-Tibetan relations rest – Wangchuk was exercising his rights under Point 9. Point nine says:

The spoken and written language and education system of the Tibetan nationality shall be developed step by step in accordance with the actual conditions in Tibet.”

Wangchuk was arrested in 2016 on political charges, owing to the fact that China does not respect the separation of powers, designed to suppress freedom of expression and opinion. In this instance the “actual conditions” in Tibet seem to be defined the Chinese government.

This apparent contradiction has a simple explanation – China no longer tolerates successionist movements, independence or minority identities within its territory. With the passing of the Hong Kong security law, Xinjiang persecution and recent military jostling in Taiwan the international community can expect the authoritarian regime will make further attempts to do so. The recent announcement covered by Human Rights Watch indicates that China now considers the teaching of minority languages in classrooms as “unconstitutional.” This is indicative of the authoritarian regime’s intention to solidify its grasp on power by controlling the narrative around national identity throughout China. This echoes the approach it took to Hong Kong and Macau when it announced its intention to plan “patriotic education” in both of the former colonial territories in 2019.

This is not the first time China has made significant attempts to suppress Tibet. This was the subject of an inquiry by Human Rights Watch in March 2020. The fact that the Seventeen Point Agreement was signed only after the People’s Liberation Army annexed Qamdo has a great deal to do with this. In 1956 there were small rebellions against Chinese occupation with the Central Intelligence Agency providing weapons to rebels in the east and the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Chinese repression. The Tibetan Uprising of 1959 was arguably the worst chapter in Sino-Tibetan relations when approximately 85,000 Tibetans were killed. Since 1959, the relations between the two nations have steadily declined when China closed most of Tibet’s monasteries and even made private religious practice illegal during the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Tibet holds the record for having been occupied by China for the longest period, over 60 years. Xinjiang’s Uighur population, Hong Kong’s citizens and the Taiwanese along with the international community should take heed of what China has done in Tibet. If further attempts to suppress national identity are not called out, the hope of smaller nations in the periphery of China’s grasp will fade. There is growing hope given that the international community is now more able due to access to more information and willing to condemn China’s behaviour.

In order to uphold the inherent dignity that human rights are based on; the world must unify around the plight of those who are oppressed by one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.

Mitchell Thomas