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“Democratic rights” in Tibet

In a white paper published by the central Chinese government on February 24, 1998, entitled “New progress in human rights in the Tibet Autonomous Region”, China has exerted considerable effort in providing the claim that Chinese ‘Democratic Reforms’ have led to vast improvements in almost all areas of Tibetan society. The dominant theme of the White paper is the “liberation” of the Tibetan people from their previously “backward” society as a result of Chinese development.

          One of the “progress” areas referred to in the paper is “Ethnic regional autonomy system and the people’s political rights.” In this section China stresses the so-called “autonomy” enjoyed by Tibetans in the “Tibet Autonomous Region” and “Tibetan autonomous prefectures”, including voting rights and participation in decision and policy making. Yet the picture of the Tibetan people’s democratic rights that emerges from speaking with newly arrived Tibetans is completely different and reveals that Tibetans’ ability to participate in the running of their country is heavily circumscribed by China’s Central Communist Party (CCP).

China places great emphasis in the paper on the fact that the chairman of the Standing Committee of the “TAR” People’s Congress and the chairman of the “TAR” government have always been Tibetans and quotes impressive numbers of Tibetan deputies represented in various “TAR” government levels. Yet the dominant members of the “TAR” Congress and government are, and have always been, the Party members and it is the Party which retains the prerogative of conferring positions on non-Party members.

Most significantly, the white paper fails completely to refer to the position of party secretary the single most powerful figure in the “TAR” region. The party secretary is directly appointed by the CCP and the post has never been held by a Tibetan.

According to the white paper, “All citizens in Tibet who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election… they elect their own deputies and exercise the power to administer state and local affairs through the People’s congresses elected by them.” Yet when 25 recently arrived Tibetan refugees were interviewed in Dharamshala, India, in the first  “democratic rights” as a joke, saying that all candidates were pre-determined by Chinese authorities.

Pema from Lhoka Region says that “elections” were held in Tibet merely to enable China to assert the existence of “democratic rights.” “Many from our village treat it as a joke because we know that eventually the leaders will be someone of their (China’s) choice”, says Lobsang Choedon from Shigatse. Almost all of the interviewed refugees said that the names of the candidates were announced just a few hours before the election.

Jamphel Monlam, a former political prisoner, says that the “TAR People’s Government” applies in name alone and that “people have no interest in whom they are voting for because 95 per cent of candidates are party members and all are pro-Chinese.” “The people do not have the power to put forward their own candidates; they are always chosen by the deputies in the level above based on their political background and their experience working in a Chinese office”, Jamphel added.

“We vote because we are instructed to do so and because we do not want to face the negative repercussions if we refuse,” says Sonam Palmo from Kham. Thupten, a 41 year old monk from Golok, “we know that the leaders are pre-decided by China and that the voting is a mere lip-service.”

“The people are very discontent when an election is held and complain amongst themselves, but they fear the repercussions if they speak out openly against the process,” explained 30 year old Jamyang Sangpo of Kyegudo.

Contrary to the claim in the white paper that “all citizens” in Tibet have voting rights, Norbu Sangpo, a 29 year old Lithang monk, says that monks generally do not have the right to vote. An exception is made only for high lamas or those of high caste and only a minimal number of monks are granted a “voting pass” by the head.

The 1997 US State Department, reporting on human rights in China, found that “citizens lack the means to change their government legally and cannot freely choose or change the laws and officials that govern them.” The report says that “village elections- as currently practice- are under tight political controls and do not threaten to undermine the implementation of unpopular central policies or endanger the leading role of the Communist Party”, concluding “the election and agenda of People’s congresses at all levels remain under the firm control of the Communist Party” and the CCP “retains a tight rein on political decision making and forbids the creation of new political parties.”


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