Human Rights Situation in Tibet: Annual Report 2002

Monitoring and evaluating human rights violations in Tibet for 2002 has continued to be a challenge for the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) considering the tremendous lack of transparency and secretive nature in which Chinese authorities work, coupled with cynical moves by Beijing to avoid international criticism of its human rights record in Tibet. In the absence of free and independent access to Tibet, TCHRD has researched academic papers and Beijing’s White Papers for data on Chinese policies in Tibet and also made use of information provided by independent travellers. However, our greatest source remains the testimonies of refugees fleeing Tibet, including former political prisoners. Tibetans can best report on what is happening in their country and the information they provide is crucial in understanding the situation on the ground.

The year 2002 was marked by key changes in the political control of the Chinese government. The 16th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress in November appointed to China‘s helm of affairs Hu Jintao as Party-Secretary, a man little known to the outside world but remembered by Tibetans as the hardline leader responsible for the imposition of Martial Law in Tibet in 1989 and for the introduction of potentially repressive policies that became the beginning of the end of what had been a relatively liberal decade in the region.

2002 was also a year of intensifying contradictions. China‘s human rights policies and practices in Tibet were not only contradictory and self-defeating, but also without consistency. There was a pattern of Beijing‘s human rights diplomacy using the cover of concessions to prelude fresh crackdowns on dissent assuming that world leaders are less likely to react strongly after a gesture of goodwill.

The 58th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) was a huge disappointment to the peoples of China,Tibet, Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Inner Mongolia. With no ―Resolution on China, UN member countries again failed to condemn and censor China for its poor human rights record.

The universality and indivisibility of human rights, persistently reiterated by UN delegates after the Vienna Declaration in 1993, was blatantly negated by speeches of Chinese diplomats at the UN this year. According to Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya, ―owing to their different history, culture, social system and the stage of economic development, it is only natural for countries to adopt different ways, approaches and processes in realising human rights‖. China claims the right to a special form of relativism. In effect this is a claim for exemption from the very concept of the universality of human rights.

TCHRD continued to monitor the human rights situation on the ground in Tibet throughout 2002 and found little serious effort on the part of the Chinese authorities to improve the lives of the Tibetan people or to guarantee their fundamental rights and freedoms. During the year, China tried hard to block voices of dissent from being heard inside the country as well as from outside. Within the country harassment and imprisonment of dissidents remained high. Security was tight in Beijing and around the Great Hall of the People during the 16th CPC meeting. Hotels and guesthouses were strictly ordered not to accept Uighurs and Tibetans.

Outside the country, China used its power as a member of the UN Security Council to block accreditation to three Tibetan rights groups to participate in world conferences including the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). TCHRD was one of the three. Elsewhere, Chinese NGOs used civil society forums to strongly defend their government policies such as at the Asian Civil Society Forum (ACSF), held in Bangkok in December 2002.

Despite deepening economic reforms, China‘s authoritarian government has resisted calls for political liberalisation and has made little progress improving civil and political rights“,

– the United States Congressional Executive Committee on China (CECC) Annual Report, August 2002.

This year TCHRD in its Annual Report on the human rights situation in Tibet for 2002 takes a hard look at China‘s compliance with the two international instruments of human rights, i.e. International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). China ratified ICESCR on 27 March 2001 but is yet to ratify ICCPR, which it signed on 5 October 1998.

The year started on a positive note with the release in January of Ngawang Choephel, a prominent political prisoner. This was followed with releases of other high profile prisoners of conscience including Takna Jigme Sangpo and Ngawang Sangdrol, two of Tibet‘s longest serving political prisoners. TCHRD received information of a total of 90 known releases of political prisoners upon completion or expiry of their prison terms, including seven early releases. However, information on the arrest of 40 more new detainees was reported to the Centre. There are 208 known political prisoners currently incarcerated for exercising their basic fundamental human rights

In September this year, China received a Tibetan delegation from the exile government in Dharamsala nearly nine years after the last contact in 1993. This visit generated renewed hopes amidst the international community in general, and Tibetans in particular. Although the Tibetan delegation stressed the visit was mainly to break the ice with China for a fresh and sincere beginning, the authorities in China maintained that the visit was a private one. While hosting the delegation in Tibet the authorities continued to condemn the Dalai Lama as a ―splittist‖. Applying this label to the spiritual and political leader of all Tibetans did not go down well with his people. TCHRD believes the visit was crucial as a positive outcome in terms of genuine self-rule or autonomy could mean more fundamental rights and freedoms for the people of Tibet.

After years of restricting foreign observers to the region, China invited two groups of foreign correspondents on reporting trips (admittedly heavily escorted) in August and October 2002. One of the journalists, Geoffery York, after visiting Tibet‘s most notorious Drapchi Prison wrote, in Globe and Mail on 17 September 2002,

In a nearby cellblock, there was another staged tableau. A hundred inmates were staring woodenly at a Christmas cartoon on a big-screen television, not daring to move a muscle or steal an illicit glance at their visitors‖. He added, ―Only about 100 inmates were visible. They sat with weird rigidity, gazing silently at an American cartoon on a Chinese state television channel. Prison authorities, nervous about possible protests, had obviously warned the inmates not to speak or move“.

The recent decline in political protests is not an indication that Tibetans are happier with Chinese rule or that their aspiration for self-determination has declined. Rather, it is the result of heightened surveillance and heavy-handed, brutal suppression by the authorities. Another factor is the fear of severe physical abuse, including beating and torture, and ensuing years of imprisonment if dissidents are caught. The authorities included ―illegal religious activities‖ and those who ―illegally guide Tibetans across the borders‖ which expanded the scope of the renewed ―Strike-Hard‖ campaign in Tibet.

The strongly strategic and hard line policies of the PRC – made in the interests of the State by a select few-excluded the genuine interests of the Tibetan people who as a people under the United Nations Charter have the ―Right to Self-determination. UN Resolutions of 1961 and 1965 called upon the PRC to respect the Right to Self-Determination‘ of the Tibetan people.

Repression of political, religious or spiritual activities by persons or groups perceived as a threat to government authority or national stability continued through the year. Linking activities of religious persons to acts of terrorism, holding secret trials and imposing extreme sentences occurred during the year. The death sentences on Trulku Tenzin Delek and his attendant, Lobsang Dhondup, on 3 December was headline news and sent shock waves through the Tibetan people aspiring to self-determination in Tibet.

TCHRD received reports of many arrests of exile returnees in the Tibet Autonomous Region‖, of monks for performing religious rites in Karze, eastern Tibet, and of others for engaging in peaceful pro-independence activities. Ex-political prisoners and many others who fled the country during the year reported arbitrary detentions, torture and beatings to TCHRD. One death occurred in detention.

In the religious sphere, the anti-Dalai Lama campaign heightened and restrictive measures were imposed on observance of traditional religious practices and belief. The Chinese authorities imposed Management Committees and ―work team‖ visits in monasteries and nunneries, enforced the official ceiling on the number of monks and nuns, imposed 18 year age limits and conducted political education classes for the clergy. This year influential religious leaders in Tibet came under severe persecution.

Internet censorship in China remained a big issue in 2002. There were reports of the State employing more than 100,000 cyber police to maintain a tight control over the Internet. In Tibet ordinary people are unable to access information freely. Key words that the PRC deems ―sensitive‖ such as democracy, human rights, Dalai Lama, Tibet and Taiwan trigger blocks on the Internet: jamming and strict control of foreign radio, TV and news broadcasts in Tibet remained as before.

In the area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights the PRC‘s policies on the Tibetan plateau fall short of international standards of good governance. Under the Chinese Constitution there are provisions for safeguarding the Right to Livelihood but these are not implemented on the ground. It is evident from the testimonies of refugees that it is those assigned the task of guaranteeing these rights who are the abusers. Tibet, along with 11 other western provinces of China, forms one of the country‘s poorest and most underdeveloped regions. There is huge income disparity between the rural and urban populations.

At the core of the complexities surrounding livelihood issues for Tibetans is the fact that the PRC does not recognise the right of the Tibetan people to self-determination, nor their right to freely pursue economic, social and cultural development, which is at the heart of ICESCR.

Under the Western Development Program (WDP) launched in 1999, China is pouring billions of dollars into Tibet and other remote western areas. Beijing likes to believe that as long as the country‘s economy is burgeoning everything else will take care of it. Despite the huge propaganda hype relating to the WDP, Tibetans view its main aims as being the exploitation of their natural resources and the transfer of Chinese settlers on to their land. In addition to the economic targets, WDP is aimed at cultural assimilation. The profits will largely benefit government officials, local elites and well-connected entrepreneurs from China‘s affluent coastal regions. The major projects – including the Golmud-Lhasa railway line, gas pipelines, water transfer schemes and electricity transmission lines-are aimed at sending western resources to the east. One Chinese scholar has candidly described the Western Development Program as a policy of ―Western Exploitation and Eastern Development.

The PRC in its White Paper on Tibetan culture released on 22 June 2001 speaks on “great attention to maintaining and safeguarding the Tibetan people’s right to study, use and develop their spoken and written language”. The White Paper also speaks highly of its educational policies in Tibet and quotes impressive statistics on the development of education in Tibet. However, out of the 2,000 to 2,500 Tibetans fleeing Tibet every year the percentage of refugees who can read and write is not very high. A large percentage of the young people flee in search of freedom and to seek a broader-based education outside Tibet. Education in the rural areas in Tibet is hugely neglected.

Education policies in Tibet are meant to indoctrinate communist ideologies. Students must denounce the Dalai Lama. Tibetan students are taught a Chinese version of the history of Tibet. The medium of language and instruction in most schools is in Chinese sidelining the Tibetan language. As a result many Tibetans are losing the ability to write their own language. In July 2002, the Chinese authorities closed down a private Tibetan school ―Tsangsul‖ in Lhasa. The school had a record of stressing on preservation of Tibetan culture.

Tibetans in Tibet have very limited or no access to health care facilities. Health provisions for Tibetans continue to lag far behind China‘s national averages, and fall short of international standards of adequate healthcare. The increasing cost of hospital care, and the shortage of trained village-level health professionals, contribute to a worsening health situation for Tibetans. Health care is no longer a right. It is the privilege of those who can pay and have the right connections.

The prison conditions in Tibet are alarming and way below international standards. They are overcrowded, lacking proper ventilation, with very poor sanitary conditions and low-grade food. Since 1986, TCHRD has recorded the deaths of 79 prisoners, many of who succumbed to the unhygienic and inhumane conditions of the prisons after long periods of torture.


The world today is pre-occupied by its fight against terrorism. China joining the United States-led anti-terrorist coalition could be an end to or at least a toning down of criticism of Beijing‘s human rights record by western governments, in particular the United States and the European Union.

The fundamental problem in Tibet in regard to human rights abuses and restrictions on human freedom is the Chinese government‘s lack of implementation and abuse of Laws. It becomes clear that the strength of the rule of law, in which lies its universal relevance and application, is non-existent. ―All too often these laws are not honoured, all too often; domestic laws are subverted to provide a cloak of legitimacy for breaches of fundamental human rights, or infringements on civil liberties‖ said UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan on the occasion of Human Rights Day, 10 December 2002.

Aware of its rising global status, China is today obsessed with presenting a clean image to the world. Its increasingly prominent international profile was symbolised in 2001 by its entry into the World Trade Organisation and Beijing‘s successful bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Yet the communist administration remains an international bete noire for its violation of human rights and is facing huge opposition from various rights groups, western countries and donors against giving aid to China. International attention to its policies on Tibet is a continuing thorn in China‘s global image.

However, TCHRD sees change in China as inevitable, and with that there is hope for a peaceful solution to the Tibet issue. Noting resolutions adopted on Tibet in particular the Tibet Policy Act of the US Congress, signed into United States Public Law 107-228 by President George Bush on 31 September 2002, TCHRD calls upon the international community to maintain the pressure on the PRC until signs of real improvement in human rights are seen on the ground. China must adhere to international standards of human rights both for its own citizens and the people of Tibet.

Xu Wenli, a prominent Chinese dissident freed in late December 2002, said, “There is a strong awakening of consciousness within Chinese society towards democracy, freedom and human rights”.

Click here to read the full report.

to top