How Repressive Is the Chinese Government in Tibet?

Scholar tells skeptical audience that claims by Tibetan exiles of Chinese cultural discrimination are greatly exaggerated.


Barry Sautman, Associate Professor of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, spoke at UCLA December 2 to defend the thesis that claims of cultural repression against Tibetans by the Han Chinese are greatly exaggerated by Tibetan exiles in India and by the liberal Western press. His talk was met with some skepticism from discussant Nancy Levine (Anthropology, UCLA) and by some members of the audience, but he presented a wide range of data to support his view. The talk was sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies.


Sautman chose to focus his presentation on a refutation of the claims made by some Tibetan exiles that the Chinese are pursuing a policy of "cultural genocide" in Tibet. Levine suggested that this was a bit of a straw man and that most exiles are concerned more with issues of lagging development. On specific issues Sautman made the following case.

Rival Views on Tibetan Sovereignty

The Chinese government and the Tibetan exiles in India, led by the Dalai Lama, have diametrically opposed views of the rights of Tibetans to independence. The Chinese claim that Tibet was a Chinese province for eight centuries and that the Dalai Lama has forfeited his spiritual and temporal leadership because he is a separatist. The Tibetans in exile call Tibet a colony of China. This view, Sautman said, "Is widely accepted in the West. It has resonance in the West in the post-Holocaust period." In contrast, he argued, "The problems of Tibetans are typical of minorities in the era of large modern states."

It is true, he said, that there have been significant inroads of Chinese culture into Tibet since the forcible takeover in 1959, but there has been an even greater influx of Western culture. "By not defining cultural genocide the Tibetan exiles can label any changes from 1959 as cultural genocide, although many of these changes could be expected to have occurred without the issue of cultural genocide arising."

The most common specific charges raised by Tibetan exiles, Sautman said, "point to Han immigration plus restrictive birth policies. In fact the state sponsored transfer to Tibet is on a small scale. From 1994 to 2001 the PRC organized only a few thousand people to go to Tibet as cadres. Most serve only 3 years and then return to China. Those who move on their own to the Tibet Autonomous Region usually return to China in a few years. They come for a while, find the cities of Tibet too expensive, and then return to China. Some of the 72,000 Chinese who maintain their hukou [household registration] in Tibet don't really live there. Pensions are higher if your household is registered in Tibet. These facts are supported by Australian and U.S. demographers. Claims of ethnic swamping in Tibet are misleading."

Chinese Policies on Tibetan Birth Rates

The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Soutman said, "encourages Tibetans to limit their families to 3 children. The local government townships have the power to impose small fines for more than 3 children. One study showed that in 3 of 4 studied townships no fine was imposed on a birth issue and only very small fines in the fourth. Tibetan families in Tibet average 3.8 children, larger than Tibetan families in India. Han families with more than one child face much harsher penalties. In 1990 Tibetans were 95% of the Tibetan population. There has been no dramatic change in the region's ethnic balance."

Exiles also claim that birth policies are repressive against Tibetans in regions of China proper where they are significant minorities, such as in Qinghai and Gansu. "This is not sustained by available statistics," Sautman insisted. "The percent of Tibetans in Qinghai has shown no significant change from 1950 to 2000. Restriction on family size is harsher for the majority than for the minority and the effects have not changed the percent of Tibetans in the Qinghai population. This is hardly cultural genocide."

Émigrés complain of restrictions on the minimum age of monks and nuns and on affiliation with the Dalai Lama. Sautman countered by saying that China claims there are more than 2,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. "I have visited many of these and they are all active religious communities. The Chinese government in the remote far west actually encourages people to join monasteries to have people to take care of ethnic relics."

Sautman said that there is now 1 monk or nun for every 35 Tibetans, "the highest of any Buddhist country in the world, and much higher than the relation of ministers and priests to parishioners in any Christian country in the world, where the ratio is often 1 to 1,000. Chinese law says you have to be 18 to become a monk, but in practice there are often much younger monks."

Status of the Tibetan Language

Sautman also sought to rebut charges by Tibetan exiles that the Tibetan language is devalued and being replaced by Chinese. "92-94% of ethnic Tibetans speak Tibetan. The only exception is places in Qinghai and Amdo where the Tibetan population is very small compared with the broader population. Instruction in primary school is pretty universally in Tibetan. Chinese is bilingual from secondary school onward. All middle schools in the TAR also teach Tibetan. In Lhasa there are about equal time given to Chinese, Tibetan, and English." In contrast, Soutman said, "Tibetan exile leaders in India used English as the sole language until 1994 and only became bilingual in 1994. Schools in Tibet promote the Tibetan language more than Indian schools do in ethnic Tibetan areas--in Ladakh, India, instruction is in Urdu, with a high dropout rate from Tibetans, but India is never accused of cultural genocide against Tibetans."

There is an upsurge of the performing arts, poetry and painting by Tibetans, Sautman told the audience. "The exile leaders claim that the Chinese officials suppress Tibetan themes. In exile the Tibetan arts often introduce non-Tibetan themes, but there is no accusation of cultural genocide. Vices such as prostitution are not unique to Tibet under Chinese rule but are common throughout Buddhist lands. There are few aspects of Chinese culture in Tibet, but there are many aspects of Western culture, such as jeans, disco music, etc. The exile Tibetans do not condemn the growth of Western influence at the expense of traditional Tibetan culture."

A Discussant Demurs

Discussant Nancy Levine said it was her opinion that cultural genocide was not a central focus of exile literature. "The discussion seems to focus on social and economic marginalization. The term is problematic." She conceded that Sautman's paper contained "some strong evidence," but said he cited dubious sources as well.

"You criticize the government in exile's position that a fifth of the population was eliminated by purges from the 1959 and 1979. It appears that there was a powerful impact of the Great Leap Forward. Some areas such as the Tibetan areas of Sichuan lost as much as half of their Tibetan population during the Great Leap Forward. There were serious population losses. It should not be simply denied. It is true that the Tibetan population since the 1960s has been growing rapidly and that birth control has been fairly loose for Tibetans. The basis for fines varies sharply. The one study you site at Lhasa cannot be generalized."

On Tibetan Buddhism, she said, "There were 10,000 monks in 1959, and while there are many today, it is a radical decline from then, plus a radical discontinuity in religious training of monks. In 2000 Kirti [Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Sichuan province] was dissolved, with 2,000 monks. The practice of Buddhism is seriously constrained. Every major leader of Tibetan Buddhism except the Panchen Lama is in exile today, not only the Dalai Lama."

Levine scored Sautman for relying too much on Chinese journalistic sources. "You use a Xinhua news source to claim that there are 300 more Tibetan religious institutions today than in 1959. I have been misquoted by Xinhua and this is not a reliable figure. You do have some strong data, but you should distinguish it better from some more questionable sources that you also use."

Barry Sautman responded on several fronts. On claimed declines in Tibetan population, he cited articles in the Columbia Journal of Asian Law and by an Australian Chinese demographer in Asian Ethnicity in 2000. "What I think these articles show is that there is no evidence of significant population losses over the whole period from the 1950s to the present. There are some losses during he Great Leap Forward but these were less in Tibetan areas than in other parts of China. Where these were serious were in Sichuan and Qinghai, but even there not as serious in the Han areas of China. There are no bases at all for the figures used regularly by the exile groups. They use the figure of 1.2 million Tibetans dying from the 1950s to the 1970s, but no source for this is given. As a lawyer I give no credence to statistics for which there is no data, no visible basis."

Sautman conceded Levine's point that claims of cultural genocide are not prominent in Tibetan exile literature, "But pushing the button of genocide has a bigger impact than pushing the button of underdevelopment." He denied that either the local or national Chinese government discriminates against Tibetans: "My finding is that discrimination is popular, but it comes from Han prejudice. The state in Tibetan areas does not involve itself in acts of discrimination. In part this is because many of the leaders in the ethnic minority areas are from the ethnic minority."

Published: Wednesday, December 04, 2002