Saturday, 26 April 2008


How Repressive Is the Chinese Government in Tibet?

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

By Leslie Evans
UCLA International Institute

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

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

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

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

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