Australia Tibet Council

Enabling everyone in Australia to be part of change in Tibet

Politics and economy



Photo: Natalie Grono

Political oppression

Tibet was invaded by China in 1949. It is governed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

U-Tsang, Amdo and Kham are the three traditional provinces of Tibet. They are today carved into several administrative units under the Chinese government. U-Tsang, combined with parts of Kham, is referred to by China as Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Amdo is incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Gansu and Kham into Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. The areas in Amdo and Kham are designated variously as “Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures” and “Tibetan Autonomous Counties” under these Chinese provinces.

Chinese officials and publications typically refer Tibet to the TAR. Tibetans refer Tibet to all three Tibetan provinces. The word “autonomous” is used for all Tibetan areas. The reality is all decisions are made in Chinese national and provincial capitals. 

The CCP claims Tibetans are among 56 ethnic nationalities of China. However Tibet had fulfilled the criteria of a sovereign state three decades before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

After more than 60 years of its rule, China is still reliant on its military and paramilitary forces to maintain control of Tibet, with estimates of upto 500,000 PLA troops stationed on the Tibetan plateau.

Tibetans' human rights are routinely abused. They do not have the freedom of religion, speech, language, assembly and travel. They are arrested and tortured for staging peaceful protests, sharing information or expressing their political views, and are often charged with “subverting state power”.

Tibetans have opposed China’s rule in Tibet since the 1950s, with the most widespread demonstrations across the Tibetan plateau in 2008. These protests have taken a tragic turn since 2009 with an increasing number of Tibetans resorting to self-immolations. 

Economic marginalisation

According to the 2000 census, the population of the entire Tibetan plateau is at least 10 million, excluding military and migrant workers. 5.4 million were listed as Tibetan. The rest were Han or other Chinese people, majority of who have migrated to Tibet to benefit the Chinese government’s vast economic investments in the region and are based in urban areas. As the majority population in the cities, it is the Chinese who dominate the economic activity.

Development plans in Tibet focus on what China needs, what China can extract and how the party can consolidate its power over Tibet. The Tibetan population is socially and economically marginalised as they struggle to compete in a Chinese dominated work culture.

Economist Andrew Fisher terms Tibet’s growth as "ethnically exclusionary".

The social and economic marginalisation is further compounded in recent years by the forced settlement of nomads into urban environments, where they lack the adequate education and skills to compete with their Chinese counterparts.

The Gormo-Lhasa railway is the most high-profile symbol of China's strategy to develop its western region and is aimed at consolidating its control in the region. As the linchpin of China's plans to begin large-scale extraction of Tibet's mineral and other natural resources, the new railroad has changed the dynamic of investment, drawing foreign corporations to enter the Tibetan economy for the first time.

The railway has unleashed a huge increase in tourism into Tibet. China sees tourism as the “pillar industry” that it has long sought to guarantee the economic growth and the employment of the ever-increasing numbers of Han Chinese which China is encouraging to migrate to the area.

Mass tourism has also impacted on the economy with Tibetans largely unable to benefit. Work in the tourism industry are available in urban areas and require training and Chinese language skills, making it difficult for most Tibetans.

The money generated by tourism rarely stays in the Tibetan economy. Tourism is generally operated by out of province Chinese companies, often with high levels of government involvement.

Mass tourism is also allowing the Chinese government to promote its own approved and sanitised image of Tibet.