Forced labour camps in Tibet

What we know

An explosive report has revealed that half a million Tibetan nomads and farmers have been forced into military style labour camps in Tibet. Here they are subjected to indoctrination and intrusive surveillance, under the mask of ‘vocational training,’ before being sent to work in factories in Tibet or China. The report details the language of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policy, which states that ‘vocational training’ under the labour scheme aims to reform ‘backward thinking’ and includes training on ‘work discipline’, as well as ‘diluting the negative influence of religion.’

The Chinese government claims that transfers are undertaken on a voluntary basis. While the flow of information in and out Tibet is tightly controlled, we can conclude that Tibetans are not willingly subjecting themselves to these labour camps by looking at the available evidence and the history of forced eviction of nomads from their land. Tibetan nomads have lived sustainably on the roof of the world for centuries, however the Chinese government has been relocating them into densely populated concrete settlements for the last two decades, under different housing and migration schemes. Interviews with farming and herding communities conducted by Human Rights Watch illustrate the involuntary nature of these past relocation schemes and show how Tibetans become worse off, disenfranchised and disconnected from their own way of life due to these policies.

The ‘2019-2020 Farmer and Pastoralist Training and Labor Transfer Action Plan’ is an acceleration of policies seen in the past that are said to be about poverty alleviation but add up to a clear pattern of subjugation with the effect of deteriorating Tibetan identity. These policies cut Tibetans off from traditional livelihoods, and speed up the loss of language, culture and religion as Tibetan ways of thinking and being are transformed into the way of life that the CCP imposes.

By separating farmers and nomads from their way of life and livelihoods and into state-controlled systems, the CCP  seeks to erase and assimilate Tibetan identity into the Chinese state and can further its claims of poverty alleviation by creating measurable cash incomes.

To illustrate how this policy goes against Tibetan nomads’ belief system and way of being, we only need to consider the words of Konchok Gyaltsen, who grew up in a Tibetan nomadic family, before fleeing to India and then migrating to Australia.

He was interviewed recently by SBS and said that as a nomad, it never occurred to him that he was in poverty because he felt a spiritual connection with his ancestral land and domestic animals.

“We call our animals ‘Nor’ (wealth) in Tibetan. So, our animals are our wealth.”

“As nomads, we don’t stay put at once place, we move around based on seasonal requirements, and this becomes extremely challenging for CCP to track and control our activities,” he told SBS.

His words are testament to the scheme being yet another attack on the Tibetan traditional way of life.

The forced labour camps show many troubling similarities to China’s imprisonment and indoctrination of Uyghurs.

Chen Quanguo, the chief architect behind the incarceration program in East Turkistan (Xinjiang), was the CCP Secretary in Tibet Autonomous Region from 2011 to 2016. It was there he experimented with extreme surveillance measures like the ‘grid management’ system. In the absence of strong international opposition, Quanguo was posted to East Turkestan where he took the repressive measures to an alarming new level. Meanwhile, the intrusive systems of security have continued to persist in Tibet. The Party-State seeks to control every aspect of public and private life, monitoring the activity of Tibetans to prevent dissent at an early stage and creating a climate of fear under the pretext of lifting people out of poverty.

News of Tibetans being pushed into labour training and transfer programs is a troubling sign that the CCP is now bringing some elements of what it’s doing in East Turkestan back to Tibet. However, the report details that the Tibetan labour transfer scheme does not have the same level of securitisation or extrajudicial internment that is taking place in East Turkestan. Still, there are clear elements of coercion. More research is needed into what’s happening with labour transfers in Tibet and this is an area we will be looking at more closely in the months to come.

What can we do?

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on Tibet, a group of more than 60 parliamentarians from around the globe working to reform how democracies deal with China, released a statement about the forced labour camps saying, “We stand united in unequivocal condemnation of these practices and call upon the Chinese government to halt these atrocities immediately.”

British MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith is leading discussion on this issue in the UK and Senator Josh Hawley, in the US, introduced a resolution condemning the CCP for its use of forced labour.

To better the plight of Tibetans living in their own country, China must be held accountable by the international community taking a unified stand so that the abuses do not continue with impunity.

We will be raising our concerns with politicians here in Australia and strategising actions for ATC members and supporters to undertake around this issue.