Environmental groups and other community initiatives are still allowed in some eastern Tibetan areas, but the publication of the police notice indicates high-level endorsement for officials in the TAR, the western half of the Tibetan plateau, to restrict informal initiatives to protect the environment, defend Tibetan culture, or provide social welfare. As a United Nations member state, China has affirmed acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose provisions are broadly considered reflective of customary international law.
These include the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, expression, and to participate in the cultural life of the community.
The police notice is the latest evidence that China is systematically violating these rights in Tibet. While other provinces in China have focused their versions of the anti-mafia drive on crimes such as gun-running and gambling, authorities in the TAR have used the campaign, which is expected to last for three years, to target suspected political dissidents and to suppress civil society initiatives. This common Tibetan social practice has now been categorized as illegal, and only government or Party officials are now allowed to mediate disputes in the TAR.
In addition, informal welfare associations, known as kyidu, which are a traditional feature of Tibetan communities, are now treated as illegal, apparently because they are considered a threat to the dominance of the Party. This report examines the February police notice and its consequences, including the outlawing of community-based mediation and welfare organizations.
It also examines the context of the notice through previous regulations criminalizing social activism in Tibet. The first wave of these moves dealt mainly with individuals involved in demonstrations or with distributing unauthorized information, but by , policymakers had moved to strengthen CCP organizations and presence at the grassroots level throughout the region.
Authorities had already implemented strict measures in some Tibetan areas: in April , the Kandze Ch. These required local government offices and departments either to run voluntary organizations directly or to guide, examine, and oversee them. As far as is known, all foreign NGOs in Tibet were shut down after mass protests against the government in March , leaving only domestic organizations since then.
Voluntary associations and social organizations that remained informal or undeclared in Tibetan society thus became of uncertain legal status, increasingly so as national regulations on social organizations were tightened. A number of organizations calling for environmental protection and similar aims still operate in Tibetan areas with official approval, and a small number of monastic schools are also still functioning, at least in some eastern Tibetan areas outside the TAR.
Informal community activities also continue in many Tibetan areas. But for such groups to operate in Tibetan and minority areas, especially if run by Tibetans or members of other minorities, has become increasingly difficult. They appear able to exist without registration only if they are very small, have little or no funds, have few members, do not carry out public activities, and do not deal with sensitive topics, and even then, only in certain areas.
Reports of underground dissident groups in Tibetan areas are now almost unheard of. Most social groups among Tibetans are informal local welfare organizations of a traditional kind that are sometimes religious in character and linked to local lamas; informal collectives that provide practical support for their members, usually based on regional or birthplace affiliation; and some more recent groupings that address issues such as environmental protection, literacy classes, or cultural heritage.
These kinds of informal groupings appear to have been considered by officials, until now, to be innocuous or trivial and were not known to have been of interest to the security apparatus. Chinese officials seek to justify the recent dramatic increase in restrictions on Tibetans on the same grounds used for previous restrictions on Tibetans: they are necessary to stop support for the exiled Dalai Lama and his supporters, who they claim are organizing or encouraging a separatist movement in Tibet. The reasoning behind the restrictions on these activities is not given in the police notices.
This indicates that a fundamental concern of the authorities is that local lamas and lay leaders often still have significant influence in Tibetan communities. As a result, the number of CCP organizations at the grassroots level in the TAR increased from 12, in to 19, in The long-running efforts in Tibet to restrict any involvement by lamas, monks, traditional community leaders, or social welfare groups in grassroots-level cultural initiatives, education, and dispute-mediation reflect the effort by the CCP to restrict the development of civil society and to destroy any competitors who might weaken its control over Tibetan communities.
Organizations that have applied for registration and have been rejected are deemed illegal. The legal status of social groups that have legally permissible objectives but are too small to register is unclear, but current national-level regulations in China by implication do not require them to register. In practice, social organizations or groups that are too small to register or have been unable to file for recognition face increased legal risks if they raise funds, have subscribers, or hold public events.
However, no cases have been identified in which any official in a Tibetan area of China has ever been charged under this law. If officials suspect Tibetan or other citizens of activities that have dissident or unapproved political objectives, those citizens can be charged with a criminal offence. The list includes three types of activities that are defined as organized crime. The first type consists of conventional examples such as extortion, destruction of property, organizing prostitution, and gambling.
Seven of the 22 items on the list are of this type. These activities are not normally considered crimes under Chinese law. The use of Wechat groups and online forums for illegal purposes is also cited as a form of organized crime article This appears to refer to the traditional role of lamas or prominent monks acting as advisors to the community and giving public teachings, when allowed, about social and ethical issues, such as avoiding alcohol, violence, or gambling.
Until recently, many monasteries and individual lamas ran schools in Tibetan villages or grassland areas. Demand by ordinary Tibetans for monastic education for their children is still high, especially in rural areas, partly because state schools provide less and less teaching in Tibetan. Tibetans frequently call on lamas or traditional community leaders to arbitrate serious disputes over grazing rights and other conflicts, which have frequently led to bloodshed if no one is able to negotiate a settlement.
Initiatives that have been targeted under these provisions are traditional community groups that raise funds for collective social welfare. A number of these groups were shuttered or placed under strict scrutiny in the TAR since , and the February notice suggests that officials may now view them as criminal. The outlawing of traditional dispute mediation and the increase in restrictions on community welfare groups is discussed below in Section IV.
The TAR police notice is exceptionally broad in its scope. It is not limited to activities that support or are suspected of supporting Tibetan independence or the Dalai Lama, or that criticize the Chinese authorities. It allows officials to treat almost any unregistered or informal social grouping or activity as illegal. Both announcements describe all organizations that support certain environmental, educational, and cultural issues as illegal.
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This definition appears to classify any grouping with more than five members as illegal if it has not been investigated and officially approved. Under the Chamdo document, unregistered groups in Chamdo are illegal even if they are not involved in criminal activity and have no effect on local politics, the economy, or social order.
The purpose of the draconian restrictions in Chamdo appears to be to shut down initiatives that call for environmental protection or seek to protect religious and cultural sites from mining and construction work:. The Chamdo document notes that organizations calling for environmental protection and other aims in Tibet are only legal if they have been approved and registered by the authorities, and a number of such organizations are known to operate in Tibetan areas with official approval.
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But the banning orders in the document are not empty threats, as the authorities in Chamdo were already notorious for having shut down a village-level environmental protection group in The group had been formed to plant trees and prevent poaching around the village. The Chamdo authorities have a record of extremely abusive treatment of villagers in rural areas where any dissident thought or activity is suspected.
For instance, in in Karma Gon township, Chamdo prefecture, Human Rights Watch documented numerous incidents in which Chamdo authorities committed abuses against Tibetan villagers, including widespread arbitrary detentions, beatings, threats, intimidation, and political indoctrination. The list primarily targets community actions, such as prayer meetings or religious rituals, that are expressions of support for people who had staged self-immolation protests. It also lists and condemns a large number of other social or religious actions that it considers supportive of the Dalai Lama or Tibetan independence.
The local government also issued books and online materials with cartoons illustrating the injunctions against these activities See Appendix VII. The Chamdo document goes even further, also declaring that the promotion of vegetarianism, which is increasingly taken up among Tibetans as a Buddhist virtue, could be seen as a crime, even though it is standard practice among Chinese Buddhists. The Chamdo document provides that organizations calling for environmental protection and other aims in Tibet are legal if they have been approved and registered by the authorities, and a number of such organizations are known to operate in some Tibetan areas with official approval.
A small number of monastic schools are also still functioning, at least in some eastern Tibetan areas, and informal community activities continue in many Tibetan areas. Both the Chamdo and Malho documents state or imply that social groupings can be declared illegal even if they are not known to be related in any way to support for Tibetan independence or for the Dalai Lama. Like the TAR police notice, the documents appear to allow officials to treat almost any unregistered or informal social grouping or activity as illegal.
Many of these initiatives, which have emerged in remote rural communities, as well as among educated populations in towns, have been inspired by modern concepts of social activism, identity, and environmental protection, while others have their origins in traditional views about sacred sites, religious commitments, and the protection of nature.
Local initiatives to clean up garbage have become common in Tibetan communities, notably in the area around Qinghai Lake in Qinghai province where overfishing and garbage dumping have caused widespread concern. Some of these initiatives have involved criticism of government policies and have led to petitions being submitted to local authorities. One such petition was a submission to the provincial government drafted by a group of young lamas in Qinghai in The petition also complained about the sale of fake medicines and foodstuffs, as well as delays in providing medical treatment to ordinary people in hospitals.
These actions have so far been dealt with unevenly by the government in its drive to control civil society. For example, when a small group of Tibetans in Lhasa began to clean up refuse at religious sites around the city in , some of their members were briefly detained and warned to cease their activities, which they were told were the responsibility of the government alone.
In these cases, police acted on the assumption that the voluntary activity might represent concealed support for the Dalai Lama. One detainee who had helped after the Jokhang flooding in was questioned at length about involvement in the local voluntary group that responded to the flooding See Appendix I: Interview 2 , and was reportedly told by a police officer that:. Attempts by Tibetans to promote the use of the Tibetan language, or to raise concern about the decreasing use of Tibetan in schools, have become particularly sensitive.
Such activities, which are particularly popular in Tibetan areas of Qinghai province and in Kanlho Ch. However, certain small-scale community activities, such as providing informal literacy classes for Tibetan villagers, have been banned by the authorities in some Tibetan areas. The Chamdo and Malho documents, in the TAR and Qinghai respectively, both describe literacy classes as illegal, claiming that they are veiled forms of separatist activity.
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The responses of these two prefectures were probably a result of large-scale street protests staged in Qinghai against the downgrading of Tibetan-medium education in schools between and About 1, Tibetan high-school students demonstrated in Rebkong Ch. In November , security forces broke up three protests by students over language policy in Chabcha Ch. A similar protest by about middle-school students took place in Rebkong and Tsekhok in March As China moves steadily to increase the use of Chinese language in schools in minority areas of the country,  the gradual downgrading of Tibetan language in education has become an increasingly sensitive issue in Tibetan areas.
This increased sensitivity to criticisms of social and cultural policies is even more evident with respect to environmental issues in Tibet, particularly those involving mining operations and construction projects in rural areas. As recently as , protests by local Tibetans against mining operations in their area had not been declared illegal per se, even though on some occasions these have involved hundreds of participants.
For example, in , senior TAR leaders intervened during a major anti-mining protest in Markham Ch. Since that time, numerous protests by local Tibetans against mining operations in their areas have been forcibly broken up and multiple arrests have taken place. In February , police detained a village leader in Driru county, Nagchu prefecture after he refused to sign a document giving approval for a mining operation to proceed on a nearby sacred mountain. As seizure of land for government-backed construction and development projects increases,  it is becoming riskier for local residents to make complaints about these encroachments, let alone to publish their concerns.
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A group of nomads in Nyemo Ch. Although some small-scale community activities are allowed, more and more issues are treated by the authorities as politically sensitive, leading to increased limits on normal forms of community engagement and social activism. TAR authorities have unambiguously banned one form of traditional community activity: the resolution of local disputes by community leaders and lamas. Since , a steadily increasing number of government proclamations have required officials to prevent mediation by local leaders, and the latest laws state that all disputes must be dealt with exclusively by officials.
In rural areas, particularly among nomadic communities, disputes are often dealt with by lamas or by respected lay leaders within the local community. The government has issued numerous regulations banning this practice.
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In some cases, all involving small rural communities, local Tibetan leaders noted for their work as mediators of disputes have been detained and even prosecuted, with at least one having died in custody. The reasons for their imprisonment are unclear, but all of these cases involved members of community who were active in local dispute resolution. In April , authorities briefly detained members of a village group in Kandze prefecture in Sichuan that carried out dispute-mediation all but 33 were released the following day after public protests.
A report from Nyenrong county, Nagchu in , for example, described the concentration of the cadres on dispute mediation:. The increased use of mobile courts, village-resident cadre teams, and Double Linked Household committees in all of the 5, villages in the TAR is part of a remarkable growth in the number of CCP organizations and related institutions that have been established at the grassroots level in the TAR since The total number of grassroots CCP organizations in the TAR is now 19,, not counting the cadre teams—an average of nearly four organizations in every village, and an increase of 58 percent over the last six years.
Community welfare groups are among the most common form of traditional social organizations in Tibetan society. The groups are usually based on birthplace affiliation and operate as circulating funds, providing basic social insurance for their members: each member contributes a small sum whenever another member needs support for an event, such as a marriage or funeral, or if there is a major illness or natural disaster. The groups, which often also organize prayer sessions or rituals for members, have long been a feature of Tibetan lay society and were re-established in their present form after the s liberalization.
According to research by Human Rights Watch, some kyidu members there were reportedly detained and questioned about their sources of funding and about their use of funds.