Starting in March 2008, Tibetans across the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan took to the streets to call for religious freedom and an end to oppressive political and social controls and economic inequalities. The People’s Armed Police cracked down, sometimes violently, arresting thousands. Chinese authorities expelled foreign journalists from the TAR, locked down monasteries, blocked YouTube and foreign news sites, and closed the border with Nepal, cutting off a primary route for refugees. Many of these restrictions have remained in place for the last 15 years. Since 2009, at least 155 Tibetans have self-immolated in desperate protest. (For more about the 2008 uprising and subsequent crackdown, see reports from Human Rights Watch and the Central Tibet Administration)
When he came to power in 2012, Xi Jinping intensified a policy of Sinicization and assimilation, whereby the languages, religions, and cultures of ethnic minority groups are subsumed into the larger Chinese historical narrative. In Tibet, this is partnered with intense securitization and pervasive surveillance. Family members of those who defy authorities are punished. Any behavior that asserts Tibetan identity is seen as a political act. Local schools have been replaced with colonial boarding schools where at least 80% of Tibetan children are cut off from their families, language, and culture. At the same time, a targeted censorship and propaganda campaign has sought to erase Tibetan identity and advocacy from global consciousness. Freedom House has ranked Tibet the least free region in the world.
Lhadon Tethong is cofounder and director of Tibet Action Institute, which uses digital technologies to advance the Tibetan freedom movement. Previously, she served as executive director of Students for a Free Tibet. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, she was detained and deported from China after traveling to Beijing to raise awareness about China’s occupation of Tibet. In 2011, she was awarded the first annual James Lawson Award for Nonviolent Achievement by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
Tibet Action Institute issued a report in 2021 exposing the system of colonial boarding schools which currently house at least 80% of Tibetan children aged 6-18, as well as secret preschool boarding schools for younger children. This is the first of a two-part interview. The second part, which will focus on the boarding schools, will be published in coming days.
China Digital Times: You founded the Tibet Action Institute in the wake of the uprising in Tibetan regions in 2008, right?
Lhadon Tethong: Exactly. I co-founded it and really it was born out of the work of Students for a Free Tibet, and our brain trust of activists, young people, Tibetans and non-Tibetans, who had been working together for years leading up to 2008 especially. Then we saw everything—the uprising in Tibet, the Olympics in China—and so many things changed. There was this whole new terrain that we were operating on, and it was the perfect time to sit down, reassess, and come up with how to play offense and defense moving forward, to take advantage of those information communication technologies—and the advances in their spread in Tibet that had made it possible for us to even know what was happening—and to actually help Tibetans inside Tibet organize. It was such a different world. Then also wanting to teach people how to use the tools so that they could be safer. And the Chinese government was figuring out how to use the tools against us at the same time.
It was clear that a whole new generation stood up and said the same thing Tibetans have been saying since China marched in, which is “China out of Tibet.” That was a generation of Tibetans raised fully under the Communist Party rule in Tibet with no memory of an independent Tibet. From central Tibet, all the way to eastern Tibet, those protests and all of that action around 2008 really showed us that strategic nonviolent resistance and a lot more is possible for Tibet—the spirit of resistance and desire for freedom. All of that was still there, unchanged. And in a new generation.
CDT: We hear a lot about surveillance and internet control in China and Tibet, in particular, but can you give us a picture of how that looks on the ground, on a day-to-day basis for a regular Tibetan person? So let’s say somebody, not an activist, not a dissident, but just any person owns an iPhone and wants to use it to communicate with their family in Tibet or overseas, or they want to read the news. How would that look to them when they pick up their phone?
LT: The key is that everybody knows that they’re monitored. The handful with the iPhones from overseas perhaps may have a little better chance of avoiding controls, both the phone and the physical presence of surveillance cameras everywhere—really in the remotest villages, at people’s doors, on the monasteries. So just the control, and the idea now that almost everyone has to be in that system, because everything is hooked up through the system. Your identity is connected to your phone plan and your ability to use these things or do any kind of banking. All of it has changed the game for the largest swath of Tibetans, because they’ve gone from rural and traditional nomadic life to a very very regimented state-controlled life. You can’t avoid compulsory education anymore, keeping the kids with you if you’re a nomadic family. So many have been forcibly resettled, moved off traditional lands, and put in government housing. And it’s much easier, of course, to watch people’s movements and make sure everyone’s obeying state rules and controls if they’re more settled. And they’re all using cell phones, and the banking system, or having to be a part of the modern way of life in China. Not that long ago, a friend of mine, his mother passed away having never touched Chinese currency in Tibet. At 80-something she passed away, just living a very traditional Tibetan village life.
Especially in the last decade or so, as we watch the control over the monasteries, the compulsory education, and then the forced settlement of nomads, you see how the state has everybody in their grip in one way or another. You can’t resist the directive to send your kid away to school, because there aren’t local schools. You don’t want to, but even if you tried to refuse, the threat is that you will lose your social welfare benefits, or [your children] will be cut off from further education down the road. Everyone’s got their number and they’re known, and the average person just has to follow the rules.
CDT: How are Tibetans who do want to find ways to express themselves and access information that might be banned able to get around these controls?
LT: The more skilled, savvy, and connected use VPNs and do what they can before certain services are blocked. When new tools come available, they use them until they are no longer accessible. At the same time, in the networks around the monasteries or nomadic communities, people still get together to watch or share information that’s come to them in a way that it shouldn’t have. They’ve been able to access something and download it to their phone, and then, because of the nature of Tibetan geography, they’ll be able to go and watch it offline with friends or family or monks or you name it. But in the Xi Jinping era, it has become much harder to do all of this. People are very, very reticent to talk, or to do anything online or on the phone that they may have been less concerned about in the past, just talking about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example—not organizing, not anything political, but just to discuss him—because of course anything can be deemed political. Whether you’re caught through monitoring on the phone, or you have something on your phone and then you’re caught in a roadblock where they’re physically taking the phone and looking. So it’s the combination of the network-level surveillance, the spyware, and the people involved in looking at what you’re doing in a more targeted way. Or just physically, you’re caught in the wrong place, wrong time with any kind of evidence that you’re saying things you shouldn’t. It’s not looking so much for just the organizers of protests or resistance. It’s anyone who’s deviating from the sanctioned list of topics you can discuss. Tibetans used to be able to talk in code, and just do more that wasn’t easily figured out or that the authorities were not even too interested in. But now it’s all about teaching people a lesson, teaching villages a lesson, teaching families a lesson. Someone does something, and everybody will pay in some way. And that kind of collective punishment has been effective on some level in preventing people from even doing anything in the first place. Because you know, your whole family, your whole village, all your networks could be really impacted.
CDT: Under this policy of Sinicization, which Xi Jinping has been pushing, how are Tibetans in Tibet managing to assert their identity and preserve their culture?
LT: People still are, where they can, mostly around religious practices or gatherings. People will still very much prioritize that, and getting as many of the family as you can to go observe these Buddhist traditions and gatherings. One really interesting story that came out recently was that the fake Panchen Lama was in one part of Tibet where all the Tibetans are being told, “You must come and pay your respects.” And you can’t say no to this stuff. But what it seems people did, they went, they just went very slowly. It basically sounds like they slow-walked, slow-traveled, and so they missed the event. But they were going. I think of some of the stories we’ve heard from World War II, about the resistance of different populations against Hitler, when there’s not much you can do. And they do it. We still hear incredible accounts of Tibetans doing underground schools, and elderly people who are illiterate, learning to read and write Tibetan.
Since 2008, there’s been this incredible movement to reclaim and reassert Tibetan culture, especially language. And that’s still happening. It’s harder than it used to be, and people are far more cautious about communicating what they’re doing. Because it can all be seen as subversion somehow, if you’re not too careful. Dr. Gyal Lo talks about protecting what it is to be Tibetan, the heart of Tibetan identity and the nest of the village. If you can’t be in these urban centers or easily go to the monastery anymore, in the home, what can you do, and what can you teach your kids? Some people we know, instead of sending their four- to six-year-olds off to boarding preschool, will actually move, and a parent or someone in the family will go move with that child to live in an urban center where they can go to a day school. So you still keep that daily connection and presence with the children. Others will send kids to live with family in other places where there are still some pockets where you can do more Tibetan education, or where it’s not required yet to send [your kids to boarding schools]. But those options are shrinking, and are almost nothing now.
CDT: Are Tibetan activists working at all in solidarity with other ethnic groups like Uyghurs, or Mongolians, especially in the diaspora?
LT: I have seen such an incredible growth of allied activist campaigns and organization. A lot of it felt like it got going during the Olympics. It used to be Tibetans at the protests, or some Chinese dissidents, and then smaller numbers of Uyghurs, just because their numbers over here weren’t that many. And now you name it, we’re there together. I’m loving seeing Students for a Free Tibet, the young activists just organizing cross-movement training camps, and they have young Uyghurs and Hong Kongers. At the last Winter Olympics, there was a Hong Konger, and a Tibetan, and someone else hanging a banner in Greece when they were lighting the torch. There’s just so much more of that. There’s so much more understanding that our fates are interlinked, and that’s always a message I have for decision-makers. It’s not like you can just look at all of us in isolation from each other and say, “Oh, there’s the plight of the Uyghurs and the plight of the Tibetans, and then this situation in Hong Kong.” You have to address each situation; you also have to see that this is all part of this total crackdown on all people, and the rights and freedoms of everyone in China itself, and in the territories under Chinese control.
It used to be that Tibetans were really the sad story. But we would be told, ”There’s hope, just look at civil society, and China’s able to do this much, and Greenpeace is there, and Canada’s training judges, and just don’t fight, bide your time, don’t talk about independence, and one day you can have your genuine autonomy.” And it should be a really important lesson: where are we now? What does that whole picture look like—the fall of Hong Kong, and the threats to Taiwan. It’s not the people, there’s still a lot of hope with people. It’s the government and Xi Jinping in particular in this latest incarnation of a hardline Communist Party; it’s the system and those people that we need to challenge at every possible turn in every way that can be done. There are lots of ways to challenge that aren’t just war, which is of course what everyone immediately fears: are you saying you want war with China? No, but we’ve been so far from that for so long. We have helped create this monster—Western corporate interests and the international community turning away and seeing Tibet maybe as an aberration—and now look at it all.
We have to work together, and governments should work together. They are working together more, and in this way we can all be more on the same page. I still actually have a lot of hope. You don’t hear about it as easily, but I see Tibetans inside Tibet still resisting, and the Uyghurs are absolutely resisting in whatever way they can, and the international community has rallied on some level to their side and that is the way it should be. But we’ve got a lot of work to do, still. The hope for me—when I saw the White Paper Revolution, I just could not believe what I was seeing when I saw Chinese students talking about the Uyghur situation during the COVID lockdowns. And then I have friends who said, “I went to a protest at the school organized by what I thought would be 10 Chinese students and 300 were there.” There was just this shift, this feeling that the suffering under the COVID lockdown and under Xi Jinping in this new era has really helped the new generation of Chinese also see other suffering. I know that’s not complete, but I feel like we need to take whatever we can get and find ways to work together. And I do see that happening now. And it’s really encouraging.
CDT: What do you think CDT and our readers can do to help Tibet?
LT: Tibet has been pushed off the international agenda. We’re crawling back on with this awful, awful situation [of the boarding schools], but I think it’s still not known. It’s very clear why and how it’s wrong and it helps to illuminate the whole. Every issue in Tibet is encompassed in this—culture, identity, religion, all of the many issues that we’re facing in Tibet. So people can share information about what’s happening.
People who know the Tibet situation, know that this is bad, and it’s wrong. But there’s a whole new young generation of Americans and people beyond who don’t know about Tibet. And sharing the information and spreading the word and reaching out to decision-makers—it’s so basic, but it helps to shine that light back into Tibet that China worked so hard to try to turn off. That’s the very least.
There are [Chinese government] propaganda efforts interviewing Tibetans, saying, “The international community says we do not value Tibetan language. But do you see us valuing your language?” And you see people answering this question. Of course, it’s propaganda, so they’re not going to say anything [negative]. But Dr. Gyal Lo reminds us that all those people are getting a message that the international community cares, and that the Tibetan language should be celebrated and promoted, and all of that will help give them some courage to push more. Everything has some ripple effect that we can’t even see. And for someone like him, who knows what it’s like to work on the inside of that very dark system, that is such a beautiful thing. It could be, even with the propaganda they are creating to fight us, that we’re sending signals and signs in there that say, “Hey, we’re still here, keep fighting. It’s worth preserving. It’s not a lost battle.” I think that that’s huge. If the Chinese government, just to prove us wrong, wants to change some policies in Tibet to let more kids stay home and allow more Tibetan content, then great. We do what we can.