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 violentlyarresting 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.