Will the restiveness in Xinjiang and Tibet grow?

- CCAS and KAS India

The Centre for China Analysis and Strategy in partnership with the India Office of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung organized a diginar on "Will restiveness grow in Xinjiang and Tibet?" on 1st June 2021. This virtual event examined the unrest/restiveness in China’s border provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang and explored what countries around the world can do in terms of individual and collective responses.

Key Takeaways:


  • China has an unsettled relationship with many of its frontier provinces that have complex, usually economically disadvantaged, and ethnically diverse backgrounds. China has always followed the policy of assimilation in these regions. However, after President Xi Jinping came to power, he began pushing the theme of ‘ethnic unity’ aggressively. This has resulted in growing restiveness especially in the provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang.


  • In the north-western region of Xinjiang, the CCP’s crackdown on Uyghurs since 2014 has seen over a million Uyghurs detained in what Chinese authorities euphemistically call “re-education” facilities - which the Uyghurs describe as “concentration camps” - where Uyghurs are held indefinitely and are subject to inhuman treatment like forced sterilisations, rape etc.


  • Xinjiang is a Chinese name meaning ‘New Frontier’. Before the invasion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in October 1949, it was called East Turkistan. Beijing promptly began a policy of large-scale migration into the area and by the time of Mao’s death in 1976, the percentage of ethnic Han Chinese rose from 6 per cent in 1949 to 41.5 per cent. That being said, in the 1990s, Beijing orchestrated a large increase of Han migration to Xinjiang through a mix of financial and landownership benefits. This was facilitated by establishment of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).  Over the decade, approximately 2 million immigrants moved to Xinjiang, increasing the proportion of the Han Chinese to 40 per cent of the overall estimate of some 18.5 million inhabitants at present.


  • Since 2016, China has illegally imprisoned over one million Uyghurs and other Muslims in detention camps where they are forced to criticize Islam, embrace atheism, and swear adherence to the Chinese regime. Inmates in these facilities are being refused medical treatment, tortured and many have already perished in the camps. They are later cremated by the Han security personnel.


  • The Chinese Government has been using monitoring systems to track Uyghur communities. Nearly every block has security checkpoints, and accessing most buildings demands that one passes through facial screening and ID checks. Beginning in December 2017, Chinese officials in the area have forcibly obtained DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans from all people aged 12 to 65 in the guise of public health services. Most towns in the area are unusually quiet since 70-80 per cent of the population – mainly men – have been arrested, or killed.


  • The confusion and chaos caused by the Covid-19 pandemic allowed the CCP to divert attention from its crimes against humanity. As the pandemic began, the Chinese government forced Uighurs (in Xinjiang) to stay home but provided them with no food or basic supplies, resulting in hunger and food shortages. There has been no transparency about the potential spread of the virus in the internment camps where the Chinese government detained thousands of Uighurs – a vulnerable, captive population that would have been ravaged by the virus. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute revealed that the CCP had transferred at least 80,000 Uighurs, including many from the internment camps, to forced labour facilities around China, where they had been compelled to make products, often for western brands.


  • In Tibet, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using both, intimidation in the form of massive surveillance and control measures in every walk of a Tibetan’s life and ‘enticement’ such as government subsidies, investments, infrastructural developments, awards and titles to create a cooperative, compliant and stable society.


  • When the Chinese military troops began to enter Tibet through Kham and Amdo and disrupted the Tibetan way of life, a revolt by the Tibetans in Eastern Tibet was inevitable. Anti-Chinese feelings amongst the Tibetans reached a boiling point when the Chinese invited the Dalai Lama on March 10, 1959, for a theatrical show at the PLA Headquarters in Norbulingka, and insisted the Dalai Lama come unescorted. This led to suspicions among the Tibetans of the intent of the Chinese on the invitation and crowds of Tibetans slowly started gathering around Norbulingka finally numbering 30,000 Tibetans. 


  • From 1959 until 1987, a détente of 28 years, there was minimal media coverage of the Tibet question, creating a perception internationally that all is well and that Tibetans are “happy and satisfied” under Chinese rule. 


  • However, a series of pro-independence demonstrations took place in Tibet in 1987, marking a watershed movement in modern Tibetan history. The new leadership in China under Deng Xiaoping expected that the economic policies and relatively liberal policy on the freedom to practice religion for Tibetans would pave ways for co-option and gradual assimilation of the Tibetans into the mainstream Chinese society. This proved wrong when a group of monks and nuns led series of demonstrations against the Chinese rule.


  • Another watershed resistance movement against the Chinese rule occurred in March 2008. 344 protests of varying size and magnitude spread across Tibet, leading to the death of 227 Tibetans and the arrest of 6810 according to a report entitled “2008 Uprising in Tibet, Chronology and Analysis” published by the Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration. The uprising was possibly the biggest challenge to Chinese rule, bringing Tibet to the international community's public and media consciousness. 


  • A year after the uprising, in 2009 - another form of protest- self-immolations, began to emerge in Tibet against China’s occupation. 


  • In 2011, Chen Quanguo, a man known for his hard-line policies and the current Party Secretary of Xinjiang was appointed as the new Party Secretary of Tibet Autonomous Region. Soon after assuming the position in Tibet, he rolled out a massive social stability strategy. His first action as Party Secretary was the recruitment of thousands of police officers in newly created vacancies to securitize and maintain social stability. 


  • Since 2011, the TAR Party Committee has stationed party cadres in every village, Monastery and Nunnery in TAR to consolidate the party at grassroots levels. According to Human Rights Watch, there are 19000 party organisations across TAR. Cities and Towns of Tibet are divided into subdistricts, which are divided into communities, further into smaller units, supervised by heads of village committees and party cadre stationed in the villages totalling to about five administrative and security officials. 


  • Similarly, many measures and propaganda campaigns are being carried out to ‘sinicize’ Tibetan Buddhism. When Chen Quanguo was appointed the Party Secretary of Tibet, control measures over the religious institutions, monks, nuns became even more strict.  


  • On the question of whether this restiveness can grow in these two regions, there are two different opinions. One opinion expressed was that restiveness exists among the people of Xinjiang and Tibet but the means to demonstrate their dissatisfaction has been taken away by the Chinese government through the policies of assimilation and the social credit system, which is much more restrictive in the minority areas than in the rest of China. It is only in China proper where restiveness can take some form.


  • The other opinion expressed was that restiveness in Xinjiang and Tibet has, in the first place, never receded, at least not in the hearts and minds of Tibetans and Uyghurs. The difference is that restiveness or resistance against the Chinese rule has been suppressed and repressed with maximum state-controlled surveillance and security apparatus. 


  • The international community must take national and international measures to hold China accountable for its crimes against humanity and its aggressive and expansionist policies. The international community must come to understand that China’s actions threaten international peace and stability. China’s growing influence must be countered in the United Nations and China must be made to honour its promise to give the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights unfettered access to investigate crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and Tibet.


  • In light of these ongoing chain of events, which undoubtedly represent two of the worst human rights crises in the present day and age, the recent sanctions introduced in a coordinated effort by the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada have sent a long-awaited message to the Chinese government.


  • China’s response to the sanctions, which included counter-sanctions on Members of the European Parliament and EU committees, shows once again that the Europeans would have to ask themselves whether they would be fine with China controlling countries in North Africa, the Balkans and Eastern Europe politically and exercising power over them through pressure. The prevalent opinion in the official echelons is that the response to threats could not lie in appeasement, but needed much stronger diplomatic and political responses. 


  • China’s weaponisation of economic interdependence will not persuade the EU to abandon its fundamental values of the rule of law, human dignity and human rights. Indeed, the European Parliament’s freezing of the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement has shown that the EU is not going to allow itself to be blackmailed by the ‘Red Dragon’.