Why do Tibetans look like Indians

Domestic conflicts

Kristin Shi-Copper

To person

Kristin Shi-Kupfer is Professor of Contemporary Sinology at the University of Trier and Senior Associate Fellow of the Berlin think tank MERICS. From October 2013 to October 2020 she headed the research area Politics, Society and Media. From 2007 to 2011, Shi-Kupfer reported from China as a correspondent for various German-language media. Among other things, she was in Lhasa, Tibet in March 2008 and in 2009 as a reporter on the riots in Urumuqi, Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has also further expanded the surveillance system in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) with the help of digital databases and close-knit social controls. In the name of fighting poverty, Beijing has initiated a tightly organized "vocational training and job transfer program" with fixed quotas.

Tibetans in exile at a protest in Dharmsala (India) in memory of the 1959 Tibetan uprising in Lhasa. (& copy picture-alliance / AP, Ashwini Bhatia)

Current situation

The Chinese government has hailed the "Vocational Training and Work Transfer Programs" launched in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 2019 as a key success of its poverty reduction strategy. Around 610,000 Tibetans living in rural areas were transferred to other jobs in 2020. This means that the quota has been fulfilled to 101.7%. The income of the rural population grew the fastest at 12.7% for the sixth time in a row compared to other regions in China.

As part of the assimilation policy of the Chinese authorities, which is directed against the Tibetan culture and language, cattle herders and farmers, who are still largely self-sufficient, receive several months of professional training and are then usually employed in low-wage jobs in Tibet or elsewhere in China. Documents from national and local Chinese authorities demonstrate the political and ideological character of the programs. They are supposed to reduce the "negative influence of religion" and use military drill to drive out "backward and passive thoughts about work".

The Tibetan government in exile and foreign scholars see strong parallels with the actions of the Chinese authorities in other regions of the People's Republic, such as the Xinjiang autonomous region in particular. Beijing rejects questions about the coercive nature of the programs as unfounded.

The Chinese leadership, citing the cybersecurity law, has repeatedly arrested Tibetan activists for disseminating information that "endangers national unity". In August 2020, a 36-year-old nomad died after being tortured in a prison. She and her cousin had campaigned for the preservation and dissemination of the Tibetan language. In the summer of 2018, the Chinese government banned schoolchildren from visiting monasteries and language courses in religious places.

The US has expanded its support for Tibet: At the end of December 2020, the US Congress passed the Tibet Policy and Support Act. It stipulates, for example, that decisions about the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders are the sole concern of the Tibetans. Chinese politicians who interfere in this process can face sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. In November 2020, an incumbent head of the Tibetan government-in-exile was received in the US State Department for the first time.

Causes and Background

The 2008 riots had ushered in a new phase of the conflict. On March 12, Chinese security forces violently broke up peaceful protests by monks from monasteries around Lhasa on the occasion of the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising on March 10, 1959. Subsequently, on March 14, Tibetans rioted against Han Chinese shops in downtown Lhasa. According to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) [1], at least 101 Tibetans, according to Beijing [2], 18 civilians and 1 policeman were killed in the events. After the repression that followed the riots, the Tibetan protests spread to neighboring provinces. The Chinese central government sentenced at least seven people to death and dozens to life imprisonment. Surveillance and so-called patriotic education campaigns, especially at monasteries and schools, have intensified massively since then.

The wave of self-immolation protests (2011-2013), initially by clergy in individual monastery regions (Gansu / Qinghai), later also by lay people (especially students and teachers) in all Tibetan settlement areas, has increased since the beginning of 2014 as a result of massive repression against relative and whole villages weakened. Rigorous surveillance and political discipline campaigns, particularly against monasteries, continue to this day. According to reports from various human rights organizations, there has been a massive increase in torture and deaths in detention.

Ethno-political disputes are at the heart of the Tibet conflict. The parties have different ideas about the degree of sovereignty and influence of Chinese politics and economics in the Tibetan settlement areas. In addition to the autonomous region in the Himalayas, these also include parts of the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. Together they make up around a quarter of Chinese territory. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, speaks out against independence as part of a "middle way", but in favor of far-reaching autonomy of a uniform administrative area for all historical Tibetan settlement areas. The Chinese government rejects this as an "interference with the territorial integrity" and only wants to maintain the partial autonomy for the TAR.

Complete political autonomy is excluded from the Chinese side. In the "Law for Regional Autonomy of Ethnic Minorities" (1984, last revised in 2005), an ethnic group is defined as a cultural and social, but not as a political unit. Self-government can therefore only be granted within the framework of the centralized system and under the leadership of the Communist Party. Beijing stipulates, among other things, that all subjects - except Tibetan and English - are taught in Chinese in all schools in the autonomous region.

At the 6th Working Conference on Tibet in July 2015, Beijing decided on a new development package with a focus on the expansion of infrastructure and public services as well as environmental protection for Tibet. The party secretary, who was appointed in August 2016, and the governor Qi Zhala, who has been in office since January 2017, tightened security controls at the beginning of 2017, especially at the borders of Tibet. At the 7th Labor Conference in August 2020, state and party leader Xi Jinping announced, above all, increased action against "separatism" and an active integration of Tibetan Buddhism in a "Chinese context".

The destruction and transformation of the major monastery and study centers Lagrung Gar and Yachen Gar in the western province of Sichuan are a sign of Beijing's increasing control over the education and dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism. The measures around the study center are also part of the expansion of the infrastructure and the tourist development of the highlands, which the Chinese authorities are promoting. Protests that flare up again and again are being prosecuted as acts of sabotage by "criminal gangs".

In addition to the expansion of digital technology, part of the tightened security surveillance also includes the establishment of smaller police stations, especially those spread across the capital Lhasa, for which new officers are actively recruited. Another important element is the so-called "grid system", in which 10 to 15 families form the smallest social control unit. Members have to monitor each other and write reports on each other. [3]

Processing and solution approaches

The rounds of talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the United Front Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that have been taking place since 2002 have remained unsuccessful and are still on hold. The ninth and so far last meeting took place in 2010. Beijing rejects direct talks with the Tibetan government-in-exile, describing it as a "divisive clique that has betrayed the fatherland".

The Dalai Lama, who announced his retirement from political life in March 2011, first stated in an interview in autumn 2014 that he might be the last incumbent. He had previously said that the next Dalai Lama could be determined in ways other than rebirth. Beijing had then reaffirmed on the basis of existing laws that only a Dalai Lama appointed by Beijing was lawful.

Also out of concern about the growing influence of radical exiled Tibetan forces, Beijing is determined to prevent the development of a new, charismatic leader like that of the 14th Dalai Lama. As part of a law passed by Beijing in August 2007, the recognition of the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama was tied to two conditions: It must take place within the People's Republic and be recognized by the national religious bureau.

After the assumption of the new leadership led by party leader Xi Jinping in October 2012, the Dalai Lama repeatedly praised his "realistic way of thinking" and hands-on manner in interviews. In 2014, foreign media reported about a rapprochement and a possible pilgrimage of the spiritual leader of the Tibetans to China. Due to its ongoing discrediting of the Dalai Lama and the criticism of its "middle path" in the latest White Paper on Tibet from April 2015, Beijing has rejected any kind of rapprochement and exchange.

There are also other voices in the exile community who argue for a more radical course. Among other things, the Tibetan Youth Congress, which was founded in 1970 and has 35,000 members worldwide according to its own statements, campaigns for the "liberation of Tibet from Chinese rule" and political independence. Many Tibetans perceive the control of monasteries and the desecration of sacred mountains by building mines as a provocation. The urban youth also welcomes the modernization that China is driving forward with new work opportunities and lifestyles. At the same time, she feels disadvantaged, especially because of the unequal access to resources (e.g. education and capital) and the privileged status of Han Chinese on the labor market.

Since 2012, the India-based Karmapa Lama, head of the oldest reincarnation lineage and school of Tibetan Buddhism, has expressed support for the Dalai Lama on several occasions: He has declared that he has complete confidence in the current Dalai Lama with regard to the successor to the Dalai Lama. [4] Ogyen Trinley Dorje was first appointed Karmapa Lama by Beijing and was later confirmed by the Dalai Lama. Some observers see the internet-savvy Ogyen Trinley Dorje as a possible bridge builder to Beijing, others suspect him of being a bought spy.

History of the conflict

Today's conflict began with the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the subsequent announcement by Mao Zedong that he would also "liberate" Tibet. In 1950/51 the People's Liberation Army advanced as far as Lhasa. In May 1951, representatives of the Tibetan and Chinese governments signed the "17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet", which establishes China's sovereignty over Tibetan territories and the stationing of troops while recognizing regional political autonomy and clergy rule. The Dalai Lama had approved the document by telegram. Like other parts of the exile Tibetan community, he later described the signing as "enforced by force of arms".

Growing dissatisfaction among Tibetans in the face of increasing social and political control over Beijing eventually led to an open revolt. Thousands are believed to have been killed in the largest uprising in Lhasa on March 10, 1959. The Dalai Lama, a large part of his administration and around 80,000 Tibetans fled to India. In 1965, the Chinese government founded the Tibet Autonomous Region in the former area of ​​influence of the Dalai Lama.

As part of the reform and opening up policy of 1978/79, Beijing allowed religious activities within the framework of political control (including the forced denial of the Dalai Lama's authority by clergy). In 1995 the Dalai Lama and Beijing designated two different Tibetan children as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second highest spiritual leader. The whereabouts of the monk appointed by the Dalai Lama is not known. Human rights organizations accuse Beijing of kidnapping and imprisoning him.

In the dispute over the status question of Tibet, both sides interpret the history of the region differently. The Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala refers to the declaration of independence of the 13th Dalai Lama after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. At that time, it was not recognized by other states. Due to the internal unrest in China caused by wars, Tibet was de facto independent from 1911 to 1949. China emphasizes, however, that the Tibetan territories were incorporated into Chinese territory as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), and that affiliation was never interrupted by any other political sovereignty.


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Han, Enze / Paik, Christopher (2014): Dynamics of Political Resistance in Tibet: Religious Repression and Controversies of Demographic Change, in: The China Quarterly, No. 217, pp. 69-98.

Holz, Carsten (2017): Challenges of Chinese investment in Tibetan areas, MEEICS Experts Podcast No. 40

Ma, Rong (2012): Population and Society in Contemporary Tibet, Hong Kong: Hongkong University Press.

Shaw, Steve (2017): China Tears Down the Tibetan City in the Sky, in: The Diplomat, August 3.

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Zenz, Adrian (2020): Xinjiang’s System of Militarized Vocational Training Comes to Tibet. China Brief Volume 20, Issue 17, September 22, 2020.


Website of the blog High Peak Blue Earth

Website of the exile Tibetan news portal Phayul.org

Radio Free Asia website

Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy website