New legislation by the Chinese government to introduce mandatory "ethnic unity" in Tibet has raised concern among the Tibetan diaspora, with Tibetan leaders warning of demographic change in the autonomous region.
“The ethnic unity law passed by Tibet Autonomous Region’s legislature is China’s attempt at the complete Sinicization of Tibetan people,” Ngodup Tsering, Dalai Lama and Central Tibetan Administration’s representative to North America, told VOA.
Sinicization is a term used by China critics referring to a process by the Communist Party to bring groups that are traditionally non-Chinese under the influence of the ruling Han Chinese.
“China’s attempt at the complete assimilation of Tibetan people over the last 60 years has not been successful. So they are passing this law to undermine the Tibetan language, culture and Tibetan identity, and working towards the complete assimilation of Tibetan people into the mainstream Han Chinese. So this is totally unacceptable to the Tibetan people,” Ngodup said.
The legislation, "Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region," was passed by the People’s Congress of Tibet and is poised to take effect in May. It asks for combating separatism and “strengthening ethnic unity” along a wide spectrum of government, business and community organizations.
Article three of the legislation states that “safeguarding oneness of motherland, strengthening ethnic unity, and taking an unambiguous stand against separatism are common responsibilities of all people from all ethnic groups.”
Article four of the law asks for establishing “model districts” of ethnic unity in the region as a way to promote development and stability in Tibet. The model, it says, will “guarantee for advancing the people of all ethnic groups to build a better home, create a better future, and share the glorious dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Article 46 asks organizations to give “education” to their employees who disturb ethnic unity or spread separatist ideas. If the offense is deemed too severe, “public security bureaus will handle the related organization or individuals according to law.”
Some Tibetan analysts say the new law is a way for officials in Beijing to bring more Hans to settle in Tibet and decimate the local culture seen by the communist regime as a threat to national unity. The Himalayan region, they warn, could be bracing for a policy similar to neighboring Xinjiang, where Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been exposed to a major crackdown since 2015.
Sangey Kyap, a senior researcher at the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala, India, told VOA that the law introduces a series of punishments without specifying what constitutes a disruption of ethnic unity.
“As such, this can mean that in the future, anyone discussing the preservation of Tibetan culture, language and Tibetan unity can also be punished or disciplined for disrupting national unity,” he told VOA, adding the law is extended to include religious groups, villages, schools and even family members.
“In any multiethnic democratic society, the government doesn’t make a law targeting a specific group of ethnic people with the aim to ensure national unity since the prevailing law treats everyone equally. Similarly, there isn’t any law aimed at strengthening national unity among the majority Han Chinese,” he said.
According to Kunga Tashi, a New York-based China observer, the law particularly targets young Tibetans who are aiming to preserve Tibetan identity and culture, despite difficult circumstances.
“In the past 60 years, China has relentlessly tried hard to change Tibetan people’s way of thinking and mindset. The adopting of this law shows that China has not succeeded in doing that, and now in the name of law and regulation, they are trying to achieve that through a different means,” Tashi told VOA.
‘Separatism and terrorism’
Tibet is an internationally recognized autonomous region in China’s southwest and has a population of about 3.5 million. A Tibetan uprising in 1959 was suppressed by the Chinese government, which forced their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee to India.
Chinese officials say the Dalai Lama is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who tries to incite hatred and violence to establish an independent Tibetan state. Chinese authorities in recent years have introduced several measures to fight “separatism” and “terrorism” in the region, including by introducing tight security measures and strict surveillance on Tibetans seen as a threat.
Local sources told VOA that Chinese authorities earlier this month questioned several Tibetans using the social media app Kwai, accusing them of using the app to spread separatist ideas.
People who have direct knowledge of the event told VOA's Tibetan service that Tibetan users with many followers on the app were made to sign a document detailing conditions of online broadcasting practices and were warned of "harsh consequences" if they "are not careful with what they post."
VOA's Kunsang Tenzin from Kathmandu, Nepal, and Asim Kashgarian from Washington contributed to this report.