Veiled behind the Himalayas, occupying a frigid plateau twice the size of Texas dubbed the “roof of the world,” Tibet is truly a land apart. Tibetans share a lineage with Chinese, Mongol, and Siberian peoples, though are distinguished by a genetic mutation that enables them to thrive at over 13,000 ft. above sea level, as well as by a number of stark cultural differences, including their own language, religion, and customs.
Traditionally, Tibetans rarely washed, believing it bad for their health (at the high altitude’s icy temperatures, maybe with some justification). It is also a matriarchal society, where women have been able to choose to bear children with several different lovers without reproach. And Chinese mores like removing shoes at the door are utterly alien.
Yet an accelerating assimilation campaign waged by the ruling Chinese Communist Party is threatening to utterly erase Tibet’s unique way of life. The latest salvo was revealed Monday, when three U.N. experts warned that roughly 1 million Tibetan children have been separated from their families and forcibly placed into Chinese state-run boarding schools, as part of efforts to absorb them “culturally, religiously and linguistically” into the dominant Han Chinese culture.
The scheme involves placing children from rural communities into residential schools, where lessons are conducted solely in Mandarin Chinese with scant reference to Tibetan history, religion, and certainly not exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. The result is that many children forget their native tongue and struggle to communicate with their parents when they return home, which is typically just for a week or two each year. While the proportion of Chinese students at boarding schools is around 20% nationwide, the U.N. experts believe the vast majority of Tibetan children are in large residential schools following the systematic shuttering of rural classrooms.
“The residential school system for Tibetan children appears to act as a mandatory large-scale program intended to assimilate Tibetans into majority Han culture, contrary to international human rights standards,” Fernand de Varennes, U.N. special rapporteur on minority issues; Farida Shaheed, special rapporteur on the right to education; and Alexandra Xanthaki, special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said in a joint statement.
It’s the latest case of a prolonged cultural assault on China’s minorities—chiefly Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongols—since strongman President Xi Jinping took office in 2012. The most egregious example is the extrajudicial detention of up to 2 million Uighurs and other Muslims in reeducation camps in western Xinjiang province, which the U.N. deems “crimes against humanity.”
When Xi came to power, many hoped that he would usher in a new era of religious and cultural tolerance. Xi’s mother, Qi Xin, practiced Tibetan Buddhism and his father, Xi Zhongxun, was a noted reformist who pioneered the economic liberalization of China’s southern province of Guangdong and was believed sympathetic to the Tibetan cause. (For decades, the elder Xi wore an Omega watch presented to him by a young Dalai Lama.)
However, their child’s tenure in charge of China has brought no relief to Tibetans, who have instead increasingly found their culture facing the prospect of complete erasure. While Tibetans have been under assaults of oscillating intensity since the People’s Liberation Army invaded in 1950, efforts have accelerated since a wave of anti-Chinese protests erupted in 2008 and a spate of grisly self-immolations began a year later. Ever since, Tibetans have been corralled into work groups and nomadic communities forced to settle in fixed housing schemes, with severe limitations on the activities of monks and worshipers. In August 2018, one activist who simply arranged Tibetan language classes was sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting separatism.”
The assimilation campaign has ramped up as Xi has engineered an ideological tightening that places the CCP in all aspects of public and private life. In August 2021, China’s Central Conference on Ethnic Affairs called on all ethnic groups to place the interests of the Chinese nation above all else. “This call re-affirmed the idea of building a modern and strong socialist state based on a single Chinese national identity,” say the U.N. experts. “In this context, initiatives to promote Tibetan language and culture are reportedly being suppressed, and individuals advocating for Tibetan language and education are persecuted.”
By contrast, the Chinese government insists that it is, in fact, safeguarding ethnic culture, and points to the new roads, railways, and hospitals born from state investment that have helped alleviate extreme poverty in Tibet. Sure enough, today Han visitors throng Tibetan temples in Lhasa and Xining, beguiled by an intoxicating religious fervor. Yet official promotion of ethnic culture is ultimately reductive—a pastiche of folk dances and songs for the tourist crowds.
The Threat of Tibet
Despite a pious populous and the Lost Horizon folklore, Tibet was never a pacifist utopia. Even after the introduction of Buddhism from India in the seventh century, Tibetans were a martial people, whose highly skilled horseback warriors marauded across central Asia, sacking cities and demanding tribute from rivals brought under their yoke. Shamans cast spells to guide their warriors’ swords and spears; overwhelmed tribes were punished by the amputation of noses, ears or hands.
Under emperor Songtsen Gampo, whose Nepali consort is credited for first bringing Buddhism to the frozen plateau, Tibetans controlled an empire to rival those of Genghis Khan and the Ottomans, even sacking China’s Tang dynasty capital Chang’an—modern day Xian—in 763. But the Tibetan empire splintered into a muddle of fiefdoms from the mid-ninth century, only coalescing into a strong, largely unified Tibet in 1642 when the current lineage of Dalai Lamas emerged. Even then, Tibet remained largely a client state of the prevailing Mongol empire. (The title of Dalai Lama, meaning “Lama from across the Ocean,” is Mongol in origin.)
While the CCP insists that the eastern part of Tibetan plateau had been part of the Qing dynasty since the early 18th century, they conveniently gloss over the fact that the Qing were Manchus from China’s northwest and nominally Tibetan Buddhists. Few Tibetans had even laid sight on a Han Chinese at the time of the communist invasion, known colloquially as “ngabgay,” or an event so catastrophic as to defy description. Although China had held Tibet under its control at various points in history, the territory had enjoyed “de facto independence” since they were last expelled in 1912, according to the International Commission of Jurists.
That ended with the arrival of Red Chinese troops in 1950 and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. Despite all the hardships that followed, Tibet has somehow clung onto its identity over the decades of suffocating privations. But the residential schools campaign threatens to make today’s Tibetans the last generation on the plateau that could culturally claim the name.
“China’s communist regime thinks that Tibetan culture, our distinct language and religion, is a threat to national security,” says Dorjee Tsetne, a member of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile based in northern India. “China’s aim is nothing less than to completely wipe out Tibet’s national identity.”