Tenzin Norgay

Tibetans largely unaware of protests in Chinese cities or the spark of change

As the world scrutinized the anti-regime and anti-Xi protests in Chinese cities beginning last weekend, Tibetans inside CCP-ruled Tibet remain largely unaware of the events shaping up in China. Tibetans notice the sudden stepping up of restrictions in their lives and an increase in public announcements in their hometowns beginning Nov. 27 but remain puzzled over the reason.

Impact of China protests in Tibet

On the day of protests in Chinese cities, the Office of the Leading Group for Lhasa’s Response to the New Coronavirus Pneumonia Epidemic issued an announcement titled “Notice of Behavior” to Tibetans in Lhasa. While COVID-related public notices are frequently issued, the “Notice of Behavior” dated Nov. 27 is extraordinarily long and comprehensive in laying out the prohibitions and the relevant laws applicable for punishment. The notice carried 44 points on prohibited behaviors with point number 28 warning that “Those who use the novel coronavirus infection pneumonia epidemic to create, spread rumors, incite secession, undermine national unity, or incite subversion of state power, overthrow the socialist system are suspected of and shall be held criminally responsible for violating Article 103, paragraph 2, of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China and Article 105, paragraph 2 of the crime of secession or incitement to subvert state power.”

The “notice of behavior” was backed up with reinforcement of law enforcement. The Jamestown Foundation’s senior fellow Willy Wo-Lap Lam wrote that the party’s Central Military Commission had deployed more People’s Armed Police and soldiers to big cities as well as to Xinjiang and Tibet. However, police and military personnel have been ordered to act with restraint on a selective basis and to minimize the number of arrests of residents or students.”

Deployment of armored vehicles in front of Lhasa’s sacred Jokhang temple (Photo via Radio Free Asia)

A day after protests erupted in Chinese cities, the Party Secretary of “Tibet Autonomous Region,” Wang Junzheng, presiding over a standing committee meeting, issued instructions to prioritize stability and struggle against separatists to safeguard the political security of China.

On Nov. 28, the authorities suspended the religious activities in Kardze Monastery in Sichuan, leaving the monks and the local Tibetans puzzled over the reason. Monks in the monastery could not congregate for their religious offering prayers and local religious Tibetans’ access to the monastery was limited.

Similarly, Tibetans and others in Xining in Qinghai were ordered by the authorities to stay confined to their homes beginning the evening of Nov. 27. While the authorities came for home visits to assess the COVID situation, the public were prohibited from leaving their homes.

Party Secretary, Wang Junzheng, presiding over the standing committee meeting on November 28. (Photo via state media)


Since the loss of lives in the horrific burning of an apartment building in Xinjiang catalyzed the protests in Chinese cities by the students and urban middle class, it is deducible that information travels from the far west to east rapidly. But the reverse is not true, at least in terms of spontaneity in Tibet. The only point of view that travels from China to Tibet nonstop is in the form of propaganda and decrees issued by Zhongnanhai in Beijing and executed on the ground by the party and government cadres.

The protests in Chinese cities are remarkable for their leaderless characteristic and spread throughout China, which was not seen even during the 1989 Tiananmen protest. When the Chinese elite spoke out in unison, the party budged in mollifying its social contract with the Chinese people. COVID restrictions across the Chinese heartland are being eased amidst protest participants being tracked down and digital traces of the protests being erased one person at a time. Despite the party’s show of power, by and large the Chinese people won in this protest.

But what about the Tibetans in Tibet and Uyghurs in Xinjiang or East Turkestan, as the Uyghurs prefer to call their homeland?

Double standards

It is noteworthy that there wasn’t a single concurrent solidarity protest in both Xinjiang and Tibet. It should be noted that while information from the far west travels rapidly to the Chinese heartland in the east, the reverse is not true. This is glaringly clear from the current round of protests in China. Tibetans by and large were unaware of the massive but quickly cooled down protests in China. When asked, a Tibetan in Lhasa told the International Campaign for Tibet, “ I have not heard about the protests in China. I think 95% of the Tibetans would be unaware of the protests in Chinese cities.”

Second, unlike the protests by Chinese in China, protests in Tibet and Xinjiang are perpetually labeled as “separatism” or “extremism” irrespective of their genuine grievances and aspirations. In Tibet, as noted above, the party is ready to crush a nonexistent protest in the name of “anti-separatism” and “stability” while the events were unfolding in the Chinese cities.

Third, in the eyes of the party, the Chinese demands are legitimate but the Tibetan demands would be “separatism” if a concurrent protest sparks off in Tibet. This is true not only from the protests in China this week but also observed during the Chinese migrants’ protest in Lhasa a little over a month ago. Because of the suffocating COVID measures in Lhasa, when the Chinese migrants staged a coordinated and large-scale protest on Oct. 28 to be allowed back to their hometowns, they were on their way home the next day. They exited so quickly that the authorities had a hard time clearing the traffic from Lhasa to China. It must be noted that Tibetans’ participation in the Chinese migrants’ protest in Lhasa was minimal except for a possible few joining them.

Change brewing up

While a horrific fire in Xinjiang catalyzed the protests in China this week with the Chinese venting out their frustration at COVID controls on their lives to the point of uttering “Xi Jinping, step down”, none of the protesters in China shouted “Free Tibet” or “Free Xinjiang.” The Chinese urban middle class and the students could relate their lives under COVID lockdowns to those burned to death in an apartment building under COVID lockdown in the far west. But they still couldn’t empathize with how it feels to live a suffocating and controlled life from day one of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

But that seems to be changing.

Unlike their kin at home, Chinese in solidarity protests in foreign countries, most prominently in the United States, uttered the previously unheard of during Chinese protests even in foreign countries. Some of the protesters shouted the unimaginable “Free Tibet, Free Xinjiang” during their solidarity protests for their compatriots at home.

One may dismiss this as mere symbolism or an “isolated case.” One voice in a country of 1.4 billion people does not change things is what is often argued.

But in a changing China, leaders throughout China’s history of protests and revolutions in the past two centuries have almost all the time carried home a spark lit and ideas sharpened in foreign countries. It might not be different this time round as well thanks to COVID.

Shigatse nomenklatura

Beijing tightly controls Tibet despite the core leadership of the Chinese Communist Party sitting at large in Zhongnanhai palace thousands of miles away from Tibet. Besides the “inspection tours” to Tibet by the top leaders, the daily governance and control are carried by cadres in an evolving large and complex party-state bureaucracy. For the party, cadre management is essential for managing state-subnational region relations. The personnel allocation and supervision system is a system revolutionary China inherited from Stalin. The nomenklatura are an elite and politically reliable officials approved by the CCP to hold key party and government bureaucratic positions, with great power over those below them, answerable only to those higher in the hierarchy, which is the core of the authoritarian top-down command and control system.[1]

The nomenklatura system, despite its impact on Tibetan and Chinese lives, remains obscure to the wider world. This blog post dives into the newly available data from Shigatse (Chinese: Rikaze) to reveal how party power over personnel warps China’s ability to understand those it rules. This blog post analyzes leadership in the 17 counties and one district in Shigatse prefecture-level city. For analytical purposes, Samdruptse district—the only district in urban Shigatse—is treated as a county.

Based on imperial China’s principle of “law of avoidance” in appointing and rotating regional officials assigned to nonnative jurisdictions, the CCP generally follows the norm in appointing nonnative officials to directly supervise areas under its control for compliance with central directives. Like the imperial authorities, the most trusted nonnative officials with loyalty to the center are given charge of politically restive and highly sensitive posts to co-opt and control the subnational regions.[2] In the 70 years that Beijing has governed Tibet, no Tibetan has been appointed as the party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. At the county level also, Han Chinese party secretaries predominantly occupy the position.

For the CCP, maintaining control over subnational authorities down to the neighborhood level—in contrast to the imperial court maintaining control up to the county level—is a critical political imperative for regime security. Unlike the late Qing imperial bureaucracy, which had 20,000 officials in the whole of China, the People’s Republic of China has 7 million cadres in the Party and government offices to govern people down to the neighborhood level.[3] The party appoints loyal leaders for effective control and direct supervision of areas for compliance with central directives conflicting with local interests, especially those in Tibet.

Although it is usually kept a secret, the party periodically uses its discretion in publishing its nomenklatura list depending on political and strategic needs. The Chinese state media’s recent open publication of the Soviet-style nomenklatura in Shigatse prefecture-level city is believed to be in response to the need for political communications and a road map among the insiders of the large and complex bureaucracy crucial for sustaining Beijing’s rule.

Map of Shigatse in the “Tibet Autonomous Region”. Image credit: Keithonearth under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Shigatse is big and strategic. Sharing international borders mostly with Nepal, Bhutan and India (the southern nine out of 18 counties share international border), the land mass of Shigatse prefecture-level city (70,271 sq mi) in southwest Tibet approximately corresponds to the combined land mass of Nepal (56,956 sq mi) and Bhutan (14,824 sq mi). Like all territories under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Leninist principles of party organization and state-society relations apply to Shigatse as well to maintain the party’s power and the domination of Chinese over Tibetans. Although the nomenklatura system allows for nominal representation of Tibetans in the government bureaucracy, Chinese dominate all the strategic party bodies with real power or are strategically embedded in bureaus where Tibetans are the majority.

Chinese domination of the county party bodies

In China’s party-state bureaucracy, the party bodies are where the power lies and the vital decisions are made. The government in charge of day-to-day work is strictly controlled and guided by the party bodies. In this light, whoever dominates the party bodies, also controls the government implementing the policy decisions.

All the party bodies in Shigatse’s county-level governance are undoubtedly dominated by Han Chinese cadres posted in Tibet. Tibetans whose expertise in local affairs are critical for the Han outsiders in developing policies are represented in positions beneath those held by the Chinese.

The 18 counties in Shigatse are dominated by Han Chinese dispatched to distant Tibet because they have been assessed as loyal to the party. Party secretaries take charge of political affairs and in setting strategies for their counties. Fourteen out of 18 (78%) county-level party secretaries are Chinese except for four Tibetan party secretaries in rural Panam, Ngamring, Rinpung and Khangmar counties. The deputy party secretaries in the 18 counties are also mostly Chinese, accounting for 54.5% of deputy party secretaries. In all counties there are between three to four deputy party secretaries, with one of them holding the “aid Tibet” cadre post. “Aid-Tibet” will be discussed later in this blog. Not only at the provincial, regional or municipal level, the standing committee of the CCP is the most powerful decision-making body where the seat of power lies at the county level as well. The county party standing committees are also disproportionately represented by 110 Chinese accounting for 64% of the membership, and Tibetans accounting for 33% of the total membership. The composition of the party standing committees are important for county governance and therefore carefully selected by the provincial leadership to maintain the party’s power down the hierarchy.

The other party entities in the Shigatse nomenklatura are also dominated by Chinese. Seventy-eight percent of the 18 county secretaries of Commission of Discipline Inspection are Chinese, whereas 58% of the deputy secretaries are Tibetans (usually a Chinese and Tibetan deputy secretary in each county). The directors of the Supervisory Committee are also dominated by Chinese at 78% or 14 out of 18 Directors.

Tibetan majority government and legislative bodies

With the policies and strategic directions set by the county standing committee of the CCP, the government oversees the day-to-day county governance work. In a party-state system, government is subservient to the ruling party. In government entities, Tibetans are well represented. It must be noted that most of the government workers also hold CCP membership, which ensures that the interests of the CCP and power override the Tibetan majority government. The governor of a county also holds the concurrent designation of the county deputy party secretary. Every Tibetan knows the party is in command, and state officials must obey.

The 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law requires autonomous regions and counties to be represented by the ethnic people who are expected to be intermediaries of the Chinese state with their knowledge of the society from the inside. However, representation alone does not guarantee benevolent governance, especially when the Tibetans as intermediaries of the Chinese state are expected to give top priority to regime stability and power. Tibetans in the county government are essentially intermediaries who know their society from inside and whose mediation is relied upon for state legibility and competency. Article 17 of China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law requires that “the head of an autonomous county shall be a citizen of the nationality exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned … who direct the work of the people’s government at their respective levels.” Seventy-eight percent, or 14 out of 18, county governors in Shigatse are Tibetans, whereas 56%, or 10 out of 18, vice governors are Chinese.

A Tibetan majority government headed by a Tibetan governor at the county level, like the regional level for responsive governance, does not necessarily mean a democratic or locally accountable governance. The Tibetans in the county government act as insiders and intermediaries of the Chinese state by providing their knowledge of the society, relationships, and experience in service of the party-state. Their role is implementing the hardline policies driven by the regional higher-ups, who in turn are guided by their principals in Beijing. Ethnic Tibetan cadres facilitating outsider ethnic Han-developed hardline policies and managing societal backlash against the policies is useful for the party-state regime. This state practice is like imperial China’s personnel management in the Chinese heartland. Ethnic Manchu Qing emperors ruled China and the Chinese by appointing insider and politically trustworthy ethnic Manchus as military viceroys and ethnic Han as governors with their extensive local knowledge and experience for the ethnic Manchu’s empire-state building.[4]

In the two legislative bodies at the county level, Tibetans also account for most of the leadership positions. Because of the constitution’s fundamental principle of democratic centralism, the congresses at the lower-level function as extensions of the central government answerable to the “unified leadership” in Beijing.

In the Chinese political system, legislative bodies hardly initiate political legislation, which is true at the center as well as at the county level. Legislatures enact the will of central leaders. However, legislation on economic affairs is relatively less constrained if the party directives are not violated. Nine (50%) chairmen of the county people’s congresses in Shigatse are Tibetan, whereas 54 (78%) of the vice chairmen are also Tibetan. The chairmen of the county Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference are mostly Tibetans at 72% in 13 out of 18 counties, while the Chinese hold 75% of the vice chairman positions, or 54 out of 69 vice chairmen of the county CPPCC.

The composition of the top leaders of the Shigatse county-level legal system is peculiarly 50% for both Tibetans and Chinese. The composition is one of a perfect balance between Han Chinese and Tibetans, as in the Chinese dualistic notion of yin and yang. However, the perfect balance is only surface-level deep. The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China points out that various internal and external mechanisms limit the ability of China’s judiciary to make independent decisions. For instance, local governments interfere in judicial matters to protect local industries and to shield themselves from liability in administrative lawsuits. Since local governments appoint the judges, control their salaries and court finances, they can influence judicial decisions. The CCP approves the judicial appointments, as well as enforces party discipline in courts. The party also influences the courts through the Political-Legal Committees in the local government that influence judicial cases. The procuratorate and the people’s congresses supervise the work of judges and the courts. The procuratorate’s dual role in prosecuting and supervising the legal process makes the Chinese legal system anything but balanced and free of conflict of interest.

Counterpart assistance policy

A further complexity is added by the aid-Tibet policy that links wealthy Han Chinese cities and provinces with specific counties in Tibet. Some of the cadres sent to operate this “counterpart assistance” program rank high in the nomenklatura, as they are designated as the link for economic construction of Tibet and project implementation on the ground. In every county in Shigatse, an “aid-Tibet” cadre is present at the rank of deputy party secretary in the party hierarchy and deputy vice governor in the government. All the top 36 aid-Tibet cadres in Shigatse are Han Chinese from the eastern edge of mainland China to make Shigatse a political and economic zone favorable for Han migrants. This matters because they are answerable to the wealthy province that appoints them, incentivizing them to skew “aid-Tibet” projects to benefit their principals rather than help Tibetans to benefit from state investment, abandoning a Tibetan-first development strategy.

In 1979, the first “National Border Defense Conference” held by the central committee began the gradual institutionalization of the “counterpart support” policy replacing the arbitrary and random “assistance” and selection of cadres to Tibet in the initial years after Beijing’s occupation of Tibet. With the proposal for the state to increase capital and material input in border and minority areas, pairing of mainland Chinese provinces and municipalities to the “backward and underdeveloped ethnic minority areas” was determined as the direction of development for the “common prosperity” of China.

The third Tibet Work Forum in 1994 was the turning point in officially establishing the basic framework of the counterpart “Aid-Tibet” system replacing the previous national counterpart assistance practice of uniformly selecting cadres from the central government to work. The third Forum decided that 14 provinces and the hinterland would support 44 counties in seven prefectures and cities in Tibet. The Forum launched 62 large-scale projects in the TAR, ushering in large-scale Han migration to Tibet. In theory, they were experts who could teach Tibetans, transferring specialist knowledge to locals. The counterpart “Aid-Tibet” system was further tweaked in the subsequent fourth Tibet Work Forum in 2001 to expand the scope of projects and mainland provincial pairing to Tibet to cover all the remaining counties and districts in the TAR.[5]

Four Chinese provinces and cities and two business enterprises are primarily assigned to “assist” Shigatse. Mainland China’s Shanghai, Shandong province, Heilongjiang province, Jilin province, oil giant Sinopec and Shanghai Baosteel are involved in Shigatse’s development. Each mainland city or province takes charge of a certain number of counties in Shigatse. For example, besides Kashgar in Xinjiang and Sizhou in Yunnan, Shanghai also runs projects in Gyantse county (counterpart Pudong new area), Dhingri county (counterpart Songjiang district), Sakya county (counterpart Xuhui district), Latse county (counterpart Yangpu district) and Dromo county (counterpart Putuo district) in Shigatse. Although four out of the five counties (Dromo county is semi-agricultural and semi-pastoral), 60% of the aid funds and projects are used by Shanghai for development at and below the county level to “modernize” rural Tibet.[6]

The “Rural vitalization strategy for modernized economy” proposed at the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017 is now being implemented in full force with self-congratulations on “shaking off poverty” in 2020 as required by the strategy. Officially, the target was met.

Urban-rural integration is the goal in the development blueprint in the recently launched “14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035.” Tightening rural governance and urbanizing rural Tibet is expected to further accelerate in the near term by further integration of Tibetan rural areas into China’s formal industries “assisted” by counterpart coastal cities and provinces.

Chinese cadres in Tibet

Securitizing Tibet, and surveilling and controlling the Tibetan population, has long been China’s top priority, with development depicted as the long-term solution. While the cadres in China’s nomenklatura system have long been considered by Beijing as the key to solving China’s Tibet problem, the cadres, and the projects they implement are unpopular among Tibetans.

The second wave of Han cadre migration to Tibet since the 1990s, although competent professionals with outstanding education from China’s top universities, has no interest in joining a conversation with the Tibetan community or learning the Tibetan language to understand the objects of their rule. The cadre turnover rate is high in Tibet, with most spending two to three years before promotion moving back to their native towns, having built up credentials for their career trajectory. Some simply resign and leave unexpectedly, unable to adjust to Tibet’s climate or for non-availability of services they are used to in wealthy urban areas. Altitude sickness is common. Although the first wave of revolutionary cadres was less educated, sent with the mission of being the proletariat class fighters, many were Chinese-Tibetan bilingual and integrated better into Tibetan society.[7]

Some of what we know comes from fieldwork research coming out of Shenzhen University. Taotao Zhao is a specialist on ethnic policy making and implementation processes in China. In her study of the cadres in Tibet, she argues that recruitment, minority cadre arrangement, evaluation and term of office have created obstacles to the cadres’ performance in Tibet. For the non-performance of the cadres, she points out that “the TAR’s current recruitment standard that targets highly professional ethnic Han cadres has attracted personnel with minimal intentions of integrating with the local community. Second, ethnic minority cadres are troubled by an identity crisis in which they are trusted neither by the local population nor their ethnic Han superiors. Third, cadre evaluation in the TAR has overemphasized social stability performance, which often overwhelms the cadres and encourages abuses of power. Fourth, the short term of office encourages cadres to pursue short-term outputs, regardless of policy outcomes, and presents challenges to the continuity of institutionalized policies.”

China’s nomenklatura system has enabled the party to maintain effective control of the state and the party’s power. However, the system does not serve the real interests of the Tibetan public except for the elite few. Yet the party is committed to maintaining the system rather than to institute an alternative system allowing Tibetans to have a say in their own lives. The party’s apparent fear of expanding the Tibetans’ participation in public affairs and decision making shut down any possibility of establishing an alternative structure of public servants. Instituting an independent watchdog to oversee and assess the cadres’ performance is also not an option. A free of conflict-of-interest watchdog would mean the party losing monopoly of its power. What remains on the ground is an institution that is imperfect, and state building continues to be a work in progress.

Shigatse nomenklatura in both Chinese and pinyin, and the percentage calculation of the cadre’s nationality at various designations is available to download here.


[1] John P. Burns, “The Chinese Communist Party’s Nomenklatura System as a Leadership Selection Mechanism: An Evaluation,” in The Chinese Communist Party in Reform (Routledge, 2006).

[2] John Fitzgerald, “Cadre Nation: Territorial Government and the Lessons of Imperial Statecraft in Xi Jinping’s China,” The China Journal 85 (January 1, 2021): 26–48.

[3] Bulman, David J., and Kyle A. Jaros. “Loyalists, Localists, and Legibility: The Calibrated Control of Provincial Leadership Teams in China.” Politics & Society 48, no. 2 (June 2020): 199–234.

[4] Ibid. 208.

[5] Lei Wang and Yunsheng Huang, “Research on the Evolution and Operating Characteristics of Counterpart Assistance Policies: Taking Counterpart Assistance to Tibet as an Example,” Journal of Southwest University for Nationalities (Humanities and Social Sciences Edition), no. 39(05) (February 26, 2018). Chinese language publication.

[6] Wei Lu, Hancun Yu, and Jie Yang, “Analysis of the Association between Aided Talents and Regional Development Based on the Coupling Model: Taking Shanghai’s Counterpart Support to Xigaze, Tibet as an Example,” Rural Economy and Technology 29 (20) (July 21, 2018). Chinese language publication.

[7] Taotao Zhao, “The Cadre System in China’s Ethnic Minority Regions: Particularities and Impact on Local Governance,” Journal of Contemporary China, February 26, 2021, 1–15.

China-US Exchange Foundation: Beijing’s front to bury Tibet in the US

The loudness and shrills of China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy today define the belligerent image of China’s foreign diplomacy. The counterproductive nature of that brand of Chinese diplomacy has led President Xi Jinping to recently recalibrate Chinese diplomacy to change the country’s international communication. While “wolf-warrior” diplomacy is loud and clear for all to see, what often goes unnoticed is Beijing’s deeper and more long-term strategy of influencing opinion through an invisible network of influencers. Beijing’s foreign diplomacy runs on twin tracks in not only brashly articulating its demands but also patiently wooing a new generation of Americans to a Sino-centric worldview. Converting Americans’ opinion of Tibet and Tibetans is a vital component of Beijing’s long-term strategy in America.

Changing the public discourse on Tibet

A US-based public relations firm’s decade-old disclosure document reflects Beijing’s strategy to control and shape American public opinion on Tibet. The document unearthed by the US media group Axios last year carried critical information previously unseen by observers, although Beijing’s foreign policy to condition foreign countries to its politically constructed narrative on Tibet is clear throughout the last decade.

Beijing stepped up global influence operations to neutralize the Tibet issue in the quest to whitewash China’s image in the post-2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. A popular uprising in Tibet preceded the Summer Olympics, China’s coming-out party on the global stage.

Neutralizing Tibet

Beijing’s strategy to neutralize the Tibet issue includes both internal and external dimensions to not only hide the reality in Tibet but to control the discourse internationally. Internally repression was not only heightened in Tibet, but Beijing also constructed “copper ramparts, iron wall” and “nets in the sky, traps on the ground” to shut down the borders and communication channels to convert Tibet into a securitized black box hyper-managed by the state. Internationally, Beijing stepped up its influence operations mainly in the West to dominate and shape public opinion toward its politically constructed narrative. The method to achieving the set goal included setting up front organizations, sending government delegations, reinforcing government NGOs, financing and flexing its market power to proactively influence foreign countries and their citizens toward Beijing’s official master narrative. The International Campaign for Tibet observed 55 Chinese delegations, comprising government officials, academics and religious figures, to spread Beijing’s official narrative on Tibet internationally between 2009 to early 2018. The United States was the top destination during the period to alter the public discourse on Tibet through non-public meetings.

The principal front organization

Concurrent to controlling the stories of Tibetans from Tibet, Beijing stepped up its influence operations overseas to drive international public opinion toward its official narrative on Tibet. The establishment of the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) unmistakably coincides with the year Beijing set out to boost its influence operations worldwide. Established in 2008, CUSEF functions as a front organization in Beijing’s United Front systemic approach for influence mission. Claiming to be an independent organization, the founder and current chairman of the CUSEF, Tung Chee-hua, is also a vice chairperson of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, one of China’s two legislative bodies with the mandate of shepherding everyone in the arms of the Communist Party of China.

The agent

CUSEF’s public relations firm Brown Lloyd James, now rebranded as BLJ worldwide, in its 2011 disclosure revealed its activities as an agent of its foreign principal CUSEF. Mitigating the Tibet issue in the United States is a key component of services for CUSEF.

Brown Lloyd James’ disclosure, as required under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, carries a comprehensive plan to shape American public opinion. While some of the program activities impact the Tibet issue in the US indirectly, changing American public opinion on Tibet toward Beijing’s narrative is undoubtedly a vital component of the plan.

Acknowledging that Beijing’s rule and injustices in Tibet are unpopular in American public opinion, BLJ Worldwide then claimed that Americans’ opinion of Beijing could be “improved and event[sic] reversed in the public perception, but not overnight.”

Emphasis on American youth

For goal execution, BLJ’s plan targeted high school students, journalists, politicians and academics as the primary target groups, as well the general American public. The American youth demographic receives particular emphasis in BLJ’s strategy to reverse the American public opinion on Tibet. This includes a long-term plan for influencing the next generation of US thought leaders toward Beijing’s narrative on Tibet. One of the methods for shifting the public discourse specified conducting a “long-term educational campaign to inform a younger generation of learners” toward Beijing’s historical narrative on Tibet.

Conducting a CUSEF-sponsored “thorough analysis” of four leading United States high-school textbooks’ coverage and portrayal of issues relating to Tibet and China, BLJ planned to influence editors and publishers of the textbooks for “countering the tide of public discourse” on Tibet.

The emphasis on youth in effect means that BLJ’s foreign principal CUSEF’s American engagement is long term, which may span decades as Chinese stratagems are always known to be.

Journalists to Tibet

For its role in informing the American public, journalists form a key target group to be influenced to steer American public opinion on Tibet toward Beijing’s narrative. In strategic planning for organizing media trips to China, BLJ cites as an example to cherry pick journalists for media trips to Tibet for favorable coverage as a follow-up to a “familiarized” ethnic minorities and “religious diversity” media trip to China. Attaching significance to the next generation of US journalists, partnerships between CUSEF and graduate journalism programs were proposed to arrange “familiarization trips” to China for the US journalism students during their winter and spring breaks.

Despite the long-term nature of the strategic plans, influencing U.S. journalists on Tibet has had little to no success thus far. As the fourth pillar of a vibrant and robust democracy, American journalists have seen through Beijing’s ruse of access through stage-managed media trips to Tibet to influence the journalists. Beijing’s tactic has had some success in influencing journalists from like-minded authoritarian states or the states in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, but those from Western liberal democracies in general have remained elusive to Beijing to date.

Goal of Chinese influence operations

The goal of the Chinese global influence operations is to dominate and bury the story of Tibet. Tibet’s story is one of Chinese military occupation and an ever-escalating repression and securitization in the past seven decades which are glossed over by Beijing as “70 years of peaceful liberation.” The story of Tibet touches humanity that has seen far too many wars, genocides, colonialism, oppression, and mass atrocities in history and continues to see them in the contemporary world. Beijing’s goal is to demolish the human story of Tibet and impose a Chinese state-centric narrative instead. It is a project in progress.

Long march to perfecting the state of surveillance in China

facial recognition

File photo of Hikvision’s facial recognition technology capable of recognizing “ethnic minorities”.

Three years ago, during a mock exercise Chinese police in Guiyang City challenged the BBC’s John Sudworth to go anywhere in the city without being found by them. Within seven minutes after the reporter left the surveillance control room, he was caught by security officers based on his location caught on camera. Through this mock exercise, China sent a loud message: the Chinese state is omniscient and omnipresent.

A lot has been written about the technological surveillance prowess of China and its trialing in Tibet prior to wider rollout. To a significant degree, surveillance aided by technology has deterred human rights activists in China for the fear of being caught by the state’s eyes all around them. Deterrence of freedom and rights activism in Tibet has also taken a hit due to stepped-up surveillance in Tibet in the wake of popular protests against Chinese rule in the spring of 2008. This raises the pertinent question of how powerful the surveillance technology is and whether China has perfected surveillance technology. Making the location of citizens scrutable and legible to surveillance data gathering is not the same as knowing what they think or say or intend. How useful is this knowledge to a party-state seeking complete control?

Sinologists Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg set out to answer these questions. In their quest to understand the State of Surveillance in China, Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg asked six questions: “To what degree is Xinjiang a model for the rest of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? Who, exactly, are local governments elsewhere trying to track? Why do they think such surveillance is necessary? How much does the application of national surveillance plans vary from place to place? How costly is it to local governments? And how well do any of these systems actually work?”

Based upon analysis of 76,000 surveillance technology procurement documents on the government procurement network spanning 16 years between 2004-2020, the authors conclude that China has not perfected surveillance technology although the intent is clearly “to eliminate any public spaces where people might remain unwatched.” China is not yet an Orwellian state as Chinese leaders would want us to believe to project the infallibility of the Communist Party of China. But it may be well on course to become one in the long run by training both machines and humans.

The authors argue that the surveillance technology and conceptual framework is the same across China, although scale and purpose of deployment may vary from location to location. While dissidents and potential criminals may be the object of surveillance in parts of the Chinese heartland, all members of a particular “ethnic” or religious group are targeted for their “ethnic” or religious affiliation. This finding comports with what Tibetans and Uyghurs have experienced for several decades solely due to their distinct identity and the socio-political-historical context under which the two territories and peoples became “ethnic” minorities under Beijing’s rule.

Parsing through 76,000 documents surely is overwhelming, and explaining the nuanced findings is a huge challenge without boring your audience to death with statistical and technical jargon. The authors skillfully told the story by doing a comparative analysis of three case studies in terms of demand and deployment of surveillance technology. The case studies focused on Shawan County in far west Xinjiang, Xijiao in southeast coastal Guangdong province, and Harbin in northeast Heilongjiang province. The three locations are scattered on the map of China, thereby making the case studies representative of the research conclusion.

The authors found that the local authorities have wide latitude in deciding the type of surveillance technology, and the scale of deployment in the three places varies according to threat perception. In Xiqiao, surveillance is deployed to check daily activities of the people with a focus on “key persons,” a term for types of people the authorities view as dangerous. Officials in Harbin were working on surveillance capacity to predict where the city residents will go and what they are likely to do. In Xinjiang, unlike other parts of China, surveillance pervades daily life not only through technology but the massive presence of “convenience police stations” and security checkpoints throughout the region. Other parts of China pale in comparison to the intense scrutiny that exist in Xinjiang although the technology and conceptual frameworks are the same as in other parts of China.

The following are notable takeaways from the report:

  • The pervasive and invasive surveillance system in Xinjiang is designed to target the Uyghurs as a group. It is discriminatory by design to distinguish Uyghurs from other groups present in the region. For example, the 8 million Han Chinese in Xinjiang accounting for 40% of the Xinjiang population are not subject to the same level of surveillance meted out to the Uyghurs. The authorities target Uyghurs as a group instead of focusing on outsiders, dissidents and criminals like in other parts of China.
  • The state of surveillance technology, conceptual frameworks and programs in Xinjiang is not unique, although the scale of deployment and the intensity are when compared to other regions in China.
  • Purchase of surveillance technology has increased dramatically in the past two years.
  • 14 billion RMB ($2.1 billion) was spent between 2016 and 2020 for deploying the “Sharp Eyes” program alone, in addition to expenditures on other surveillance projects. Surveillance expenditure sometimes reached half of the annual total public security expenses.
  • Last year, at least 998 counties spread across China purchased surveillance equipment of some type.
  • Facial recognition cameras are not omnipresent, although they are gaining traction in deployment.
  • The Public Security Bureau accounts for 65% of purchase of surveillance technology.

Surveillance in Tibet

The authors mention Tibet only one time in the 17-page report. But this does not mean that Tibet is not a concern in terms of deployment of surveillance technology. In fact, both Tibet and Xinjiang are at the same extreme end of the surveillance spectrum in China. Both are outliers in terms of scale compared to surveillance practice in the Chinese heartland. Both have a massive presence of so-called “convenience police stations” and security checkpoints installed across their homeland. Surveillance technology is being used not only to monitor “criminals” but for “social management” of Tibetans and “social stability” in Tibet.

A simple keyword query for Tibet in the Chinese government procurement network reveals that the public security bureau in Tibet has no intent of scaling down the level of surveillance already in place. Besides the usual oppressive tools of choice, it is most likely that drones will soon be part of the surveillance mix to monitor the Tibetans.

A wide range of documents are available on the Chinese government procurement network (www.ccgp.gov.cn), but three items of interest in terms of recent procurement notices will be highlighted here.

  • Genome surveillance   Based on anecdotes, it has been known for long that DNA of Tibetans is being profiled by the state. The project does not seem to be complete yet, although some observers had earlier reported the project to have been completed. Select recent procurement notices for DNA database construction (July 8, 2019), DNA reagents and Consumables (July 21, 2020), Ultra-micro magnetic bead method DNA extraction kit (June 27, 2020) show that it is an ongoing project. Since DNA profiling is highly controversial, the strategy so far appears to be to keep the project out of view to avoid condemnation for mass profiling. But recent procurement notices reveal that the strategy has changed, as the public security bureau is actively bidding for rigorous DNA profiling; one such procurement notice comes with a price tag of 1 billion yuan. DNA data of Tibetans is scrutinized intensely by the Chinese authorities. Geneticist Yves Moreau, an engineer and professor at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, said in an interview with NPR that the DNA profiles of “Tibetans are studied 40 times more intensely than the Hans, and the Uighurs are studied 30 times more intensely than the Hans.” In Crackdown on Genomic Surveillance, Moreau wrote that half of the genome studies of Tibetans and Uyghurs are authored by the police force, military or judiciary.

    The official justification to profile DNA is to catch criminals. However, such a justification is problematic, as a wide range of Tibetan activism for language, environment, culture, freedom of opinion and expression, etc., is criminal by the official Chinese definition. In recent years, even discussing the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach for conflict resolution has been criminalized through law.

    DNA-profiling technology has made great headway in solving crimes worldwide, and it is legitimate for law-enforcement agencies to use the technology with stringent safeguards and oversight. However, use of such technology is problematic in Tibet and in China, where the Communist Party of China is the final authority free of any oversight for human rights abuses.

    It is not outlandish to imagine Chinese leaders ordering targeted extradition of Tibetans in exile by furnishing DNA of family members back home as proof of their Chinese citizenship to foreign governments. For example, last month Indonesia extradited three Uyghurs to China instead of Turkey on the merit of China producing DNA of their family members in Xinjiang to prove their Chinese citizenship. China’s claim of universal jurisdiction of its national security law also throws open a range of imaginable situations under which DNA profiles can be used for extradition of dissidents (read: criminals in Chinese) including Tibetans from foreign countries.
  • Drone surveillance   Use of drones for domestic surveillance is another controversial issue worldwide. Drones to surveil civilian Tibetans has not been observed so far—at least publicly—but that looks to change soon. In light of a procurement notice (June 22, 2020) on the Chinese government procurement network, the Lhasa Public Security Bureau will soon deploy drones to surveil the Tibetans in Lhasa.

    In the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, journalists and observers have reported authorities in China stepping up collection of citizen’s personal data through a variety of health surveillance apps. With the deployment of talking drones, authorities warned ordinary Chinese citizens to confine themselves in their homes at the height of Covid outbreak in China.

    But the deployment of drones to surveil Tibetans would be altogether at a different level given the political context under which the technology will be put to use. The Chinese authorities already operate with a combat mindset in Tibet. It is anticipated that sending drones to surveil Tibetans won’t be as mundane as ordering someone to lock themselves up in the house to escape from Covid.
  • Big data analytics   Big data analytics feature prominently in the government of China’s plan to surveil and control everyone under the rule of Beijing. For Tibetans and Uyghurs as the two minority groups most distrusted for “stability maintenance,” Chinese security authorities deploy big data analytics and policing techniques to surveil and control Tibetans. Although it is not unique to Tibet, a skewed dataset is a major concern when compared to big data analytics in other parts of China.

    Analysts, including Batke and Ohlberg, point to the ease of generating vast amounts of data, which are then analyzed according to algorithms that predetermine propensity for criminalized behaviors according to rules, categories written into the algorithms. The naïve faith in high tech creates the illusion that algorithms are objective and capable of discovering criminal intent well in advance. In reality the old GIGO maxim holds: garbage in, garbage out.

    Besides the TAR CCP’s procurement notice for a classical video surveillance network (July 10, 2019), the public security bureau of the Tibet Autonomous Region is actively building cloud computing for data sets of Tibetans in the TAR in view of select procurement notices for cloud investigation (October 22, 2020) and Nagchu City cloud video surveillance network (September 10, 2019). These clouds are expected to be plugged into the national level police cloud maintained by China’s Ministry of Public Security. According to the Rand Corporation’s Chinese Views of Big Data Analytics, “The MPS [Ministry of Public Security Bureau] is exploiting new data sets that it plans to centralize in a ‘police cloud’. Eventually accessible to all provincial and municipal police authorities, the police cloud will increase the ease with which police can make connections across disparate databases—including non-crime-related systems, such as housing and employment records—to rapidly identify people, places, and businesses of interest.”

    The goal for building a police cloud is to preempt any demonstration or protest by Tibetans by proactively tracking activities of all Tibetans. Those deemed to harbor “ill thoughts” against the government or who have expressed their dissent in the past form the focus of people in big data analytics.

    Human Rights Watch warned that the police cloud “scoops up information from people’s medical history, to their supermarket membership, to delivery records … the Police Cloud system track where the individuals have been, who they are with, and what they have been doing, as well as make predictions about their future activities.” In other words, privacy is not a right, but a luxury Tibetans in Tibet can only dream of.

    Predictive policing based on big data analytics compounds the issue of human rights abuses committed by Chinese law enforcement agencies. Preempting the “culprits” before they have even carried out any activism is highly worrisome, given Chinese authorities’ track record of decades-old repression in Tibet and racial biases against Tibetans. Predictive policing is already a reality in Xinjiang that looks to be on the verge of replication in Tibet.

The Communist Party of China’s reliance on surveillance technology to govern everyone under its rule is widely known. The party wants the people it rules to believe that it is infallible by internalizing fear of its surveillance prowess. Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg’s research gives the crucial analytical conclusion that the surveillance technology in China is not perfect. Despite its deep-seated intent, the party still has a long march ahead of it in perfecting the panopticon system. The implication of this research work is that the Chinese surveillance state is navigable, and there is still time to reverse or at least stop the state of surveillance at its current stage. The party’s mastery of surveillance at the expense of the people it rules is no longer confined within the domestic borders of China. Over 80 countries worldwide in awe of the government of China’s ability to control its citizens import surveillance technology from China. The state of surveillance technology in China has direct implications for liberties and freedoms of everyone on the face of the planet. The liberties and freedoms of people across the globe, irrespective of the political systems under which they live, are tied to whether the surveillance technology in China is perfected or not.

Tibetans have reason to fear China’s delusions of omniscience and omnipotence. Yet in the long run, more and more Tibetans are criminalized, classified as security threats and punished, without having done anything criminal. This only alienates Tibetans further and undermines the credibility of the state. China will eventually discover this has been counterproductive.