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China: ‘Benefit the Masses’ Campaign Surveilling Tibetans

Cadre Teams in Villages Collecting Political Information, Monitoring Opinions

(New York) – The Chinese government, under the rationale of a campaign to improve rural living standards, has sent more than 20,000 officials and communist party cadres to Tibetan villages to undertake intrusive surveillance of people, carry out widespread political re-education, and establish partisan security units, said Human Rights Watch today. These tactics discriminate against those perceived as potentially disloyal, and restrict their freedom of religion and opinion. 

Over 5,000 teams of officials and communist party cadres have been stationed in Tibetan villages under a government campaign called “Solidify the Foundations, Benefit the Masses” (qianji huimin). The campaign, launched by the party leadership in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) on October 10, 2011, is now halfway through its planned three-year duration. It is described in state media reports as improving living conditions and prosperity for people living in rural areas of the TAR, but research by Human Rights Watch shows that the teams are also categorizing Tibetans according to their religious and political thinking, and establishing institutions to monitor their behavior and opinions. 

“It’s hard to see the ‘benefit’ to Tibetans of  thousands of political education sessions, partisan quasi-police force operations, and scrutiny of their political views,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “In a region where people are already subjected to extraordinary monitoring, this village-level drive, alongside similar efforts directed at towns and monasteries, effectively means that Tibetans cannot avoid state surveillance.”

The campaign is one of three major new systems of social organization and control introduced in the TAR since 2011. An urban administrative network that includes significantly increased surveillance and monitoring known as the grid system was introduced in the TAR in 2012, and a new system of information gathering known as the “Six Ones” was introduced to monitor monks and nuns in Tibetan monasteries in November 2011.

The three systems are officially described as measures to promote “stability maintenance,” a drive which was described by the TAR party secretary in March 2013 as “the number one priority exceeding all else” in the TAR. The “Benefit the Masses” campaign aims to achieve “the three non-occurrences,” meaning no protests or expression of dissent.

In Tibetan areas, particularly since a wave of unrest in spring 2008, dissent is viewed by the Chinese authorities as the result of “splittist sabotage by hostile forces and the Dalai Clique.” In a major policy speech on February 14, 2013, Yu Zhengsheng, China’s top official in charge of minority and religious affairs, called for forces supporting the Dalai Lama to be “resolutely ground into dust.” As a result, hundreds of arrests, sentences, and punitive measures have been carried out in Tibetan areas since 2008 involving Tibetans suspected of support for the Dalai Lama.

“Beijing’s obsession with so-called ‘stability maintenance’ is a recipe for abuses,” Richardson said. “It is intended to suppress Tibetan citizens’ basic rights to free expression and to instill fear.”

While facilities have been upgraded by the cadre teams in some villages, “benefiting the masses” is only the last of the five objectives of the drive. The instructions given to the teams state that their first priority is to expand the role and size of the party in Tibetan villages, while the second is to “maintain stability” by “carrying out activities against the Dalai clique.”Implementation of these measures, which are also reported to be taking place in some Tibetan areas outside the TAR, have led to curbs on freedom of expression and religious practice.

For example, according to a villager interviewed by Human Rights Watch, a resident village work cadre team (zhucun gongzuodui) in Taktse (Dazi) county in Lhasa prefecture questioned all the inhabitants of his village, including young children, and classified them into three categories: those who want wealth and support the current system, those who secretly pray to and support the Dalai Lama but do not protest openly, and those who “do not accept re-education and do not have faith in motherland and party.” The classification led to about 135 people from the third category being “taken to the county seat and kept there for 45 days to be given re-education” in March 2013, according to the interviewee, who also claimed that up to 500 villagers from Nagchu (Naqu) prefecture had been detained for re-education during the same period. Another interviewee reported that 73 villagers had been sent from Meldro Gungkar (Mozhugongka) county for re-education at the same time.

An official report on the operations of a cadre team in a village in Chamdo (Changdu), one of the seven prefectures in the TAR, confirmed claims by interviewees that teams are tasked with identifying the social network of each villager. The team was also required to register “key personnel” in the village and maintain “close vigilance over them.” The term “key personnel” typically refers to people considered likely to cause political unrest.

Official documents about the campaign state that its first objective is to build the strength and numbers of the communist party in rural areas of the TAR. Each cadre team has been required to turn each village into “a fortress” in the struggle against separatism by setting up a new party committee in each village and by persuading “those who are good at getting rich” to become party members and village leaders.

The second objective of the drive, according to official reports, has three elements: to increase “social stability maintenance;” to “deepen the struggle” against followers of the Dalai Lama; and to “strengthen the management and education of monks and nuns.” Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch show that these directives have led to a sharp increase in information gathering by cadre teams about support for the Dalai Lama among rural families, and a setting up of security operations and surveillance mechanisms aimed at eradicating support for the Dalai Lama.

On February 28, 2013, the official in charge of stability maintenance in the TAR, Hao Peng, told paramilitary forces that that they must “thoroughly ensure no shadows, no gaps, no cracks, not giving hostile forces even the slightest opportunity” and must “strengthen surveillance and secret intelligence.”

The campaign is unprecedented in its scope, size, and cost. Some 21,000 cadres – the largest proportion of a provincial-level cadre force to have been sent to the countryside since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, according to an official report – have been stationed in groups of four or more in each of the 5,451 villages in the TAR as part of the three-year drive. The campaign costs 1.48 billion yuan (approximately US$227 million) a year, more than 25% of the regional government’s budget, with an additional 10 billion yuan (approximately US$1.5 billion) allocated for infrastructure construction in the villages.
Cadre teams in the villages are also tasked with “solving difficulties” and promoting economic development, and media reports have described the teams helping villagers with snow clearance, access to water, road building, solar energy supplies, literacy classes, and the purchase of entertainment or communications systems, besides other forms of practical and economic support. Each team has been allocated at least 100,000 yuan (approximately US$16,000) per year to spend on their village.

“If the government and the party are serious about improving everyday life of Tibetans, they must begin with addressing ongoing human rights violations, including restrictions on religious freedom, freedom of expression, and access to information,” said Richardson.  “That’s likely to be a far more successful approach to ‘solidifying foundations.’”

Background on the “Benefit the Masses” Drive

Teams to Collect Intelligence

State media reports describe one of the work teams’ primary tasks as gathering information and creating files on rural families and individuals throughout the TAR. The teams are instructed “to understand the situation in the village” by carrying out house-to-house investigations, compiling files with the names, ages, addresses, and income source of each household member, together with other personal details. Each team is required to “befriend at least three to five of the masses as key connections.” The information-gathering methods by the cadre teams involve violations of the villagers’ rights to privacy and some elements of coercion.

Interviews with some villagers show that teams are gathering information about individuals’ political opinions and connections. Villagers in Chamdo prefecture were asked about their social networks, and a villager in another area told Human Rights Watch that she was asked whether she had relatives or friends outside Tibet, what her views were of the Dalai Lama, whether any of her relatives or friends had been involved in the protests in 2008, and whether she listened to Tibetan-language radio broadcasts from the US, which are forbidden in Tibet.

A villager from Taktse county said the team first asked villagers their opinions of a protest in 2008, then asked for the whereabouts and political record of each household member, and later asked their opinions on the Dalai Lama. According to the villager, some work team members asked children aged 10 or over if they knew about the Dalai Lama, and “then they dig…with more questions where they learnt about the Dalai Lama and who told them about him, and so on.” According to the villager, as a result “people in the village are not like they used to be, they have to be very careful with everything, no one trusts each other.”

In an interview with Human Rights Watch in January 2012, a former work team member confirmed that his team had been required to interview each villager about his or her personal data. He said that he had also had to record details of anyone who had been involved in “splittist” activities, and had to submit weekly reports including this information to senior officials. Official reports specify that the cadre team in each village is also responsible for keeping records on all monks and nuns in their village, as well as analyzing those individuals’ backgrounds and monitoring their movements.

One villager said that she was told by a local official that if she did not accommodate a team of four in her home, she “would have a problem.” She said that the work team moved into each household in her village in turn, living in each for two or three weeks. Her family members “were not allowed to lock the door of any room in their house while the work-team stayed,” and the teams took photographs inside and outside each home, and searched their rooms, apparently looking for political documents and for pictures of the Dalai Lama. Another interviewee told Human Rights Watch that he believed the work teams’ surveillance operations aimed to put “sand in the eyes” of villagers in order to “remind them that they are being watched.”

Village Security Units
Official reports about the “Benefit the Masses” campaign state that cadre teams are also required to establish new security systems in each village, which are described in the state media as “turning villages into fortresses” and creating a “collective force” in which “everybody must be a soldier.”These terms refer to the creation of new security systems run by villagers, including civilian patrols. The use of party cadres, who will have had to state their opposition to the Dalai Lama and their adherence to the party, means that political criteria rather than violations of law may serve as the basis for surveillance, searches, or detention. In addition, expanding the cadre teams’ mandate to include police functions greatly increases the risk that people’s privacy will be violated, or that they will be deprived of their liberty on vague or unspecified grounds.

For example, in Ngari (Ali) prefecture, in the west of the TAR, 140 “stability maintenance patrols” were set up during the first year of the campaign. They carried out 9,720 patrols and 4,640 “checks” of people coming from outside the region. Over the same period, 1,080 “village protection teams” were set up in Lhokha (Shannan) prefecture and 36,800 people were organized into village patrol teams in Nagchu prefecture.

In Pakshoe (Basu) county, in Chamdo prefecture,208 village patrol teams were established in villages,with their 1,717 members selected from “young party members” and others who “love the party, love the nation, and oppose separatism.” These “village rangers” areequipped with police training uniforms, red armbands, as well as torches, steel pipes, sticks, and helmets, and participate in patrols and drills, according to a detailed account in the official media.

Several official reports on the village campaign indicate that the visiting work teams required household and community leaders to sign documents called “stability maintenance pledges.” The first item in these documents consists of a commitment to “oppose separatism” and “protect unity,” while the second requires them to “respect the party’s policies on ethnic groups and religion, and conscientiously refrain from things that harm national security or destroy ethnic unity.”

Political Education
The village teams also carry out political education in villages to encourage Tibetans to “feel grateful to the party,”to “feel the greatness of the party, listen to the party and follow the party,”“to firmly fight against separatist activity,” and “to profoundly expose and criticize the Dalai clique.”Such sessions, particularly given the extent to which a failure to participate was likely to invite repercussions from local authorities, violate the rights to expression, opinion, privacy, and religion.

The end-of-year report for a work team in one village in Toelungdechen (Duilongdeqing) county near Lhasa described six sessions to criticize the “plots of the Dalai Clique,” and nine patriotic education sessions that had been held in the local monastery. The sessions focused on describing the efforts of the Dalai Lama to confuse and cheat local people; exposing the falsities in religion; and denouncing the Dalai Lama’s reactionary character. In Lhokha prefecture, 4,000 meetings criticizing the Dalai Lama were organized in the first year of the campaign, and 7,017 were held during the same period in Chamdo prefecture. The sessions, which comprise lectures and information on the law and the party, are described in official reports as having reached nearly 370,000 people in Lhasa prefecture alone, including 27,000 “youths and students” in villages in the prefecture. In addition to public sessions, cadres have conducted tens of thousands of “extensive home visits to have ‘heart-to-heart’ talks” in order to help “improve the ideological consciousness of the masses.”

Residents of Lhasa who had worked on previous rural drives told Human Rights Watch that attending political education meetings in villages is usually described by officials as voluntary, but that any household that did not send at least one member to the meetings could face “serious problems.” According to the former work team member interviewed by Human Rights Watch, all the reading materials used in these sessions with the villagers are “about ‘good party policy’ and ‘bad Dalai clique.’” “The meetings generally go smoothly,” he said, but when the cadres oppose the Dalai Lama, “most villagers find it very difficult and the meeting becomes silent most of time. They do not want even to look us in the eye,” adding that the reactions of villagers to the political education sessions are recorded, and that any villagers who “do not apply themselves to study” receive “extra lessons.” A notice on ideological education in villages issued by the Nagchu Party Prefectural Committee, in May 2012, said that the “befrienders” within each cadre team were to “put on special classes and extra lessons for those who do not apply themselves to study… without the exception of a single household and or a single remote backwater.”

The cadres’ activities during the first year of the drive also included organizing drives to promote patriotism and party loyalty. Work teams distributed Chinese flags, framed portraits of Mao Zedong with other Chinese leaders, and banners to households, schools, temples, and other buildings. During the first seven months of the drive, 90,000 portraits of Mao and the other leaders were hung up and 70,000 flags distributed in homes, schools, and temples in Lhasa prefecture alone. Key dates, such as “Serf Emancipation Day,” were celebrated by showing “educational films,” organizing photo exhibits, and holding tea parties with party members. Cadres are also required to organize collective singing of “red songs,” screenings of patriotic films, and activities which involve families putting up the portraitsof national leaders. Although the official media have stated in English language reports that the display of these portraits is voluntary, a villager interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that she was required to hang the portrait of Mao in her home.

Some smaller-scale initiatives similar to the “Benefit the Masses” campaign have been reported from Tibetan areas outside the TAR. In Dranggo (Luhuo) county, a Tibetan area within Sichuan province, government officials were sent shortly after a protest January 2012 to visit households to local villages and to interview locals. In March 2012 in Ngawa (Aba) prefecture in Sichuan province, work teams, each with 10 cadres, were sent to carry out political education in 51 villages which had been classified as “having the most concentrated contradictions.” The 51 teams “held ‘visits and talks’ with 11,000 people” and “held 862 meetings,” according to an official media report.

The three-year drive in the villages is linked to two other major changes in administration and security operations in rural areas of the TAR: the policy of stationing cadres permanently in monasteries, which began in Tibet in late 2011, and the permanent establishment of full-time government officials in villages for the first time, a program which is taking place throughout China. Since 2008, the officials, known as cunguan, have been introduced in about a quarter of TAR villages so far. Like the new “grid” system being set up in towns in the TAR, the cunguan system involves introducing permanent government administration at a much lower level of society than in the past. Although the “Benefit the Masses” campaign in the TAR is only expected to last for three years, it is seen by some locals as a preparation for sending cunguan to all villages and for setting up permanent government offices in them. As one villager interviewed by Human Rights Watch noted, “Now that the work team has an office in our village, they are saying they will stay in the village forever.” 

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