(New York) – Chinese authorities in Tibet are using a national anti-crime campaign to crack down on peaceful expression by Tibetans suspected of dissenting views, Human Rights Watch said today. Those criminally prosecuted include activists defending Tibetan culture and environment, critics of official corruption, and suspected supporters of the Dalai Lama. The campaign is also targeting for possible prosecution or other punishment practitioners of unapproved religious activities and Tibetan government employees involved in any religious practices.
The government adopted a nationwide “anti-gang crime” campaign in January 2018 to suppress drug dealing, gambling, and other gang crimes. Since then, courts in Tibetan areas have used “gang crime” charges to sentence at least 51 Tibetans to up to 9 years in prison for peacefully petitioning or protesting issues related to religion, environmental protection, land rights, and official corruption. The authorities have also linked the campaign to disciplinary drives against Tibetan officials and Chinese Communist Party members and appear to be accusing them of criminal liability based on their personal views.
“Chinese authorities have long imprisoned people engaged in peaceful dissent in Tibet,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The anti-gang crime campaign has intensified the persecution of those deemed to be disloyal to Communist Party rule.”
The anti-gang campaign is known in Chinese as saohei chu’e, an abbreviation for “The Sweep Away Gangs, Root Out Evil Special Struggle.” Its political objectives were evident in the official document starting the campaign in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 2018. As Human Rights Watch detailed in “‘Illegal Organizations’: China’s Crackdown on Social Groups in Tibet,” the TAR Public Security Bureau issued a directive that any individual or group “holding themselves out as so-called ‘spokespersons’ for the masses” on issues such as environmental protection or the promotion of Tibetan language, folk traditions, and culture were to be classed as a form of “gang crime.”
It also banned non-officials from taking part in local dispute mediation, an important civil function in Tibet that lamas or other locally respected figures often conduct. The authorities had not previously considered such activity illegal.
The directive also stated that actions that “undermine local-level general elections,” or that involve a group of individuals “stirring up trouble in land acquisition, leases, demolitions, engineering projects, and the like” were to be considered a form of “gang crime.”
Chinese state media have recently reported that central government officials ordered regional authorities to target Tibetan dissidents under the campaign. Senior Beijing officials sent to inspect Tibet’s anti-gang drive told TAR authorities in July and August 2019 and again in November that they had to do more to “combine” the campaign with “deepening the anti-splittist struggle,” a reference to crushing any support for Tibetan autonomy and political dissent, however indirect or minor. This instruction meant that critics of government policy in Tibet should be treated as gang criminals, especially if they can be seen as a group, as spokespeople, or as supporting the exiled Dalai Lama.
In November, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie confirmed the inspection team’s demands by stating that regional authorities should “conduct smashing the crimes of gang crime forces along with … the anti-splittist struggle.” Wu sought to justify treating “splittism” or support for Tibetan autonomy as a common crime by saying that it provides “the grounds for gang crime forces to spread.”
Local officials, at public meetings to promote the campaign in rural areas, have told villagers “to voluntarily sever all connection with underworld forces and illegal organizations, and enthusiastically join the struggle against them,” said an official report on the campaign in some local villages in southern Tibet. The term “underworld forces” supposedly refers to organized crime, but in the Tibetan context, the term “illegal organizations” includes the civic activities listed in the 2018 directive at the start of the region’s anti-gang crime campaign, notably those promoting Tibetan language, environmental protection, and assisting local dispute mediation.
Officials in other Tibetan areas have made similar demands. The United States-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in February 2018 that when Sichuan province launched a “Provincial Leading Group” to manage the anti-gang crime drive, “threatening political security and penetrating into the political field” were among the 10 major types of crime it was targeting.
It also listed “grabbing or illegally occupying land in construction engineering, mineral resources, and other fields,” probably a reference to environmental protesters’ efforts to stop damage from infrastructure projects and mining. In the same report, RFA cited an unnamed source as saying that homes in Kandze (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture, Sichuan, had been searched for Dalai Lama pictures under the anti-gang crime drive.
In the rural areas of Tibet where most Tibetans live, the campaign appears to be intimidatory, with the authorities threatening to use force. Publicity materials promoting the campaign show troops or police with military-pattern weapons. Photographs in official media of a meeting to publicize the campaign in Achug (Axu) township, Derge (Dege) county, Sichuan, for example, show local residents seated in rows on the ground with armed police standing over them and a vehicle used to transport criminal suspects. Videos that local authorities issue to promote the campaign show the apparent use of unnecessary or excessive force against Tibetans, including monks.
The Chinese constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, as does international human rights law. The arrests and prosecutions of Tibetans under the anti-gang crime campaign for expressing peaceful opinions and engaging in political or faith-based activities violates their fundamental rights.
“The anti-gang crime campaign has singled out Tibetans for their opinions and normal social activities and treats them as criminals,” Richardson said. “Chinese authorities should end these abusive prosecutions and free all those wrongfully detained.”
For additional details about the campaign in Tibet and the arrests, please see below.
Criminalizing Peaceful Criticism
At least 51 Tibetans are known to have been convicted for peaceful activities as part of the government’s anti-gang crime drive. The most recent case involved 12 villagers from Sog county in northern Tibet. A court sentenced them on January 7, 2020 to up to 21 months in prison for being “members of an evil gang.”
A court document reported that the “gang” had “acquiesced with the spread and dissemination of negative religious influences throughout the village,” and had “inculcated feudal thinking among the masses [and] implemented feudal family laws.” The court document gave no further details about these “religious” and “feudal” ideas and presented no evidence that suggested the defendants had committed recognizable offenses.
Phrases such as “negative religious influences” and “feudal thinking” have been used to refer to expressions of support for the Dalai Lama and his religious authority, including his selection of reincarnate lamas and advice against the worship of certain local deities. Support for such ideas appears likely to have been the reason for the convictions in this case.
On December 6, 2019, 9 Tibetans in Gabde (Gande) county, Golok (Guoluo) prefecture, Qinghai province were sentenced to up to 7 years in prison, according to Free Tibet, a London-based advocacy group. The lawyer for the primary defendant, Anya Sengdra, said that he had been arrested as part of the anti-gang crime drive because he had tried to expose “illegal acts of local officials.” The official case summary that the court issued on July 26 confirms that Anya Sengdra had criticized a local official – the Party secretary in his township – after the official apparently disqualified Anya Sengdra from running in village elections in 2014 and then had him punished for protesting this decision.
The official indictment, dated July 26, said that Anya Sengdra and eight co-defendants were charged with “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” for setting up online discussion groups about local corruption, environmental protection, and petitions by local residents. The authorities also charged the nine with “gathering crowds to disturb social order” for staging a sit-in at a construction site to demand compensation for a fatal road accident. These details indicate that the defendants were not involved in any criminal activities, but in peaceful protests and petitions against local government policies.
In May 2019, 21 Tibetan villagers in Nangchen (Nangqian) county, Yushu prefecture, Qinghai province were sentenced to up to 6 years in prison under the anti-gang crime drive. Available facts indicate that they lobbied the local government about its polices on environmental protection – official media reports state explicitly that they were sentenced for activities including “mobilizing the support of a group of villagers to establish an ‘environmental protection committee’” and “creating hurdles for government policy [by] not accepting environmental conservation compensation.”
In April 2019, 9 Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren) county, Malho (Huangnan) prefecture, Qinghai province were sentenced to from 3 to 7 years in prison for having “created an illegal organization.” They had organized a petition against local government officials’ seizure of community land in their village, said an exile monitoring group, which published a copy of their petition. The prefectural government had issued regulations in 2015 that declared “organizing illegal groups and illegal movements in the name of ‘language rights,’ ‘environmental protection,’ ‘literacy classes,’ etc.” a crime and described the case as the first “anti-gang crime” case in the prefecture.
The local regulations in Tibetan areas of China outlawing peaceful actions against government policies are administrative orders that do not overrule existing laws in China.
In addition to the 51 reported court cases, 3 Tibetans interviewed by Human Rights Watch described recent cases of Tibetans whom they knew police had threatened or detained as part of the anti-gang crime drive for their peaceful expressions of opinion. One specified a number of people imprisoned for political offenses. Although Human Rights Watch cannot confirm these reports, those interviewed were Tibetan academics or officials who had direct access to information about these events.
A Tibetan who spoke to local residents in one case said that that police in a nomadic area of northern Tibet threatened to use the campaign to punish a Tibetan who refused to sign an official document stating that the size of his herd had decreased, a target pursued by local officials. Another Tibetan in the area at the time told Human Rights Watch that police had detained local women as part of the anti-gang drive in Rebkong, Qinghai province, for gathering outside the local government offices to complain about lack of compensation for government-seized land.
A Tibetan official from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch in December that, according to internal information he had seen:
there are 217 political prisoners in TAR Prison No. 1 [at Nyethang township in Chushul county, near Lhasa], and they are all people from Lhasa, or the nearby counties under Lhasa Municipality, arrested in the past few years. People are continually being arrested for political reasons.
The Congressional Executive Commission on China, a body linked to the US Congress, lists 151 Tibetans as possibly detained for political reasons as of December, but notes significant underreporting and uncertainties.
Attacks on Unapproved Religious Activity
Under Chinese law, ordinary citizens may take part only in religious practices that are officially approved. Senior Chinese leaders in Tibetan areas have specified that unapproved religious activity is a target of the anti-gang crime campaign. The campaign guidelines from a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai province in early 2019 state that the authorities must carry out “vigorous opposition to those with differing views and those who obstruct [state policies and ideology],” including “control by religion forces,” which they describe as “relatively strong in rural and mountainous areas.”
At the November review by the central inspection team of the campaign, Wu Yingjie, the TAR Party secretary, said that “religious extremist forces and underworld forces” were “using religion as a pretext to split the Motherland, destroy the unity of nationalities, and disrupt the normal order of the everyday life of the masses.” Discussing the anti-gang crime drive, Wu described the role of religion as “Tibet’s special contradiction” and called on regional officials to “vigorously smash” these religious forces.
Following the November meeting, regional leaders ordered officials to use the anti-gang campaign as “an opportunity to … completely eliminate the foundations and context of the Dalai clique’s splittist sabotage activities” to “completely ensure the harmony and stability of the religious sphere.”
The Tibetan official from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch that the campaign was being applied to monasteries in the region as part of a political education drive. He reported that as a result of investigations carried out under the campaign, five monks from Drepung Monastery had been given “education” for not showing a good attitude in political studies and had then been expelled for “not reforming their thinking” and “failing in political and legal knowledge exams.”
The official added that “such things are going on at many monasteries” and that “the government monitors the WeChat and social media activity of monks even more strictly than that of ordinary citizens.” Foreign media have described political education and expulsion of Tibetan monks or nuns for political non-compliance and recent cases of monitoring the social media accounts of monks and nuns and other citizens.
Tibetans with religious beliefs who work for the government have also been singled out for punishment as part of the campaign. China’s official media reported on August 6 that Zhu Weiqun, a senior Beijing-based official known for seeking to tighten government control on nationality and religious issues, told regional leaders that their implementation of the campaign had been “inadequate.”
Zhu was apparently referring to, among other issues, the failure to intensify religious controls over Tibetan “cadres,” a term that includes all government employees, only some of whom are Party members. The authorities went on to state at a campaign meeting in Lhasa on August 27 that the focus must include “solving the religious problems of Party members.”
Ending religious belief among Party members is a normal matter of internal Party regulations, since all members renounce religious belief as a condition of membership. However, the TAR authorities responded to Zhu’s remarks by issuing an internal order that month banning not just Party members but also all retired government employees in Tibet from public religious practices. The order banned specific religious practices that Tibetan Buddhists conduct and did not refer to any other religions, indicating that it targeted only Tibetan Buddhists who worked for the government. There have been no reports of similar restrictions for ethnic Chinese cadres in Tibet, or for believers of other religions.
Tibetan Party Members Face Prosecution for Views
The TAR authorities have used the anti-gang crime campaign in conjunction with a Party disciplinary drive against Tibetan Party members suspected of holding unapproved opinions. In addition to imposing disciplinary action, the authorities appear to have threatened these members with criminal liability.
Details of these cases are scarce, but a report by official media in February 2019 said that the disciplinary drive – known in full as “Resolutely oppose engaging with two-faced factions and being two-faced people” – is intended in Tibet to identify Party members who “claim loyalty to the Party while secretly sympathizing [with] and even working for separatists.” The drive to identify “two-faced people” in Tibet is described by the official media as part of China’s “tit-for-tat battle with the Dalai Lama and his group.”
In addition to imposing punishment for disciplinary violations, authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas have stated that Tibetan Party members suspected of political disloyalty, such as sympathizing with the Dalai Lama or supporting increased autonomy for Tibet, are also targets of the anti-gang crime campaign, indicating that they are classed as suspected criminals.
Notably, in April 2019, the head of the TAR leading group for the anti-gang crime campaign included “two-faced factions [and] two-faced people” in the list of criminal groups and “illegal organizations” that are campaign targets. This showed that this drive in the region is being handled not just by the Party’s disciplinary arm but also by the “Regional High Command for National Security,” which supervises the region’s “public security work” and deals with criminal cases.
The drive in Tibet against “two-faced factions and two-faced people” is thus different from its counterpart in mainland China, where it is not part of a criminal crackdown but is intended only to “control the political integrity of the cadre force.”
Officials have sought to justify treating allegedly dissident Tibetan Party members as criminals by claiming that they are organizers, enablers, or backers of gang crimes. An October statement by the “Regional High Command” described “two-faced people” as being “behind the illegal organizations” targeted by the anti-gang crime campaign. A senior TAR judicial official endorsed this view in April 2019, describing “two-faced people” as “the soil that breeds criminal gangs.” In Qinghai, where over a million Tibetans live, judicial authorities declared similarly in July 2019 that certain “Party officials” were a focus of the anti-gang crime campaign because they were “‘covering up’ for gang crime forces.” No evidence has emerged in Chinese media to support these allegations.
Only one recent case involving the political profiling and criminalization of Tibetan Party members suspected of disloyalty has appeared in official media. In February 2019, 13 local Party members – evidently Tibetans – were disciplined for “worshiping … illicit objects” in a cave in Nyalam county, a rural area of southwest Tibet. The media report said police handled the case and that the “objects” in the cave were “politically forbidden” – a hint that they were photographs of the Dalai Lama and that police investigated the Party members as suspected criminals, even though religious belief is only a breach of Party regulations, not a crime under Chinese law. The punishments imposed on the 13 are not known.
The Tibetan official from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch in December that “Tibetan officials in every government department have been punished under this [anti-gang crime] campaign,” but that details of these punishments are kept secret so that “there is no way we would come to know about individual cases.”