Tibet: What is happening there now?

By Weiru Ye | July 24, 2019

As international attention drifts, China has continued to tighten its grip on Tibet. What are the core issues for Tibet, and how has the situation developed since the 2008 riots?

Photo credit: Getty Images

In the lead-up to the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, large-scale clashes between ethnic Tibetans and police broke out in Lhasa on March 14, resulting in at least 19 deaths. Meanwhile, pro-Tibet protesters dogged the Olympic torch relay in Paris and London, marking a peak of international attention on Tibetan issues.

More than a decade later, little has improved for Tibetans, and Beijing exerts a firmer-than-ever grip on the region. The surveillance system and restrictions imposed on Tibetans since the early 2000s have become normalized realities, and have largely succeeded in silencing dissent. But a status quo of fewer acts of protest is not the same as long-term stability.

The status of Tibet remains contentious today, and with the Tibetan leader in exile, the Dalai Lama, now 84 years old, the choice of his reincarnation — which Beijing wants to control — is likely to cause a global controversy.

Below are brief explanations of the two most important issues to understand about Tibet’s political situation, and an update of recent events:

  • The history of modern Chinese rule over Tibet
  • Beijing’s antagonistic relationship with the Dalai Lama
  • Timeline of recent events

Historical narratives about Chinese rule in Tibet

The Chinese government and Tibetan people each have their own historical narrative that is vital to their claims about national identity and the legitimacy of Chinese rule over Tibet.

A complicated history in short: Tibet was first incorporated into China as a protectorate in 1903 during the Qing dynasty. After the fall of the dynasty, the Dalai Lama expelled all Chinese nationals from Tibet and enjoyed a period of de facto independence that formed the basis for their later territorial claims. This all ended with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and an invasion led by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1950 after rounds of fruitless negotiations. In 1951, the Dalai Lama signed the Seventeen-Point Agreement, the first formal document that acknowledges China’s sovereignty over Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s authority, which was also meant to signal the start of peaceful coexistence. However, the heavy-handed Chinese rule led to various revolts all across Tibet in the 1950s, eventually culminating in a large-scale uprising in Lhasa in 1959. The ultimate failure of the uprising led to the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama, to India. He has not been allowed to return since then.

Meanwhile, Beijing claims that Tibet has been an inalienable part of a multi-ethnic China since the 13th century. According to John Powers, a Tibet historian, the Chinese claim that Old Tibet was primitive and feudal, and therefore required emancipation by the Han Chinese. Chinese occupation is branded as a “liberation of Tibetans from feudalism (link in Chinese) and benevolent rule bestowed upon Tibetans. In the decades to follow, large-scale uprisings were rare, and any signs of unrest were swiftly suppressed. The 2008 uprisings came as a surprise to the Beijing government, which realized the limited success of its Tibet policy. To double down on the freedom-from-feudalism narrative, since 2009, “Serf Emancipation Day” (西藏百万农奴解放纪念日 xīzàng bǎiwàn nóngnú jiěfàng jìniànrì) is celebrated in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) every March.

Beijing’s antagonistic relationship with the Dalai Lama

Photo credit:  CNN

The current Dalai Lama was born in 1935 with the name Lhamo Dhondup, in an ethnically Tibetan village in what is now Qinghai Province in China. He has been recognized by the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism as its spiritual leader, and the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, since 1940. For the past 60 years, since the failed 1959 uprising, he has lived in exile in India.

The Dalai Lama remains at the center of any Tibet-related discussion. He is respected by Tibetans as the leader who provides a moral compass and spiritual guidance but demonized by the Chinese government as an “overseas anti-Chinese power and Tibet separatist element” (国外反华势力和西藏分裂主义分子 guówài fǎnhuá shìlì hé xīzàng fēnliè zhǔyì fènzǐ), often blamed by Beijing for negative media coverage about Tibet. In the West, the Dalai Lama is often praised as a sophisticated messenger for Tibetan Buddhism, and the Nobel Committee awarded him its Peace Prize in 1989 in recognition of his non-violent and conciliatory approach with Beijing. These differing views clash when the Dalai Lama is invited to speak overseas, especially in places with large Chinese populations, such as the University of San Diego in 2017.

Today, the most contentious issue connected to the Dalai Lama — or, at least, the thing that Beijing most publicly differs with him on — is the process of his reincarnation. On July 15, the Dalai Lama publicly reiterated his long-held stance: “My reincarnation is to be decided by myself, nobody has the right to decide about that.” He has previously stated that the 15th Dalai Lama may be born in India, and that if China appoints a successor, “nobody will trust, nobody will respect” them. Beijing is not backing down, either. It is determined to appoint the next Dalai Lama on its own, stating that reincarnation must comply with Chinese law. This month, Beijing warned India that if it refuses to acknowledge the next Dalai Lama chosen by Beijing, it will be a severe blow to the bilateral relationship. It is hard to predict what the future will be after the 14th Dalai Lama passes away, and whether or not the exile movement will remain non-violent.

What is happening in Tibet now?

Photo credit:  Andy Wong / AP

In comparison with the horrifying reports coming out of Xinjiang, what’s happening in Tibet now seems, in one scholar’s words, “invisible, unspectacular, numerically small.” But it remains significant, in part because we now know that Chén Quánguó 陈全国, who was the former Party secretary in the Tibet Autonomous Region from 2011 to 2016, took some securitization tools he developed in Tibet and is now applying them on a much larger scale in Xinjiang.

On a more detailed level, it is difficult to verify what happens in Tibet, because foreign journalists have been barred from the region since 2011. The Chinese ambassador to the U.S. said this is because “it’s very high altitude and the climate could be very tough there.” What we do know is that life today in Tibet, for Tibetans, has these trends:

Religious erasure: According to a report by Freedom House, Tibetan Buddhists are among the most persecuted religious groups in China along with Uyghur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners. The Chinese authorities have clamped down on Tibetan monasteries by forcefully evicting monks and nuns, imposing size restrictions, and demolishing monastic residences, most notably, the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Sichuan. Beijing made a rare confirmation this year of the extent to which social and religious controls are enforced in Tibet, as the mayor of Lhasa stated that religious events attendance in Lhasa has been reduced to less than 10 percent.

Religious sinicization: In 2016, President Xi announced his five-year plan of religious affairs (2016–2020) to “sinicize” (make more Chinese) all religions (zōngjiào zhōngguóhuà 宗教中国化) and make religions adaptive to socialist values. Under this policy directive, administrative offices run by Communist cadres are established in Tibetan monasteries and monastics are put through strict training to become “patriotic religious professionals” under the “Four Standards” policy.

Economic disempowerment: The Chinese government sees economic development as the key to the pacifying ethnic discontent. Chinese state media reports this story of economic development: Tibet is one of the only two provinces in China to achieve an impressive 10 percent GDP growth rate, bolstered by state investment, subsidies, and in recent years, a booming tourism industry. However, reports have long indicated that Han migrants, not local Tibetans, disproportionately benefit from economic growth and job opportunities in the region, and the inequality only serves to deepen ethnic resentment.

Lhasa street scenes dominated by signs in Mandarin / Photo by Weiru Ye

Linguistic erasure: The micro-politics of language plays out daily for Tibetans, who face systematic encroachment on their linguistic tradition. Mandarin is promoted as the primary instruction language in Tibetan schools to encourage assimilation and Han teachers are sent to Tibetan regions to “improve the quality of education.” Outside of schools, the use of the Tibetan language is discouraged, and advocacy for using the language is punished. Tashi Wangchuk, a well-known Tibetan language activist, was charged last year with “inciting separatism” and sentenced to five years in prison for fighting to preserve the Tibetan language.

Could Beijing ever compromise with the Dalai Lama?

As speculation continues about the Dalai Lama’s health, both parties seem to be pressed for time to reach a diplomatic solution. However, the scholars Tashi Rabgey and Tseten Wangchuk Sharlho have predicted that unless the Tibet issue sparks more violence, the pro-negotiation factors are unlikely to be regarded by Beijing as sufficient. This June, after the U.S. ambassador paid a rare visit to Tibet after the passing of the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018, and called for China to renew dialogue between China and the U.S., the Global Times, a nationalistic state media outlet, issued an opinion piece that says Sino-Tibetan talks are not dialogues between China and the Central Tibetan Administration, and any meaningful conversations can only take place with the precondition that the Dalai Lama has given up independence claims.

Further reading:

Tibetan history

The Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach


  • On February 27, 2009, Tapey, a young monk at Kirti Monastery, self-immolated in a protest against Beijing, setting the precedence for using self-immolation as a modern-day political movement. There have been reports of over 150 cases of self-immolation. The Chinese authorities responded with harsh social control mechanisms that criminalize self-immolators. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama has hesitated to call for cessation of self-immolation in his name. In an interview with The Hindu, the Dalai Lama said, “The reality is that if I say something positive, then the Chinese immediately blame me. If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life.”
  • For more on this topic: Read Why are Tibetans setting themselves on fire? in the New York Review of Books. Tsering Woeser writes, “Self-immolation is not suicide, and it is not a gesture of despair. Rather, it is a sacrifice for a greater cause, and an attempt to press for change, as can be seen in these two peaks in self-immolation. Such an act is not to be judged by the precepts of Buddhism: it can only be judged by its political results.”

Early 2000s Sino-Tibetan dialogues

  • Sino-Tibetan dialogue in the Post-Mao era: Lessons and prospects / East West Center
    A policy study by Tashi Rabgey and Tseten Wangchuk Sharlho that provides context for the events leading up to dialogues between the Dalai Lama and Beijing in 2001. The authors “question the view that important opportunities for negotiations were missed in the 1980s. Rather, they argue that even when Beijing appeared most inclined to enter into dialogue, the gap between the parties was too wide for meaningful engagement.”

Recent Dalai Lama controversies

China’s ethnic policies

  • You can’t force people to assimilate. So why is China at it again? / by Adrian Zenz in the New York Times
    “Because the Chinese Communist Party cannot not try to coerce assimilation. Its ultimate goal in Xinjiang — as elsewhere in China — is to exercise complete ideological supremacy, and that also entails trying to transform the very identity of the country’s minorities. The C.C.P. lives in perennial fear that, short of having a complete grip on Chinese society, its long-term survival is in danger.”
  • New developments in China’s Tibet policy as Communist Party’s 19th Congress begins / International Campaign for Tibet
    “This International Campaign for Tibet overview, based on analysis of numerous official and unofficial sources, seeks to track the latest developments in Tibet at the time of the Party Congress. This is in the context of the Chinese authorities’ sweeping political and strategic objectives in Tibet and the rise of a ‘control state,’ in which the Party has an increasingly intrusive role in people’s everyday lives and beliefs.”

Digital surveillance

  • The cyber war against Tibet / The Diplomat (porous paywall)
    “The Tibetan community has been persistently targeted by digital espionage operations for over a decade. The scale of China’s operation was not clear until 2009, when the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab released a report titled ‘Tracking Ghostnet.’ The report explicitly laid out, for the first time, the scope of cyberespionage and how deeply it had infiltrated the Tibetan movement, including the office of the Dalai Lama.”

    Tibetans in exile

    • For Tibetans living in exile, life isn’t getting any easier. Nepal, home to over 20,000 Tibetan refugees, is under China’s political and economic sway as the Belt and Road initiative expands. Nepal has reportedly tightened its borders, and the numbers of Tibetan refugees who successfully flee Tibet to Nepal have declined dramatically. On July 5 this year, Nepal banned the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration for “security reasons,” calling it an anti-China activity.
    • India, another major player in the Sino-Tibetan relationship, has used Tibet as a diplomatic bargaining chip to exert pressure on China and observers worry Tibet will be sacrificed if India takes a more conciliatory approach to China. The number of Tibetan refugees entering India has also declined markedly in recent years: