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China's "Benefit the Masses" campaign surveilling Tibetans

A Tibetan monk at Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province, 11 February 2013; China introduced a new system of information gathering to monitor monks and nuns in Tibetan monasteries in 2011
A Tibetan monk at Labrang Monastery in Gansu Province, 11 February 2013; China introduced a new system of information gathering to monitor monks and nuns in Tibetan monasteries in 2011

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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 June 18, 2013. 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 at Human Rights Watch. “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.'”

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