Chinese authorities are carrying out massive “intrusive” surveillance of villagers in Tibet under the guise of a campaign to improve rural living standards, a rights group disclosed Wednesday, saying the move was discriminatory and restricts freedom of religion and opinion.
Aside from intelligence-gathering, some 20,000 personnel carry out widespread “political re-education” and establish “partisan” security units under the campaign in Tibetan villages, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report.
State media reports have said that the “Solidify the Foundations, Benefit the Masses” campaign launched by the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership nearly two years ago was aimed at improving living conditions in the rural areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
HRW, however, said its research showed that the 5,000 work teams involved in the exercise are categorizing Tibetans according to their religious and political thinking and establishing institutions to monitor their behavior and opinions.
The work team members conduct house-to house searches and personal interviews, creating files on families and individuals and using the information they gather to categorize Tibetans according to their political beliefs, according to the group.
“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,” HRW’s China director Sophie Richardson said.
“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,” she said.
HRW said that according to official reports, the campaign is “unprecedented” in its scope, size, and cost, involving the largest proportion of a provincial-level cadre force sent to the countryside in China’s history.
The 1.48 billion yuan (U.S. $240 million) program accounts for more than a quarter of the TAR’s annual budget.
The program comes amid growing challenges to Chinese rule across Tibetan regions.
A total of 120 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Chinese rule in Tibetan-populated areas, calling for freedom for Tibet and the return of Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India.
The burning protests come amid reports that Tibetan human rights have plunged to a new low amid arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, and the erosion of language and cultural rights.
Asked about political connections, opinions
Implementation of measures under the campaign, also reported to be taking place in some Tibetan areas outside the TAR, has “led to curbs on freedom of expression and religious practice," Human Rights Watch said, citing interviews it had with villagers.
Villagers told HRW they had been asked by work team members about their political opinions and social connections—including what they thought about recent protests, whether they had friends or relatives involved in them, their opinions on the Dalai Lama, and who they had learned about him from.
Work team members obtained the information by living in Tibetans’ homes or attempting to befriend villagers, some said.
One villager said that a cadre team in Taktse (in Chinese, Dazi) county in Tibet's capital Lhasa 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 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.
To further the regional government’s “stability maintenance” goals, the campaign is operating in conjunction with two other major surveillance systems launched in recent years in Tibet– a “grid system” that targets urban administrative areas and a policy of stationing surveillance mechanisms in monasteries and nunneries.
HRW said Chinese authorities should give priority to enhancing the rights of the Tibetans.
“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.’”