Chinese authorities in Tibet are quickly expanding the distribution of controversial social security cards across the region this year, prompting fears that the cards will be used to further tighten controls over the Tibetan people, rights groups say.
The cards give access to a wide range of social services including banking, welfare, and medical insurance, and will be tied to a social-credit system that cuts off benefits to Tibetans deemed disloyal to Beijing’s rule, the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said this week.
“The rollout of the cards reflects the Chinese government’s use of personal information as a tool of social control,” ICT said, adding, “In Tibet today, even moderate and mild expressions of Tibetan national identity, religion and culture can be classified as ‘splittist’ and therefore ‘criminal.’”
Electronic data collected by the cards, which replace a wide range of separate cards already in use, could be used to monitor and “directly punish individuals with penalties such as loss of employment or pension, torture, imprisonment or worse,” ICT said.
Former political prisoners and persons suspected of loyalty to exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama will likely be subject to particularly close scrutiny, the rights group said.
Citing Chinese media reports, ICT said that 2.7 million of the new cards have already been distributed across China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), with a total of 3 million set to be issued by the end of the year.
“The new system—which authorities say achieves ‘one person, one card,’ in TAR—and the rollout of the social credit scheme will strengthen the Chinese government’s comprehensive system of ‘grid management’ (the ‘Iron Grid’) in the TAR,” ICT said.
Speaking to RFA’s Tibetan Service, John Jones—campaign advocacy manager for London-based Free Tibet—said use of the cards had earlier been launched in limited areas of Tibet, “starting with Nyingchi prefecture back in 2017, and then moving to other places like Lhasa and then to eastern Tibet.”
“These cards are practical for day-to-day life, such as access to health facilities,” Free Tibet said in a statement in April.
“[But] fears still remain that they could be used for the purposes of tracking and easily used to cut off social benefits and access to services as a punishment for behavior that the Chinese Communist Party objects to,” Free Tibet said.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.