Tibetan Farmers, Herders Given Military-style ‘Vocational Training,’ Sent to Jobs Far From Home

By Richard Finney
A Tibetan worker is watched by Chinese police in Tibet's capital Lhasa in a file photo.

Chinese authorities are removing thousands of Tibetan farmers and herders from their traditional livelihoods and subjecting them to forced military-style “vocational” training before sending them in groups to faraway places to work at new jobs, according to a new report released by the Jamestown Foundation.

Described as a drive to reduce rural poverty in Tibet, the campaign has already trained over half a million so-called rural surplus laborers during the first seven months of 2020, and mirrors similar programs already under way in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), said researcher Adrian Zenz, an expert on Xinjiang and Tibet.

“This scheme encompasses Tibetans of all ages [and] covers the entire region,” said Zenz, a Senior Fellow in China Studies at the Washington D.C.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and contributor to the report.

The training is supervised by People’s Armed Police drill sergeants, includes instruction in Chinese law and the Chinese language, and is aimed at reforming “backward thinking” and “diluting the negative influence of religion”—factors believed by China to have hindered economic development in Tibet’s countryside, he said.

Training graduates who formerly worked as farmers and pastoralists are then sent to pre-arranged work destinations far from home to fill company requirements in road construction, cleaning, mining, and other low-skilled jobs, with some sent as far away as inland China to work in food-processing plants, Zenz said.

“The goal of the scheme is to achieve Xi Jinping’s signature goal of eradicating absolute poverty by increasing rural disposable incomes. This means that Tibetan nomads and farmers must change their livelihoods so that they earn a measurable cash income, and can therefore be declared ‘poverty-free.’”

Though official documents describe the program as based on voluntary participation, “there are clear elements of coercion during recruitment, training and job matching,” Zenz said.

“Since poverty is measured by income levels, and labor transfer is the primary means to increase incomes—and hence to ‘lift’ people out of poverty—the pressure for local governments to round up poor populations and feed them into the scheme is extremely high,” he said.

“Detailed quotas not only mandate how many surplus laborers each country must train, but also how many are to be trained in each vocational specialty,” Zenz said, citing data from a July 31, 2019 document from Tibet’s Ngari prefecture.

Like programs in Xinjiang

He said the labor-training program now under way in Tibet also “shows a disturbing number of close similarities to the system of coercive vocational training and labor transfer established in Xinjiang,” the northwestern region of China where as many as 1.8 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps since 2017.

Heightened U.S. scrutiny in 2020 of Beijing’s sprawling network of camps in the XUAR has brought measures by customs authorities to reject goods suspected of using forced labor in Xinjiang. This week the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that would block imports from the XUAR,

Investigations by RFA have found evidence that internment camps in the region have increasingly transitioned from political indoctrination to forced labor, with detainees being sent to work in cotton and textile factories.

“The fact that Tibet and Xinjiang share many of the same social control and securitization mechanisms—in each case introduced under administrations directed by Chen Quanguo [current Party Secretary in Xinjiang and former Party Secretary in Tibet]—renders the adaptation of one region’s scheme to the other particularly straightforward,” said Zenz.

“In the context of Beijing’s increasingly assimilatory ethnic minority policy, it is likely that these policies will promote a long-term loss of linguistic, cultural and spiritual heritage,” Zenz said.

The parallels between China’s systems of rigid social controls and heavy security in both Tibet and Xinjiang “serve as a reminder that the struggles of the Uyghur and Tibetan peoples are intertwined,” John Jones—campaign and advocacy director for London-based Free Tibet—said in a Sept. 23 statement.

“Both peoples face a ruthless government that is determined to eradicate their distinct cultures and enforce a brutal conformity,” Jones said.

Jones said that Free Tibet backs the call by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, compiler with the Jamestown Foundation of the Adrian Zenz report, that sanctions be imposed on Chinese officials responsible for the Tibetan worker training camps and businesses be investigated for ties to forced labor in Tibet.

“[But] there is no long-term solution for Chinese repression in Tibet that does not involve freedom for the Tibetan people,” Jones said, adding that though governments around the world currently recognize Tibet as a part of China, “this flies in the face of the wishes of the Tibetan people.”

“Tibetans must be allowed to determine their own future, and it is up to the governments of the world to confront the Chinese Communist Party with this reality. To avoid this challenge is to invite further repression and destruction upon Tibet.”


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.