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Friday, February 23, 2024

Is Chinese Rule in Tibet Colonial?

While China claims that Tibet has been part of China since ancient times and speaks of having only liberated it, peacefully, Dr Gyal Lo* finds, based on the yardstick of an internationally accepted academic discourse, that its rule there is typically colonial.

Can China’s rule in Tibet be described as colonial? This is a topic of heated debate, but identifying and defining the status of colonization requires scientific evidence. Scholars who examine the characteristics and features of colonization have advanced the research on this subject through interdisciplinary investigation. Kennedy (1945) and Blauner (1969) provide a framework of the seven stages of colonization, a theory that has worldwide applicability in identifying the status of whether a nation is colonized or not in principle. Frieder’s and Gadacz’s (2009)[1] application of the seven stages model to Canada provides a reference point that contains strong parallels to China’s colonization of Tibet over the last seven decades. Of special relevance is China’s education policy in Tibet, with its mandatory boarding schools reminiscent of North America’s residential schools that sought to strip the indigenous peoples of their cultural identity and language.

On August 22, 2022, two Chinese scholars published a short article in the forum China & US Focus titled “Don’t Tar China with West’s School Abuses”. In the article, Wang Zhen and Ye Feng “confounds the truth and disregards the facts” by asserting “it has nothing to do with academic discussions but constitutes outright political disinformation”, and that opponents are “using the sinful or criminal discourse of Western colonialist education.” They claim that “contemporary boarding education in China is completely different from that practiced under Western colonialism” and further conclude that “the crimes of colonialist education cannot be laid on China in any case.” I argue, against the authors, that the characteristics and features of the seven stages of colonization are present in China’s relationship to Tibet. Below I will examine the evidence by using the theoretical lens of the seven-stages framework.                                  

1) Forced penetration of the colonizing group. Defined as: entry of a colonizing group to a geographical area by force. The CCP penetrated into Tibet by military invasion[2] and brutal occupation[3]. However, China continues to lie to the international community, falsely labelling its invasion as ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet[4]. Despite these claims, Chinese scholar Li asserts that China deployed their army to invade Tibet, and Liu[5] writes that Tibet was never been a part of China.

2) Social Destructiveness. Defined as: rapid degradation of the internal group’s social and cultural institutions, and overall well-being as a result of contact with the external group. The Chinese government has forcefully destroyed social capacity and monastic institutions of Tibet through three reform movements[6]: 1) Socialist reform, 2) ‘Democratic’ reform, 3) Cultural Revolution[7]. As a result, these two reforms and the revolution fundamentally allowed the Chinese government to remove Tibetan people from the governing system of their homeland society, from 1951 to the present.

3) External Political Control. Defined as: sovereignty partially or completely taken over by an external group, leading to reduced or eliminated political control by the internal group. As an external group, China’s military invasion and deceptive tactics completely took over the sovereignty of Tibet. On May 23, 1951 the Treaty of 17-Point Agreement was signed under duress in Beijing under military threat and political coercion. Just eight years after signing, China breached the terms of this agreement. Due to the Tibetans’ opposition to the occupation and subsequent military threat, the Dalai Lama and the Government of Tibet fled into exile and sought asylum in India. Within these eight years, the Chinese eliminated the Tibetan postal system, banks, schools, media, cultural activities, and government offices of Tibet. In particular, the Tibetan currency was eliminated and diplomacy ceased completely between 1950–1959.

4) Economic Dependence of Internal Groups. Defined as: economic activity dependent on interaction with the external group; partial or complete loss of control of economic decision-making. Through the three reforms mentioned under stage 2, China strategically manipulated Tibet’s economic activity to become completely dependent on the external group in 6 steps. The first step involved depleting natural resources (completely wiping out forests, or fully controlling sources of water and salt); the second step was to set up Chinese banking systems throughout Tibetan society to enforce control on the internal group’s economic system; the third step was to develop invasive infrastructure which in turn resettled masses of Chinese construction related employees and other state mandated migrants into Tibet, causing radical change in the social fabric of Tibet; the fourth step was the “One Child Policy”, which disproportionately affected the Tibetan population’s growth rate and lowered the social capacity of Tibet; the fifth step was to establish economic hegemony and completely marginalize the productivity of Tibetan people in both nomadic and agricultural regions, rapidly increasing their dependency on economic activity on urban areas, all of which are in China; the sixth step was to entirely take over Tibetan people’s economic activity, which cut off Tibetans from having any economic agency in their native society[8].

5) Sub-Standard Social Services. Defined as: the external group exclusively provides services such as health and education, yet delivers them at substantially lower standards of quality than they provide to their own group. Health and education are two major services provided by the Chinese government. In terms of healthcare, it is delivered with subquality professionals and facilities in Tibet. For example, serious illness requires travelling to Chinese cities to either get treatment that is not accessible in Tibet or higher quality of care. In terms of education, China leverages it as a key tool of colonial transformation. The role of school education has shifted from a Tibetan school education to a purely Chinese dominated colonial school across Tibet (since 2018). The features of these colonial schools are as follows: 1) China’s ‘hidden curriculum’, 2) curriculum that is made by China with contents deemed important for Tibetan students by China, 3) politicization of school curriculum (limited Tibetan knowledge in content of textbook only 15% to 25%),  4) the politics of knowledge categorization (excluded Tibetan knowledge system from academic discipline), 5) ideological dominance (filled with the history and mission of the Communist Party), 6) revocation of higher education institutions, leading to cessation of intellectual productivity and learning/teaching Tibetan culture, 7) coercing parents to send age 4-6 children to colonial boarding preschool where the teaching of mother tongue and Tibetan culture is banned since 2016, 8) Forcefully replacing Tibetan language with Mandarin Chinese as the state’s common language from 2018 onward.

Despite claiming “education is a fundamental human right for every citizen,” the experience of school education in Tibet sufficiently proves that “the boarding schools in China play an essentially different role” of assimilative and cultural genocide. Furthermore, in securing the role, “the government has implemented a 15-year free education plan from preschool to high school in the region.” Aiming for the utter colonization of Tibet, the Chinese government invested 223.97 billion yuan from 1951 to 2020 for school education. As a result of undergoing China’s colonial education, generations of Tibet have been alienated from their own cultural community and they can neither enter the mainstream Chinese society nor return to the traditional Tibetan community of their birth. Based on the implementation of China’s compulsory education policy, “the net enrollment rate of primary schools in rural Tibet is 99.93 percent, and the gross enrollment rate of junior high school and higher education are 106.99 percent and 56.14 percent,” will continue the role of school education in Tibetan society as a process of eradicating identity of Tibet.

6 & 7) Social Stratification. Defined as: the external group sets standards of normality and quality which the internal group cannot meet; the traditionally internal group is viewed as inherently inferior; more recently, systemic racism treats groups as potentially unequal, and systemic social barriers prevent internal groups from realizing social equality. Since under China’s control, Tibet has been fragmented and subdivided into various administrative domains under Chinese provincial authority systems[9]. This allowed China to minimize the collective power of Tibet. At the same time, China implements stratified policy to target primary social groups and culturally fertile regions of Tibet. For instance, the Chinese government has fragmented Kham and Amdo into four Chinese provinces (Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu) as ten prefectures and two counties. On August 28-29, 2020, Xi Jinping[10] hosted a central committee meeting on Tibet by asserting Kham and Amdo Tibetans as She Zang (Tibetan related/涉藏) not the Tibetan regions.

It is clear from the foregoing body of evidence that Tibet is colonized under China, though this fact has not yet been fully recognized by the international community and remains understudied in academia as a case of colonization. China continues to lie and repetitively claims ‘peaceful liberation’ instead of military invasion. Chinese leaders and pro-CCP scholars make the deceptive claim that Tibetans are in control of their society, while they have implemented severely eradicative policies over seven decades[11]. The experience of Tibet (1951-2022) under China’s control, so called “social and economic development” of Tibet, clearly reveals the same features and the same characteristics described in the seven stages of colonization.


Dr Gyal Lo received his PhD from the University of Toronto, and he taught at the Department of Tibetan Language and Culture at Northwest University for Nationalities for over a decade. He is the author of Social Structuration in Tibetan Society: Education, society, and spirituality (Lexington Books, 2016). 

[1] Frideres, J. & Gadacz, R. R. (2008). Aboriginal people in Canada. A division of Pearson Canada Inc., Toronto, Ontario

[2]Li, J. L. (2022). When the Iron Bird Flies: China’s Secret War in Tibet, Stanford University Press. (Tibetan version translated by Thaklha Gyal (2019) from Chinese version). The book provides details about how the Chinese Communist Party military invaded and cracked down on Tibetans from 1956 through 1962.

[3] Lezlee Brown, H., & Stefan, H. (2013). Tibet: An Unfinished Story, Oxford University Press, USA. “China’s People’s Liberation Army sought nothing less than to deconstruct traditional Tibet, unseat the Dalai Lama and absorb this vast region into the People’s Republic, and Lhasa succumbed to China’s invasion in 1950.”

[4] Szczepanski, Kallie. “Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship.” ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/tibet-and-china-history-195217.

[5] Liu H.C. (2019). Tibet has never been a part of China (Chinese version), Xue Yu Press, Taiwan.

[6] Jia, L. (2015). Reform as a social movement in Tibetan society: A form of social process, Lap Lambert Academic   Publishing.

[7] Barnett, R. & Akiner, S. (1993). Resistance and reform in Tibet, Indiana University Press.

[8] Fischer, Andrew Martin. (2014). The disempowered development of Tibet in China: A study in the economics of marginalization, Lexington Books.

[9] Jia, L., & Qie, P. (2021). A sociological analysis of Tibetan language policy issues in China, SN Soc Sci (2021) 1:89 https://doi.org/10.1007/s43545-021-00092-y

[10] On August 28-29, 2020, Xi Jinping says: “中央将继续加大对四省涉藏工作的支持力度.”   “同时, 对四川、云南、甘肃、青海省涉藏工作作出部署.”  This is first time mentioned this way, and since then all authority system documents and academic writing have to followed this way.

On August 24-25, 2015, during sixth meeting, Xi Jinping mentioned as “会议还对四川、云南、甘肃、青海省藏区…………。”  “今后一个时期,要在西藏和四省藏区…………. 。西藏和四省藏区要坚持自力更生…………。”  “习近平指出,实现西藏和四省藏区长治久安,……. 。”

On January 18 to 20, 2010, Hu Jintao host meeting, the title of meeting as: “第五次西藏工作座谈会:对四省藏区发展全面部署”; “推动四省藏区发展迈出新步伐,确保四省藏区到2020年……………..。”

[11] Jia, L., & Qie, P. (2021). A sociological analysis of Tibetan language policy issues in China, SN Soc Sci (2021) 1:89 https://doi.org/10.1007/s43545-021-00092-y



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