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Chinese Presence in Tibet: Population Transfer

Beijing's new policy of population transfer into Tibet threatens the very existence of Tibetan culture, religion and national identity. Mass immigration by Chinese settlers into Lhasa and other areas in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has been exacerbated by economic reforms, especially since 1992. This transfer reduces the Tibetans to a minority in their own country, which in turn disenfranchises them from the future political process.

Population Transfer
The recent influx of Chinese settlers is linked by most people to the economic reform drive initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the spring of 1992. The numbers of migrants in Lhasa appears to have increased markedly after that date (Tibet Information Network TIN, Tibetan Views of Immigration into Central Tibet 1992-93, 1993). According to a senior Western diplomat who visited Lhasa in mid-1993, the Chinese people "now dominate new economic activity in Tibet."

Whether intentional or not, if this process continues it will complete, perhaps finally, what the Chinese army began over 40 years ago: the occupation of Tibet by the Chinese. What was Tibet's homeland will become China's homeland. Beijing has finally admitted that the population transfer process goes on. (Third Work Forum on Tibet, July 1994). A wave of resettlement became apparent in 1983, partly as a result of economic changes, ie: opportunities for profit following the opening up of Tibet for the tourist tradeQand partly as a result of government policy.

The goal is "to narrow as soon as possible the gap in economic development between Tibet and other areas of the nation" (White Paper on Tibet, Sep 1992). Chen Kuiyuan, a Chinese cadre appointed as leader of the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet in March 1992, has called on "inland Chinese to come and help open up Tibet."

In 1994 preparatory work began on Tibet's first railway. One reason for this huge (US$2.36 billion) project is China's need to maintain its growing settler population. (International Campaign for Tibet 2/11/94). These settlers recieve subsidies and other incentives. Housing is being built for Chinese in many parts of Tibet, with shops as well, where they were not seen previously.

Tibet's Overall Population
Statistical evidence for this resettlement is incomplete but persuasive. Tibetan exiles claim 7.5 million Chinese now live in Tibet alongside six million Tibetans. U'Tsang province (what China calls the TAR) is the only area in China today where the Chinese are not in the majority. In the eastern Tibetan provinces of Amdo (Qinghai) and Kham (Sichuan) the Chinese admit that their settlers have outstripped the number of local Tibetans.

U'Tsang (Tibet Autonomous Region)
In 1952, Mao Zedong said: "There are hardly any Han (Chinese) in Tibet".(Selected Works of Mao, Vol. 5; p73; China Reconstructs, Sep 1987). On 25 September 1988, Mao Rubai, Vice-Chairman of the TAR, admitted that there were a million Chinese in the TAR, though he did not say how many were settlers, and probably did not intend to say it at all. Some 2.2 million Tibetans live in the TAR. The Chinese authorities always report low figures, which refer only to short-term settlers such as administrators and technicians. In March 1993, they stated that the Chinese population in the TAR was at an all-time low of 66,000. (TIN, Immigration Report 1993).

In the capital Lhasa, Tibetans offficially outnumber Chinese by 3:1. However, many observers believe that the reverse is nearer the truth, despite claims in March 1994 by the city's mayor that 87.2% of the capital's population of 400,000 are ethnic Tibetans. In a survey carried out in Lhasa in July 1993 on the southern Lingkor, a street parallel to the Barkhor, it was found that in one stretch of 50 shops, west of the sports stadium, 46 were owned or operated by Chinese traders (TIN News Update 15/08/93). Preparations are being made for a large increase in population in Lhasa including better infrastructure. Industrial and business zones are underway in Lhasa and at Golmud. (Xinhua 11/10/94).

Until now the Chinese presence has been primarily urban, but settlers are now moving to rural areas. In Shigatse and most other towns in U'Tsang, there are now large Chinese conurbations dwarfng the old Tibetan quarters (China's Reforms of Tibet, Graham Clarke, 1987).

The largest rural settlement programme documented is that now underway in the Lhasa valley, where a UN scheme to enhance the fertility of the valley will reportedly result in some 130,000 Chinese peasants taking up residence. The scale of these Chinese population transfers has sparked numerous protests by Tibetan farming communities, expressing their resentment at what they see as Chinese appropriation of Tibetan timber, minerals and land. Recent rural demonstrations have apparently shown little fear of authority, unlike the urban protest marches. In Kyimshi in the Lokha region, Tibetan farmers protesting against the population transfer took control of their region for a full month before 1,700 troops quelled the rebellion.

Amdo (Qinghai)

In 1953, there were estimated to be 100,000 Chinese in the province of Qinghai, most of which is made up of the Tibetan province of Amdo. In 1985 there were 2.5 million Chinese and 750,000 Tibetans (Chinese Statistical Yearbook, 1985). The resettlement process is evident to any visitor. For example, in 1985, out of 40 families in Takster, the Dalai Lama's home town, only eight were Tibetan. There were no Chinese households during his childhood.

Kham (Sichuan)

In the Mili and Ngapa regions of Kham, now annexed to Sichuan, the Chinese say there are about half a million Chinese to about a third of a million Tibetans. In the Khartze region, the Chinese population has doubled since 1955 while the Tibetan population has increased by only a quarter (Radio Lhasa).

The town of Chamdo has a population that is about 95%, Chinese according to eyewitnesses. Some towns in Kham did not exist before the arrival of the Chinese in the 1950s. One such is Hongyuan, which has been built in the middle of vast grasslands previously inhabited only by nomads. There are allegations that fertile grazing land has been appropriated by new settlers, forcing Tibetans to higher and more diffcult areas.


In Lhasa and other cities unemployment is a growing problem amongst Tibetans. According to a Tibetan interviewed by TIN in May 1992: "There are already 2,000 youths with basic qualifcations who are unemployed, according to offcial data given by the mayor. I suspect that the real figure might be twice that or even more in Lhasa."

There are several reasons for this:
First, the Chinese language is the principal medium of teaching and Chinese is required for most jobs. This gives new settlers an immediate advantage, apart from any purely racial advantage they may have in dealings with the Chinese authorities who dispense most of the jobs, residence permits and trade privileges.
Second, there is systematic importation of workers as well as of technical experts and officials to work in the TAR. Each of China's 25 ethnically Chinese provinces was obliged to send a work team for a number of building projects. In 1984 alone, Radio Beijing reported 60,000 arriving "representing the vanguard groups to help in schools, hotels and construction."

In 1992, for what is believed to be the first time in the TAR, Chinese migrants were encouraged to settle in agricultural areas. The exploitation of Tibet's rich mineral endowment, said to comprise over 40% of such resources potentially available to China, is accelerating worker migration. Foreign firms signed joint venture agreements in 1994 to develop one mine near Lhasa. (Reuter 28/11/94). This investment helps China consolidate its worker migration into Tibet.

The incentives for Chinese immigrants include altitude allowance, remoteness bonus, tax concessions, leniency on work permits, fewer hours, longer holidays and greater market opportunities than in China. Professional and official wages are the highest in China and include over 30% bonuses.

Resettlement Policy: A Chinese Tradition

Tibetans allege that many of the Chinese workers, often recently retired soldiers, are given jobs in Tibet for security reasons to help control and infiltrate the local populace, and to take up arms if required. This security function of resettlement was explicit during China's mass settlement campaigns in Manchuria in the late-19th century, and in East Turkestan during the 1950s. Manchuria now has a population of 75 million Chinese to some three million Manchus; Inner Mongolia has about 8.5 million Chinese to two million Mongols and East Turkestan has seven million Chinese to about five million Uygurs. In the days when these countries were opened up to Chinese settlement, roughly 100, 70, and 40 years ago respectively the policies of mass resettlement and assimilation were quite explicit, and even in the 1980s Chinese officials were still referring to the great opportunity the western regions held for absorbing China's expanding population.

Such development is seen as natural in Chinese world views, both imperial and revolutionary. It is also regarded as necessary and beneficial to the "backward" peoples who could gain from assimilation with the Chinese. It is, however, contrary to international law as applied to occupied territories. Quite apart from its cultural and economic impact the population transfer violates the Tibetans' right to self-determination.

Further reading:
Tibet Facts 12 (Birth Control Policies in Tibet)

All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 1949. Tibet Support Group UK uses the term Tibet to refer to the three original provinces of U'Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes only one province, U'Tsang (the TAR was formally inaugurated in 1965). In 1949 the other two provinces, Amdo and Kham, were renamed by the Chinese as parts of China proper and became the province of Qinghai and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.

Tibet Support Group UK campaigns for the right of the Tibetan people to decide their own future and for an end to violation of their fundamental rights and freedoms. It is independent of all governments and is funded solely by its members and supporters.

Tibet Support Group UK publishes a series of information sheets under three headings:
Tibet Facts: TSG-authored documents on history, politics etc.,
Tibet File: Source Documents such as government resolutions, official declarations and expert essays,
Tibet Action: Campaign advice.

For a full list of these sheets and other information about our publications please do not hesitate to contact us.

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