Thousands of Tibetans around the world have been subjected to spying, blackmail and threats against family members still living in Tibet, according to a new report.
The Chinese government’s repressive policies in Tibet continue to be documented, but the new report by the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) is the first to investigate the widespread targeting of exiles in countries including the US, India, France, Australia and Canada, researchers say.
China increasingly aims to stifle debate or criticism from Tibetans, Hongkongers and Uyghurs outside its borders in a tactic known as transnational repression.
Dhonden, a Tibetan living in Switzerland, told researchers for the TCHRD: “In 2021, I received a video call from one of my siblings in Tibet. When I picked up, I found they were calling from the local police station, surrounded by half of our family.
“Police officers urged me to behave well abroad, and refrain from engaging in activities that could go against Chinese policies. If I failed to obey, officers said my relatives would suffer consequences.”
The researchers gathered testimony from 84 exiled Tibetans across 10 countries and found 49 of them had received threats of harm to their relatives still living in Tibet. There are an estimated 125,000 Tibetans in total living in exile.
Tenzin Dawa, TCHRD executive director, said the phenomenon was “shockingly” more severe in Europe than elsewhere, adding that US authorities were more active in responding to Chinese transnational repression.
Some Tibetans have seen themselves cut off from their families, with levels of repression increasing during “sensitive” periods such as Losar, the Tibetan new year – which begins this weekend – or the 10 March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising.
Tibet was annexed by China in 1951 in what Beijing terms as a peaceful liberation and Tibetans describe as an invasion. Government crackdowns in the region accelerated after mass protests in 2008.
Tsering Topgyal, assistant professor of international relations at Birmingham University, said Tibetans living in exile were targets because the community was one of the most organised groups overseas that were affected by, and overtly critical of, Chinese Communist party rule.
Since the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s government in exile, was established in the early 1960s, Tibetans have set up schools and religious institutions as well as advocating for their rights in the international arena.
About 80 to 90% of Tibetan refugees with family living in Tibet have experienced transnational repression, a security official from the Central Tibetan Administration, based in Dharamshala, India, told researchers.
Gyal Lo, a Tibetan educational sociologist who fled from China to Canada in 2021, said there had been a radical shift in people’s abilities to discuss Tibet and other politically sensitive topics in China since Xi Jinping began his second presidential term in 2018.
Gyal Lo recalls discussing Tibetan autonomy over dinner with Han Chinese friends and colleagues before 2018. Since then, however, many of them have cut ties with him.
After receiving calls from family urging him to stop criticising the Chinese government in foreign media, Gyal Lo no longer feels safe contacting them.
“The day I left home, I told my father, who is 86 years old: ‘I have to go, but I’ll visit you soon,’” he said. “I never imagined this could happen, this kind of completely cutting off from [family].”
Gyal Lo said transnational repression not only severed family connections, but also undermined solidarity among the Tibetan diaspora and reduced their ability to mobilise against Chinese policies in Tibet.