By John Jones
This week marks Xi Jinping’s fifth year in power. Head of the Communist Party and the nation’s armed forces, Xi has made the journey from unassuming CCP member to arguably the most powerful leader in China’s recent history.
His political ideology has been incorporated into the CCP’s party constitution, the upper echelons of the party have been filled with his allies and his political opponents have been rooted out by a nationwide anti-corruption campaign. The emperor reigns supreme.
Outside of the party, Xi and the CCP hold on to power through a mix of old and new methods of intimidation. Over the past five years, the regime has maintained its dismal record on freedom of speech and its harassment of human rights defenders, along with the unfair trials and harsh prison sentences meted out by a judiciary that few would even bother to pretend is independent.
These abuses have been compounded by new methods introduced under Xi, such as laws to restrict the activities of foreign non-governmental organisations.
The objective is to maintain a rigid stability across China, where dissent is eradicated and any change takes place strictly on the terms of the party.
At the CCP’s 19th National Party Congress in late October, an emboldened Xi used his opening speech to threaten those who would dare to upend this stability, including those who do not recognise the CCP or Xi as their rulers: “We will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”
Tibetans will be wearily familiar with these words. They have been among those worst affected by Beijing’s desire to hold the People’s Republic of China together by force. Yet they steadfastly refuse to give in to CCP rule, remaining resolute not only through five years of Xi but also nearly 70 years of military occupation.
The CCP’s response has been to transform Tibet into one of the most repressive places on earth, a giant open-air prison.
The country remains under de-facto marshal law with police and security forces ever present. Protesters are beaten and Tibetans who fly their flag or display pictures of their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, risk being snatched from the street or their home, and made to disappear inside a vast network of detention centres and prisons where beatings and torture are routine.
Under Xi the policy has been to suffocate Tibet by massively ramping up security and surveillance while cutting it off from the wider world.
Hundreds of police stations have been established in urban areas to segment towns and cities into grid systems, allowing police and security services to monitor residents. Over 20,000 security personnel have been deployed across the country to track the daily lives of Tibet’s village population.
These measures, along with tight control of the internet and the spread of CCTV, even into monasteries, are designed to root out any would-be “splittists” or “saboteurs”, the enemies of Xi’s prized stability. The results have been stark: in Xi’s first two years in power Human Rights Watch recorded 479 cases of individuals being detained or tried for political expression or criticism of government policy.
The size and scope of these security measures were on show during the CCP National Congress in late October. For the duration of the event, the entire Tibet Autonomous Region was closed to visitors while Chinese security forces were deployed in even greater numbers. Further restrictions were imposed on the internet and social media.
The one thing Tibetans could do during this period was watch Xi’s three-hour opening speech. In fact, the authorities insisted. According to local sources, students, including children in kindergarten, hospital patients and prisoners were all required to watch the speech.
Xi’s iron rule in China and Tibet has been accompanied by a more assertive foreign policy, visible in Beijing’s attempts to scare foreign governments and businesses into silence over human rights in Tibet. The fear of losing access to Chinese markets has forced governments and businesses to avoid any behaviour that could antagonise Beijing.
In September The Financial Times revealed that German publishing group Springer Nature – which is expanding its China-based operations – had “blocked access to at least 1,000 academic articles in China that mention subjects deemed sensitive by Beijing, including Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong.”
Beijing’s attempts to cut Tibet off from the world and shut down talk of human rights have been accompanied by risible claims of record levels of happiness among Tibet’s people. Independent journalists, human rights organisations and other experts keen to check these claims are barred from Tibet, but how Tibetans really feel about the occupation can be seen in the fact that since 2009, almost 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest against the occupation.
Typically, the Xi regime has attempted to stamp such protests out by threatening would-be protesters rather than listening to their grievances. But despite new regulations to punish the families and communities of self-immolation protesters, at least four Tibetans carried out such protests this year, each shouting for freedom as they set themselves alight.
Other Tibetans continue to challenge the authorities and protest in defence of their environment, their culture and their freedom, showing remarkable bravery in the face of overwhelming pressure.
My organisation, Free Tibet, was formed almost exactly 30 years ago in response to a series of large uprisings in Lhasa and the brutal police crackdown that followed. Ever since, we have played a key role in bringing footage and testimonies of CCP crimes and Tibetan resistance to the world’s attention, defying Beijing’s information blackout.
Those of us who live in freedom and who hear these stories from Tibet cannot afford to be silent.
As Xi Jinping looks forward to another five years in power, five more years of police crackdowns in Tibet and attempts to silence potential critics abroad, it is vital that people around the world, especially governments and world leaders, find their voice and speak out in support of Tibetans with courage and conviction.
Tibetans living under the shadow of Xi and his police state refuse to be intimidated. So must we.
John Jones is the Campaigns and Communications Manager at Free Tibet.