20080301-tibet-school julei chao.jpg
Tibetan kids in a Chinese-run school

Tibetans complain that they are second-class citizens in their own country. They complain about the mass migrations of Han Chinese into Tibet and the fact that the Chinese get all the best jobs, forcing their unemployed children to turn to crime to survive. Even jobs for tour guides require fluency in Chinese and tend to focus more on Chinese history than Tibetan history.

The Tibetans are also annoyed that Chinese eat dogs (animals believed to be the last reincarnation before humans in Tibetan Buddhism); they don't walk clockwise around temples and monasteries; and they smoke everywhere and toss away their cigarettes at wooden temples and "even under the holy trees."

Communist officials and workers are often rude to Tibetans and more polite to Chinese. Tibetans claim the Chinese legal system and law enforcement discriminates against them. They inevitably lose legal disputes involving Chinese. The New York Times described one man who whose house was burned down for no apparent reason. When he tried to seek help, the authorities said, "What race are you? Tibetan? Go ask the Dalai Lama for help."

Tibetans are often the victims of Chinese corruption. In recent years, for example, Tibetans have found it easier to obtain passports but they are required to fork over $300 in bribes in addition to the $30 passport fee.

Chinese also complain of poor treatment. One Chinese man told the Los Angeles Times, "The Tibetans say to us, 'This land is ours — get out. What am I supposed to say that?"


Cultural Difference Between the Tibetans and Chinese

Most Tibetans can't speak very good Chinese and most Chinese can't speak Tibetan. The two groups often view each other with disdain and suspicion and define the other with stereotypes and prejudice.

Many Chinese consider Tibetans to be uncivilized, superstitious, hostile, lazy, ignorant, dirty, unpredictable and a bit savage, and regard the Tibetan religion as examples of "false consciousness" and "incorrect thinking." Most Tibetans view the Chinese as greedy, moneygrubbing, manipulative, arrogant, unwanted house guests. One nationalist Tibetan told the Los Angeles Times, "We believe in Buddhism, they're atheists. They think only of making money." Tibetans are particularly suspicious of Sichuanese, whose women are regarded as loose and who men are thought of as tricky and sly.

The Chinese have a reputation for being more industrious than the Tibetans. A successful Tibetan businessman told the Washington Post, "The Tibetan people and the Han Chinese people are very different. The Han Chinese are very clever, they think more broadly than the Tibetans. Tibetan people are easily satisfied; the Chinese are never satisfied."

"Even Tibetans like to hire the Chinese because they have more modern methods and they work harder," one Tibetan man in Lhasa told the Washington Post. "Tibetans would rather give their money to a beggar or to a monastery in hopes of earning merit for next life than put it in the bank or invest it,” he said.

To illustrate the difference between traditional nomadic Tibetan thinking and Chinese thinking, a western analyst told the Washington Post, "If you got eight yaks what's the next best thing. The nomads would say, 'Nine yaks.' The Chinese would say, "No, sell a yak, then you get money. With money, you can build a house."

Tibetan Views on Chinese

A 27-year-old Tibetan in Xining in Qinghai told the Washington Post, “Economically speaking, Tibetans are doing okay. But spiritually, we are not. Our feeling is like Chinese people’s feeling when Japan invaded China...It’s as if you were born in a very poor family but you were taken away to live with a rich family. Although you’d be better off, which family would you want to really belong to?”

One Tibetan student told the New York Times, “The reality is that we are controlled by Chinese, by the Han people. We don’t have any say; so in my family we don’t even talk about it.”

One Tibetan man told the New York Times, “We are unhappy that the state suppresses us, and as long the Dalai isn’t allowed to return we will remain unhappy.” Another said, “All Tibetans are the same:100 percent of us adore the Dalai Lama

A Tibetan woman who sells Tibetan jewelry in a Beijing subway station told Newsweek, no Han Chinese “wants to be mistaken for a Tibetan...No one wants to be seen [even] speaking with Tibetans.”

Tibetans used to refer to Chinese with an affectionate honorific but now they often use the term “gyaro”, meaning “Chinese corpse.”

Some Tibetans are truly grateful for the material program that Chinese have brought. One man, who lives in a new $7,500 village house with pictures of Mao and Zhou Enlai on the wall, told the Times of London. “They are like parents, and you love your parents.”

A Tibetan yak trade told the Washington Post, “Compared with Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, Tibetans lead harder and poorer lives. The Han and the Hui both go to school, but many Tibetans can’t read and write and they can’t find jobs. I feel regret for not learning anything in school.”

Chinese Views on Tibetans

The vast majority of Chinese have little sympathy for the Tibetan cause. Many feel that if anything the government is too soft on Tibet and Tibetans themselves are large seen as ungrateful recipients of Chinese efforts to bring development and civilization to them. One Chinese woman told Chinese TV, Tibetans “don’t want to work, They just want to destroy our property.” A half-Han, half-Tibetan government official who grew up in Tawu, told Time that Tibetans are greedy. The government gives them everything from preferential loans to new infrastructure, but still they want more. “If we were to give the Tibetans independence,” he says, “they would starve and have no clothes on their back.”

In "Reflections on Tibet", the respected Chinese intellectual, Wang Lixiong wrote that Tibetans are governed by demonic gods and live in a permanent state of fear, in awe of terrifying spirits — a state Wang ascribes to the Himalayan ecology: “Encountering, alone, this savage expanse of earth and sky inevitably produced a feeling of being overwhelmed by such preponderance, a terrifying sense of isolation and helplessness, repeated down the generations. Fear provoked awe, and awe gave rise to the totem of deities and monsters . . . Fear formed the core of the Tibetans' spiritual world.” [Source: Tsering Shakya, New Left Review, May-June 2002 ^*^]

A Chinese taxi driver in Lhasa told the New York Times, “The relationship between Han and Tibetan is irreconcilable. We don’t have a good impression of them, as they are lazy and hate us, for, as they say, taking away what belongs to them. In their mind showering once or twice in the life is sacred, but to Han it is filthy and unacceptable....We believe in working hard and making money to support our family, but they might think we’re greedy and have no faith.”

Many Chinese in Tibet feel the Tibetans are ungrateful for the development China has brought to Tibet. After the uprising in 2008 one Chinese man told the New York Times, “Our government has wasted our money in helping these white-eyed wolves. Just think of how much we’ve invested in relief funds for monks and for unemployed Tibetans. Is this what we deserve?”

In the United States, hundred of Chinese protesters showed up at the University of Washington where he Dalai Lama was giving a speech, chanting “Dalai your smiles charm, your actions harm.”

"The Dalai Lama group and some Westerners see Tibet's peaceful liberation and development through a tinted glass," Du Yongbin, a scholar at the China-Tibetology Research Centre in Beijing, said in a commentary in the China Daily. "They either ignore the unprecedented development that Tibet has experienced or think Tibet's development threatens traditional Tibetan culture. Their logic seems to be to treat Tibet like a museum piece," he said.

Chinese Views of Tibet

The Western image of Tibet as the victim of aggression is incomprehensible to most young Han. "Part of the Western romanticisation of Tibet juxtaposes a spiritual and pure Tibet against the forces of power, materialism and oppression embodied by [Beijing] and the Chinese presence in Tibet," Elliot Sperling, an associate professor at Indiana University, told the South China Morning Post. "The lack of this part of the image of Tibet - a result of government strictures on what can be said about the Tibetan situation - is significant. It cuts the dissident, even counter-culturally subversive, part of Western interest in Tibet out of its Chinese manifestation." [Source: Dinah Gardner,South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

"Lamaism", a jingoist and patronizing account of Tibet and Tibetans written by Briton Austin Waddell, who played a major role in the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, is still used as an authoritative source in China.

“Serf”, a 1963 Chinese government film depicting the misery of feudalism, was widely seen on the mainland. "Tibet has always been part of China, at least since the Ming and Qing dynasties," one China traveler to Tibet told the South China Morning Post: "Before liberation, Tibetans were all serfs, and then the Communist Party liberated them so they could be their own masters. In the old days, they had horrific practices like skinning people alive."

How the 2008 Tibetan Riots Shaped Han Chinese Views of Tibet

The other factor shaping Han perceptions of Tibet are the 2008 anti-government protests, which started in Lhasa in March that year and spread across the Tibetan region. They were portrayed by domestic media as violent riots - several Han Chinese in Lhasa were killed - instigated by separatist forces from abroad. As a result, many on the mainland perceive Tibetans as aggressive and anti-Han. [Source: Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011] Says Sautman: "Many younger Han people do romanticise Tibet, chiefly as a place of exceptional spirituality, in contrast to most of the rest of China. But this age cohort is, of course, huge, so there are still many younger Han who think of Tibet as still relatively backward and, after the racial killings in Lhasa in 2008, as harbouring some people very hostile to Han generally."

"Even Han who romanticise Tibet deplore the murders of 2008, but are perhaps more understanding of the demonstrations that took place." Sperling suggests: "Even though interest in Tibet within China is still a minority taste, it may well happen that an interest in a romanticised Tibet will lead a few who hold that interest to confront very real Tibetan discontents."

"There is an estrangement between Tibetans and us Han Chinese, but I'm not afraid," says Ran. "There are lots of police around." Since the troubles of 2008, People's Liberation Army and People's Armed Police camps have been positioned next to or close to monasteries in many towns across Kandze (two among the recent spate of self-immolations took place in the county). Over the summer, the sound of monks praying was frequently drowned out by the sharp bark of military orders and the crunch of soldiers marching.

Cultural Genocide in Tibet?

Many Tibetans feel that ethnic inequality, discrimination and cultural extinction fueled by the Chinese government — more than any other human rights issues — are at the root of Tibetans’ and Uighurs’ resentment toward Chinese rule. “People around the world often condemn the Chinese government for human rights abuses in Tibet, but we Tibetans do not care so much whether we live well in Tibet,”an envoy of the Tibetan government-in-exile Dawa Tsering told a forum in Taipei organized by the Taiwan New Century Foundation. “What we care most about is whether the Tibetan nation and culture will survive,” he said. [Source: Loa Iok-sin, Taipei Times, July 26 2009]

Dawa has also argued that Tibetans never had a sense of statehood, which is why many did not oppose the PLA invasion. It has only since their culture has come under threat that have started to speak out. Throughout history, Tibetans were not a unified people and the concept of a sovereign state in the modern sense never existed in the minds of Tibetans before the People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet in the 1950s, he said. “The reason why most Tibetan civilians did not resist when the Chinese army entered Tibet in 1951 was because the concept that 'our country is being invaded,' did not exist for them,” Dawa said. “However, Tibetans rose against Chinese rule in 1959 because the Chinese were touching on something that Tibetans felt closely attached to,” he said.

The Dalai Lama has called Chinese policy in Tibet "cultrual genocide." Many think that traditional Tibet is unlikely to survive in a meaningful way simply because there are too many Chinese and too few Tibetans. The historian Ian Buruma wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Are the Tibetans doomed to go the way of the American Indians? Will they be little more than tourist attraction, peddling cheap mementos of what was once a great culture? “

Some Chinese argue that the Chinese have more of claim on Tibet than Americans have on much of the United States. China and Tibet have a relationship that goes back centuries which is more than Americans can say about their relationship with native Americans. In the 1940s, native Alaskans made up more than half of the population of Alaska. Now they make up about 15 percent as a result of migration of people from the people from the lower 48 states. Does that mean that the United States practices "cultural genocide."

Buruma wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “By forcing the Dalai Lama into exile the Chinese have ensured the establishment of a highly traditional Tibetan diaspora society that might well survive at a level that would have been unlikely even in an independent Tibet. Diaspora cultures thrive on nostalgic dreams of return. Traditions are jealously guarded like precious heirlooms to be passed on as long as those dreams persist. Who is to say they never come true? The Jews managed to hang on to their's for more than 2,000 years.”

In China’s defense, over the last 20 years China has jailed several hundred people in Tibet while other nations have committed worse atrocities against minorities on their soil. In Cheychna, the Russian army killed about 75,000 civilians and destroyed its capital.

People also pin their hopes on the Dalai Lama’s return to save their culture. One monk in the village of Wutig told the Washington Post, “We long for the Dalai Lama to come back to solve the issue of religious freedom and help Tibetan culture come back. If we look ahead 10 or 20 years, if the Dalai Lama fails to come back, I do think Tibetan culture will die.”

In response a Chinese official said, “There’s been the cry “the world is coming” in and damaging Tibetan culture and religion. The undeniable fact is that the Tibetan traditions are prospering because of the joint efforts of the Chinese government and the Tibetan people.”

Chinese Migration into Tibet

Chinese railway workers in Tibet

There have been mass migrations of Han Chinese into Tibet. "The Chinese keep coming," one Tibetan told Newsweek, "especially those who can't find jobs anywhere else." Many of them are natives of Sichuan province or Hui Muslims from northwestern China. “Why did I come here? To make money, of course!” Xiong Zhahua, a migrant from Sichuan Province, told the New York Times. He spends five months a year running a restaurant on the shores of chilly Nam Tso, the lake north of Lhasa.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Han Chinese workers, investors, merchants, teachers and soldiers are pouring into remote Tibet . They come by new high-altitude trains, four a day, cruising 1,200 miles past snow-capped mountains. And they come by military truck convoy, lumbering across the roof of the world...Simple restaurants located in white prefabricated houses and run by ethnic Han business people who take the train have sprung up even at a remote lake north of Lhasa.”[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]

Some of the Chinese that have come to Tibet have come with a frontier spirit comparable to that of Americans heading West in the 19th century. Some are escaping the law in their home provinces. The Washington Post talked with one man who came to Tibet from Gansu Province after stabbing a man in a drunken brawl.

Critics charge Chinese with conspiring to gain control of Tibet by outnumbering the Tibetans, a policy that served the Han Chinese well throughout its history of conquest. The Dalai Lama says that the massive "population transfer" of migrating Chinese to Tibet is one of his primary concerns. He has called China’s immigration policy “demographic aggression” and an element of China's "cultural genocide" in Tibet.

Some argue that Beijing if unfairly blamed for the influx of immigrants. In many ways the government has little control over the situation unless it wants to close the borders into Tibet and if they did that Western human rights groups would make a fuss.

Chinese Migration Policy in Tibet

The migration policy has changed over the years. Until fairly recently few Chinese had any interests in going to Tibet. In the 1960s and 70s, ordinary Chinese were banned from moving there. In the 1980s, Beijing dispatched work teams to Tibet to build roads and other infrastructure projects and work in mines. The Hong Kong-based South China Post reported in 1996 that a half million Chinese laborers had been brought the Tibetan plateau to work in copper mines.

Beijing later loosened immigration rules and offered monetary incentives to encourage Han Chinese to head to Tibet. In the 1990s, authorities dismantled checkpoints to the region and encouraged Chinese who had lost their jobs to move there. The Chinese government offered tax breaks and gave low interests loans to Chinese entrepreneurs who started businesses such as noodle shops, convenience stores and souvenir shops in Tibet. By 2003, according to the official count, 212,000 Chinese had moved to Tibet. The actual number was believed to be two or three times higher. See Population

The World Bank had planned to provide a $160 million antipoverty loan to resettle 58,000 Chinese farmers on traditional Tibetan lands. The plan was scuttled due to efforts by the Tibetan lobby in Washington, U.S. Senator Jessie Helmes and the rap group, the Beastie Boys. Beijing then went ahead with a similar project, beginning with settlement of 20,000 Han and Hui Chinese in the traditionally Tibetan Dulam region of Qinghai Province.

Chinese Migrants in Tibet

No one is sure how many Han Chinese are now living in Tibet, but the number is increasing all the time. Beijing says that Han Chinese make up 3 percent of the population of Tibet Autonomous region while Tibetan exiles say the figure is around 50 percent. The Beijing figures do not include the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have come to Tibet and failed to register. Nor does it include soldiers, minors or road crew workers.

Chinese officials say Tibetans make up more than 95 percent of the region 2.9 million people, but refuse to give estimates on Han migrants, who are not registered residents. In the cities of Lhasa and Shigatse, it is clear that Han neighborhoods are dwarfing Tibetan areas. [Op Cit, Wong ]

Most Chinese have flocked to the cities and large towns to make money and could care less about politics. They work as taxi drivers, own souvenir shops, run vegetable stands in the markets, dominate guide operations at major monasteries, work in government offices, and operate Chinese restaurants, Tibetan restaurants and karaoke bars decorated with prayer flags. Outside the cities there are few Chinese. Those that work there are truck drivers, miners and construction workers building roads and railroads.

The invasion has included businessmen form Sichuan, prostitutes from Hunan, bureaucrats from Beijing and shopkeepers from Yunnan. Many of the Chinese migrants are Sichuanese. Some neighborhoods are made up of 200 Sichuanese from the same hometown. Some businesses are controlled by Sichuanese from the same family. A typical Sichuanese migrant has come to Tibet after being laid off from his job in Sichuan. After using up his meager severance pay he has purchased a plane ticket to Lhasa, leaving behind his wife and children, to come to Lhasa and start a small business. One Sichuanese migrant told the Washington Post, in Tibet “there are fewer people, and there’s less competition. It’s wide open if you are willing to work.”

Between the early 2000s and the mid 2000s Lhasa has gone from being a largely traditional Tibetan city of 250,000 to a modern Chinese city of 500,000, with more than half the population now Chinese. Many Chinese live in neighborhoods that are separate from the Tibetan neighborhoods. The number of brothels and karaoke bars has increased greatly since the Chinese began arriving in large numbers. Chinese vendors sometimes sell dog meat on the streets (killing dogs is an abhorant idea to Tibetans) and dominate the booths selling prayer scarves at the gates of Jokhang temple.

In the early 2000s many of the Chinese that lived in Lhasa left during the winter. They got terribly homesick, didn't like Tibet and had a problem with the climate — the cold, the dry air, the altitude. They usually left Tibet for good after two or three years. Many Chinese believe that spending time at altitude seriously damages the lungs, enlarges the heart and shortens a person's life.

Now many Chinese in Lhasa stay year round. Even so few have bothered to learn anything more than the most basic Tibetan language. Entire neighborhoods of traditional Tibetan buildings have been replaced by hastily-built office buildings and shops with signs in Chinese rather than Tibetan.

see Lhasa.

Resentment Towards Han Migrants in Tibet

“But if the influx of money and people has brought new prosperity, it has also deepened the resentment among many Tibetans. Migrant Han entrepreneurs elbow out Tibetan rivals, then return home for the winter after reaping profits. Large Han-owned companies dominate the main industries, from mining to construction to tourism. One high school student complained that Tibetans could not compete for jobs with Han migrants who arrived with high school diplomas. Tibetans just get low-end jobs, he said. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]

“Some Chinese officials acknowledge the disenfranchisement of Tibetans, though they defend the right of Han to migrate here. The flow of human resources follows the rule of market economics and is also indispensable for the development of Tibet, Hao Peng, vice chairman and deputy party secretary of the region, said at a news conference with a small group of foreign journalists. But the current system may have caused an imbalanced distribution, he said. We are taking measures to solve this problem.

Housing construction for Chinese has destroyed available cropland. Prices for tsampa has risen from 14 cents a pound to 60 cents a pound after the train began operating. Many Tibetans feel that the Chinese migrants have taken jobs from the Tibetans. One Tibetan told Newsweek, “We thought there’d be employment, but now even the cleaners are Chinese.”

Segregation and Integration of Chinese and Tibetans

See Schools

It not clear which direction Tibet will take in the future. Urban Tibetan youths in Lhasa seem be absorbed in making money and enjoying nightclubs, karaokes and Western and Chinese culture while young people outside of Lhasa seem to be holding more to their Tibetan heritage, maintaining their reverence of the Dalai Lama and making pilgrimages

Young Tibetans mix Chinese words with Tibetan words. Well-to-do Tibetans send their children to schools in Beijing and Shanghai.

See Economic Improvements

Image Sources: Julie Chao, Tibet Train.com

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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