Wishful Thinking: Tibet in the Face of Communist China's War against Autonomy

In 1949, the newly established Communist China sent troops into their neighboring country, Tibet, under the guise of wishing to aid in development and improve the living standards in the secluded country. Tibet at the time was intentionally isolated from the international community, content in their way of life and only possessing a small army ("International Campaign for Tibet"). China has maintained their claim that Tibet was historically a part of their territory, yet pre-invasion Tibet had its own distinct culture, language, religious traditions, political system, and currency. Although the Chinese signed a treaty granting Tibetans autonomy over their internal affairs, such promises were soon broken when the Chinese strengthened their control over the country with an increasingly large military presence ("International Campaign for Tibet"). In the 64 years since the occupation of Tibet, the Chinese have attempted to “sinocize” the Tibetans in an effort to more easily exert control over the Tibetan plateau, a land with an abundance of natural resources and vast acreage to accommodate China’s growing population ("International Campaign for Tibet").  Such policies, however, have proved disastrously counterproductive, contributing to the destruction of Tibetan identity, widespread self-immolations, and growing instability across the Tibetan Plateau.

Many have classified Chinese offenses and human rights violations perpetrated against Tibetans as  “cultural genocide.” Building off provisions of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) defines cultural genocide as “any deliberate act committed with the intent to destroy the language, religion or culture of a national, racial or religious group on grounds of national or racial origin or religious belief.”("International Campaign for Tibet").  This definition includes any deprivation of cultural values and identities such as use of language, destroying or preventing use of; libraries, museums, schools, historical monuments, or places of worship. Moreover, dispossessing the group of their land, territories, and resources falls under the definition of cultural genocide. Finally, cultural genocide includes the forced population transfers or forced assimilation of groups of people ("International Campaign for Tibet").

The Communist Party’s persecution of Tibetans qualifies as cultural genocide under the definition provided by the ITC. As evidence of this, the Chinese government has attempted to assimilate Tibetans primarily through imposing laws and restrictions on practicing Tibetan cultural traditions. The Chinese government has banned photos of the Dalai Lama, destroyed most Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, restricted the use of the Tibetan language, and has even jailed and tortured thousands of Tibetans ("International Campaign for Tibet").  The Chinese policies have also incorporated “patriotic education” for Tibetans and have forcefully relocated millions of Tibetan nomads into housing compounds, essentially eliminating the nomadic culture, an important aspect of Tibetan identity ("International Campaign for Tibet").  Laws and restrictions on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, the essence of Tibetan culture, are especially harsh. Targeting this foundation of Tibetan society indicates that the Chinese seek to systematically destroy traditional Tibetan culture.

    In line with Marxist disdain for religion as a divisive force, the Communist Party views anti-Buddhist policies as necessary components of ongoing efforts to eradicate ‘separatist’ elements in Tibet. The Party asserts that Tibetan Buddhism only serves to separate Tibetans from Han Chinese (Norbu, 2001).  Yet the intense religious persecution seems to only intensify the Tibetan sense of identity, forcing religious practitioners to forge secret bonds that reinforce a strong sense of solidarity(Norbu, 2001).  This phenomenon is evident in the fervent nature of the “Free Tibet” movement taken on by younger Tibetans. These young activists, many of whom were born in exiled communities and prevented from even seeing their homeland, have never lived in a free Tibet. The Free Tibet movement remains as prominent in the lives of Tibetans as it was immediately following the Chinese invasion. Tibetans strongly believe that with the aid of the international community, they can be liberated.

    Core Tibetan Buddhist values of compassion and nonviolence, combined with harsh governmental restrictions, deter Tibetans from staging riots similar to those seen in the Middle East since the start of the Arab Spring. As Tibetans have attempted to attract international attention in order to gain broader support for their cause, they have turned to a form of protest that allows them to express their extreme suffering, while not harming others and minimizing potential punishment from the Chinese government ("What Makes Tibetans Self-Immolate?," 2013).  This approach involves widespread acts of self-immolation, the practice of setting oneself on fire. As many as 120 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 ("Chamdo at Center of Beijing's 'Re-Education' Campaign," 2013).  They have taken to pouring gasoline over themselves, sometimes drinking the accelerant, and stepping out in the streets to set themselves on fire ("What Makes Tibetans Self-Immolate?," 2013). The frequency of these events has caused Beijing officials to fear the development of a growing separatist movement. Rather than addressing the root causes of these desperate pleas for help, officials have responded by requiring permits to purchase kerosene and providing government officials with fire extinguishers in Tibetan areas ("Chamdo at Center of Beijing's 'Re-Education' Campaign," 2013).  While self-immolations have alarmed the international community, underlying Tibetan grievances remain unresolved. Religious and political dynamics partly explain the troubled and tragic Sino-Tibetan relationship.

In Tibetan Buddhism, violence and hatred are vehemently condemned. While Tibetans resist Chinese control of their homeland, they adamantly assert that they do not feel anger toward their oppressors. They detest the Chinese Communist Party and the policies, but not individual Party members (Norbu, 2001).  From this viewpoint, a protest that would harm a Chinese official or citizen would elicit horror from the Tibetan community. The option for a non-violent group protest is not possible, as Chinese authorities would immediately thwart any large-scale gathering, as well as subsequently jail and torture any participants. Sadly, the Chinese seek to crush the very Buddhist spirit that compels Tibetans to engage in self-immolation rather than violent resistance.

Tibetan Buddhism condemns self-harm as well, but self-sacrifice for the greater good is seen as an exception.5 Tibetans who have self-immolated see the sacrifice of their body and the attention from the international community for their fiery protest as potentially aiding the international movement for a free Tibet. As such, self-immolation is viewed as ultimately beneficial to Tibetans (Kun-khyab, 2013) 

Because the Dalai Lama is the most important person in Tibetan Buddhism, all Tibetans revere him. The Dalai Lama has long advocated the “middle way approach” for Tibet. The middle way asks for autonomy over affairs concerning Tibetans yet allowing Tibet to remain a part of China. While directly going against the Dalai Lama’s wishes is considered taboo, the middle-way has lost popularity with the younger generation of Tibetans who have suffered at the hands of the Communist Party. These disgruntled youth believe that genuine autonomy is the only solution to the dire situation in Tibet.6 Self-immolation is a way to express the extreme grief felt by Tibetans in Tibet, as well as voice the problems with the middle-way approach taken by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Nearly all of the Tibetans who have self-immolated have called for a free Tibet while their bodies burned. The Tibetans who are self-immolating see Tibetan independence as the only option for prosperity and increased rights in the region. Frustrations with the middle-way approach have also increased due to a cessation of talks between the Tibetans and Chinese, the last one being held in 2010 ("International Campaign for Tibet").

In light of the reverence Tibetans hold for the Dalai Lama, many have called upon him to speak out against the self-immolations, believing that if he publicly condemned them, they would cease. If Tibetans inside of Tibet knew that the Dalai Lama directly opposed their actions, most would not want to go against him. The Dalai Lama refuses to make such a statement as he has renounced his political power, putting all the political decisions in the hand of the Tibetan government in exile ("Dalai Lama won’t talk immolations," 2014).  The Chinese government on the other hand, blames the self-immolations on the Dalai Lama, saying that he has encouraged Tibetans to do so as part of his separatist scheme. As self-immolations clearly highlight flaws in the government’s policy on Tibet, blaming them on the Dalai Lama is their way of downplaying the horrific consequences of their misguided policies. ("Storm in the Grasslands: Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese Policy.")  

The Chinese government has responded to Tibetan self-immolations by imposing harsher restrictions on Tibetans and increasing the military presence in the region. Examples include an increased crackdown against loyalty to the Dalai Lama and persecuting the family, friends, and monasteries of those who have self-immolated ("Storm in the Grasslands: Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese Policy.").  Increased repression, however, has only encouraged Tibetan activists. As restrictions and religious persecution increases, the number of those willing to engage in self-sacrifice increases as well. This increased crackdown only leads to more self-immolations, creating a positive-feedback loop that escalates tensions on the Tibetan Plateau.

Ajaz Ashraf, a journalist for The Daily Times, has summarized the situation well.  “Through self-immolation, the Tibetans are symbolically saying that because of the Chinese repression and the Dalai Lama’s exile, they are as alive as a dead body waiting to be cremated. Thus, in setting their bodies on fire they are in reality cremating themselves — and also mocking their tormentors who, unable to establish supremacy over the hearts and minds of Tibetans, forever seek to control their bodies.” ("Storm in the Grasslands: Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese Policy.").

While the Chinese continue to put economic development as their first priority in Tibet, claiming that occupation benefits Tibetans, Tibetans assert that they do not want development and the benefits of “modern life” at the expense of their religious freedoms. A nun who had recently left central Tibet stated, “I do not want electricity and the other colorful things the Chinese have introduced. I want full freedom to practice my religion without which I feel my life is empty and meaningless.” (Norbu, 2001).   Similar sentiments are echoed throughout the entire Tibetan population, proving that the Chinese crackdown and increased religious restrictions will not ease their occupation.

The Chinese seek stability in Tibet, yet they have approached the situation from the wrong perspective. As inconceivable as it may be to the Chinese government, the only way to return stability to Tibet would be to increase religious freedoms for the Tibetan people. Beijing’s plan to systematically destroy the Tibetan identity is ultimately counterproductive. Past examples, such as the Soviet Union’s attempt to homogenize and assimilate religious and ethnic minorities, have proven that identity cannot be repressed to the point of extinction when the group acts to protect it. Likewise, assimilation policies will likely ultimately undermine Chinese Communist Party objectives (Norbu, 2001).

While there were rumors of a new Chinese policy allowing Tibetans in two provinces to openly revere the Dalai Lama, the Communist Party has strongly denied that they have changed course. One of China’s most senior officials made a public statement calling for an "absolute fight" against what he termed "the Dalai clique" as a means of protecting Chinese unification (Armstrong, 2013).  This continued steadfast opposition to the Dalai Lama and the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet offers little hope for progressive reform in the region. In the absence of substantive policy reform, the Chinese cannot expect Tibetans to change, or for the self-immolations to entirely stop. Enduring security will not return to the region until the Chinese are willing to abandon religious persecution, which will likely keep Tibetans, activists, and those in solidarity with the movement waiting for the foreseeable future.



1) International Campaign for Tibet, 60 Years of Chinese Misrule: Arguing Cultural

           Genocide in Tibet. Washington

2) Norbu, Dawa. China's Tibet Policy. Richmond, London: Curzon Press, 2001.

3) "What Makes Tibetans Self-Immolate?." VOA Cambodia 06 June 2013,<http://www.voacamb


4)"Chamdo at Center of Beijing's 'Re-Education' Campaign."Radio Free Asia 21 June 2013


5) Kun-khyab, Tenzin. "Is Self-Immolation Anti-Buddhism?."Central Tibetan Administration

14 June 2013, <http://tibet.net/2013/06/17/is-self-immolation-anti-buddhism/>.

6) Wade, Samuel. "88th, 89th Self-Immolations Reported, as Protests Strain Middle Way."

China Digital Times29 Nov 2012,<http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2012/11/88th-89th


7) "Dalai Lama won’t talk immolations." Sentinal Source 14 May 2012,



8) "Storm in the Grasslands: Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese Policy." International

Campaign for Tibet. International Campaign for Tibet.<http://www.savetibet.org/wp-


9) Armstrong, Paul. "Fight against Dalai Lama will continue, top Chinese official says."

CNN 10 July 2013, <http://edition.cnn.com/2013/07/10/world/asia/china-tibet-dalai



Laogai Research Foundation
The Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) was established in 1992 by Laogai survivor, Harry Wu, to gather information on and raise public awareness of the Laogai—China's extensive system of forced-labor prison camps. LRF also works to document and publicize other systemic human rights violations in China, including executions and the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners, the coercive enforcement of China's "one-child" population control policy, and Internet censorship and surveillance. LRF serves as an authoritative source for journalists, researchers, politicians, and other human rights organizations on human rights in China generally and the Laogai and forced labor in China specifically.
Harry Wu, Founder
Laogai Museum Front Desk

Harry Wu knows firsthand the atrocious conditions of the Laogai. In 1960, Wu was imprisoned at the age of 23 for criticizing the Communist Party, and subsequently spent 19 years toiling in the factories, mines, and fields of the Laogai.

He was released in 1979 and came to the US in 1985 with just $40 in his pocket. Since then, he has traveled back to China multiple times to further invesitgate Laogai camps and continue his call for human rights in China.

Wu founded the Laogai Research Foundation in 1992 to gather information on and raise public awareness of the Chinese Laogai.

LRF's mission is to document and expose the Laogai, China's vast and brutal system of forced labor prison camps, and to promote education, advocacy, and dialogue about China's human rights issues.
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Laogai Museum Front Desk

The Laogai Museum is the first museum in the U.S. to directly address human rights in China. It is the hope of the Laogai Research Foundation that the Laogai Museum will preserve the memory of the Laogai's countless victims and serve to educate the public about the atrocities committed by China's Communist regime. First founded in 2008 with the support of the Yahoo! Human rights Fund, the museum reopened in its present location in 2011, becoming a place for human rights victims and advocates to reach out to a larger audience.

The Laogai Research Foundation
1734 20th Street, Northwest
Washington, DC 20009

We are two blocks north of Dupont Circle Metro's North Exit on the Red Line (corner of 20th and S Streets).

Free 2-hour and metered street parking is available throughout the neighborhood.

Hours of Operation

Monday – Friday 10:00 AM – 06:00 PM
Saturday 10:00 AM – 05:00 PM

(202) 730-9308


The Laogai Archives are in the offices of the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, DC.

Due to the suppression of free speech within China, much of the material housed within the Laogai Archives is not available to researchers in mainland China. Thus, the Laogai Archives are in a unique position to support academics, journalists, students, and activists in freely conducting research on human rights in China.

  1. What is the Laogai?
    The Laogai is the People’s Republic of China’s prison system. The name of the system is derived from the Chinese expression, laodong gaizao (勞動改造) meaning “reform through labor”. Generally referred to as labor reform camps (勞改隊), the prison system’s structure was developed by the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong. Modeled on the Soviet Gulag, the prison forces prisoners to do hard labor and gives them “political reeducation” to reform their thoughts and behaviors. The PRC also uses the Laogai as a source of free labor for various work, from infrastructure construction and mining, to farming and manufacturing. Through a variety of prison enterprises, the Chinese government earns income off the backs of Laogai prisoners.
    The Chinese definition of the Laogai entails six components.
      “Reform through labor camps or brigades” house officially convicted and sentenced criminals.

      In 1994, the Chinese government stopped using the word of “laogai,” instead it restored the traditional name of jianyu (prison). But the nature of the laogai system as a tool of rerpression remains the same.

      “Reeducation through labor facilities” house prisoners under “administrative discipline,” meaning that they may be sentenced to up to three years of forced labor without ever having been charged or tried.

      Detention centers house prisoners who are awaiting trial or have gone through a trial but the sentenced prison term is less than one year. They too can be forced to labor.

      Juvenile offender facilities house adolescent convicts or reeducation through labor detainees. In 1983, a regulation was issued that decreased the age from 16 to 14 years old at which children can be sent to reeducation through labor camps.

      These facilities were for prisoners who had served out their sentences but were deemed “not completely reformed.” Such prisoners had to stay in the same prison facility, facing the same conditions, and performing the same work just as when they were formal prisoners. The CCP ceased the forced job placement system in the early 1980s.
  2. How is the Laogai different from other prison systems?

    Because of international attention to human rights violations in the Laogai in the early 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to create the impression that the Laogai is only a prison system for detaining, punishing, and reforming criminals. It was for this reason that in 1994, the CCP ordered that Laogai, meaning “reform through labor,” no longer be used in government documents. Instead, the system’s institutions were to be called jianyu, “prison.” However, contrary to CCP propaganda, the Laogai is different from prison systems in other countries. Laogai inmates are forced to labor and forced to do brain wash. What is more, they are unprotected by law, including laws against torture and abuse, as can be seen in the following section “Difference in Conditions.” The Laogai system also strengthens the CCP’S control by suppressing dissent among the Chinese people. The Laogai is an integral part of China’s economy, providing an abundance of free labor for manufacturing goods sold in both domestic and international markets.
    The conditions that persist in the Laogai constitute an additional distinction between it and other prison systems, with the Laogai perpetuating many of China’s most serious human rights abuses.

  3. Who has suffered in the Laogai?
  4. What is the political function of the Laogai system?
    Besides punishing criminals, the Laogai serves as a tool of political repression. China sentences outspoken critics of CCP policy to imprisonment in the Laogai to quell dissent. Suspects punishable by means of laogai or prison terms include the previous “anti-revolutionaries” and present-day “endangering state security” according to the Criminal Law. Suspects punishable by means of Re-education Through Labor according to the CCP’S “Measures for Reeducation through Labor (1957)” include, “counterrevolutionary and anti-socialist reactionaries, whose crimes are minor and not subject to criminal prosecution, and who have been dismissed by government offices, organizations, and enterprises, educational institutions or other units and have no way to make a living.”
    Fear and submission to CCP rule are also perpetuated by recurring “strike hard” campaigns. During these campaigns Chinese authorities implement various penalties, public trials, and previously, public executions, to intimidate its citizens and clamp down on political “crimes”. Trials and sentencing occur rapidly, and those accused of a crime are deemed guilty even before trial. It is under these circumstances that the CCP has continually silenced dissidents.
  5. What is the economic significance of the Laogai?
    Besides being important to China’s communist regime as a tool of repression, the Laogai is also an integral part of China’s economy. Chinese authorities use the millions locked in the Laogai as free labor. Totaling an estimated three to five million, they make up the world’s largest forced labor population. The CCP seeks to use the Laogai for profit.
    Forced labor is seen as another input for economic output. The deliberate application of forced labor by the Chinese government is codified in the Ministry of Justice Criminal Reform Handbook: “Laogai facilities…organize criminals in labor and production, thus creating wealth for society. Our Laogai units are both facilities of dictatorship and special enterprise.” The CCP hopes that by being forced to labor in the Laogai, prisoners will be molded into “new socialist persons.”
  6. Are Laogai goods exported?
    While much of what is produced in the Laogai is consumed domestically, Laogai-made goods also filter into foreign markets by way of third-party trading companies. Recently, rather than attempting to do business directly with foreign companies, Laogai prisons will find a government-owned trading company to act as a middleman and conceal the forced-labor origins of products from importers. Many Laogai prisons also have a second enterprise name; for example, Jinzhou Prison, where Nobel Laureate and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo is believed to be held, also operates under the name “Jinzhou Xinsheng Switch, Co.”, which it uses to market its products to foreign companies over the internet. LRF has evidence that shows Laogai goods repeatedly find their way onto American shelves, despite laws forbidding their importation. Notwithstanding the Chinese government’s claims to the contrary, the CCP encourages exporting Laogai goods.
  7. What is existing U.S. law regarding the importation of Laogai goods?
    Importing forced-labor goods to the U.S. is illegal according to section 1307 of the Tariff Act of 1930. In 1992, the need to confront China about this problem led to the signing of the “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China on Prohibiting Import and Export Trade in Prison Labor Products.” However, China still exports prison labor goods to the U.S. To promote compliance with MOU’s terms, in 1994, the U.S. and China negotiated another agreement: the “Statement of Cooperation on the 1992 MOU between the U.S. and the PRC on Prohibiting Import and Export Trade in Prison Labor Products” (SOC). The SOC defines a mechanism to ensure that China promptly cooperates with U.S. Customs on forced labor inquiries. However, China has done nothing to ensure compliance, and the U.S. never committed resources to enforce the agreement. According to the 1997 “State Department Country Reports on Human Rights,” U.S. Customs unsuccessfully pursued eight standing visitation requests, seven of which dated back to 1995. In all cases, visitation requests were refused or ignored, and allegations were denied without explanation. Cooperation was judged as “inadequate.” In State Department reports from 1999, authorities admit that the MOU has been “nearly impossible” to enforce because China has been “uncooperative.” Throughout the 1990s, only around 20 cases of forced-labor product importation were pursued under the U.S. customs ban. Since 2000, the U.S. government has not attempted to restrict the flow of Laogai goods into the country.
  8. How can I avoid buying products made in the laogai?
    Identifying goods that are made entirely or in part in the Laogai is increasingly difficult. Sub-contracting and complicated global supply chains make discerning the origins of a product daunting. For example, a U.S. clothing maker may contact a Chinese import-export company to find a Chinese plant to cheaply make its clothing. That company may then contract the account to a legitimate Chinese textile firm, which will further sub-contract a portion of the production process to a Laogai camp, where prisoners must fill quotas to earn their food rations, rather than money. Laogai prisoners, toiling in horrible conditions, may also have grown the cotton the clothes are made from. If a product is “made in China” then it is possible it could have been produced in a Laogai.
  9. Should consumers boycott goods made in China?
  10. Are organs harvested from executed prisoners in the Laogai?
  11. What is the "One Child Policy"?
  12. Why do so few know about the Laogai?
  13. What does international law say about the Laogai?
  14. Who is Harry Wu?
  15. What is the Laogai Research Foundation?