From 2012, following the imposition of tough new measures restricting travel in Tibetan areas since the 2008 protests, Tibetans began to face tightening restrictions on the issuance of passports, limiting their travel outside Tibet – for instance to teachings of the Dalai Lama, or to study abroad. This is in contrast to the increasing number of Chinese citizens being granted a passport, and the dramatic increase in domestic and foreign tourism to Tibet.
The Chinese authorities used the opportunity of a PRC-wide transition to electronic passports in 2012, when Chinese nationals were required to submit expired passports for replacement, to single out both Tibetans and Uighurs for more severe restrictions and punitive measures. Regulations issued in 2012 in the Tibet Autonomous Region required all Tibetans in the Tibetan region to surrender their old passports, even when their validity had not expired, ostensibly to be replaced by the electronic version. But in numerous cases, the passports were not replaced.
As a result of the tighter security in the border areas as well as the crackdown in Tibet since 2008, there has been a dramatic decline in Tibetans escaping from Tibet into Nepal in the past decade. Before 2008, there was a steady outflow of 2500-3500 per year. In 2019, the figure dropped to a staggering low of 18 Tibetans who escaped into exile and were received at the reception center in Dharamsala, India.
Limitations on movement of Tibetans within Tibet are not shared by Chinese tourists, who did not have to seek permission before visiting Tibet. “They are stopping the Tibetans at the gates, while the Chinese are free to go anywhere and enter from everywhere in Lhasa,” a Tibetan told RFA, in a report issued prior to the current restrictions due to the coronavirus.
Specific areas such as Mount Kailash in western Tibet, and the border counties in southern Tibet, have been the focus of additional barriers. Pilgrimage to Mount Kailash is of profound importance to Tibetan Buddhists as well as to followers of the indigenous Bon religion, but Chinese authorities have repeatedly banned Tibetans from going there, even while allowing Chinese tourists to visit.
For Tibetans outside China, visiting their homeland can be highly difficult or even impossible, and the RATA specifically mentions Tibetan-Americans who are unable to visit their homeland because of visa denials. While other American citizens can obtain a Chinese visa in a few days, American citizens of Tibetan origin reported a process that took anywhere from one to six months. In a small sample of these Tibetans by ICT, every respondent said that they had to fill out extra forms beyond the ones required of other American citizens, and that they were required to provide additional information – including a detailed personal history. Of them, 43.7% told ICT that their family members inside Tibet were contacted for questioning by Chinese authorities. Personal interviews were conducted in almost all cases, either over the phone or in person.
Tibetans living in exile in Europe must first approach the relevant Chinese Embassy, where they encounter officials from the UFWD, and the process would then be passed down the line involving security departments. The security network is comprehensive and integrated; for those seeking to visit family in Tibet, requests for visas would be conveyed also to their home areas, at county or township levels, and would generally involve vetting family and associates, and checking whether there are political considerations, such as a member of the family who might have been a political prisoner, or any connections to someone who self-immolated. Other concerns may be less obvious.
This involves a feedback loop to the Tibetan’s activities in Europe, participation in protests at Chinese embassies in their new home country are noted, and personal details of their lives. In one case known to ICT, a Tibetan who returned to his village was met by local police who knew details of his marriage in his home country in Europe.
In recent years, the Chinese authorities have been hosting trips to Tibet for Tibetans living in Europe and America. There is evidence that they are increasingly targeting a younger generation in exile, consistent with their efforts inside Tibet, in order to replace and obliterate memories and awareness of Tibetan history, culture and politics with CCP approved versions. According to Tibetan exile sources, this involves hosting young Tibetans living in the West for trips to Tibet during the summer holidays.
The Beijing-based Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser had documented the complicated process for Tibetans seeking to return to Tibet, writing in 2011: “[Their] application goes to the TAR United Front Work Department and is approved only after the local police station determines that the relatives do not have any political background. Then the United Front Work Department issues a TAR permit that makes it possible to travel to the TAR. This takes at least three-four weeks and many Tibetan compatriots living abroad have been refused permission to travel to the TAR to see their relatives. There are four units authorized to issue TAR entry permits: the United Front Work Department, the Travel Bureau, the Commerce Bureau and the Foreign Affairs Bureau [that is the TAR Foreign Affairs Bureau].”
In an unpublished study of the difficulties for Tibetans in exile seeking to return home, Tibetologist Francoise Robin writes: “Among the 120,000 Tibetans living in exile, the ones who took to exile in the 1980s and 1990s when they were teenagers or young adults are most likely to wish to return to Tibet now. Their parents are now often in their 70s. For these Tibetans, in constant contact with their homes thanks to WeChat, going back home once to Tibet in their lifetime, to meet their aging parents and see their homeland one more time, has become a priority, a personal pilgrimage of sorts. So how can they do if they are not famous or notorious enough to be invited, or if they refuse the invitation? I see two scenarios, apart from UFWD-approved trips: Tibetan exiles living in India with no valid ID to travel back to China/Tibet (gsar ‘byor ba), and Tibetan exiles turned citizens of another country.”
In terms of the latter group, based on interviews with two Tibetans conducted by Francoise Robin in the same study: “Given their Tibetan name and the place of birth that is recorded on their passport (often ‘Tibet’ or ‘Amdo’, for instance), they are immediately recognized as Tibetans by the consulate and they cannot apply for a regular, L, tourist visa. They have to apply for a Q2 type visa, ‘visiting Chinese compatriot’ visa. This comes with quite a number of constraints and meetings with the UFWD.”
Tibetan exiles known to ICT who have visited Tibet report varying encounters with security forces and UFWD officials. The nature of the encounters often depend on specific local conditions, for instance, whether it was an area where there had been political protests or resistance of some form, and also upon the particular profile of the Tibetan concerned. A Tibetan scholar or individual with some profile in the West would be likely to experience a high degree of scrutiny. One academic from Europe mentioned, for instance, numerous requests to report to local and county-level police stations for questioning. Others report a mixture of threats and blandishments, including even offers to help set up businesses or assist economically, with officials reiterating the line that life is surely harder in the West, and here in Tibet it is possible to be more comfortable and to live a better life. Tibetans also report that they are often asked questions about Tibetans in diaspora communities, often with implicit threats if individuals do not do so.
A Tibetan in France said that he was questioned at three different offices, which all appeared to be linked to the UFWD, when he went on a visit. At the first office, which oversaw internal security, he was asked questioned about whether he had joined demonstrations, and whether he was a member of the Tibetan community association in France. He said: “[Later] Qinghai State Security bureau officers […] came down from the capital to the district. A car driver came to fetch me and he drove me to a restaurant nearby, although I did not want to go. There were four people in the room. They had received my file from the Embassy, two months before. They asked me an amazing number of questions, comparing with the answers I had given previously. The questions were in part the same (about how and why I had gone to India and France, my connections in France, my relationship to Tibetan Youth Congress, my participation in demonstrations). Then the conversation took a new turn: they asked me about certain Tibetan persons in Paris. In particular, they said one Tibetan from another district had defected to France after embezzling money and that if I knew such persons and I could denounce them, I could become rich. Then they tried to buy me with money: they asked me what was my family’s occupation (they are farmers). They asked if I sent money to them from time to time. They then said that if my family needed money, if they had health problems (your mother is getting old), they could help me. Another friend who often goes to Tibet, in a different area, had told me that they would try to buy me over. I did not believe him then, but now I realised that this is exactly what they were trying to do. They finally asked me if I intended to come. ‘Next time, just contact us; there will be no problem for your visa. We will help you.’ They ended on a threat: “The authorisation for you to come back is in our hands. You’d better tell us everything and we will help you with your visa.”