The New York-based Human Rights Watch has published a new report on May 22, 2016 that says the “Chinese government’s campaign to suppress peaceful dissent in Tibetan areas has continued to produce a high rate of detentions, prosecutions, and convictions since the outbreak of widespread unrest eight years ago.”

The 86-page report, “Relentless: Detention and Prosecution of Tibetans under China’s ‘Stability Maintenance’ Campaign,” shows how changing patterns of unrest and politicized detentions, prosecutions, and convictions from 2013-2015 correlate with the latest phase of the government’s “stability maintenance” campaign – a policy that has resulted in unprecedented surveillance and control in Tibetan villages and towns.

The report said the Chinese authorities have detained Tibetans for types of expression and assembly that are protected under Chinese and international law and had been previously tolerated. Many of these cases took place in rural areas or involved segments of society not previously targeted, it added.

“Tibetan areas are the forefront of the Chinese government’s country-wide crackdown on peaceful dissent,” said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are treating all Tibetans as potential dissidents and are trying to extend surveillance to the entire Tibetan community,” she added.

Human Rights Watch’s findings are based on a dataset of 479 cases drawn from reports by foreign media, the Chinese government, and exile sources. Human Rights Watch analyzed this data to identify changing patterns of detention and sentencing.

Previously unpublished documents reveal the devastating cost paid by a local community for a single protest, Human Rights Watch said. In April 2013, the trial and conviction of three lamas from Chamdo in the Tibet Autonomous Region for a minor charge of “harboring a criminal” led to police employing waves of collective punishment, intimidation, and repression throughout the wider community for over a year as they sought to find other suspects. The authorities detained, beat, and threatened scores of local Tibetans, and subjected others to political indoctrination and travel restrictions in an apparent attempt to obtain information about key suspects and deter further dissent.

Tibetan detainees

479 cases of Tibetan detainees, by activity. © 2016 Human RIghts Watch

Treatment in detention remains a serious concern, Human Rights Watch said. Fourteen of the detainees from Human Rights Watch’s dataset were reported to have died while in custody or shortly after release.

Many detainees and defendants from Human Rights Watch’s dataset, ranging in age from 14 to 77, were people who had merely exercised their rights to expression and assembly without advocating separatism. Others had simply criticized decisions by local officials in their villages, opposed a mining development, advocated for greater language rights, or shown sympathy for self-immolators. Dozens of protests ended with security forces opening fire on protesters, although there are no reports of violence by protesters at those events.

Many of those detained and prosecuted during this period were local community leaders, environmental activists, and villagers involved in social and cultural activities. In the previous three decades, the authorities rarely accused such rural Tibetans of involvement in political unrest. Human Rights Watch identified seven protests, five of them with more than a hundred participants, in which villagers demanded the release of a detained community leader. The detention of local leaders and their communities’ mass support for them appears to be a new phenomenon.

“If the goal of the ‘stability maintenance’ campaign was to wipe out dissent among Tibetans, it has failed to do so,” Richardson said. “The basis of real stability is for China’s government to respect rights, understand and respond to local grievances, and roll back abuses by security forces across the plateau.”

The full text of the report can be viewed here.