China in 2021 increased its repression of ethnic minorities in Tibet and the northwestern region of Xinjiang, severely restricting freedom of religion and pursuing coercive assimilationist policies aimed at creating a single national identity, a rights group said Thursday.
State measures taken in Xinjiang especially constituted “crimes against humanity,” with abuses including mass detention and enforced disappearances, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its World Report for 2022.
Chinese officials also committed torture, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, forced labor and the separation of families, the rights group said, adding that information flows from the region had largely been blocked during the year.
“Authorities maintained tight control over information, [and] access to the region, already blocked, was further constrained due to COVID-19 movement restrictions,” HRW said.
Some Uyghurs detained by police were confirmed to have been imprisoned, however, “including prominent academic Rahile Dawut, though her alleged crime, length of sentence, and location of imprisonment remained unclear.”
“There were also reports of Uyghurs dying in detention, including biotech researcher Mihriay Erkin, 31, businessman Yaqub Haji, 45, and poet and publisher Haji Mirzahid Kerimi, 82,” HRW said.
Chinese authorities in Tibetan areas meanwhile continue to restrict freedom of religion, expression, movement and assembly, the rights group said. “They also fail to address popular concerns about mining and land grabs by local officials, which often involve intimidation and unlawful use of force by security forces.”
Tightened controls over online communications during the year led to a growing number of detentions in 2021. Tibetans caught communicating with people outside China were harshly punished “regardless of the content of their communications.”
Coercive assimilationist policies also continued during the year, with Chinese language classes made compulsory in schools in ethnic minority areas in 2021 and even kindergartens ordered to use Chinese as a medium of instruction, Human Rights Watch said.
“At least eight Tibetan prisoners or suspects were released due to ill health, some due to torture, four of whom died soon after, though the true number is unknown due to extreme information controls in Tibet,” the rights group added.
Freedoms of movement, expression suppressed
Speaking to RFA, Sophie Richardson — China director at Human Rights Watch — said it has become increasingly difficult for the rights group to get reliable information out of Tibetan areas.
“The Chinese government has used the [COVID-19] pandemic to suppress both the freedom of movement and freedom of expression across the country,” she said.
“We have seen repeated lockdowns and seen it become more difficult for journalists, diplomats and independent activists to move across the country and report freely.”
“If the Chinese government has nothing to hide across the Tibetan plateau, then it should be allowing the free flow of information, not the lack of it,” Richardson said.
The Sinicization of Tibetan religion and language is now the Chinese government’s foremost priority in Tibetan areas, said Tenzin Dorjee, a former commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“Now with the appointment of a U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues, we urge the U.S. coordinator and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to take a stronger position on China’s restrictions of freedom of religion with regard to Tibetan Buddhists inside Tibet,” Dorjee said.
Written in English by Richard Finney, with reporting by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA’s Tibetan Service.