A Generation in Peril: The Lives of Tibetan Children Under Chinese Rule


We set out to investigate human rights issues relevant to children because we wanted to provide a new perspective on how Chinese rule affects Tibetans' lives. Human rights reports about Tibet tend to focus on discrete issues such as political imprisonment, religious repression and the environment. This approach, while valuable, often does not provide an understanding of the broader context in which Tibetans live. While discussion of each issue in this report could stand alone, together they create a richer and more comprehensive picture of Beijing's approach to the welfare of Tibetan children. Those unfamiliar with Tibet's history or present circumstances may also find this report more helpful for judging between the abuses reported by human rights monitors and the Chinese government's claim that it has improved the lives of most Tibetans.

We therefore decided to focus broadly on key issues that cut across the lives of children. This Children's Report complements our January 1999 Women's Report, in which we used the same approach to look at Tibetans' lives through women's eyes. We found then - and we find again now - that an examination of daily life for Tibetans under Chinese rule reveals not just what is happening, but also why it is happening and what its long-term consequences may be.

The most salient findings of our report, highlighted in the Executive Summary, suggest that the Chinese government is at best indifferent to the welfare of Tibetan children. In certain areas - particularly the lack of access to affordable healthcare and to primary schools in remote regions - the fate of Tibetan children may be little different from that of many rural Chinese children. In other areas, however, Tibetan children suffer more. Evidence of severe malnutrition that affects more than half of all Tibetan children is deeply disturbing. Tibetan children at school, too, face a choice unique to them: give up the right to an education or abandon their Tibetan identity. Indifference, finally, cannot describe the systematic torture of Tibetan children detained for expressing devotion to the Dalai Lama or for trying to leave Tibet in order to get an education.

The reason Tibetan children suffer inordinately requires a brief review of Tibet's fifty years under Chinese rule. With this historical context (including current conditions in Tibet) and with the facts set forth in this report, we can begin to ascertain the long-term consequences of the policies and practices in China that affect Tibetan children's lives today.


On October 7, 1950, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China launched a military assault in Tibet. Within a year, delegates of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, cut off from contact with the Tibetan government and acting under threats of a direct assault on Lhasa, signed the 17-Point Agreement. This treaty purported to 'return' Tibet to the 'big family of the Motherland - the People's Republic of China (PRC).' At that time, Tibet constituted an independent and sovereign state. Its invasion and annexation by China were therefore illegal and remain today as continuing violations of international law. Apart from their historical sovereignty, Tibetans are also a distinct 'people' entitled to exercise their right to self-determination - the liberty that all peoples enjoy under international law to 'freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.'

Despite the 17-Point Agreement's promise of autonomy for Tibet, by 1955 the Chinese government had assumed control of most of its affairs. Attempts at accommodation between the PRC and the Tibetan government began to collapse after China introduced class 'struggle' campaigns and began to confiscate most of the lands and wealth in eastern Tibet. By 1956, Tibetans had initiated a widespread armed revolt against Chinese rule. This culminated in the Dalai Lama's flight into exile in 1959. In the aftermath of these events, Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed a 'cultural revolution' in Tibet seven years before he officially launched it in China.

Tibet, like China, experienced a brief period of liberalization of political and religious restrictions under the reform policies initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. But the 'loosening of social restrictions led to a revival of Tibetan civil and cultural life and with it a resurgence of religious activity.' This revival permitted Tibetan nationalism - long forced into dormancy by the hostile atmosphere that prevailed under Mao's policies and particularly during the Cultural Revolution - to resurface. It also led to renewed demands by Tibetans for religious freedom, political self-determination and respect for their human rights. Conflict between these demands and the Chinese government's continuing interest in suppressing Tibetan nationalist sentiment culminated in state violence. In the late 1980s, the Chinese military brutally suppressed a series of peaceful demonstrations in Lhasa. In March 1989 - three months before the Tiananmen Square Massacre - Beijing declared martial law in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). This ended the comparatively positive reform period of China's occupation and signaled the beginning of a new campaign intended to undermine the persistence of Tibetan nationalism.

In the 1990s, political and religious repression in Tibet continued to escalate. The new repressive measures reflected an accurate perception on the part of high-level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials of intensifying resistance to the Chinese occupation, as well as the spread of protest from urban centers like Lhasa, located in central Tibet (the former Tibetan province of -Tsang) to rural and eastern Tibet (the former Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo). In late July 1994, the PRC held a conference in Beijing known as the Third National Forum on Work in Tibet (Third Forum), ostensibly to develop policies to expedite economic growth in the TAR. In fact, the Third Forum brought about 'the most fundamental revision of policies on Tibet since the relaxation of hard-line Maoist policies in 1979.'

The Third Forum led the CCP to reformulate strategies to tighten its control over Tibet and to sanction a new series of repressive policies intended to stifle the persistence of social and political dissent against China's occupation. These included, most prominently: (1) the initiation of 'patriotic reeducation' campaigns in monasteries and nunneries to increase the government's control of religious activity in Tibet; (2) purges of Tibetan cadres and government employees suspected of 'harboring nationalist sympathies;' (3) an aggressive campaign to discredit the Dalai Lama by means of propaganda that, for the first time, sought to undermine his continuing religious, as well as political, influence among Tibetans; (4) a policy of transferring huge numbers of Chinese settlers into Tibet; and (5) an initiative to assert greater control over the education of Tibetan children. The impact of the Third Forum continues to this day. In large measure, it defines the social, economic and political atmosphere in which Tibetans presently live. In addition, in the past year Beijing has promoted an aggressive new campaign to attract foreign investment to the PRC's western regions, including Tibet, mostly in an effort to exploit their natural resources.

Under Chinese rule, the Tibetan people have suffered violations of the full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that modern international law guarantees to all persons. Almost invariably, these violations originate in, and are symptomatic of, the Chinese government's systematic efforts to impose Chinese political, economic and social systems on the Tibetan people and to suppress any nationalist sentiment by Tibetans. Over the years, non-governmental organizations, foreign governments and journalists alike have documented widespread human rights abuses against Tibetans, including torture, political imprisonment, religious repression, discrimination in employment, education and government, cultural destruction, environmental degradation and exploitation of Tibet's natural resources. Most recently, governmental policies intended to encourage mass resettlement of Chinese into Tibet have reduced Tibetans to, in the words of one recent study, 'strangers in their own country.' Lhasa, Tibet's capital, is now populated predominantly by Chinese.

For fifty years, Beijing has tried different strategies to control Tibet, efforts that have had a direct and negative impact on the lives of Tibetan children. Our report shows that these range from the - perhaps unintended - consequence of malnutrition, caused at least in part by Beijing's imposition of economic structures unfamiliar to a foreign culture, to the increasingly blunt effort to assimilate Tibetan children through the educational system, to the blatantly cruel practices of detaining and torturing Tibetan children in order to terrorize them and other Tibetans into political and cultural allegiance to China. Indeed, China's torture of Tibetan children shows just how deeply focused its authorities remain on destroying any perceived manifestation of Tibetan nationalism.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) - an independent non-governmental organization dedicated to human rights and the rule of law - conducted extensive investigations of Tibet's status and human rights circumstances in 1959 and 1960. In 1959, researchers at the ICJ concluded that 'evidence points to a prima facie case of a systematic intention . . . to destroy in whole or in part the Tibetans as a separate nation and the Buddhist religion in Tibet.' In 1960, the ICJ's Legal Inquiry Committee similarly concluded that 'acts of genocide had been committed in Tibet in an attempt to destroy the Tibetans as a religious group . . . .' Many Tibetans - more than one million, or one-sixth of the 1950 population, by some estimates - died between 1950 and 1976 as result of China's invasion and occupation. Thousands of Tibetan monasteries, nunneries and temples were destroyed and their cultural artifacts looted, both before and during the Cultural Revolution. The most recent ICJ study on Tibet, published in 1997, emphasizes that recent PRC policies 'continue to erode or threaten to erode the distinctive elements of the Tibetan identity and culture.' The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and political leader in exile, has also said frequently that while Tibetans ultimately must be permitted to exercise their right to political self-determination, his 'main concern currently is the danger of extinction of the Tibetan cultural heritage.' Today, Tibetan children mature in an atmosphere openly hostile to this heritage.

Talk of the destruction of the Tibetan 'identity' and 'culture' does not merely express superficial concerns that Tibetans will stop dressing in chubas, spinning prayer wheels or even speaking Tibetan. The picture of Tibetan children's lives revealed by this report shows that the degree of violence and repression that Beijing employs to maintain its control in Tibet is causing concrete physical, psychological and social damage to the Tibetan people. The findings set forth in our Women's Report - particularly documentation of the torture of women detainees and the coercive enforcement of family planning rules, while China simultaneously transfers millions of Chinese settlers into Tibet - corroborate this same conclusion.

This report also points out one measure of the drastic impact of Chinese rule on Tibetan children. In recent years, more than 3,000 documented refugees per year have arrived in Tibetan exile settlements in India after crossing the China-Nepal border. More than one-third of these refugees are children. This number is remarkable in view of the many barriers, both natural and political, to fleeing Tibet. Typically, children come by way of Nepal, after surviving life-threatening journeys over the Himalayas. An unknown number die of severe frostbite, sickness and lack of adequate food along the way. Virtually all require medical treatment upon arrival. Those who survive the physical rigors of the journey may face other more direct threats: reports of harassment, assault, rape and even shooting of Tibetan refugees by Chinese and Nepalese border police are far from uncommon. Despite these dangers, Tibetan parents, fully aware of the risks, choose to send their children into exile in the company of relatives, friends or strangers. Sometimes children even travel alone. We therefore questioned the children about their journeys and their reasons for choosing exile. Their answers reveal how deeply Tibetans feel threatened by China's efforts to control and assimilate them.

We conclude with a series of recommendations to improve conditions for Tibetan children. Most of these represent incremental steps forward on specific fronts. The single most important recommendation, though, derives from the source of the human rights violations documented in this report - Beijing's effort to control the Tibetan people - and its consequences: long-term and widespread injury (death, disease, poverty, ignorance and despair). The Tibetan people must be allowed to control their own lives and the lives of their children.


From October 29 to November 10, 1999, a team comprised of Lawyers for Tibet psychologists and lawyers interviewed fifty-seven Tibetan children who now live, study and work within refugee communities in northern India. The team used a standard questionnaire developed by Lawyers for Tibet in consultation with teachers, doctors and healthcare workers, as well as human rights experts.

For the purposes of this report, Tibet refers to the entire territory within Tibet's borders in 1949, the year before China's military occupation. This territory includes the Tibetan provinces of Kham, Amdo and -Tsang. The Chinese government subsequently divided Tibet into the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), which comprises about forty percent of historical Tibet, and a number of Tibetan prefectures subsumed by the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu.

Interviewees represented a broad demographic cross-section of Tibetan society. Some grew up in Lhasa or other urban centers, others in rural and nomadic communities. Some lived in -Tsang, the region roughly equivalent to the TAR, others in eastern Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo now incorporated into Chinese provinces. At the time of the interviews, children ranged in age from nine to twenty-three years. This report, however, relies solely upon information obtained about their lives as children in Tibet. Lawyers for Tibet follows the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child - a treaty ratified by China - in defining a child as every human being below the age of eighteen. Our study spans the seven-year period from 1992 to 1999, with emphasis on conditions in Tibet since the Third Forum (roughly 1994 to 1999).

Lawyers for Tibet also interviewed Tibetan teachers, doctors, healthcare professionals and others who regularly work with Tibetan refugee children and/or who had relevant experience inside Tibet. We supplemented these primary sources with extensive background research into the three principal areas on which this report focuses. We also provide information on violations of women's reproductive rights, based upon primary research Lawyers for Tibet conducted in 1998, in view of their impact on children.

Finally, no review of children's rights in Tibet in recent years would be complete without some attention to China's incommunicado detention of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the child identified by the Dalai Lama as the Eleventh Panchen Lama. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family have been in government custody since 1995, and all diplomatic efforts to see the child or to verify his safety have been rebuffed. Now just slightly over eleven years old, he remains the youngest political prisoner in the world.

Within each main topic, we provide an overview of the relevant international law that governs China's treatment of Tibetan children. For several reasons, we pay particular attention to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). First, China ratified the CRC on March 2, 1992. It therefore creates binding legal obligations on the PRC, which, under international law, override any inconsistent domestic legislation. Second, every state in the world, with the sole exceptions of the United States and Somalia, is a party to the CRC. Many scholars consider this evidence that its provisions represent customary international law, binding upon all states. Third, information contained in this report, together with a more comprehensive legal analysis, will be submitted to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child - the human rights body of experts that reviews implementation of the CRC - at the time that China submits its next periodic report on compliance (currently one year overdue). Lastly, the CRC offers a useful framework within which to evaluate China's treatment of Tibetan children. The international consensus about children's rights that it codifies benefits from extensive expert commentary by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC Committee) and others. While we therefore concentrate our legal analysis around the CRC, we also note other relevant international customary and treaty law. Finally, where available, we provide information about domestic laws and regulations of the PRC that affect Tibetan children, together with an evaluation of their impact.

The children whose stories this report recounts, as well as their relations and friends, many of whom remain in Tibet, could suffer harm if identified. Consequently, we have avoided using children's names or have changed names to preserve our interviewees' anonymity.