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

Executive Summary

This report by Tibet Justice Center (Lawyers for Tibet) investigates the degree to which the Chinese government respects and promotes Tibetan children's human rights in three areas: detention, torture and other maltreatment by state actors; education; and healthcare and nutrition. The report describes from a human rights perspective the impact of Chinese rule on Tibetan children. We hope to provide a more comprehensive picture of Tibetan children's lives today to better understand their present circumstances and their likely futures, so that steps can be taken to safeguard their welfare. A summary of our findings follows:

- Detention. Chinese authorities arbitrarily detain Tibetan children, usually in deplorable conditions, and hold them for months or years without any semblance of due process. Tibetan children may be detained at police stations, 'reeducation through labor' centers and prisons. Children may be apprehended on suspicion of involvement in Tibetan nationalist activities, for attempting to flee to India or Nepal, or for innocuous acts such as searching for a relative or complaining about a friend's medical treatment. State authorities deny detained children access to counsel and to their relatives. They receive no legal hearing of any kind. Most detained for alleged political activities are 'sentenced' for a period of roughly one to three years - in addition to whatever time they spend under interrogation prior to being sentenced. Children detained for trying to flee Tibet are held for a shorter period (typically about one month but at times for much longer). Detention facilities of all kinds are characterized by deplorable conditions: meager if any food and water, little to no bedding, poor sanitation, little light and a complete absence of medical care.

- Torture. Children detained for alleged political offenses virtually always suffer interrogation and torture in the same manner as adult Tibetans accused of political activities. To obtain information and confessions, to intimidate and to punish, Chinese officials at times torture Tibetan children (in one case as young as four years old). Torture most often involves beatings (with everything from fists and military boots to whips, sticks and metal rods) and application of electric cattle prods to sensitive areas of children's bodies. Other forms of torture used against children include burns, assault by attack dogs, suspension in painful positions and psychological torture, such as solitary confinement, threatening children's parents and forcing children to witness friends and relations being tortured. In addition, older girls may be subjected to sexual abuse while in custody. Tibetan children suspected of harboring Tibetan nationalist sentiments or of participating in 'political' activities, such as non-violent demonstrations, suffer the most severe torture. No evidence indicates that any official responsible for torturing Tibetan children has ever been held accountable in China.

- Corporal Punishment. Teachers in Tibetan primary schools routinely employ corporal punishment in a manner that often constitutes torture as defined by international law. Teachers use corporal punishment to chastise Tibetan children for lateness, poor class or exam performance, failure to turn in homework and acts with perceived political significance; for instance, neglecting to hold China's state flag as required during an assembly. Corporal punishments include beatings with sticks, bamboo staffs, whips, wires, brooms and belts, forced kneeling on sharp objects, such as glass, stones or spiked iron bars, and application of electric shocks. In 'mixed' primary schools attended by both Tibetan and Chinese students, Chinese teachers appear to use corporal punishment more frequently - and with greater severity - against Tibetan students than against their Chinese peers. At times, teachers publicly humiliate and verbally harass Tibetan students. Again, the most severe forms of corporal punishment are inflicted on Tibetan children whose words or actions may be perceived as expressions of the Tibetan national identity. In some cases, school authorities even cooperate with state police to inflict corporal punishment.

- Educational Access. Most Tibetan children lack access to an adequate education because of high fees, the scarcity of schools in remote regions, China's recent closure of many Tibetan private schools and inability to pay bribes or lack of 'connections.' Chinese law forbids tuition, but it permits schools to charge 'miscellaneous fees.' These include charges for admission, registration, desks, chairs, books and uniforms, as well as various fines and 'special' fees for teachers. Some primary schools also charge tuition despite its nominal prohibition. In practice, therefore, many Tibetan children cannot afford school. In rural and nomadic regions, where more than eighty percent of the Tibetan population lives, far fewer primary schools exist. Many children in these areas must travel hours or days to reach the nearest school and consequently, as a practical matter, cannot attend school even if their families could afford it. In recent years, the Chinese government has chosen to devolve the expense of primary school education onto local communities. Virtually all central government funding for Tibetan primary schools goes to a few state schools in Tibet's urban centers, which increasingly serve a student population comprised mainly of the children of Chinese settlers. Tibetan children in remote regions of Tibet sometimes attend 'community' schools - funded by local taxation and 'voluntary' contributions - but these are generally of poor quality, with inadequate facilities and few qualified teachers. Until recently, some Tibetan children in remote regions could also attend private schools, funded by foreign charities, monasteries or religious teachers. But state authorities have closed or taken over the management of some of these schools, in part because they tend to teach Tibetan history, religion or culture. Authorities deem these subjects 'political.' Finally, Tibetan children's educational access, particularly to secondary and tertiary schools, can be restricted by their parents' lack of guangxi ('connections') within the Chinese school system and Communist Party hierarchy.

- Educational Content. Education in Tibetan primary schools serves less to prepare Tibetan children for higher education, employment and the development of their full potential than it does to indoctrinate them politically, socially and culturally. Both the prevailing medium of instruction (Chinese) and the content of the curriculum (Chinese history, politics and culture) evince this trend. Tibetan primary schools frequently employ Chinese as the primary medium of instruction. Many Tibetan children find it alienating and difficult to learn in a language other than their native tongue. Tibetan is increasingly treated as the equivalent of a second language in most Tibetan primary schools. The curriculum likewise emphasizes the priority and superiority of Chinese culture, while denigrating - sometimes tacitly but often expressly - Tibetan culture. In addition to Chinese, Tibetan and mathematics, Tibetan children sometimes learn communism, Maoism and Chinese history. But they generally learn no Tibetan history, culture or religion. In fact, Chinese teachers at many mixed primary schools punish manifestations of Tibetan culture, particularly expressions of loyalty to the Dalai Lama, but also such innocuous acts as wearing Tibetan clothes, singing Tibetan songs, celebrating Tibetan holidays or talking about a Tibetan history distinct from that of China. Tibetan teachers caught teaching students about Tibetan culture or history face harassment, dismissal and other punishments, including even imprisonment.

- Discrimination in Education. Tibetan children sometimes study in separate and poorer quality primary schools compared to their Chinese counterparts, and in mixed schools they often face ethnic discrimination. At times, Tibetan children pay higher fees for school supplies, such as desks, books, pens and food. They may learn in classrooms with inferior facilities and equipment. In some cases, they attend 'Tibetan' schools that are inferior to separate and higher quality 'Chinese' schools. Within mixed primary schools, Tibetan children often do not receive the same quality of teaching as their Chinese peers, either because their parents lack guangxi or because they cannot afford to give the 'gifts' that many Chinese parents (who tend to be wealthier) provide to teachers to secure preferential treatment for their children. In other mixed primary schools, Chinese teachers discriminate against Tibetan students in various ways. For instance, they require Tibetan students, but not Chinese, to perform physical labor, such as cleaning toilets, sweeping and cooking. They also reportedly denigrate Tibetan students, calling them 'dirty,' 'not intelligent' or 'donkeys.'

- Access to Healthcare. Tibetan children suffer from poor access to healthcare, in large part because of two factors: the absence of adequate healthcare facilities, particularly in rural and nomadic regions of Tibet; and the high cost of healthcare even where facilities exist. Tibetan children in Lhasa and a few other urban areas live near modern hospitals. Most Tibetans, however, must travel hours or days to reach a modern medical clinic. In the event of an emergency, Tibetan children may be unable to reach an appropriate facility in time to avert fatality. In addition, the high cost of healthcare prevents many Tibetan children from receiving treatment even if they do live near a hospital or clinic. Tibetan medicine can sometimes serve as an alternative for children who live in remote regions without modern facilities, but it tends to be far less effective than modern medicine against infectious and potentially fatal childhood diseases. A childhood vaccination program, which has been implemented throughout most of China, has not reached the majority of Tibetan children, more than eighty percent of whom live in rural and nomadic areas. The principal reason for this failure is that the government workers charged with carrying out China's vaccination program generally neglect to travel to remote regions of Tibet to administer immunizations.

- Common Illnesses Among Tibetan Children. The most common serious illnesses from which Tibetan children suffer are acute upper respiratory infections (such as pneumonia), diarrheal disease, hepatitis, hydatid disease and tuberculosis. Diarrheal illnesses, commonly caused by parasites, constitute the leading cause of death for Tibetan children. Many of these deaths may be preventable by simple intervention in the form of oral rehydration therapy. Other health problems, such as rickets and leprosy, may be more localized, affecting certain sectors of the Tibetan population more than others.

- Malnutrition and Growth Stunting. Recent studies show that Tibetan children suffer from growth stunting caused by chronic malnutrition. More than half of the Tibetan children examined in one recent study showed indications of growth stunting. Malnutrition also renders children susceptible to fatal childhood diseases, a problem that is compounded for Tibetan children because few receive basic childhood vaccinations. The causes of malnutrition are diverse, but it appears that, in some cases, the inability of Tibetan children to take in an adequate diet is a strong contributing factor. Tax practices and market regulation policies instituted by the Chinese government have led to shortages of food for some Tibetan families. Most Tibetan children have access to adequate drinking water because of the abundance of rain and snow. In some regions, however, the water supply is infected with parasites and other impurities, causing dysentery and, potentially, long-term health problems.

- Health Education. Tibetan children receive virtually no health education. Even those who attend state-run schools do not learn basic information about, for example, how to prevent the spread of disease. The absence of health education could lead to severe problems in the near future. Some reports suggest that AIDS may soon become an epidemic in Tibet, with the rise of prostitution in Lhasa contributing to this threat.

- Women's Rights and Children's Health and Education. China continues to enforce a family planning policy in Tibet that limits Tibetan families to two or three children, depending on where they live. To implement this policy, the government sometimes uses forced and coerced abortions and sterilizations. 'Unauthorized' children - those born in violation of family planning laws - are denied access to benefits provided to other children by Chinese law; for example, education, healthcare and food rations. Consequently, violations of Tibetan women's rights indirectly cause violations of their children's rights.

The circumstances outlined above motivate many Tibetan children - nearly 1,000 each year - to risk their lives on hazardous journeys into exile in India. Not only do these conditions put the survival of Tibet's culture at risk, they also jeopardize the physical, psychological and social welfare of the Tibetan people. While we therefore include short-term recommendations at the end of this report, we conclude that the only long-term solution to these problems is to ensure respect for the Tibetan people's right to self-determination. We hope that providing this information will encourage the Chinese government, other concerned governments, individuals, non-governmental organizations and the international community to take the actions necessary to ensure the survival, health and full development of the next generation of Tibetan children.