Chinese population - Threat to Tibetan identity

By Tseten Samdup - 1993

Despite over 40 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Tibetan people refuse to be conquered and subjugated by China. The present Chinese policy, a combination of demographic manipulation and discrimination, aims to finally suppress the Tibetan issue by changing the very character and the identity of Tibet and its people.

Though governments and human rights organizations have expressed concern about the transfer and settlement of Chinese people into Tibet, the issue is difficult to address effectively due to a shortage of reliable figures and the misleading use of statistics by Chinese authorities.

The Tibetan Government in Exile estimates that the Chinese in Tibet that is, all the three region of Tibet, U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo, now outnumber the six million Tibetans. The Chinese government has responded to these allegations by publishing statistics of the number of Chinese and Tibetans officially registered in the Tibet Autonomous Region only (less than half of the territory of Tibet - see below).

This paper addresses China's transfer of population into the whole of Tibet since the invasion in 1949-50, and its implications and effects on the Tibetan population.

The limitation of the study has been the lack of reliable statistics as no independent study to determine the actual demographic composition of Tibet has ever been conducted or allowed by China. There is little doubt that the Chinese government uses figures which are designed to downplay the presence of Chinese settlers. Figures used by the Tibetan exiled government are only estimates, since the exiled Tibetan authorities cannot conduct censuses in Tibet themselves.

Areas of Confusion: Definition of Tibet, size of population

One area of confusion results from different uses of the term "Tibet."

Tibet is comprised of the three provinces of Amdo (now split by China into the provinces of Qinghai and part of Gansu), Kham (largely incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan), and U-Tsang (which, together with western Kham, is today referred by China as the Tibet Autonomous Region.)

The Tibet Autonomous Region ("TAR") comprises less than half of Tibet and was created by China in 1965 for administrative reasons. It is important to note that when Chinese officials and publications use the term "Tibet" they mean only the TAR.

Tibetans, including the Tibetan Government in Exile, use the term Tibet to mean the three provinces described above, i.e. the area traditionally known as Tibet before the 1949-50 invasion. It is more than twice the area covered by the TAR. In this paper the term Tibet refers to the regarded as Tibet by the Tibetan themseleves.

Tibetan Population

The population of Tibet is generally agreed upon as being six million both by Tibetan and independent scholars, but an exact number is not available.

Sir Charles Bell, a British scholar and diplomat to Tibet, who wrote a number of authoritative books on Tibet, estimated the Tibetan population to be at 4 - 5 million in 1930s.(1)

The last British and Indian Head of Mission in Lhasa, the diplomat Hugh E. Richardson who had to leave the city when Chinese troops entered it, recently wrote, "Since 1912 no Chinese were in Tibet except for a few traders and some Muslim butchers at Lhasa. There were no Chinese troops and no officials until 1935 when a small party managed to get in. They were regarded by the Tibetans as an unofficial liaison office; and in 1949 they were expelled by the Tibetan Government."(2)

China recently claimed that the Tibetan population doubled in Tibet (i.e. TAR) between 1950 and 1990 from roughly one million to two million.(3)

According to Chinese sources, some 87,000 Tibetans were killed in Central Tibet, in also the Lhasa Uprising of March 1959.(4) The exiled Tibetan government, however, revealed in 1984 that since the invasion over 1.2 million Tibetans died as a direct result of China's invasion of their nation.(5) This figure was compiled after years of analysis of documents, refugee statements and interviews, and by official delegations sent to Tibet by the Tibetan Government between 1979 and 1983. The fact-finding delegations travelled to most parts of Tibet.

A break down of this figures is a follows.

Cause of death:
Prison & Labour camps 93,477 64,977 14,784 174,138
Execution 28,267 32,266 96,225 156,758
Battle 143,255 240,410 49,042 432,607
Starvation 131,253 89,916 121,982 413,151
Torture 27,951 48,840 15,940 92,931
Suicide 3,375 3,952 1,675 9,002
Total 427,478 480,261 299,648 1,278,387

The Long March

Before the 1949-50 invasion by China, there was no discernible Chinese population in Central Tibet, and their numbers in Eastern and North-Eastern Tibet (Kham and Amdo) were less than half a million.

On October 7, 1950 some 84,000 Chinese troops acrossed the Yangtze and thereafter, their numbers increased rapidly. Tens of thousands of Chinese troops arrived in Tibet. Thereafter, equal numbers of support staff, mainly administrators and other civilians, moved into Tibet.

The Chinese leader Chairman Mao Tse-tung admitted, "While several hundred thousand Han people live in Xinjiang, there are hardly any in Tibet, where our army finds itself in a totally different minority nationality area."(6)

But in 1952, Mao warned a visiting Tibetan delegation his plans to achieve total control of Tibet by means of a massive population transfer from China to Tibet. He argues that whereas Tibet covered a large area, it was thinly populated; its population should be increased from the present two or three million to five or six million and then to over ten million.(7)

This policy received firm support from Zhou Enlai who said, "The Han are greater in number and more developed in economy and culture but in the regions they inhabit there is not much arable land left and underground resources there are not as abundant as in the regions inhabited by fraternal nationalities."(8)

His Holiness the Dalai Lama recalled after his 1954 visit to China, "...just before returning to Lhasa we had been to see Liu Shao-Chi. He mentioned to the Panchen Lama that Tibet was a big country and unoccupied and that China had a big population which can be settled there."(9)

Settlement of Chinese began initially in eastern and north-eastern Tibet (i.e. Kham and Amdo), and was later carried out also in central Tibet. "In the early 1950s Chinese settlers from Sichuan were sent to the Kham area and those from Gansu were sent to Amdo to settle. They were allotted plots of land by the Chinese authorities for farming." (10)

Hu Yaobang, during an official visit to Tibet in May 1980, publicly expressed shock at the living conditions of Tibetans. He publicly complained whether all the money sent to Tibet "had been thrown into the river." He promised the withdrawal of 85% of the Chinese cadres from Tibet. Though a few thousand were subsequently withdrown, the policy was never implemented, as Hu was dismissed from his position in 1983.

Instead the Chinese government took the decision in 1983 to increase the settlement of Chinese into Tibet. Numerous articles appeared in various official publications encouraging Chinese to move to Tibet, and large construction projects were started in Tibet with Chinese labour, in an apparent effort to accelerate the influx of Chinese. (11)

The Radio Lhasa announced on 21 April 1984 that 10,000 Chinese from Sichuan province, described as "construction technicians," would shortly arrive in Tibet.

It appears that today, the movement of Chinese to parts of eastern Tibet which have been incorporated into Chinese provinces are a matter of intra-provincial bureaucracy, whereas the transfer of Chinese into the TAR, largely occurs at the instigation of Beijing. (12)

The Chinese population transfer into Tibet is in large part the result of a government policy aimed at reducing the Tibetans to a powerless minority in their own country. (13)

Development against Destruction

A serious study of Chinese policies over past years leads to the conclusion that population transfer is an important tool to consolidate Chinese power in Tibet. The Chinese authorities have been actively encouraging large numbers of Chinese to move into Tibet and helping them to take control of all major centres of political, economic, social and even cultural activities. This has resulted in the implementation of education and employment systems and practices which strongly favour the Chinese immigrants over the Tibetans.

But, a recently published book, Poverty of Plenty, written by two Chinese economists, refer to a "large body of immigrants" and a "huge imported workforce." (14) Further, in the summer of 1985, over 60,000 Chinese workers mainly from Sichuan arrived in TAR. (15) The Beijing Review in 1991 announced that "technicians from all over China have come to work at various construction sites and about 300,000 workers are prepared to join in the project." (16)

A standard official explanation for the population transfer is that the cultural levels of minority populations are low, making development and contact with Chinese settlers a high priority. (17)Both official and unofficial Chinese sources claim that the Chinese settlers are sent to Tibet to help "civilise" the backward Tibetans and their culture. (18) China asserts that the settlers have generally a positive moderising influence and "the influx of large body of `immigrants' has brought new learning and culture;... This is precisely where hopes for the invigoration of the economics of backward regions lie today." (19)

But Tibet is a land most Chinese find inhospitable, and in order to persuade Chinese workers and settlers to move to Tibet and remain there, the Chinese government needed to develop extensive economic, social and educational incentives.

These include higher pay (as much as four times as high as in China,(20) longer leave; very favourable loans, housing and various individual privileges. All of these incentives are enormously costly for the government, and the government's resolve to maintain them testifies to the economic and political importance of maintaining a substantial Chinese populations in the Tibetan areas.

China's development and political subjugation strategy for Tibet relies upon large numbers of Chinese administrators and workers settling in the region. The settlers not only occupy the best residential areas but also dominate Tibet's economic enterprises and jobs effectively marginalising Tibetans and turning them into second class citizens in their own land. This also results in an enormously top heavy superstructure which is costly and of hardly any benefit to the Tibetan population. (21)

In the summer of 1992, the Chinese authorities decided to open Tibet (TAR) and to "turn from a closed or semiclosed economy to active participation in domestic and international commenerce." (22) Chen Kuiyuan, Deputy Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region Central Party Committee, said that "we should ... open our job market to all fellow." (23) Another Chinese Party Depty Secretary, Zhang Xuezhong, called for "continously inviting talented people to work in the region." (24)

In the TAR, for example, while Chinese statistics claim that economic output has quadrupled from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, the administration management costs have increased tenfold. And "for every one yuan worth of commodities brought in, there is a direct outlay of 1.33 yuan in administrative costs." (24)

Even the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highest Lama, who was used by the Chinese authorities to propagate the official Chinese views delivered one of his fiercest criticism ever only days before his mysterious death in January 1989. He was quoted in the official Chinese press as saying that the benefits of Tibet's development during the last 30 years of communism had been out weighed by the price that had been paid. (26)

Chinese Outnumber Tibetans

Given China's past policies in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Tibetans feel a real threat to their distinct cultural, religious and national identity.

Today, in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, the native population is greatly outnumbered by the Chinese immigrants. In Manchuria there are three million Manchurians against 75 million Chinese. In Inner Mongolia 25 million Chinese outnumber 2.5 million Mongols(27) and Xinjiang has six million Chinese to about five million Ujhurs. (28)

The Chinese census statistics and statements by various officials show a big increase in Chinese population in Tibet during the past 40 years.

According to official Chinese sources, in 1985 Qinghai had a population of 3,947,368, of which only 750,000 were Tibetans. (29) But, an article in Renmin Ribao dated 26 April 1991, downplayed the Chinese population in Tibet. The article gives a breakdown for Tibetan Areas including TAR, Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan according the 1990 census is as follows:

Tibetan 4,196,000 68.16%
Chinese 1,341,200 21.08%
Minorities 618,800 10.04%

In addition, some 400,000 Tibetans are scattered outside Tibet in other Chinese provinces.(30)

Today, in what the Chinese refer to as Qinghai province, for every one Tibetan there are three Chinese - 2.5 million Chinese as against 800,000 Tibetans. (31)

A Tibetan source estimates the Chinese population of Lhasa administration region in the mid 1980s to be 630,000; that of Shigatse, 170,000; that of Lhoga region, 93,000, that of Chamdo region, 320,000; that of Ngachu area, 85,000; and that of Ngari area, 150,000. These figures give a total of 1,728,000. (32)

Unlike Eastern Tibet, the Chinese population is primarily in concentrated around the cities and towns because the environment is more harsh in the TAR.

The official Chinese population breakdown of the Tibet Autonomous Region is the most controversial. The Tibetan Government in Exile believes there could be over one million Chinese in TAR. Chinese figures are as following: (33)

Year Tibetans Percentage Chinese Percentage Minorities* Percentage
1964 1,209,000 96.63% 37,000 3.00% 5,000 0.37%
1984 1,786,500 94.40% 91,700 4.85% 14,100 0.75%
1990 2,096,300 95.46% 81,200 3.70% 18,400 0.84%

(* Many of the "minorities " are actually Tibetans, but from different region: eg. Monpa, Lhapa, Nakhi...)

Therefore, even by Chinese official figures there has been a considerable population transfer. The real divergence in figures comes when we look only at the TAR. There we see even in 1990 a very low 81,200 Chinese in whole of TAR (of which 44,939 are in Lhasa) compared to 2 million Tibetans. (34) This figures is quite unbelievable, as any visitor to Lhasa city would agree. Lhasa's population in 1950s was 37,000 and today it has dramatically increased to 120,000(35) so that today Chinese outnumber Tibetans in the city by about 3 to 1.

The figures provided by China only include Chinese civilians registered as residents in Tibet. (36) It does not include military personnel (estimated at 300,000 to 500,000), cadres, administrative staff, the armed and the ordinary police force and the "illegal" or non-registers migrants whose number continue to increase. The Chinese figures do not include the military(37) which is estimated by various intelligence organizations to vary between 150,000 to 250,000 in the TAR and double those figures in the whole of Tibet. Chinese officials admitted in 1975 that a total of 250,000 to 300,000 Han were in the TAR, including PLA soldiers. (38) In 1979 and 1980, Chinese figures showed that there were 130,000 Chinese cadres, i.e. government employees, in the TAR alone. (39) The Western media has estimated the military's strength between some 250,000 to 300,000. (40)

In 1986, the Tibetan Government in exile compiled a report which highlighted that a total of 6.2 million Chinese civilians had been moved into Tibet in addition to some 500,000 troops.

Since September 1987, over 8,000 Tibetans have fled Tibet to escape arrest during China's crack down on demonstrators advocating the restoration of Tibetan independence. This brings the number of Tibetan refugees living in exile over 120,000.

Common Concern

The question of Chinese population transfer into Tibet is hotly contested. But both the exiled Tibetan government as well as Tibetan officials in the Chinese administration have expressed concern at the growing number of Chinese in Tibet.

Three different sources in 1985 reports that at least 100,000 Chinese live in Lhasa. (41)

The Panchen Lama, in an important speech in 1987 said "The Chinese population in Tibet started with a few thousand and today it has multiplied manifold." (42)

In 1989, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, the highest ranking Tibetan official in the Chinese government and vice-Chairman of National People's Congress in Beijing stated in an official address, "The Tibetan people cannot be separated from the support and assistance of the fraternal Han people. However, large number of labourers, including peddlers and hawkers have now flowed into Tibet with a total of at least 100,000 in Lhasa alone. This has created a lot of trouble for public order." (43)

The Mayor of Lhasa, few days later said the city had about 140,000 population with a floating population of 100,000 and it was creating certain tensions. (44)

In the summer of 1991, an official Australian Human Rights Delegation, spoke of large Chinese military and civilian population in Tibet. (45)


In 1979, when the First Fact Finding Tibetan Delegation visited His Holiness the Dalai Lama's birthplace, Takster in Amdo, which had previously been an entirely Tibetan community, only 8 out of the 40 families were Tibetans, and the remainly 32 families were Chinese.

In 1987, after his visit to Tibet, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met "senior leader" Deng Xiapoing in Beijing. Carter said that he was worried that large-scale immigration might damage Tibetan culture. But Deng Xiapoing reiterated Beijing's policy - Tibet needed Han immigrants, as the region's population of about two million was inadequate to develop its resources. (46)

This admission was significant because it was a departure from official Chinese government denials of the existence of a population transfer policy.

In April 1992, 128 Chinese cadresx(47) who are "politically stable, ambitious, correct ideologically, have good knowledge of policies, a strong sense of displine, hardworking and not more than 40 years old"(48) were sent to Tibet's remote border counties.

The object of the policy has become increasingly obvious. Thus recently the Chinese authorities emphasised that birth control of one child per family among Tibetans should be applied more strictly and extended to Tibet's remote interior(49) because the region can not support a larger population. Yet at the same time, that same government announces a major "development" project in the Yarlung Valley for which it claims that 300,000 people will be relocated in the Tibetan valley.(50)


The United Nations Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities expressed "concern at the continuing reports of violations of fundamental human rights and freedom which threaten the distinct cultural, religious and national identity of the Tibetan people."li In introducing the resolution, Mr. van Boven, the Dutch Sub-Commission Member explicitly referred to population transfer as one of the principal threats.

Asia Watch, a New York based-human rights organization, has expressed its grave concern about the rapid growth of the Chinese population in Tibet and the imposition of Chinese authorities of policies that are de facto socially discriminatory against the Tibetan population in Tibet. It further states that social disadvantages and inequalities flowing from these policies form a contravention of the UN's International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a covenant to which China acceded in 1981.

Asia Watch further expressed concern at the inherently discriminatory aspects of policies that are aimed at keeping non-resident Tibetans out of Lhasa while allowing non-resident Chinese the right to settle freely in the city.

The figures themselves do not tell the real story. Regardless of the debate over the exact figure, the effect of the Chinese influx is enormous already and seriously threatens the Tibetan culture and identity today. This is because the Chinese have moved into and have taken over all the economic, political, cultural and spiritual centres of the country, transforming them into Chinese centres where Tibetans are already effectively marginalized. The actual political, economic and administrative power is, of course also in the hands of the Chinese. Though various Tibetans have been appointed in various administrative positions, they have largely nominal roles most of the time.

If China is allowed to pursue this policy, the result will be the permanent disenfranchisement of the Tibetan people and destruction of its national and cultural heritage. Tibet will become just another province of China. Tibetans will be reduced to an insignificant minority in their own country.


  1. Sir Charles Bell, Tibet - Past and Present, Oxford University Press, London, 1968 (first published 1924) p 8
  2. iHugh Richardson, "My Direct Experience of Independence Tibet 1936 - 149," Tibet - The Truth about Independence, The All Party Parliamentary Group on tibet, U.K. 1991
  3. Zhong Quan, "Figures and Facts About Tibet's Population," Remin Ribao, 26 April 1991
  4. Radio Lhasa, 1 October 1960
  5. "Over 1.2 Million Tibetans Died Under Chinese Rule," Tibetan Review, March 1984, p 7
  6. Mao Tse Tung, Selected Works, Vol. 5, p 73-74
  7. Address by Liushar Thupten Tharpa, Renmin Ribao, 22 November 1952 quoting speech by Chairman Mao, Union Research Institute, Tibet 1950 - 1967, Document 9, p 45 (Hong Kong, 1968)
  8. Zhou Enlai, "Some Questions on Policy towards Nationalities," Beijing Review, 1980, p 16
  9. ix His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Tibet and the People Republic of China, Report by the International Commission of Jurists, 1960, p 289
  10. G. Ginburgs and M. Mathos, Communist China and Tibet, p 65 - 66, The Hague, 1964.
  11. Michael C. van Walt van Praag, Population Transfer and the Survival of the Tibetan Identity, New York, 1984 /revised edition 1986.)
  12. The Long March, Chinese Settlers and Chinese Policies in Eastern Tibet, Result of a Fact Finding Mission in Tibet, International Campaign for Tibet, September 1991
  13. Michael C. van Walt van Praag's Testimony before the Political Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, Brussels, 25 April 1990
  14. Wang Xiaoqiang & Bai Nanfend, Poverty of Plenty, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991, p 147
  15. China's Population, Tibet Volume, Beijing, 1988
  16. "Tibet Launches Massive Development Project," Beijing Review, January 21 - 27, 1991, p 10
  17. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Information China, Vol. 3, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1990, p 1249
  18. Catriona Bass, Inside the Treasure House - A Time in Tibet, Victor Gollancz, London, 1990, p 64
  19. Wang & Bai, op.cit. (#14 above) p 147
  20. Catriona Bass, op.cit (#18 above) p 40
  21. The Long March, op.cit (#12 above) p 7
  22. China Opens Tibet's Doors to the Rest of the World, Agence France-Presse, Beijing, 14 August 1992
  23. Tibet Party Official on Reform and Anti-Splittism, Tibet Television, 27 July 1992, British Broadcasting Corporation, Summary of World Broadcast, July 31, 1992.
  24. Tibet Further Opens to Outside World, Xinhua, Kunming, July 31, 1992.
  25. Wang & Bai op.cit (#14 above) p 10
  26. Panchen Lama is Dead at 50; Key to China's Policy in Tibet, International Herald Tribune, London, 30 January 1989,
  27. China denies Asia Watch report on Inner Mongolia, Agence France Presses, Beijing, April 2, 1992
  28. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, "A Vast Sea of Chinese Threatens Tibet," New York Times, August 9, 1985. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (U.K.), China's National Minorities, January 1987.
  29. News from China No. 5, January 29, 1985, published by the Embassy of the PRC, New Delhi, India
  30. Zhong Quan, op.cit (# 3 above)
  31. Beijing Review, 24 February 1984
  32. A document released by Informtion Office, Tibetan Government-in-Exile, Dharamsala, India 27 August 1986
  33. Zhong Quan, op.cit (#3 above)
  34. Tibet Daily, 23 November 1991
  35. Xu Na, The Old City of Lhasa Takes on a New Look, Latest Report from China, New Star Publishers, Beijing, 1991 p 44
  36. Zhang Tianlu, "Tibet's Population Develops," Beijing Review, August 17, 1987.
  37. Tibetans Healthier, Better Educated, Beijing Review, 42, 1984, p 11
  38. xxxviii Han Suyin, Lhasa, The Open City - A Journey to Tibet, Triad/Panda Book, United Kingdom (First Edition 1977) p 146
  39. P.A. Donnet, "Tibetan Traditions Slowly Disappearing," South China Morning Post, 23 September 1985
  40. "Chinese Trying to Undo Damage in Tibet," New York Times, 3 May 1983, Intelligence Digest, 19 August 1975; Sweeny, "Keeping The Gentle Faith," Sheffield Morning Telegraph, 23 June 1983
  41. South China Morning Post, October 1, 1986; The Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, June 29, 1987; Intelligence Report, June 1985.
  42. The Panchen Lama Speaks, (Text of speech to the "TAR" Standing Committee Meeting of the National People's Congress held in Beijing), Department of Information & International Relations of the Central Tibetan Secretariat, Dharamsala, 1991, 5
  43. "Radical Measures' Urged to End Riots," Renmin Ribao, 23 March 1989, In FBIS 24 March 1989
  44. "Lhasa Mayor Views Progress, Problems in Tibet," Radio Beijing, 27 March 1989, in FBIS, 30 March 1989
  45. Report of the Australian Human Rights Delegation to China, 14-26 July 1991, Canberra, Australia
  46. "Ex-President Carter Qualifies Tibet Comments," Reuter, 30 June 1987
  47. Chinese cadres tranferred to Tibet, Renmin Ribao, April 13, 1992
  48. Guandgong Has Carefully Selected Cardes to Go and Help to Work in Tibet, Sing Tao, European Edition, March 3, 1992
  49. "China to restrict Tibet Population Growth," Agence France Presses, 14 January 1992
  50. Beijing Review, op.cit (#16 above)

zurück zu Han Su-yin

heim zu Lügen haben schöne Beine