Resilience and Resistance: The Tibetan Freedom Movement in the Face of Chinese Oppression

Students for a Free Tibet Protest At APEC, on November 2nd, 2024. Credit: Tenzin Losang, Students for a Free Tibet Bay Area.

Students for a Free Tibet Protest At APEC, on November 2nd, 2024. Credit: Tenzin Losang, Students for a Free Tibet Bay Area.

When she was 16 years-old, Pema Doma headed to a Tibetan community event in Boston straight from her basketball practice, thinking it was yet another routine family obligation. But as she walked into the event, she was confronted with photographs of people that she did not recognize. She took a closer look and realized that the walls were adorned with dozens of frames displaying the faces of Tibetans who had self-immolated in their pursuit of freedom within Tibet. Elderly men, middle-aged nuns, people as young as 17. Faces that mirrored Doma’s own family.

Doma felt agony and hopelessness looking at the images, but also an irrepressible urge to act. Since that moment, she has dedicated her life to the Tibetan Freedom Movement.

Now 29, Doma is the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, a network of global chapters headquartered in New York that advocate for support of Tibet’s struggle for freedom and independence.

The wave of Tibetan self-immolations, the most extreme form of protest among other acts, began in 2009 when 24 year-old Lobsang Tashi, a monk from Kirti Monastery, set himself on fire in a marketplace in Ngawa Town, Tibet following major protests in the country the year before against the Chinese government’s treatment and persecution of Tibetans. Since then, 159 Tibetans have followed suit, marking the largest wave of such acts as a tool of political protest in the modern world. There is no substantive tradition of self-immolation in Tibetan Buddhism, and such numbers of protest was unthinkable prior to 2009. The previous year’s revolt was the largest insurrection against Chinese rule since 1959. The Chinese government responded with brutal force, leaving Tibetans feeling silenced and powerless. Unable to voice their grievances through traditional protests, they had to turn to a new form of resistance: self-immolation, according to an academic article written by Kevin Carrico, an expert in Chinese Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

While self-immolation is far from the only type of protest that Tibetans have engaged in over the past 15 years, it’s perhaps the most radical. This desperate form of protest demands immense courage, showing a willingness to endure extreme pain for a shared cause, said Carrico. It became a powerful symbol, inspiring others to take a stand against the injustice faced by Tibetans, he said.

The resistance against China began when it annexed and occupied Tibet in 1950, violating Tibetan rights to freedom of religion, expression, movement, and assembly, and committing political violence against religious figures.

This repression triggered the 1959 revolt in Lhasa, when, fearing that the 14th Dalai Lama might be arrested by the Chinese government, thousands of Tibetans took to the street in protest. As a result, roughly 87,000 Tibetan citizens in Central Tibet were killed by Chinese troops, and the violent crackdown pushed hundreds of thousands of Tibetans to flee to India, Nepal and Bhutan. The Dalai Lama managed to escape to India and established a democratically based shadow Tibetan government in Dharamsala, according to the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration.

Doma’s father was among the Tibetans who fled in 1959, crossing the Himalayas by foot as a child to settle in Nepal. He was later accepted as an international student by an American university, enabling his family to move to the U.S. prior to the 1992 Tibetan Resettlement Project, where Doma was born.

On Doma’s mother’s side, her grandfather, who was a Chushi Gangdruk resistance fighter in Tibet, faced prison when the CIA ceased funding the guerilla group in 1974, Doma said. Under Chinese pressure, the Nepalese government presented him with a choice – acknowledge that Tibet is not a country or face imprisonment. He chose the latter.

Since 1959, some 150,000 Tibetans have emigrated, fleeing intensified Chinese crackdowns, reported Tsewang Gyalpo Arya, Representative at the Liaison Office of His Holiness Dalai Lama for Japan and East Asia.

When Xi Jinping, president of the People’s Republic of China, arrived in San Francisco on Nov. 14 for the China-U.S. Summit meeting and the 30th APEC Economic Leader’s Meeting, Doma was there. Students for a Free Tibet had been planning a collective protest since July, joined by Uyghur and Hong Kong activists, calling for justice from China. Hundreds of protestors gathered at the San Francisco International Airport, the Moscone Center where the summit was held, and the St. Regis Hotel where Xi stayed, where they encountered pro-Xi welcoming groups. Topjor Tsultrim, the communications coordinator for the student group, reported that at least 30 Tibetan protesters were assaulted by pro-China groups, two of which suffered head and body injuries as well as broken bones and were taken to a hospital by ambulance. The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China condemned any efforts to silence critics of the Chinese Communist Party and called for the San Francisco County police to review the reports of assaults and pursue justice where appropriate.

Seeing the man responsible for the oppression of her people brought a mixture of feelings for Doma. On the one hand she was happy to finally have a chance to directly challenge his policies, face-to-face. On the other hand, she felt enormous frustration at seeing him able to travel around the world while Tibetans inside Tibet can’t even move outside their own “zones” without his permission.

Since 2012, China has imposed a surveillance system known simply as “the grid” on the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The grid divides neighborhoods into multiple units with corresponding government offices to, according to the Chinese government, “create conditions of effective social management and participation in a harmonious society.” In practice, however, the grid serves as a mass surveillance tool, according to Human Rights Watch.

Doma is even more frustrated by the willingness of companies like Apple, Tesla and Meta to cooperate with the Chinese government.

“I’m looking at the building, and I can see them inside there rubbing shoulders with him, the man who has committed genocide and occupied our people,” Doma said. “That was really challenging for me. I think I’ve processed how bad Xi Jinping is, but it’s been really hard for me to process how complicit the rest of the world truly is. And this meeting solidified that for me.”

In the seven years since Xi’s last visit to the U.S. in 2017, China has only intensified its repressive policies in Tibet, threatening its culture, language and Buddhist religion. Tibet is currently tied with Syria and South Sudan as the three least free countries in the world, according to Freedom House, a watchdog group dedicated to assessing the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world.

In China’s latest effort to forcibly assimilate Tibetans into majority Han culture, the government is sending around a million Tibetan children to Chinese residential schools, according to a Tibet Action Institute report. This represents almost 80% of Tibetan children between ages 4 and 18. They are forced to complete a Mandarin Chinese curriculum, with little access to Tibetan, drawing similarities with Native American children who were forbidden from speaking their own languages in the residential schools of North America.

Political indoctrination has always been inseparable from education in Tibet, since China’s annexation of the region in 1950, according to the Tibet Action Institute. But until this new policy, schools in Tibet were mostly local day schools, and students returned home to their families each evening. Since Xi came to power in 2013, however, the government has shut down most local schools, while placing the boarding schools far from Tibetan villages and towns. With no local options for schools, Chinese authorities have established a system of de facto compulsory, highly politicized boarding schools for children aged 4 to 18, stated a European Parliament resolution. This cuts off children from Tibetan language, culture, and their Buddhism, United Nations experts say, making them increasingly disconnected from their families.

This is the first generation of Tibetans influenced to such a deep level by the Chinese state, said Lhadon Tethong, director of Tibet Action Institute. Parents who resist sending their children to these schools are subjected to threats and strong-arm tactics and face the possibility of losing their social welfare benefits, Tethong said.

Doma says that her family is her most important connection to her Tibetan identity.

“It’s just sitting in silence with my grandmother and holding her hand. Or recognizing the way my house smells when I wake up in the morning to the scent of my grandfather’s incense as he does his prayers. The sound of my home. Being able to speak to my grandmother in Tibetan. That really deepens my sense of cultural connection,” Doma said.

Tendor Dorjee, a Tibetan-American doctoral. student at Columbia University, said that language is especially crucial to Tibetan identity.

“Religion, food, music, all these things are important aspects of identity. But once people lose the Tibetan language, it becomes very difficult for them to assert their identity,” Dorjee said.

Language is also what most unites the diverse Tibetan communities of the Tibetan plateau and what sets them apart from Han Chinese, according to Dorjee and Gyal Lo, author of “Social Structuration in Tibetan Society.” More so than Buddhism, they wrote, which has been infiltrated throughout various levels of its institutions by the Chinese government, or the Plateau’s distinct Himalayan geography, which has been colonized by China through networks of roads, tunnels and railways. And language, they argue, is precisely what Xi’s government is targeting through the boarding school system.

On Nov. 22, when Doma was back in New York after protesting Xi’s visit to San Francisco, she made her way to the Moore Homestead Playground in Elmhurst, Queens, where the Tibetan community converges every Wednesday for a weekly circle dance called Gorshey. This celebration, known as Lhakar or White Wednesday, began as a non-cooperation and civil disobedience movement in Tibet after the 2008 uprising. Now, Tibetans inside and outside the country celebrate Lhakar by speaking Tibetan, wearing traditional clothes, and eating Tibetan food. That Wednesday night, dozens of Tibetans, old and young, danced in unison to the tunes of traditional Tibetan music.

Doma was tired from her week of protesting, but she refuses to ever miss a single Lhakar when she is in New York. “It’s a lot of work,” she said, “but considering that millions of Tibetans inside Tibet are denied the right to advocate freely for themselves every day, this is truly one of the core responsibilities that comes with being a Tibetan young person, living in a society that allows protest against Xi.”

The struggle for freedom will take a long time and will demand grit and perseverance, she said. But for now, she would savor the sound of her community in blossom.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Chushi Gangdruk’s name.

About the author(s)

Mila Tanghe is a Belgian journalist studying at the Columbia Journalism School, specializing in social justice and international relations.