New poll shows human rights abuses in Tibet are ignored amid China state info black-out

30th June 2017

Poll suggests a decline in knowledge over the years but also shows signs of hope

A detailed new survey probing awareness about Tibet across four English-speaking countries suggests a significant decline in understanding around the human rights situation there, and lifts the lid on a worrying lack of knowledge of Tibet more generally.

After a hugely successful crowd-funding campaign last year, Free Tibet commissioned what may have been the largest survey into the public’s grasp of Tibet ever undertaken in the western world.

Questions were asked of thousands of participants in the UK, the US, Australia and Canada via the polling organisation ComRes. The results help to shine a light on the current levels of knowledge and concern held among members of the wider public.

Facts and opinions

The first bloc of questions sought to gauge the extent to which people knew about Tibet and its current situation. From these answers, we learned that while the majority of people did know that Tibet was a country or region in Asia, less than 20% could correctly identify that it was currently controlled by a Chinese military occupation; Also of note is the fact that age was in important factor – people aged 55 or older were far more likely to know about Tibet than those aged under 34.

The survey suggests that exposure to news stories about Tibet is very low. Half of all adults in the US (51%) said they hadn’t seen any coverage of Tibet in the past 12 months, compared to 45% in the UK. This has very real consequences for those struggling to survive in one the world’s least-free nations.

Tashi Wangchuk

Chinese authorities continue to maintain a water-tight security operation in Tibet and the flow of news is extremely limited, but the information that does trickle out is shocking: Arrests and lengthy sentences for possessing the banned Tibetan flag; Tibetans held and tortured in detention in secret locations with no legal recourse; Tibetans facing prison terms of 15 years for speaking with international media; large-scale demolitions of religious sites and the forcible removal of thousands of nomads from their traditional lands.

The new data could therefore suggest that many people, especially the young, tend not to know about the political and human rights situation in Tibet, or even what Tibet is, simply because they are not hearing about it.

Trade off

Another concern was that over half of British adults (52%), when given the choice between focusing on the economy and protecting human rights, said that trade should take precedence over protecting human rights overseas.

The fact China is now the world’s second-biggest economy is of concern to campaigners given that UK politicians may be tempted to turn a blind-eye to China’s human rights abuses in order to bolster valuable financial deals, a point made earlier this week by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten.

With the UK government increasingly seeking global trading partners worldwide in the aftermath of Brexit, Tibet may feel the negative effects of the decision.

Looking forwards

But the poll also offers some rays of light: Those who had read even a small number of stories about Tibet tended to show a robust understanding of the situation there and in turn felt concerned by the plight of its people.

The wide-reaching survey also suggests that the majority of respondents empathise with the appalling circumstances dictating much of modern Tibetan life. When asked, respondents listed the detention of people without charge as being the worst condition they could imagine living under, this was followed by people being sent to prison for criticising the government and being tortured in prison. All three of these human rights abuses are day-to-day realities in Tibet.

Tibetan monk Jampa Tenzin and protesters in Tibet capital Lhasa, 1987 (credit: John Ackerly)

In a bid to meet the challenge of bolstering public awareness about Tibet, Free Tibet is using 2017 – the 30th anniversary of its founding – to carry out an extensive programme of public outreach through events and festivals. This campaign aims to remind people of Tibet’s natural beauty, its unique culture and dramatic history as well as its brutal present-day reality.

The research helps prove, again, that knowledge is power. By enforcing a lock-down on the flow of information from Tibet, China is attempting to cover up significant abuses in Tibet while actively seeking to convince the wider world that things are fine.

Yet, where information is available, people are shocked by the realities of life for Tibetans in Tibet. Equipped to challenge Beijing’s false narrative they are then moved to take action.

Free Tibet’s campaigns – from online petitions through to street-level protests to lobbying governments – are a direct response to the on-going ill-treatment of Tibetans. The on-going crimes being committed against the people of this incredible nation with its awe-inspiring story must not be hidden nor overlooked but, instead, challenged head on.

Download a detailed report on the poll's findings here

Take action

China's human rights abuses and interference in Tibetans' lives extends to trying to control their freedom of religion. The Chinese authorities even want to impose their choice of Dalai Lama on Tibetans. Join our campaign to push back against this blatant interference in Tibetan Buddhism.