New research examining nighttime lighting data from detention facilities in Tibet has sparked renewed global discussion about China’s prolonged persecution of Tibetans in the autonomous region.
The study, conducted by the nonprofit RAND Europe research institute, highlights increased activities at high-security detention facilities in recent years, indicating a possible shift from low-level detention to longer-term imprisonment and detention in Tibet. Using satellite-based sensors to measure nighttime lighting consumption, the findings shed light on China’s “stability maintenance” efforts in Tibet, which have been largely concealed from the international community.
Ruth Harris, director of defense and security at RAND Europe and one of the report’s authors, emphasized that while there have been efforts to understand the situation in Xinjiang, similar focus on Tibet has been lacking. She hopes the report can improve understanding of security and detention facilities in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The report examined 79 detention facilities throughout TAR and identified growth in nighttime lighting usage at 14 higher-security facilities since 2019. High-security prisons saw an increase in 2019 and 2020, while high-security detention centers experienced growth between 2021 and 2022.
Despite these findings, experts like Robert Barnett, an expert on Tibet at King’s College London, argue that evidence does not support a conclusive shift to longer-term detention. He posits that there has been an increase in preventative policing and grassroots surveillance, with authorities closely monitoring individuals deemed potentially problematic.
While Beijing’s approach to controlling Tibet may have changed, political detention is still taking place across TAR. Instead of traditional detention centers, some Tibetans are placed under de facto house arrest known as residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL), a method also used against dissidents in China.
Tibet has been under Chinese rule since 1951, and human rights groups assert that China has been cracking down on Tibetans’ efforts to preserve their religious and cultural identities. Large-scale surveillance programs, forced labor transfers, and arrests of intellectuals, activists, and religious figures have been common. In recent years, China has faced international criticism for alleged human rights violations against Tibetans, including coerced employment programs, discouragement of Tibetan language and religious practices, and risks to cultural identities.
Access to information from Tibet has been challenging for outsiders, as Chinese authorities restrict Tibetans’ abilities to leave the region and have taken down online sources of information. Social media platforms are heavily surveilled, discouraging information sharing with people outside China.
Though the outflow of information has been affected, some Tibetans still take risks to share “anecdotal fragments” through social media. However, the inability to independently verify this information remains a challenge for the outside world.