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Genocide in Tibet: The Tragedy of Tibetan Women

Women are not mothers only, but mothers can only be women. All genocides target women first, as the Tibetan example demonstrates.

By Marco Respinti

August 5, 2022

*A paper presented at the webinar “Human Rights & Tibetan Women Under Chinese Colonial Rule,” organized by the Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies and Engagement and the Tibetan Youth Congress on July 30, 2022.

An elderly Tibetan woman in Lhasa holding a prayer wheel. Credits.

Communist China is militarily occupying Tibet since 1959. From that year, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, regarded as the father of the Tibetan people, is compelled to live in exile in Dharamsala, India. Dharamsala is also the home of the Central Tibetan Authority, or the Tibetan government in exile. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-led regime, which has been occupying Tibet for 63 years, has dismembered historical Tibet to dilute its identity. Parts of the historic Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham have been incorporated into several Chinese provinces: Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. Roughly two thirds of historical Tibet are no longer called Tibet. The remaining third is a Chinese territory that goes under the ironic name of Tibet Autonomous Region—but is not autonomous at all.

Repression and persecution are the daily bread of the Tibetans. The Tibetan language is de facto almost outlawed. The Tibetan culture is adulterated by major injections of Marxism, the official secular religion of the CCP, which is based on atheism. To reincarnate, Tibetan Buddhist lamas need the official permission of the atheistic Chinese state. The Panchen Lama, kidnapped by the CCP in 1996 at the age of 6, was at that time the youngest political prisoner in the world. Monasteries are closed or transformed in touristic resorts. And, according to Dr. Adrian Zenz, Senior Fellow and Director of China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Washington, D.C., Tibet may now host facilities that are similar to the dreaded transformation through education camps of Xinjiang (called by its non-Han inhabitants East Turkestan), which Zenz has been studying closely for years.

Tibetan protesters with the image of the kidnapped Panchen Lama. Credits.

There is only one name for the CCP’s policy in Tibet. Genocide. “Genocide” is a new word created decades ago to define a crime that was at that time perceived as new. “Genocide” is a neologism created in 1944 by Polish lawyer Rafał (then Anglicized as “Rafael”) Lemkin (1900–1959) to confront, retrospectively, the peculiar nature of the massacre of Armenians in 1915–1916 and to give a legal classification to the Holocaust of Jews perpetrated by Nazi Germany. In international law, “genocide” is the intentional destruction of a distinctive human group, identified by ethnic, national, racial, or religious characteristics.

This definition should be understood correctly. We usually think of a “genocide” as having a large number of victims and being executed in a relatively short amount of time. It is often so. But not always. The defining features of a genocide are not the high number of victims and its traumatic, sudden implementation. A genocide is a genocide because of the intentions and aims of its perpetrators. It is a genocide when the perpetrators try to completely wipe out an entire human group, identified by ethnic, national, racial, or religious characteristics. For several reasons, perpetrators may be not able to accomplish this task, or accomplish it only partially. The number of people they manage to kill may be limited. But if their intention and aim are to eradicate an entire human group though a complete ethnic or religious cleansing, be it by killing most of its members or compel them to leave a territory, that is legally a genocide.

Bitter Winter has been among the first media outlet to review an important scholarly discussion about the definition of genocide. We sadly know that the cry launched after the Jewish Holocaust, “Never again,” did not eliminate genocides. After World War II, other genocides were carried out. Due to a number of reasons, among which the availability of direct live news thanks to new technologies, and a growing international conscience of human rights, post-World-War-II genocides have been somewhat different.

While there are still examples of intentional massacres of a high number of victims in a comparatively short time, the new genocides are often accomplished through the annihilation of identity. We are all familiar with the neologism “cancel culture.” Modern genocides are the cancellation of the entire culture of a religious group, a people or a nation, with the aim of eradicating their distinctiveness, performed on a systematic scale and supported by massive campaigns of disinformation and hate speech.

Students for a Free Tibet protesting in Washington DC. Credits.

They happen at a slower pace, compared to the traumatic quickness of previous genocides. They are also somewhat less visible, which suits the perpetrators. But they are still genocides. When a government such as the Chinese Communist regime targets a human group recognizable for its cultural, linguistic, religious, and ethnic identity, such as the Tibetans, to completely assimilate it, cancel its distinctiveness, Sinicize its beliefs, customs, and language, and twist its religion, this is a case of religious and ethnic cleansing and a genocide, even if there are no piles of corpses to be seen at the corners of the streets. In fact, if that drive is not stopped, in time there will be no Tibetans and an entire human genus (the Latin word from which the neologism “genocide” comes) will disappear.

These considerations bring us right into the middle of our topic. This somewhat slower and somewhat less visible genocide, sometimes called cultural genocide, is performed through generations, and needs to target first the generative capacity of the people to be eliminated. That is to say, women. Tibetan women, in our case.

Of course, no one think that women represent only the generative capacity of a nation. Tibetan women are not mothers only. But it is obvious that women are at the center of that generative human capacity.

From my understanding of Tibetan society, women’s association with motherhood is a strong part of its culture. In Tibetan Buddhist spirituality, women/mothers are fundamental to cultivate compassion, which is necessary to advance on the path to enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhists learn from a mother’s love for her children to love all creatures, not only human beings, existing in the world. Thus, women bring love in Tibetan society in a very concrete way.

Of course, men too play an unavoidable role in the generative capacity of a society. But women’s role is greater. It is in fact not only about the generative capacity per se. It is also about the care and the custody of new lives after conception and birth. To give a future to a society, and affirm a love for life, it is not enough to generate. Once new human beings are generated, they need to be nurtured, educated, trained to become active members of a society. This is the peculiar role of women, although men as fathers also participate in it and provide general support for the family. Two common words show this: “matrimony” and “patrimony.” They are now part of the English language, but they are totally Latin in their roots. They mean, respectively “the gift from the mother” and “the gift from the father.” The recipients of these gifts are of course the children, and here the basic idea was that in a family the mother is the one that gives life, while the father provides the concrete means of living.

It is then not surprising that cultural genocides target women. It is not surprising that the cultural genocide through which the CCP is trying to cancel Tibetans, distorting and misrepresenting their religion, language, customs, and traditions, targets women first. Let me underline two features that make this all too real, as we often covered in Bitter Winter.

Pro-Tibet protests in San Francisco. Credits.

One is the CCP family planning policy. We all know that the “one-child policy,” forcibly implemented from 1979 to 2015 to try to cope with the economic disaster caused by Chinese Communist collectivism in a foolish and bloody way, killed or prevented from being born millions of Chinese babies by the order of the state. We all know that the policy changed to two children in 2015 and to three children on May 31, 2021. But this does not affect non-Han people in “autonomous” regions such as Xinjiang/East Turkestan and Tibet.

While Chinese propaganda claims that Tibetan women are treated more leniently, in fact they are still the target of an aggressive state family planning, accomplished through sterilization and other methods, whose aim is precisely to eradicate Tibetan identity.

The second is the mass rape policy that subjugated Tibetan women in the so-called transformation through education camps of Tibet. This practice is also common in the camps of Xinjiang/East Turkestan, but we know that many of the CCP policies for Xinjiang/East Turkestan have been tested and tried before in Tibet, and mass rape of women is no exception.

This horror twins with that of population control. It is in fact a form of humiliation that deeply affect women in their deepest identity. Again, women are not only mothers, but mothers can only be women. Persecutors know this and all its deep psychological implications all too well. An easy way to win a nation is by destroying the love for life in its members. Raping women and violating their natural sense of motherhood in a way that demoralizes their love for life and their desire to give birth, or physically preventing them from becoming mothers in the future, is a powerful weapon in the hands of tyrants. It is the common de-humanizing policy that all totalitarian states promote. The CCP in Tibet is no exception.


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