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A night-time lighting analysis of Tibet's prisons and detention centres


Authorities in Tibet are engaging in preventive repression towards their population. As part of their nationwide 'stability maintenance' strategy, they are detaining, persecuting, and convicting Tibetans for non-violent forms of protest and other expressions of dissent such as assisting or supporting self-immolations and carrying pictures of the Dalai Lama.

The precise workings, nature, and scale of the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to imprison and detain Tibetans, however, remain poorly understood. In contrast with the body of knowledge on the detention and imprisonment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the Tibetan detention system is still very much a black hole to the international community.

The lack of evidence on many issues, especially on the so-called 'vocational training centres' and detention through the criminal justice system, is not evidence of the absence of repression. Rather, it highlights a need for further research to address many of the research gaps and to better understand the situation.

This study therefore aimed to build on the scant available evidence and leveraged an innovative method — night-time lighting data — to shed light on the prisons and detention facilities in Tibet.

Measured on a daily basis using satellite-based sensors, night-time lighting data represent an equilibrium measure of electricity consumption at night at specific locations over time. Aggregated into monthly trends, these data can help illuminate potential changes in the construction, growth or decline in the use of specific detention facilities across Tibet that may not be visible using overhead satellite imagery alone.

Key Findings

  • There are at least 79 prisons and detention centres across Tibet.
  • The majority of these are assessed to be small, low-security detention centres which most likely provide low-level detention and short-term jail functions.
  • Almost all of these facilities were built before 2011, when Tibet's former Party Secretary Chen Quanguo (also known as the architect of repression in Tibet and Xinjiang) came to power in Tibet. Although we cannot rule out the possibility that Chen may have repurposed existing facilities for political purposes upon his arrival.
  • At the aggregate level, the overall size and scale of the Tibetan detention system has been relatively consistent over the past decade.
  • Zooming in on individual facilities, however, we uncovered recent patterns of growth in night-time lighting concentrated in higher security facilities since 2019.
  • This trend may suggest a shift towards longer detentions and imprisonments and is similar to recent observations in Xinjiang too, where a high percentage of these facilities showed active growth in night-time lighting in 2019 and 2020.
RAND Europe Corporation Institute

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