How Much Does Beijing Control the Ethnic Makeup of Tibet?

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The initial results of the 2020 Census of the People’s Republic of China shed light on the highly politicized issue of Han Chinese migration into the Tibetan areas of western China, including claims of population ‘swamping’ and ‘transfer’. The data show two opposing trends:

The Han Chinese population share in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is increasing, but from a small base, remaining a small minority and is concentrated in Lhasa, the capital city, and several militarized prefectures involved in ongoing border conflicts with India.

The Han population share is decreasing or remaining stable in Tibetan areas outside the TAR, which account for about half of the Tibetan population in China. In these areas, declining Han shares are characterized by Han depopulation due to strong Han outmigration.

In other words, as Fischer predicted almost 20 years ago, outside of the massively subsidized and securitized context of the TAR, the prevailing tendency in these remote peripheral agrarian regions is outmigration rather than in-migration, or drain rather than swamping, as everywhere else in the world. This outmigration is generally stronger among Han than Tibetans. Higher birth rates among Tibetans also compensate for their own emigration. Such structural tendencies are often out of the government's control, again as they are elsewhere in the world.

The perception of population swamping, in this aggregate sense, is Lhasa centric (including the militarized border prefectures), which is clearly related to heavily subsidized strategic geopolitical and military priorities, and operates more like enclaves rather than systemic settlements.

Han migration in Tibetan areas can nonetheless have strong political and economic effects even if Han pop shares are small and/or declining, especially in urban employment, where Tibetans definitely face a variety of structural and institutional discriminations and/or disadvantages.

These points highlight the importance of nuance, and how population and employment dynamics need to be carefully differentiated, both inside Tibet, even inside the TAR, but also from other regions in China such as Xinjiang.

While government policies have arguably failed to address and have exacerbated many of the disadvantages and discriminations faced by Tibetans, refracting these concerns through the lenses of population swamping/transfer or coerced labour muddles these nuances in potentially counterproductive ways.
Original languageEnglish
Article number
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalChina File
Issue number02/09
Publication statusPublished - 2 Sept 2021

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