BEIJING — During their controversial six-decade-rule of Tibet, China’s Communist Party leaders have been accused by human rights groups of trying to tame the restive region by imprisoning Tibetan political prisoners, keeping in exile their leader the Dalai Lama and repressing Tibetan religion and culture.
Now, China has turned to interracial marriage in an apparent attempt to assimilate Tibetans and stamp out rebellious impulses.
In recent weeks, Chinese officials in charge of the Tibetan Autonomous Region have ordered a run of stories in local newspapers promoting mixed marriages. And according to newly published government reports, the government has adopted a series of policies in recent years favorable to interracial couples.
Urging officials to push mixed marriages harder, China’s highest official in the Tibetan region, Chen Quanguo, recently staged a photo op with 19 mixed families.
“As the saying goes, ‘blood is thicker than water,’ we should make our ethnic relationship like that,” Chen said at the meeting in June, according to the state-run Tibetan Daily. The government must “actively promote intermarriages.”
So far, the government push has seen some success.
In a report published this month celebrating such policies, the Communist Party’s research office in Tibet said mixed marriages have increased annually by double-digit percentages for the past five years, from 666 couples in 2008 to 4,795 couples in 2013.
While avoiding specifics, the report attributed the growth to favorable policies in areas such as social security, reproductive rights, vacations, prizes and special treatment for children born from such marriage, including education, employment and Communist Party membership.
The government has focused on Tibetans marrying Han Chinese.
Tibet’s population is roughly 90 percent Tibetan and 8 percent Han Chinese. Demographics for China as a whole is the reverse at 92 percent Han Chinese and less than 1 percent Tibetan.
The government has sold the effort in state-run media as a way to achieve ethnic unity, but critics argue that its true aim is to further weaken Tibetan culture.
In a phone interview, Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser, an activist who has frequently clashed with authorities, likened the promotion of intermarriage to the worst practices of colonization.
There’s nothing objectionable about couples from different backgrounds coming together naturally, she said. Woeser herself is married to a Han Chinese, dissident writer Wang Lixiong. But when the authorities use it as a tool and create policies to encourage it, she said, it feels wrong.
She compared it to Japanese police being encouraged to marry local women during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan.
For weeks, government-run newspapers in Tibet have featured happy mixed couples in which the children love both cultures and equally speak Tibetan and Mandarin.
But among Tibetans, there is great fear about losing their culture and traditions.
Government policy requires mixed couples to choose early on what ethnicity to designate their children in official documents. Many choose to name their children as Han rather than Tibetan, believing that it gives their children a chance at a better life, said a 28-year-old Tibetan woman who works at a local government department. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job.
Many also send their children to study in the better schools of mainland China rather than in Tibet, she said.
While the percentage of Tibetans who marry Han may be increasing there, the total number remains small, she noted.
At Chen’s meeting with mixed families on June 18, the party secretary of Tibet praised intermarriage, calling it recognition of the great motherland, Chinese as a people, Chinese culture, and the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, according to state media.
Chen called for government departments to use everything in their power and designate key officials to steer public opinion. Party and government officials should act as matchmakers, he said.
Nationwide, China has long offered ethnic minority groups favorable treatment as a way to try to integrate them into society, a policy that is often criticized by Han and ethnic minorities alike.
When one or both spouses are of ethnic minority, a couple can generally have up to three children, despite China’s one-child policy. Ethnic students are given extra scores for their minority status in college entrance exams. Intermarried families are also often awarded honors for being “models of ethnic unity” and are sometimes favored for government positions.
And Chinese history is dotted with examples of interracial marriage as a strategy to maintain peace. One of the most famous stories is the marriage between Chinese Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty and Songtsan Gambo, then king of Tibet, which sealed a peace treaty.
The story was turned into an outdoor musical last August, promoted by the government, and is showing in Tibet.