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Two years after Galwan, Black Top, China changes military strategy—by recruiting Tibetan youth

The Tibetans being recruited by PLA are caught in the CCP’s push to secure border areas through a strategy of military warfare and lawfare.

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Two years after the incidents at Galwan and Black Top Hill, the uncomfortable but pragmatic strategy involving China’s PLA and its large-scale recruitment of Tibetans has come to fore. If you believe the Chinese state media, the Tibetans are enthusiastically applying for the PLA’s recruitment drive in large numbers.

“In the first half of this year, 472 people were recruited in Lhasa, of which 240 were college students, an increase of 15.7 per cent over the same period last year,” said a PLA media report. The recruitment numbers are gross undercount as the recruitment of the Tibetan youth into Mimang Cheton in the border counties has rapidly increased in 2021, according to sources who spoke to the author.

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Black Top shook the Chinese

On late 31 August 2020, the Special Frontier Forces – a special operations unit primarily constituting exiled Tibetan soldiers – carried out a mission on the Southern bank of Pangong Tso Lake to deter China’s further ingress. The Tibetans in SFF have been fighting for their land – Tibet.

The incidents of Galwan and the Black Top Hill mission hide a more complicated history of a nation, which still lives in the hearts and minds of people – Tibet.

When the British Empire tried to establish trade with Tibet – and onwards to the Chinese mainland – via Sikkim, the Tibetans resisted the contact.

“While a trade mart at Yatung (Yadong) had been established under the terms of the 1893 Trade Regulations agreed with China, the Tibetans had been able to prevent its ever operating. They continued to refuse to establish trade or diplomatic communications with British India, and the situation stagnated for some years, during which the British continued to collect and collate information concerning the Tibetan state,” writes historian Alex McKay in The Mandala Kingdom.

The 1903-04 British Younghusband Mission to Tibet brought a severe challenge to Tibet’s sovereignty, and later the victory of Communists during the Chinese Civil War set the events into motion leading up to Dalai Lama’s escape in March 1959. But the story didn’t end there.

The Yadong county, which was once at the heart of geopolitics between the British Empire, Tibet and the last vestiges of Qing, is again shaping the region’s politics.

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PLA’s new Mimang Cheton units or Tibetan militia recruitment strategy has largely gone unnoticed in international media but the current dynamic along the Line of Actual Control – involving ethnic communities – could be the making of a long-drawn conflict. Historically, PLA has used Tibetan militia to guide senior officials from the mainland and have worked in the logistics operations of the PLA.

Since June 2021, PLA has intensified the recruitment, training and deployment of special Tibetan units named Mimang Cheton along the Line of Actual Control. The Hindu reported earlier in 2021 that Mimang Cheton units have been trained and deployed in Chumbi Valley, including Yadong county.

Sources, speaking to the author on the condition of anonymity, have said that PLA has launched a mandatory recruitment drive in the Chumbi Valley since August 2021. Approximately 1,200 Tibetan youth from Chumbi valley have been recruited and sent for training at the PLA training centre in Nagqu.

The individual in charge of the recruitment drive is the PLA officer of Tibetan origin, Maj Gen Thubten Thinley. The militia recruitment drive has gained momentum since Xi Jinping visited Lhasa and Nyingchi in July 2021.

The recruitment of young Tibetans into militia forces is happening in the Western regions of Tibet as well. Tibetan youth from Ngari prefecture have been recruited and sent to training at the PLA training centre in Kunming. The university graduates aged between 18 and 35 years recruited as officers will be offered 7000 yuan per month, and those who can speak and write Mandarin will be paid 5000 yuan per month, according to the sources who spoke to the author.

There remains a sense of mistrust between the PLA officers and the Tibetan recruits, who are now being prepared for a frontline role, according to another source. The term ‘militia’ connotes a specific hierarchical role the PLA accords to the Tibetan conscripts in remote regions. They are being used for their physical capabilities with a limited possibility of promotion within the military ranks.

Informed sources have told the author that PLA wasn’t prepared to confront India’s SFF on 31st August 2020. The Black Top Hill mission created a sense of urgency within the PLA to increase the recruitment of Tibetans with better knowledge of the terrain. The PLA officers from the mainland have faced severe health issues while serving in Eastern Ladakh and other high-altitude regions along LAC.

These claims about the increased recruitment of Tibetan soldiers are confirmed by open-source analysis.

“In recent years, in order to allow more aspiring young people and young people of appropriate age to devote themselves to national defence construction, the districts and counties in Lhasa have continued to expand the scope of recruitment propaganda and intensify propaganda efforts. Open conscription publicity service windows, distribute brochures, interpret conscription policies in detail, and answer questions in a timely manner,” reported Chinese state-run The Paper about the PLA recruitment drive in the Lhasa region.

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The Chinese narrative on Tibetan recruitments

Chinese state media have tried to create a narrative that Tibetans are “enthusiastically” applying for the recruitment drives.

“Many young people of school age in remote farming and pastoral areas working or studying abroad have returned to their hometowns to apply, and the number of applicants has increased year by year,” said a PLA media report. 

In June 2020, the South China Morning Post reported the mixed martial arts training of Tibetan militia forces in Tibet. These efforts to train a new fighting force by PLA may have disappeared from the news cycle, but the recruitment and deployment continue.

The co-option of Tibetan culture reflects the PLA’s desperation to meet their military goals. Recruits of Mimang Cheton are now taken to a Tibetan monk for his blessings after the training is complete, sources have told the author. A practice involving a religious ceremony is unheard of in the PLA recruitment process but reflects how the military has adapted to reach its goals in Tibet.

The Tibetan youth being recruited by PLA are caught in CCP’s push to secure border areas and to change the territorial dispute with India through a strategy of military warfare and lawfare.

Tibet once again suffers in 21st-century geopolitics.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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