The Dalai Lama's revenge: the high fertility of Tibetans in China

The Tibetan struggle is one of the best-known resistance movements in the West, largely thanks to the fame of the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Ever since the Dalai Lama fled from Lhasa to India after the 1959 uprising, China has faced worldwide criticism of its myriad human rights abuses and colonising practices in Tibet. One of the most serious is allegations of ethnic cleansing, as ethnic Han migrants enter Tibetan majority regions and the demographic makeup changes.

However, one of the most important factors in demographic change, fertility, is seldom highlighted by outside observers of the Tibetan question.

In this article, using data obtained from the 2020 Chinese census and reported nowhere else, we look at how Tibetans are faring in the age of ultra-low fertility across China and East Asia, and why their relatively higher fertility levels may offer a rare light of hope in the region. 


Tibetans live in a large, sparsely populated area spanning millions of square kilometres in five provincial-level administrations of China. The core area, namely the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), or Xizang in Mandarin, only contains around half of the ethnic Tibetan population in China.

The other half of the seven million Tibetans currently residing in China are scattered in four other provinces: Yunnan, Gansu, Sichuan, and Qinghai.

When we look at fertility levels in this article, we will only examine the TAR as the writer has managed to obtain detailed statistics of the region’s 2020 census results, and also because in the modern Chinese political sense, “Tibet” only refers to the autonomous region itself, not the other Tibetan majority areas.

Let us examine the Tibet Autonomous Region’s data. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China’s 2020 census data, Tibetans make up 86 percent of the autonomous region’s total population of 3.648 million. Han Chinese only make up around 12.2 percent and are heavily concentrated in a few major urban centres of the TAR, especially the capital, Lhasa, where half of all Han Chinese in Tibet reside.

This means that the rural fertility rate in Tibet would directly correlate with the rural ethnic Tibetan fertility rate, and the urban fertility rate of Tibetans would only be higher than the urban TFR of the region, since Han Chinese migrants are known to have lower TFR than the Tibetans.

Stark contrast

So, what is the fertility rate of the Tibetans? In 2020, the Tibet Autonomous Region had a total fertility rate of 1.926, which is the third highest in the nation after two other provinces with large ethnic minority populations, Guangxi and Guizhou. This is quite close to the replacement level of 2.1 and, by Chinese standards, is extremely high.

If we further break this down to rural Tibet, the 2020 census statistics indicate that rural Tibetans have a total fertility rate of 2.363. This should be regarded as a largely accurate reflection of ethnic Tibetan fertility, as they make up more than 95 percent of the rural TAR population. This high TFR level is in stark contrast to the TFR rate in urban areas of the TAR (largely dominated by Lhasa) of only 0.87 and the TFR in peri-urban/suburban town areas, which is 1.63.

In the TAR, 64 percent of the population still live in rural areas, therefore the rural fertility rate remains the key factor in deciding the TFR of the whole region. However, urbanisation is continuing in the TAR at a rapid pace, with the rural population percentage plummeting from 77 percent in 2010 to less than two-thirds in 2020. This urbanisation trend is largely encouraged by the Chinese government, and also spells trouble for the ethnic Tibetan fertility rate as rural Tibetans become urbanised and more assimilated, leading to further fertility declines.


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We can further break down the Tibetan fertility statistics by the seven main prefectures of Tibet. As the capital, Lhasa is only 70 percent Tibetan and 27 percent Han Chinese, with more and more Han Chinese migrants arriving and diluting the ever-decreasing Tibetan majority. Since these Han Chinese migrants generally have much lower fertility, this means that Lhasa’s fertility, at 1.06, is also the lowest in the whole of the TAR.  Chengguan district, the Han Chinese-dominated central urban area of Lhasa, only registered a TFR of 0.772, which is on par with South Korea.

However, most of the other prefectures in Tibet have large ethnic Tibetan supermajorities, with Nagqu being 96.9 percent Tibetan, Shigatse 95 percent Tibetan and Changdu 93 percent Tibetan. These prefectures have double, if not triple, the TFR of Lhasa.

In Shigatse, which by population is the second largest prefecture in the TAR, the TFR is 2.42, with several counties within Shigatse bordering Nepal, such as Bainang and Tingri, having TFRs above 3. Nagqu’s TFR is 2.59, with Lhari County, the birthplace of both candidates to the current Panchen Lama throne, registering an ultra-high TFR of 3.5.

Lhari County also has an extraordinary feat — the rural parts of this county have a TFR of 4.15, which is undoubtedly a record in present-day East Asia (and even South Asia).

This is unheard of in China and is presumably the highest TFR in the entire country. Changdu has a TFR of 2.3 and also has counties with TFRs above 3 or approaching 3.

Final bastion

What about the other Tibetan prefectures with smaller Tibetan majorities? Again, it is very noticeable how the Han Chinese migration and urbanisation affect and lower fertility.

Nyingchi, in Tibet’s east and bordering India’s Arunachal Pradesh, an area also claimed by China, has become heavily settled with Han Chinese migrants, as the Han Chinese percentage jumped from 17.3 percent ten years ago to 24.7 percent in 2020. Nyingchi had a TFR of 1.89, still very high by Chinese standards, but lower than the TAR average and also much lower than the Tibetan supermajority areas.

Based on these above statistics, it is clear that ethnic Tibetans, especially rural Tibetans, have some of the highest fertility and natural growth rates in the entire country. These rural people still form the majority of both the ethnic Tibetan and TAR populations and will become vital lifeblood to the demographic health and future of the Tibetans.

Moreover, as ethnic Tibetan refugee populations in India and Nepal continue to dwindle due to much lower fertility rates and high emigration rates to Western countries, ethnic Tibetans living in the motherland will form the last bastion of hope for the continuity of the Tibetan population. Currently they still maintain a fertility advantage double to triple that of the Han settlers, and this will continue for the foreseeable future. This is vital to ensuring that the TAR will continue to retain a Tibetan majority.

Ethnic Tibetans in the TAR are also performing much better than their cultural and religious brethren in neighbouring Bhutan, Sikkim and Ladakh. Bhutan, a country known for its happiness and mysteriousness, shares a cultural and religious heritage with Tibet. Its TFR has dropped to around 1.86 in 2023 and is now a major source of concern to its royal family.

Sikkim and Ladakh are faring far worse – in Ladakh for 2019-2021, the TFR is only 1.3, whilst Sikkim had a pathetic 1.1, and the government there is desperately trying to boost birth rates.

Despite all odds, ethnic Tibetans, especially the 2.5 million rural Tibetans in the TAR, continue to have above replacement rate TFRs and, in some cases, ultra-high fertility rates. This is a very fortunate fact, and hopefully, the Tibetan people can continue to maintain this demographic advantage, which will help them greatly in their decades-long fight for freedom.

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William Huang is an avid researcher of China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis. A product of China's one-child policy, it was only when he went overseas to study that he realised just how much damage this policy has done to the Chinese nation and his generation.

Image credit: Depositphotos


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