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A top official researcher in Beijing indicated Tibetan population today has surpassed the previous statistics of both Tibetan government in exile and Beijing.

Dramdul (Zheng Dui in Chinese) said there are “over seven million Tibetans who live in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and in Tibetan inhabited areas in four provinces,” the state-run China Central Television, reported April 28. The Tibetan administration in exile believes there are six million Tibetans, which traditionally Beijing has always contradicted and even criticized. However, 2010 China’s census said there are over 6.2 million Tibetans. This was the first time the two sides agreed that there are at least 6 million Tibetans today.

The Chinese government first conducted the census in Tibet in 1953, but experts believe the results were inaccurate, since it reported that there were only 2.7 million Tibetans. Interestingly within 11 years, that population dropped by 10.8 percent, according to China’s 1964 census. This period included the Great Leap Forward of China during which some say 18 to 45 million people died from starvation in China. However, Tibetans generally agree that the starvation hit minimally in most Tibetan areas, but more severely in China. Yet, Han population grew by 18.6 percent during this census period, according to the same official census that was compiled by China National Bureau of Statistics. This suggests that a large number of Tibetan population was lost in the war with PLA, execution, in prisons, and other unnatural causes, as claimed by the exile administration.

The Tibetans who went into exile numbered only 85,000. The same Chinese government census says by 1990, the Tibetan population grew to 4,593339. But experts question the accuracy of all these statistics.

“There is always a question, inside and outside of China, about accuracy of the censuses,” said Jianglin Li, a New York based writer and researcher. She said that one of the reasons is linked to government policy of fining the families with extra children. “There is a good possibility that some of the people hide their children. They don’t report,” Jianglin told VOA Tibetan Service. “It is same thing in rest of China. Many people who have more than one child actually hide their children.”

So-called minorities in China are allowed to have two children, but Kalsang Gyaltsen Bapa, exile MP and former employee of China’s United Front Work, reminds many Tibetans have far more than 2 kids. “For example, Rongye Adrak,” Bapa said in Tibetan. “When he was arrested in 2007, he was over fifty years old, but his 11th child had just been born.” Rongye Adrak was arrested for publicly calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Bapa says that there is a good reason that Tibetologist Dramdul’s conclusion that there are over 7 million Tibetans is accurate. “Dramdu is an expert at Tibetology Research Center in China, and he has the access to a various material to conduct research,” said Bapa. “I think over 7 million is more supportable by the reality and various information.” There is not a clear document on how Tibetan administration in exile came about with its statistic.

But, Wangchuk Shakabpa, an attorney and independent analyst believes it was based on tax record. “My understanding based on sources I have read is that the six million figure that the exile government has been using for at least since 1950s was likely derived from tax records that the central [Tibetan] government was collecting,” said Shakabpa, the grandson of a Tibetan historian and former finance minister of Tibetan government in Lhasa. But he also said that the taxes were collected mainly from the large property owners, like monasteries, not from all citizens. There is also a confusion in the system of counting digits in Tibetan, as the placement of value for 7th and 8th digits are interchanged some times. For instance, people inside Tibet tend to call the 7th digit jewa and 8th digit saya, but in exile the 7th digit is commonly called saya and 8th digit as jewa. This is potentially problematic when sourcing historical records.

A Tibetan historical record published by Tibetology Research Center say that a 11th century Tibetan Buddhist master Drom Tonpa once said the Tibetan population at the time was over seven jewas, which would be 7 million according to the way digits are count inside Tibet while according to the exile Tibetan way of counting it would be translated as 70 million.

As mysterious as it is, according to a report in 2000 by Yan Hao from the Institute of Economic Research, State Department of Planning Commission, Beijing, Chinese government has another census record that said in 1959 there were 6.3 million Tibetans— 3.3 million Tibetans in the part of Kham that was once called, by China’s Guang Ming Tang government, Xikang; 1.6 million in Qinghai and 1.2 million in TAR. Mr. Yao doesn’t think this was an accurate record, but this record not only agrees with Tibetan government’s statistics, but apparently was produced around the same time when Tibetan government started its version of statistics.

Sources: CCTV; 2010 Official Census reported by National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China; Chinese Folklore Forum website; Institute of Economic Research, State Department of Planning Commission, Beijing’s Report Published in Heinrich Boll Foundation (a German Political Foundation);; Qinghai official website; Tibetology Research in Lhasa’s 1985 published magazine no.3. Interview: Jianglin Li, Chinese writer and researcher on Tibetan issues; Kalsang Gyaltsen, China analyst and MP of exile Tibetan parliament; Wangchuk Shakapa, attorney and Tibetan activists who has analyzed the Tibetan population statistics.​