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Repression and resurgence in Tibet

Before the Tibetan uprising of 2008, resistance to Chinese rule emanated mainly from monasteries and nunneries, with intellectuals and educated people staying away from political activism. Now, writes Tenzing Sonam, schoolchildren and university students have joined the protests, over 60 Tibetan writers, bloggers, intellectuals and cultural figures have been arrested, and every form of dissent is being targeted, including recording, selling and listening to songs considered subversive

In early-January, 2010, my partner Ritu Sarin and I received a panic email from the Palm Springs International Film Festival in California. Our film, The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom, was scheduled to screen there in a few days time and the festival had just been asked by the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles to remove it from the programme. The festival had never before experienced such direct interference from any quarter -- let alone a foreign country -- and was initially at a loss as to how to respond. The director, Darryl MacDonald, explained to the consulate that its request could not be entertained as the film had been selected on its own merits and had already been announced.

Not deterred, a group of Chinese officials drove into Palm Springs the next day to meet MacDonald in person. They first read him a statement that purported to explain why Tibet had always been a part of China. Our film, they told him, was full of lies because it contradicted this view and therefore should not be shown. Further, they reminded him that the US government recognised Tibet to be a part of China, and hinted darkly that screening the film amounted to something like sedition and could have serious repercussions on Sino-American relations.

 MacDonald politely rejected their request. In a statement that he later issued, he said: “We cannot allow the concerns of one country or community to dictate what films we should or should not play, based on their own cultural or political perspective.” Such sentiments, of course, don’t go very far in the People’s Republic of China, but nonetheless, the audacity of its action at Palm Springs caught us by surprise. We had experienced some instances of Chinese interference with our films in the past, most notably when the director of the Toronto International Film Festival was asked, behind the scenes, not to screen our 2005 feature film, Dreaming Lhasa. He declined and that was the end of the matter. But this was the first time Chinese officials had publicly tried to stop a screening of our film, and that too in the US. It was a reminder to us of just how bad the situation was in Tibet, particularly after the widespread uprising against Chinese rule that erupted across the Tibetan plateau in the spring of 2008. Our film touched upon those events and tried to place them within the context of Tibet’s ongoing struggle for freedom. China was determined to suppress and refute any version of the Tibet issue that challenged its official line (which is that there is no Tibet issue to begin with) and was willing to put pressure wherever necessary to enforce this.

The day after MacDonald refused to bow to the demands of the consular officials, two state-funded Chinese films that had been programmed and publicised were abruptly pulled out of the festival. The official reason given by the Chinese distributors of the films was that the two directors had voluntarily withdrawn their films in protest against our film being shown. One of the directors, Lu Chuan, later told the Hollywood Reporter: “I have absolutely no knowledge of the film they’re talking about.” But he went on to add: “When it comes to Tibet and politics, we directors have no choice but to stand together with our film company.” It should not surprise us that the two directors had no choice in the matter. In China, there are limits to free speech and as we have seen from the much publicised case of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, the fate of those who dare to protest too loudly is summary and harsh. But as bad as the situation is in China, the restrictions on personal and political freedoms and the punishment for transgressing them are of an entirely different magnitude in Tibet.

A distinct set of rules applies to Tibet. For instance, travellers to the region need special permits to visit and their movements are tightly regulated. There is an immediate sense of heightened control and oppression that is absent in the rest of China. Security presence is overwhelming and openly intimidating. Armed police and the military are deployed in the main cities and towns. Monasteries, long seen as hotbeds of anti-government activity, are rigorously controlled and under strict surveillance. Religious and cultural festivals that celebrate Tibet’s unique identity and heritage are discouraged. Chinese language is promoted at the expense of Tibetan. And in the past two decades, a massive migration of settlers from the mainland has altered the demographics so much that in the major urban centres, Chinese now outnumber Tibetans. More insidiously, a web of informers and spies infiltrates every aspect of Tibetan life, creating a stifling atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

Why does Tibet touch such a raw nerve in China? To answer that question, we have to go back to the roots of the current situation. Whatever the relationship between Tibet and China in the past -- and China’s claims of historical overlordship are debatable at best -- between 1911, when the 13th Dalai Lama expelled all Chinese presence from Tibet and declared independence, and 1950, when the People’s Liberation Army invaded the country, Tibet fulfilled all the conditions of a modern nation-state. If we take into consideration the fact that the majority of countries in the world today came into existence only after the end of the First World War, Tibet’s claim to sovereignty in contemporary terms is very strong. China understands this and knows that a question mark hangs over the legality of its authority in Tibet.

The official Chinese narrative is that Tibet was a part of China since at least the 13th century, that it was a backward and cruel society ruled by a despotic Dalai Lama, that China liberated it and brought to it enlightenment and civilisation, and that the people of Tibet are happy under its rule. This is the history all Chinese grow up learning, and so powerfully is it ingrained in their collective psyche that, with the exception of a small minority, they wholeheartedly believe it. Following the 2008 protests in Tibet, Chinese students in the US and Europe came out in full force to dog the Dalai Lama on his travels. They called him a liar, held him responsible for instigating the unrest and violence in Tibet, and accused him of wanting to revive his old privileges as a slave-owning king. This, despite the fact that they were all living in free countries with full access to any information they wanted.

But although China has succeeded in convincing its own people of its right to rule Tibet, it faces a very different challenge internationally and in Tibet itself. The very existence of the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile questions the legitimacy of Chinese presence in Tibet and raises doubts about the colonial nature of its rule. This, coupled with the continuing faith and devotion of the Tibetan people in the Dalai Lama, and the failure of the Chinese government to win their hearts and minds, means that it lives with the perpetual fear that its hold on Tibet is precarious and could one day disintegrate. Unlike most Han Chinese, for whom allegiance to the motherland would never be an issue -- whatever grievances they might have against the Communist Party -- Tibetans, even those born after the Chinese occupation, continue to feel a strong sense of separateness from the rest of China. This is bolstered by marked differences in language, culture, religion and geography, and strengthened by the people’s belief in the Dalai Lama, whom they see as a symbol of free Tibet.

The only way China can gain the legitimacy it so desperately craves is by wiping out any memory or trace of the fact that Tibet not so long ago was an independent nation. The Dalai Lama remains the biggest obstacle to achieving this and therefore he is the foremost enemy of the state, someone who must be fought on all fronts, and fought, in the words of one Chinese official, to the death. And, it turns out, in the afterlife as well: the Communist Party has passed a law that allows it to take control of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of reincarnation and dictate who will be the next Dalai Lama. But beyond the Dalai Lama himself, China must also efface all sense of Tibetan-ness within Tibet, and this means targeting, diluting and eventually destroying its unique linguistic, cultural and religious identity. This is the task it has set out to accomplish, and why Tibetans in Tibet face a level of repression that is far worse than what is taking place in China itself.

Before the events of 2008, most of the resistance to Chinese rule emanated from monasteries and nunneries, or from the more ordinary sections of society, and repressive measures were put in place to keep this in check. Photographs of the Dalai Lama were banned in what used to be central Tibet and what China now calls Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Monks and nuns were forced to undergo political re-education campaigns, a Cultural Revolution-era practice that does not exist anywhere else in China. Its primary purpose today is to inculcate a sense of patriotism and to force Tibetans to denounce their spiritual leader. The intellectuals and educated Tibetans, by and large, stayed away from political activism, leading many to believe that this influential segment of Tibetan society tacitly accepted and even approved of Chinese rule. A prominent exception was Woeser, a poet and writer who was working in Lhasa as an editor with the Chinese language journal Tibetan Literature, when she was removed from her position in 2003 for writing sympathetically about the Dalai Lama. She lives in self-imposed exile in Beijing, and despite official harassment continues to write fearlessly against Chinese rule in Tibet.

The 2008 uprising changed this. It was a watershed event in recent Tibetan history, the largest and most widespread revolt against Chinese rule since 1959, when the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India and China consolidated its hold over Tibet. For the first time, the protests spread far beyond the confines of TAR. Indeed, some of the largest demonstrations took place in the Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Szechwan and Gansu provinces. Unlike previous protests, people from all walks of life were involved, including schoolchildren and university students in cities as far away as Lanzhou and Beijing. And unprecedented too was the expression of pan-Tibetan nationalism that manifested itself during these protests, in an area that included all of traditional Tibet and not just TAR. This was deeply disturbing to China, which until then had focused on TAR as a potential source of instability.

The uprising and its brutal aftermath -- detentions, torture, deaths -- provoked a resurgence of nationalism and soul-searching by Tibetan intellectuals, artists and singers. It catalysed an upsurge of cultural and intellectual activity that focused on the reassertion of Tibetan identity and the suffering of the Tibetan people in the wake of the crackdown. Bloggers took to the Internet to express their anguish. Popular musicians sang about the need for Tibetan unity and the desire of all Tibetans to see the Dalai Lama return to Tibet. Writers wrote in uncompromising terms about the implications of the 2008 uprising, and some openly called for freedom from Chinese rule.

The well-known Tibetan writer, Tagyal, who writes under the pen name Shogdung, is a prime example of this change. Previously seen to be complicit with the state for publishing in official journals and for denouncing Buddhism as an impediment to modernisation, he now self-published a book, The Line Between Sky and Earth, in which he apologised for his earlier statements and made a fierce indictment of Chinese rule in Tibet. He wrote: “Ever since we have been conquered by dictators, in a series of campaigns, we have been beaten, struggled against, seized, arrested, condemned, sentenced, massacred. They have made us unable or afraid to move, to speak, to think. Everything and everyone has become inert because of fear. These inhuman methods have been going on for more than 50 years.” Tagyal, as he predicted himself at the end of the book, was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for nearly two years.

This was a new phenomenon that China was witnessing. Its hard-line policies in Tibet were alienating even the intelligentsia that had hitherto remained silent, and provoked it into launching a new wave of resistance that was in many ways even more dangerous than what had gone on before. In his book, Shogdung called for the Tibetan intelligentsia and state workers to stop cooperating with the Beijing government and to wage a campaign of civil disobedience. Towards the end of 2008, in response to the security clampdown, a new people’s movement emerged in Tibet. Called Lhakar -- White Wednesday, a reference to the Dalai Lama’s birthday -- it pledged to promote Tibetan language, culture and solidarity through non-provocative actions like speaking only in Tibetan, wearing Tibetan clothes, eating Tibetan food, and so on. Popular singers, who had in the past composed veiled tributes to the Dalai Lama and used symbols and allusive language to refer to him and to the political situation, now shook off the yoke of their fear and sang openly, knowing fully the consequences of their actions. Tashi Dhondup, a popular singer from Qinghai Province, is one of the better known of this emboldened new generation of singers. In his album, Torture Without Trace, he sang:

The year of 2008
is when innocent Tibetans were tortured
is when the earth destroyed people’s lives.
That time was terrifying
That time was terrifying

Dhondup was arrested in January 2010 and sentenced to 15 months of re-education through labour for “separatist activities”. Another example of the kind of forthright lyrics coming out of Tibet today is the female singer Lhakyi’s song, Telephone Rang:

The telephone rang, the telephone rang
The phone call was from central Tibet
A whisper said that His Holiness is to return
Let Tibetans from the three provinces enjoy and celebrate!
Tibetans within and without Tibet will soon re-unite

For Beijing, such expressions of support for the Dalai Lama are tantamount to a call for insurrection. Since 2008, the net of illegal activities in Tibet has been widened to include recording, selling and listening to any song considered subversive. The ban is enforced by random checks on mobile ringtones and playlists. Along with monks and nuns, schoolchildren and government officials are now subject to political re-education; and the ban on photographs of the Dalai Lama extends beyond TAR. The current wave of repression in Tibet targets any form of dissent or expression of Tibetan identity by resorting to questionable interpretations of China’s “endangering state security” laws. The charges against Tibetans arrested for political activities most commonly include inciting “splittism”, causing “disturbances”, or leaking “state secrets”. The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy estimates that as of December 30, 2010, there are 831 known political prisoners in Tibet. Since 2008, over 60 Tibetan writers, bloggers, intellectuals and cultural figures have been arrested.

Even as I write this, on the third anniversary of the beginning of the uprising of 2008, news has come out of Tibet that Phuntsok Jarutsang, a 21-year-old monk in a remote corner of Szechwan Province, self-immolated on March 14 in protest against the ongoing suffering of his people. And just recently, Woeser has published yet another article on her blog, in which she writes:

“The 2008 protests were a success. They revealed the Tibetan people’s national consciousness, which had been sealed in their hearts. They gave Tibetans hope for the future, and even though they also made their lives even harder than before, this is a reason why there will be more protests to come. The more protests occur, the better it will be for the Tibetan people; it will make more and more people see the true situation. If it happens again, I would still be in the frontline.”

This then is the spirit of resurgence that is spreading throughout Tibet. Just when the Chinese authorities thought they had crushed all opposition to their regime in Tibet, the uprising of 2008 proved them wrong, and sparked a renewed, more focused and more determined wave of resistance. Led by a generation that was born and brought up under Chinese occupation, a generation that is familiar with both Tibetan and Chinese cultures, that is Internet-savvy and internationally aware, the next phase of the Tibetan struggle has begun, and it promises not only to keep it alive but to take it to uncharted territory.

(A collection of blogs, articles and music videos coming out of Tibet, translated into English, can be found on the High Peaks Pure Earth website: http://highpeakspureearth.com)

(Tenzing Sonam is a Tibetan filmmaker and writer. His parents escaped the Chinese invasion of Tibet and he was born in Darjeeling. He studied at the University of Delhi and the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. White Crane Films, his film company, has made several films on Tibetan themes, including the feature film, Dreaming Lhasa (2005) and the award-winning documentary, The Sun Behind the Clouds (2009). He is currently based in Dharamshala)

Infochange News & Features, July 2011