SCMP May 18, 2010

Crackdown fails to silence Tibet's dissenting voices


On the morning of April 23, a half-dozen police entered the office of influential Tibetan writer Shogdung, searched his personal possessions and took him away. His wife was told he had been detained on state security charges, but was not told where he is being held. He has not been seen since. 

The arrest of the editor, who worked for the state-run Qinghai Nationalities Publishing House in the provincial capital, Xining , was the latest in a crackdown against Tibetan writers, artists, singers, bloggers and intellectuals, who have got into trouble for expressing views, or simply sharing information about central government policies and their impact on Tibet. 

Their story has been compiled in a report released yesterday by the International Campaign for Tibet, entitled 'A 'Raging Storm': The Crackdown on Tibetan Writers and Artists after Tibet's Spring 2008 Protests'. 

The report includes details of the cases of more than 50 Tibetans, including 13 writers, involved in the arts and public sphere who are either in prison, have disappeared or faced torture or harassment after expressing their views. 

The ICT said the crackdown had only encouraged dissent, making it even more difficult to control.

'Despite, and because of, the severity of Beijing's response, dissent continues to be openly expressed, particularly through the written word,' said the report, which described unofficial writings about the protests in blogs, articles in one-off or unauthorised literary magazines, in books published and distributed privately, and also in the lyrics of songs sung in public places, uploaded onto YouTube or as cellphone ring tones.

The report says these Tibetans are part of a vibrant literary and cultural resurgence that sprang from the protests against government policies that broke out in Tibet in spring 2008.

'At the forefront of this resurgence of Tibetan cultural identity is a new bicultural, bilingual generation of educated Tibetans familiar with digital technology, with Chinese writings and official policies, and often too with unofficial accounts of Tibetan history that are banned in China,' the report said.

It said that by daring to challenge the government narrative of events in Tibet, as well as China's 'aspirations for domestic and international message control', these young intellectuals and artists had put themselves at serious risk.

'For the first time since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, singers, artists and writers have been the target of a drive against Tibetan culture in which almost any expression of Tibetan identity not validated by the state can be branded 'splittist',' the report said.

The crackdown is not limited to prominent intellectuals. According to the ICT, ordinary Tibetans have also been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for just speaking about the crackdown via e-mail or telephone. 

'The penalties attached to these cases indicate a zero-tolerance policy for even low-level information sharing in Tibet that is counter to China's obligations to freedom of speech under its domestic law and international human rights law,' it said.

The authorities' fear of such grass-roots writing can be seen in the lengths to which the government is willing to go to stop it. The ICT report quotes Cai Yuying, the Tibet Autonomous Region propaganda bureau chief, as saying it was an offence not only to spread 'rumours', but also to listen to them: 'Without any hesitation, we must prevent rumour-mongering and stop people listening to rumours,' he was quoted as saying in state media. 

One of the most interesting figures of this movement is Shogdung, or Morning Conch. The 47-year-old editor is the highest-profile writer to be detained since this chain of arrests and disappearances began in 2008. 

His detention was seen as significant as he is a well-known editor and an 'official intellectual', whose views were once seen by many Tibetans as being close to the Communist Party. 

His earlier writings denounced Buddhism and the Tibetan people's religious fervour. Shogdung once called on Tibetans to embrace modernisation and move away from traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings, which he saw as an obstacle to the development of Tibet. 

But his latest book, The Line Between Sky and Earth, is a passionate indictment of Beijing's policies in Tibet since March 2008. He describes the 2008 protests as 'a sign of the rediscovery of the consciousness of nationality, culture and territory' and Tibet as becoming a 'place of terror'. 

He apologises for his earlier views, saying he made mistakes and was wrong about the role of monks in Tibetan society. He says that because of his iconoclastic views published in the late 1990s, he became cut off from society and was unable to foresee the trouble that occurred in 2008.

Shogdung's case marks a significant change in the attitude of many Tibetan intellectuals who were once willing to co-operate with the government. Robbie Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, says Shogdung was once able to see a balance between Tibetan culture, modernisation and the Communist Party, but that all changed in 2008. 'It's astonishing that he wrote this book. It's extraordinary,' says Barnett, who blames Beijing's policy in Tibet for the disillusionment of Tibetan intellectuals who were once seen as close to the government position. 

'The words he's using are striking; he's not hedging his terms,' Barnett says. 'It's a very clear statement that the government and party no longer have legitimacy in his eyes. And this was someone that was publishing material the party was very happy with about five or six years ago.'

Perhaps a bigger concern for the party is that Shogdung challenges its interpretation of events in 2008. He says while there was looting and violence on March 14 in Lhasa , 'one should draw a line between small and major events and ... compared to the violence [by the authorities] that followed, and over the past 50 years, it is not as significant.'

Other prominent cases in the report include Tashi Rabten, the editor of an essay collection about the March 2008 protests, entitled Eastern Snow Mountain. A student at the Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou , he was detained on April 6 and is believed to be in detention in Chengdu . 

Tashi Dhondup, a popular Tibetan singer, was detained by police on December 3 at a restaurant in Xining while dining with his wife and friends 'on suspicion of incitement to split the nation'.

According to an ICT source, the singer had been under intense political pressure for weeks after the October 2009 release of a CD containing songs which in Tibet's current political climate were regarded by the authorities as highly charged, including lyrics calling for the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet and lamenting that 'There is no freedom in Tibet'. His song 1958 compares the repression of Tibet since March 2008 with the crackdown against resistance to the Chinese takeover in Amdo, eastern Tibet, in 1958. He was sent to a labour camp for 15 months in January. 

Barnett says the most striking aspect of the new trend is that many people, including Tibetans who formerly worked as government officials, have written horrifying secret histories that describe events never before written about in the West.

'Over the last few years we've seen this striking decision by people to publish unofficial, well produced, books about what happened in those areas in the late 1950s,' Barnett says.

'If you read these histories that have privately been produced, it really is all so chilling that it's hard to read - descriptions of torture and mass executions in the late 1950s.' 

He says that as a result of these writings, more and more intellectuals have been influenced to write about the past and talk about it. 'This is a big change,' he says. While policies of the 1980s improved relations between Tibetans and Chinese, Barnett says the events of recent years have made many Tibetans begin to see a connection between the Communist Party of the 1950s and today.

'The Chinese are going back to a more aggressive pattern of the 1950s, after a tolerant period of the 1980s,' he says, 'and the Tibetans are increasingly seeing a continuity that the Chinese aren't seeing'.

ICT says that this tightened control and the disappearances have heightened the atmosphere of fear in Tibet. Many families inside Tibet have no idea of the whereabouts of relatives who were detained in 2008, nor of their conditions. 

It says that in the current climate in Tibet, 'disappearing' or being detained 'for even a few days can lead to death or permanent psychological or physical damage'. 

Tibetans detained during the crackdown over the past two years have been treated with extreme brutality, the report says, citing what it calls numerous reliable and eyewitness reports.

It concludes that there will likely be many more cases of writers and artists being detained as Beijing tries to silence Tibetans and prevent this news from leaking to the outside world.