Tibetan artists, intellectuals and, now, environmentalists in China are facing an increasing threat of arrest and prolonged detention in the wake of the 2008 protests against Beijing’s rule. Observers say the crackdown on figures normally left out of politics signals China’s growing concern about a resurgence of pride in Tibetan cultural identity.
Songs of protest
In a popular Tibetan song, Tashi Dhondup sings of broken families, Chinese occupation, and the sterilization of the Tibetan race. The album, “Torture Without Trace,” was released after rare anti-China protests swept Tibet two years ago, leaving as many as 200 people dead.
Dechen Pemba, a British-born Tibetan who publishes English translations of Tashi Dhondup’s songs on the blog High Peaks Pure Earth, says the album became an instant hit.
“Tashi Dhondup’s songs were really popular amongst Tibetans because everybody had been feeling so traumatized after the events of 2008 and the protests and the crackdown,” Pemba says. “The song was passed around through the Internet. People were using their mobile phones and playing them to each other and passing them around.”
Tashi Dhondup is now serving a 15-month sentence of re-education through labor for singing what authorities call “subversive songs.”
He is one of more than 50 Tibetan cultural figures believed to be detained, disappeared, tortured or harassed since the 2008 protests. That figure is according to the International Campaign for Tibet, a rights watchdog group, which says Tibetan intellectuals are facing their harshest crackdown since the Cultural Revolution.
ICT researcher Ben Carrdus says the profile of Tibetan protestors is changing, and that makes Beijing nervous.
“Post 2008, there was a real reaction against the oppression that the Chinese authorities were putting on those forms of expression,” says Carrdus. “And it was seen across the board from high school students to Tibetan nomads to Tibetans who worked for government to university teachers.”
For years after the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan musicians and poets stayed mostly away from politics and some writers were even regarded as “official intellectuals” approved by Beijing.
One of those writers, Shogdung, had been scorned by many Tibetans for his attacks on Tibetan Buddhism and culture. But the 2008 protests changed that. His new book, "The Line Between Sky and Earth," is an indictment of China's policies in Tibet. Carrdus says it was a dramatic shift.
“Having been an official intellectual, he then reneged on his loyalty to the party line and wrote some very powerful essays about he’d been mistaken. A very humble apology really that he had been misguided by the party line and he was reneging on it,” says Carrdus.
Shogdung was detained in April and has not been heard from since.
China has historically tolerated little criticism from Tibetan activists, and these recent arrests are typical of Beijing’s longstanding policies in the region. But the detention of Tibetan arts collector and environmentalist Karma Samdrup has raised new concerns about the reach of Chinese policies in Tibet.
Karma Samdrup won both Beijing’s praise and the world’s for his environmental protection work. But his reputation did not save him from a 15-year prison sentence for grave robbing. Supporters say Karma Samdrup is being silenced for speaking out against the detention of his two brothers, who accused local officials of poaching.
Robbie Barnett, a leading Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York, says the case shows how local officials in Tibet appear to have greater influence in shaping Beijing’s policies there.
“Whoever it is that is chasing Karma and who are trying to get him for some reason went way beyond their normal powers. He wasn’t living in the Tibet region, so they had to get him detained by another region, in this case, Xinjiang,” says Barnett, adding that authorities also had books praising Karma Samdrup banned across China.
Barnett admits it is hard to determine what is happening in China. But he says it appears local officials are exaggerating Tibetan threats for professional gain.
“A lot of evidence suggests the Chinese leadership is not really looking very carefully at policies in Tibet,” he says. “It’s leaving it to a handful of people who probably have their careers invested in being known as hardliners who crack down on any kind of dissent. These are the people who seem to be running places like Tibet.”
Development with a cost
China has not commented on the recent arrests. Beijing says its policy of developing Tibet's economy will bring stability to the region. But that investment comes with a cost.
Barnett says bilingual education is being cut, government employees and their families are banned from Tibetan Buddhism, and monks, nuns and laypeople are forced to join patriotic three-month re-education sessions.
"This is what China’s main policies have been as a kind of compensation for the policies that it thinks are its main strategies, which is boosting economic investment,” says Barnett. “So it’s made Tibetans pay by these very draconian cultural restrictions. And it’s this that has triggered the recent spread of protests in the last two-three years."
Since China invaded Tibet in the 1950s, a new generation of Tibetans has grown up knowing only Chinese rule. But the elders who knew independence are not ready to let history be forgotten. Barnett says Tibetans retiring from decades of government service are secretly publishing memoirs of the early days of Chinese occupation. He says this emerging history is changing the way young Tibetans think about their future.