Futility of contorting reality: China’s propaganda war on Tibet


(Guest post by Tsering Tsomo, Executive Director of Tibetan Center for Human Rights & Democracy)

A black stone soaked in the river cannot be washed white.

A white stone placed under the sun cannot be darkened.

 ~ Yidam Tsering, poet, (1933-2004)

One of contemporary Tibet’s more courageous filmmakers is Dhondup Wangchen, a self-confessed “uneducated man” with no schooling but with a strong determination to know the reality in Tibet for himself and for the world, independent of Chinese propaganda on Tibet. It was a dangerous mission, fraught with uncertainties and risks. But in late 2007, the father of four and novice documentary filmmaker left his family in India and travelled to Tibet to shoot a documentary film in the run-up to 2008 Beijing Olympics. He wanted to document the real feelings and opinions of the Tibetans as China prepared to host its first Olympics games. With a stroke of luck, filming for the documentary titled Jigdral (Leaving Fear Behind) finished on the eve of the revolt in Lhasa that ignited the 2008 uprising in Tibet. In late March 2008, Dhondup Wangchen was detained and for a year or so, he was kept in an illegal ‘black jail’ subjected to beatings, interrogations and intimidations. The fate of the filmmaker’s assistant, Golog Jigme remains unknown since his disappearance in September 2012. Jigme had earlier been harassed, tortured and detained twice by the police. Dhondup Wangchen is now serving a six-year sentence for “subverting state power”, a vague, overbroad legal term used extensively to charge activists and critics of Chinese policies. The real motive behind the charge was to criminalise and discredit Tibetan voice and agency, presented starkly in the film.

Even before the Olympics began, China had already broken its promise of respecting human rights in return for winning the bid for the games, by imprisoning the filmmaker of Jigdral and launching a widespread, systematic crackdown on the 2008 uprising in Tibet that continues to this day. In the five years since the games began, restrictions on human rights have increased; in fact, Chinese repression has become more sinister and invasive now than before 2008. Tibetans are rendered voiceless, and subjected to inhumane and discriminatory punishment for merely speaking out their minds. The incomprehensible decision to award the 2008 Olympics to China has dulled the games’ moral sheen and tarnished the image of the international sporting event.

More than two years ago, in the midst of China’s ‘soft power’ offensive mainly in the field of media and Confucius Institutes, human rights activists around the world were subjected to a revolting sight: a giant billboard advertising the official Chinese news agency Xinhua prominently displayed at Times Square in the heart of New York City. Many viewed the glitzy public move as China sending a strong message to the world about its newfound confidence. The truth is the paramount boss of Xinhua, China’s Central Propaganda Department, is anything but confident and credible.

On West Changan Avenue near Zhongnanhai in Beijing, the headquarter of the Central Propaganda Department remains without a sign outside its building, lending some weight to popular criticisms that the propaganda organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) operates like a shady, underground entity, vetting and censoring all contents of newspapers, films, books, TV, radio, films and internet in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). May be the ‘invisible black hand’ that many Tibetan and Chinese journalists, writers, bloggers, and artists fear and dread is trying to keep a low profile lest its secrecy be compromised.

Nothing much has changed since the days of Luo Ruiqing, the first head of Chinese Propaganda Department who in a rare admission had said, “To let the media serve politics means to tell lies, to deceive the above and delude the below, to defile public opinions, and to create nonsensical news.”

In Tibet today, all channels of communication, both private and public, are under state surveillance. Early this year, China made bonfires out of satellite dishes and cable TV wirings seized from Tibetan homes as part of a wider crackdown on self-immolation protests. Restrictions on the Internet, phone and other means of communications implemented since 2011 have intensified. China’s state media reportage on Tibet is still trapped in a time warp reminiscent of the dark years of Cultural Revolution. China has erected a highly intrusive mass monitoring and surveillance system in which the Party assumes an almost omniscient presence in the most private lives of Tibetans. In September 2013, China announced that it has sent 60,000 Party cadres into Tibetan villages and towns to ‘educate’, ‘manage’ and provide ‘public services’. In reality, these are foot soldiers of China’s war on “separatism” in Tibet.

Tibetans are forced to express their ‘gratitude, love and loyalty’ for the Party in political education sessions. Thought reform is used, even to this day when China has built high-speed trains. In the many visible and invisible detention centres, Tibetans who had committed ‘political crimes’ are forced to write self-criticism letters repeatedly until they break down and comply to draft the ‘correct’ letter dictated by their torturers. It is this desperate necessity to control thoughts and opinions, which has made it impossible for Tibetans to practice their freedom of expression, opinion and information. The Party makes sure that no Tibetan gets away unpunished for daring to depict a different picture of Tibet, divorced from the official propaganda of “happy, singing and dancing Tibetans”, the punishment serving as an example to others. There is a reason why the Chinese proverb, “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys”, is popular among Party cadres.

Testifying to its inhumane rule in Tibet, in the midst of unprecedented deaths in self-immolation protests, Chinese state media ran slanderous stories of mental derangement, domestic violence, petty thievery, and the “Dalai clique”’s political conspiracy as causes of self-immolation. Even before the ashes of those who died in self-immolation had lost their warmth, China continued to put salt to injury by running smear campaigns against Tibetan protesters and critics, labelling their sacrifices as personal and petty. Tibetans continue to be persecuted for a range of activities connected to self-immolation; one of the most ludicrous criminal charges includes offering prayers and condolences in the memory of a deceased in self-immolation protest.

The imprisoned Tibetan writer Gartse Jigme rightly condemned China’s self-delusionary and vicious propaganda campaigns against self-immolation protests by asserting that cracking down on self-immolation protests was akin to muzzling the expression of collective Tibetan aspirations. In his book, Tsenpoi Nyingtop (The King’s Valour), Gartse Jigme wrote:

We heard through telephonic conversations and saw video footages of many Tibetans in Kham [province] attending the funeral of one of the self-immolators. Even the funeral of a great Lama wouldn’t witness such large gathering of people expressing their respect and solidarity. Therefore, we can clearly assert that more than 80 per cent of Tibet’s six million people are backing the self-immolators and share with their aspirations and demands. Chinese government’s claim that [aspirations] of the self-immolators are shared by a few monks, as a result, is nothing but evil talk.

A striking impact of China’s crackdown and surveillance campaigns is the sharp rise in the number of Tibetans punished for their intellectual and creative works.  Singers such as Lolo have been jailed for six years for calling on Tibetans to ‘raise the snow lion flag,’ and for seeking ‘the return of the protector’ or the Dalai Lama to Tibet; writers and intellectuals like Dolma Kyab and Kunga Tsayang are serving more than 15 years in prison; NGO activist Wangdu is serving a life imprisonment. Senior monk and social activist Yonten Gyatso was sentenced to seven years in prison after about a year in secret detention where he was tortured to the brink of suicidal thoughts. Often in the run-up to sensitive political anniversaries, imprisoned Tibetan writers are kept in solitary confinement for months to pre-empt any political disturbances. There is no transparency in processes leading up to their final conviction and imprisonment. And it is unpractical to even hope for independent access to due legal process, legal representation and fair trial in a legal system dominated by the political considerations of the CCP, the supreme, lifelong, unelected government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

It is the authoritarian, repressive system of the Chinese government that Kelsang Jinpa (pseudonym: Garmi or The Blacksmith), a poet and writer from Amdo province, exposed in his essays written in the aftermath of the 2008 uprising. Jinpa challenged the official Chinese propaganda of labelling Tibetan protests as mere instances of “beating, smashing, looting and burning.” His essay, The Case for Lifeblood and Life-force, documented the killings of innocent Tibetans, including teenagers, “whose lives appeared no more than a worm to be crushed underfoot [of the Chinese rulers]”. He challenged the legitimacy of the Chinese regime whose repressive system, he argued, violated the Marxist/Leninist principles and its nationality policy:

Marxism-Leninism requires strict equality between nationalities, and absolutely opposes the oppression of nationalities. Where there is no such equality, Marxism-Leninism regards it as legitimate for minority nationalities even to seek secession.

Another Tibetan writer writing under the pseudonym Sonpo (Eng: Survivor) publicly condemned the tyranny of ‘majoritarianism’ wherein a dominant majority of Chinese population enjoys exclusive privileges to the disadvantage of a small number of Tibetan population in the PRC. Sonpo contended that as long as this ‘tyranny of majority’ continued and minorities were treated as second and third class citizens, the PRC could never hope to maintain real stability or prosperity in future.

These men and women of conscience make important, constructive observations about China’s Tibet policy. Their heartfelt suggestions for a more stable and prosperous Tibet may still provide the legitimacy-challenged CCP fresh insights on humane governance and an opportunity to assess the ground situation in Tibet. China must face the fact that these are individuals who gave voice to popular resentment and discontent inside Tibet. It is unbecoming and petty of the one world’s oldest civilizations to denigrate and discredit these voices as mere tools of “hostile foreign forces” or the “Dalai clique”. There is no honour in ‘shooting the messenger’, just as there is no dignity in oppressing people for practicing free speech and expression.

Tibetans in and out of Tibet sometimes talk a different language, a coded language tailored to conform to the state surveillance machinery.  Sometimes, people in Tibet will not tell you they got arrested, suddenly, secretly, and tortured, because the ears and eyes of the Party is ever present watching over your back in your most private communication. Instead they will tell you something totally different; they will change the names of peoples and places, make up some details. Despite the intentional disinformation, the real story somehow magically gets to its destination. In an Orwellian world, the oppressed sometimes manages to escape the oppressor’s watch by making use of coded allusions unintelligible to the state surveillance machinery.

China has turned Tibet into information black hole as it continues to block independent media reportage on Tibet despite widespread criticism from the international community. Even the recent highly orchestrated visits by a handful of foreign delegations and journalists have been exposed as a charade. Australian journalist Rowan Callick who recently visited Tibet with his Chinese minders would know better. Few days after his return from Tibet, Callick issued a public clarification denying he ever made those glowing comments about “wonderful life” of Tibetans, as credited to him in official Chinese media. The fact is carrying out truthful reportage on Tibet is impossible without resorting to risky undercover means. This year, Chinese diplomats in Bangkok and Paris harassed and threatened France 24’s reporter Cyril Payen, and pressured albeit unsuccessfully the news outlet’s CEO to pull out an investigative report on Tibet Payen had filmed undercover in May.

In the last five years, thousands of Tibetans have been arrested, tortured, disappeared, killed and sentenced for non-violently expressing their opinions and criticisms against Chinese policies. Many have been unlawfully charged with threatening the ‘unity and stability’ of the Chinese motherland, sharing ‘secrets’ of Chinese government with outsiders, and for engaging in ‘separatist’ activities. These charges come under ‘national security crimes’, which make it easy for the secret police to detain people for months without informing their family members. The ‘Gestapo term’ or Article 78, introduced last year in China’s Criminal Procedure Law legalises enforced disappearance of Tibetans charged with ‘national security’ crimes.

In 2010, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy reported over 60 cases of Tibetan intellectuals, writers, artists and cultural figures persecuted for speaking out their mind. The number has since risen in the backdrop of self-immolation protests. In 2012, a global annual census on imprisoned journalists conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists revealed that 10 out of 27 known journalists imprisoned in PRC were Tibetans. Recently, the PEN International reported the arrest of 65 Tibetan writers, artists and cultural figures in 2011 alone.

The unrelenting derogation of fundamental Tibetan rights and freedoms poses an important question on the legitimacy of the CCP-led government of the People’s Republic of China to rule Tibet. In the last 60 years, the Tibet issue has become more intractable due to China’s intransigence and despite concessions from the exile Tibetan administration under the Middle Way policy. Without political reforms and constitutional governance, China can never achieve real stability because exploitative, GDP-driven economic growth can never be a substitute for genuine political freedom, democracy and human rights. China can never succeed in influencing the international community with its ‘soft power’ if it continues to inflict pain and suffering on men and women of conscience who courageously hold the mirror to the failings of the rulers and give expression to long-festering resentment of the ruled.