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Elliot Sperling, February 5, 2017
In memory of Elliot, who passed away last week. I recovered this from my email archive, dated September 17, 2016, the day after Ilham Tohti was nominated for the Sakharov Prize. It is published here for the first time. – Yaxue Cao
The nomination last week of the imprisoned Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is welcome recognition of the role this courageous individual has played in working for the fundamental rights of a beleaguered people, a people subject to one of the harshest regimens that China visits on any nationalities or collective groups within its borders. But the persecution of Ilham Tohti serves as an example of how China’s repressive policies create damage and danger that go far beyond its own borders. There are good reasons for international concern and outrage over Ilham Tohti’s imprisonment.
On the heels of recent attacks in Europe, and concern about new ISIS-aligned actors outside the group’s core Middle East area, a recent report from the New America think-tank has revealed, among other things, that China’s treatment of its Muslim population is boosting radicalization: over 100 Turkic Uyghurs, Muslims from the region of Xinjiang in China’s northwest were recruited into ISIS response to the harsh state repression visited on them as Muslims and as Uyghurs in full disregard of common human rights norms. But the particularly harsh persecution of Ilham Tohti demonstrates a terrible dynamic in that process: the one-party Chinese state, by targeting moderates effectively nurtures extremism as the outlet for legitimate grievances over China’s policies.
On January 15, 2014 Ilham Tohti was spending the afternoon resting with his two young sons in his apartment on the campus of Minzu University where he taught economics. When a large contingent of police and state security agents burst through the door, suddenly and unexpectedly, waking the napping professor, his life changed forever. He was dragged from his apartment and has spent all of his subsequent days behind bars. As for legal formalities—such as they are for an outspoken liberal Uyghur intellectual in China—his trial on charges of supporting separatism, advocating violence among his students, etc.—took all of two days and produced a life sentence. And what had he really done? He had written about what had been happening in Xinjiang in a way that was markedly different from the official line; he circulated word of what he had found openly and on his own website; and perhaps most dangerously, he invited response and discussion. Though fluent and literate in Uyghur, he constituted his website as a Chinese-language venue so as to initiate dialogue between Uyghurs and Chinese. In retrospect that, as well as Ilham’s charismatic teaching, was intolerable. And so he was taken from his family and months later subjected to a kangaroo court (witnesses he asked for were not called; in contravention of Chinese law he was tried in a venue hundreds of mile from Beijing, his place of residence and the place in which his supposed crimes had allegedly been committed).
The intrinsic merit in Ilham’s activities and the egregious injustice of his imprisonment have been acknowledged internationally: he was the recipient of the PEN American Center’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and just recently named one of three Finalists for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. And now he is a nominee for the Sakharov Prize.
One might be inclined to see in Ilham Tohti’s case just one more sad instance of Chinese authoritarian repression and hostility to free thought. But in the present climate of anxieties about extremism, about Islam and about terror, his case is especially significant. Given China’s record of cynical misuse of the terrorism issue to attack dissent among Uyghurs and Tibetans, observers are rightly concerned that the state’s adoption of a new, broad anti-terrorism law just this past December has set the stage for actions that will exacerbate China’s problems.
By any measure, Ilham Tohti is a moderate person. A Muslim, he is liberal in his practice and entertains close friendships across lines of nationality and religion. But from the perspective of the authorities, moderates such as Ilham—non-violent critics who operate openly—are threats and are targeted for severe repression. The ills and abuses they bring to the surface are ignored and fester. Thus, the persecution to which Uyghurs are subjected continues. Bans on beards and head scarves in public venues, coercion to violate religious prohibitions concerning food and drink, violence and incarceration as a response to dissent: this is precisely the kind of abuse that, in the absence of a moderate core seeking dialogue, lends itself to exploitation by extremists. Indeed, China seems to go after the moderates because they can be seen: they operate in the open and call for dialogue and honesty about what the state is doing. Their imprisonment leaves the field to extremists who operate below the radar; they become the only ones articulating to an aggrieved population anything contrary to the official line. For all its propaganda about fighting extremism China is actively abetting its rise: in this instance among a population that has previously been noted for its moderation and restraint. Given current anxiety about Islamist extremism, the international community ought to be horrified by what China is doing. The Islamic world, wherein this extremism is wreaking the greatest havoc should be even more alarmed—and should make the persecution of writers and intellectuals such as Ilham Tohti a prominent issue in its relations with China.
The original sin, so to speak, in modern China’s dealings with Uyghurs as well as Tibetans was its annexation of these peoples without any regard to what they wanted. (And for most it was unwanted.) This original sin and the brutal periods of Chinese rule that followed have fostered a situation in which a free, open discussion of the history of Uyghurs and Tibetan under PRC rule cannot be entertained without severe damage to the myths that are enforced as the official line. Thus, when discontent surfaces the Party finds itself structurally incapable of asking what it is doing wrong. Instead, the question becomes “Who is doing this to us?” And it answers the question by seeking scapegoats. Not long ago Tibetan disgust at the appearance in the media of fake “Chinese Lamas” produced an incoherent and irrelevant response from official quarters denouncing Tibetan separatism, something that only exacerbated Tibetan frustration at their concerns not being taken seriously. Matters in Xinjiang have brought no serious questioning of the repressive Chinese policies. When French journalist Ursula Gauthier questioned China’s deployment of the terrorism narrative to defend its actions there she was expelled from China. And Ilham Tohti, who tirelessly pursued a principled quest for dialogue and change, languishes in a prison in Xinjiang. The injustice inherent in Ilham’s case is symbolic of the way China is making extremism the only option for the disaffected in Xinjiang. It should be a primary concern of the international community.
Elliot Sperling is the former chair of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University and formerly the Director of its Tibetan Studies Program. He is the author of “The Tibet-China: History and Polemics.”
Han Lianchao, September 28, 2016
Some young Chinese friends of mine often criticize me for getting mixed up with the Dalai Lama. They say he’s a separatist element who’s trying to split Tibet from China. I don’t blame them for this, as I once understood things pretty much the same way they do. It’s only after having more opportunities to observe and interact with the Dalai Lama at close range and having more frequent interactions with Tibetans that my brainwashed thinking has gradually begun to change.
My answer to these young people is this: Contrary to what the Chinese Communist Party says in their propaganda, the Dalai Lama is no separatist.
I recently heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama deliver a lengthy discussion on his philosophy at a talk in Brussels. I was impressed by his great compassion for humanity, as well as by his firm stance against violence and separatism, his genuine desire to resolve Han-Tibetan enmity, and his sincere attitude toward compromise and negotiation with the central government. Unconcerned by opposition from young Tibetans and the radicalism of some anti-Communist Han Chinese, he still remains committed to his Middle Way Approach, has abandoned demands for Tibetan independence, and is willing to seek real autonomy for Tibet under the Chinese Communists’ current legal framework and political system.
The reason the Dalai Lama has decided not to seek Tibetan independence and has abandoned armed revolt is wholly based on the understanding on his part that the bloody and brutal way that humans kill each other does not comport with the doctrine and spirit of Tibetan Buddhism and goes against the trend of modern civilization’s development. At the same time, he has also adopted this policy in consideration of political realities and as a kind of compromise of last resort, taken to protect the Tibetan people and their culture and religion. It is an act that demonstrates his compassionate heart and his political wisdom and leadership.
The main tenet of the Middle Way Approach is that the Tibetans abandon their demands for independence and refrain from seeking Tibetan secession from China. But it also does not accept the manner in which the Chinese Communist Party currently controls Tibet. So both sides must compromise: Tibet will continue to remain part of the greater Chinese family in exchange for “genuine ethnic regional autonomy.”
Back in the 1970s, China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping expressed approval of the Middle Way Approach, saying that any issue was open for discussion as long as Tibet didn’t declare independence.
No matter which way you look at it, the Middle Way Approach is a policy that is opposed to separatism.
However, the Tibet interest group led by Zhu Weiqun (朱维群) has continually devised ways to demonize the Dalai Lama in order to protect their own Tibetan “iron rice bowl.” They’ve vilified him as a separatist and a traitor and even insulted him as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” They’ve put up all sorts of obstacles for him, deceived the central authorities, undermined negotiations, and prohibited the Dalai Lama from returning home—all of which has radicalized more and more moderate Tibetans and forced them on the path of Tibetan independence. The result is the lurking danger of Tibetan separatism. Zhu Weiqun and his vested interest group are in fact the true separatist culprits.
Zhu Weiqun deliberately distorted the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach as “covert separatist demands.” He’s criticized the Middle Way Approach for not acknowledging that Tibet has been Chinese territory since ancient times and thus furnishing the Tibetan independence movement with legal grounds. Zhu falsely accuses the ethnic autonomy of the Middle Way Approach as overthrowing the current system and the creation of a Greater Tibet that will force the People’s Liberation Army and all Han out of the region. His evidence is a speech the Dalai Lama gave 30 years ago before the US Congress, in which His Holiness put forward a “Five Point Peace Plan” for resolving the Tibetan issue, as well as the “New Seven Point Agenda” he presented later in Strasbourg.
We all know that negotiation is a process of bargaining in which each side seeks to improve its own rights and interests while at the same time engaging in compromise and exchange in order to find a plan that provides mutual benefit and realizes both sides’ greatest common interest. Negotiation is not about being peremptory and unreasonable and forcing one side’s will upon the other.
Whether it’s the “Five Point Peace Plan” or the “New Seven Point Agenda,” neither proposal seeks Tibetan independence and both have been put forward under the premise that Tibet shouldn’t split from China. Under the instructions given by Deng Xiaoping, it should be possible to discuss either of these proposals.
In fact, the Dalai Lama has never spoken of a “Greater Tibet.” He has simply proposed that all Tibetan regions be able to have genuine ethnic regional autonomy under the framework of the Ethnic Regional Autonomy Law of People’s Republic of China. Under this autonomy, of course the central authorities would continue to handle foreign affairs and national defense, and the central government still has the power to garrison troops. The Dalai Lama’s idea of a peaceful region is only a recommendation and not a demand that the PLA leave Tibet.
He has also never said anything about forcing the Han out of Tibet, but he does oppose the large-scale immigration of Han into Tibet that makes the Han population far greater than the Tibetans and threatens Tibetan culture and way of life. The phrase “high degree of autonomy” is something that was already applied to the question of Hong Kong and doesn’t have the slightest connection to overthrowing the Communist Party’s current political regime. What’s more, though the content of the Middle Way Approach has softened a great deal over the years, no matter how it changes it still doesn’t seek independence and has remained consistent on the principle of not splitting from China.
As for the question of whether Tibet has been part of Chinese territory from ancient times, a very good response was provided at the Brussels conference by Liu Hancheng (劉漢城), a retired professor at City University of Hong Kong. Prof. Liu has personally spent many years researching these issues and looking at the vast ocean of official historical documents from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, plus documents from the Republican period. He’s dug through gazetteers, records of administrative divisions, tax and tribute records, household registration records, examination result lists, judicial and bureaucratic records, postal records and garrison information, and he’s sorted out a variety of credible evidence that demonstrates that Tibet has been independent of China from ancient times.
I learned a lot from the several conversations I had with Prof. Liu after the conference. Prof. Liu said that he didn’t conduct his research with any political agenda in mind and didn’t want to discuss the question of whom Tibet ought to belong to. He only wanted to get to the bottom of Tibet’s historical status and welcomed the chance to discuss his research rationally with government or non-government scholars in China.
In fact, the Dalai Lama has said many times before that it is impossible to deny history. But no matter what Tibet’s historical status might be, he argues that we ought to let the past be the past. We shouldn’t get bogged down in history and only look forward and focus on future development and the people’s wellbeing. This once again demonstrates the political vision of the Dalai Lama and his position in opposition to separatism.
Zhu Weiqun and the Tibet interest group is hoping that the Tibet question will disappear on its own after the Dalai Lama passes from this world. In fact, if the Tibet question isn’t effectively resolved while the Dalai Lama is still alive, his passing is likely to lead to more intense and long-lasting Tibetan-Han conflicts and unnecessary bloodshed and hatred.
At this recent Brussels conference, I clearly felt the increasing radicalization of young Tibetans and the growing force of Tibetan independence. In some of my private conversations with American friends, we worried about the trend of these young people turning away from the Middle Way Approach. Even though I support the principle of self-determination that has been recognized by the United Nations, I believe that the costs of fighting for independence are high and don’t serve the long-term interests of either Han or Tibetan. I think it’s much better to stick to His Holiness’s Middle Way Approach.
Also, the Dalai Lama’s opposition to separatism and desire for a peaceful resolution to the Tibetan question are both sincere and heartfelt. At one meeting I personally witnessed how the Dalai Lama publicly tried to convince Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer to give up calls for an independent East Turkestan, abandon violence, and follow the Middle Way Approach. On that particular occasion, Rebiya Kadeer admitted that she had been persuaded by the Dalai Lama’s words.
I recommend that young people in mainland China read Phuntsok Wangyal’s book, The Slow Road to Equality and Unity: Reflections on Ethnic Relations in Our Country. Phuntsok Wangyal was a founding member of the Tibetan Communist Party and was the highest ranking Tibetan in China in the 1950s. His descriptions and views on the origins of the Tibetan issue, the flight of the Dalai Lama, and the way to resolve the Tibetan question are all extremely accurate and refined.
Finally, I recommend that President Xi Jinping eliminate the interference of Zhu Weiqun and vested interest groups, seize the historic opportunity and meet directly with the Dalai Lama to resolve the Tibet question once and for all and truly realize the vision of peaceful coexistence between ethnic groups and long-term national stability.
Dr. Han Lianchao (韩连潮) is a Visiting Fellow at Hudson Institute, working on the Institute’s Future of Innovation Initiative. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, serving as legislative counsel and policy director for three active U.S. Senators. He has also been a veteran overseas Chinese democracy advocate.
The Chinese original《韩连潮：达赖喇嘛是反分裂分子》 was published on VOA Chinese website on September 20, 2016. Translation by China Change.
By Tsering Woeser, published: January 14, 2015
Following the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, millions of people, including leaders from over 40 countries, went to the streets of Paris on January 11th to condemn terrorism and reiterate their determination to defend freedom of expression. Two days earlier, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, posted a statement on Facebook saying he was not afraid of death threats and Facebook “refused to ban content about Mohammed” that offended a Pakistani extremist.
“We stood up for this because different voices — even if they’re sometimes offensive — can make the world a better and more interesting place,” he wrote. “[W]e never let one country or group of people dictate what people can share across the world. …This is what we all need to reject — a group of extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions of everyone else around the world. I won’t let that happen on Facebook. I’m committed to building a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence.”
Zuckerberg’s brief post has been liked by more than 435,000 people and shared by more than 45,000. The applause is loud and clear.
But did Zuckerberg forget something? About two weeks ago, Facebook censored a video I posted about a self-immolating Tibetan in China, and around the same time the Facebook account of exiled Chinese writer Liao Yiwu was suspended for posting photos of a Chinese artist streaking in Stockholm to protest China’s imprisonment of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Thanks to media reports of these two incidents of Facebook censorship, Zuckerberg can’t really paint himself as a hero who would die to defend freedom of expression.
The two unfortunate censorship events occurred shortly after Zuckerberg’s recent visit to China, where he showed off his Mandarin skills to an adoring audience, and after the Chinese Internet czar Lu Wei’s visit to Facebook headquarters where Zuckerberg displayed writings of Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Although Facebook provided technical and neutral explanations for the two censorship incidents, expressly stating they were not motivated by political or commercial considerations, I for one cannot help making connections between these incidents and Zuckerberg’s apparent attempt to ingratiate himself with the Chinese government. I wrote a letter to Facebook, Inc. titled “Faith in Addition to Face” to voice my concern. I believe that Facebook should understand the meaning and importance of images of self-immolating Tibetans before deleting them based on “graphicness.”
The Tibetan self-immolation video was reposted successfully, and the ban on Liao Yiwu’s account was lifted too. I have given credit to Facebook for this outcome, and I have not been censored since. Still, I find Zuckerberg’s statement disingenuous and somewhat opportunist. Some of my friends are of the opinion that Zuckerberg wanted to score points in light of the terrorist attack against French cartoonists, but we must remind him: If you are not afraid of death for the sake of freedom of expression, you shouldn’t be afraid of the CCP for the sake of making money in China.
January 12, 2015, Beijing
Tsering Woeser is a Tibetan writer and poet born in 1966 in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, and lives in Beijing. “She writes to both a Han (Chinese) and a Tibetan audience, and her writings are said to give public expression for the first time to the emotions and experiences of a people and a culture previously hidden from the mainstream.” Read more about Woeser here.
Facebook Deletes Post on Tibetan Monk’s Self-Immolation, The New York Times sinosphere blog, December 27, 2014.
Nudity, Graphic Imagery Pose China Questions for Facebook, WSJ, December 30, 2014