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A Chronicle of Elliot Sperling

Tsering Woeser, February 10, 2017

Woeser’s note: This essay was written in Lhasa in the summer of 2014, for a very special book. The volume, “Trails of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling,” was a compilation of 31 essays from Tibetologists, paying respect to Elliot Sperling. There were 5 essays in Tibetan, 25 in English, and 1 in Chinese. On February 3, 2015, the book was launched at the Amnye Machen Institute [in Dharamsala]. Prior to that, Elliot didn’t know that this book had been in preparation for two years. It was presented as a gift to him as a token of respect and friendship, and most importantly as a testament to his preciousness and rarity: wise, kind, brave, righteous. And yet… those whom the gods love die young. The karma of life and death aches to the bottom of the heart. We miss you, our suddenly departed, dear Elliot Sperling! – February 2, 2017





On one occasion — I don’t remember when over these last few years, because Elliot has come to Beijing a few times; he couldn’t go to Lhasa, but he could come to Beijing — Elliot was holding a big thick English book, and he told me it was the memoir of Mme Mandelstam.

At that point, the book had not been translated into Chinese. That I was already familiar with the poems and prose of Osip Mandelstam made Elliot very pleased. Together we revisited one of the poems that was later to give the author great misery: “We live without feeling the country beneath our feet, / our words are inaudible from ten steps away. / Any conversation, however brief, / gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man…”

I now realize that it was toward the end of March, 2011. On the 16th, the 20 year-old-monk Phuntsog in Amdo county bathed himself in flame in a terrible sacrifice to protest killings in Lhasa three years ago. A few days later I encountered Lobsang Tsepa, a fellow monk from the Kirti Gompa monastery. He choked back his tears as he told me of Phuntsog’s immolation. But soon, he’d vanished. It wasn’t until two years later that I found that he’d been taken away by police from a Chinese language school in Beijing.

I wrote a poem for Lobsang Tsepa, part of which included two lines from Mandelstam’s work. It went: “This verse was from a poet of conscience who died at the hands of Stalin, / and in it is portrayed the image of today’s China.” In the same poem I also recorded my exchange with Elliot over Skype:

In the depth of the night I mumble to myself:
“I don’t know if it matters or not, but I’m still gonna say it.
Actually, I know. Saying it is pointless….”

A friend from the free world, sings it out:
“They always make people think that speech is pointless.
But speak we must!”


I remember the first time I met Elliot like it was yesterday.

It was the summer of 2010. After dropping off his luggage at the hotel, he took a taxi straight to Tongzhou, in Beijing’s eastern suburbs, to see me. Though he’s one of the few Tibetologists completely proficient in Chinese, he rarely, rarely spoke Chinese with me. My point isn’t to boast about the proficiency of my Tibetan — everyone knows that I still have a ways to go there — but to note that, it seemed to me, he spoke with me in Tibetan in order to help me improve.

That night I took him to the Makye Ame Tibetan restaurant at Jianguomen. The name of the place is ambiguous, and given to possible, sometimes erroneous interpretations. In any case, the food was quite good, despite not being all that authentic. They also had Tibetan wheat beer, shipped in from Lhasa. This, it must be said, was a comfort to Elliot, who hadn’t enjoyed a draught of it since his youth. As we savored it and spoke, he remarked that Tibetan dance performances were becoming popular, and the growing number of “Tibet fans” in the capital was creating a sense of Orientalism.

After that, it seemed that every time we met, it would be over food. We went to many restaurants in Beijing: Tibetan, Indian, Mexican. Of course, we frequented Chinese restaurants the most, including hotpot places and others. Apart from eating and drinking, we went to bookstores, art galleries, the Old Summer Palace, the Imperial College, Nanluogu Hutong (南锣鼓巷), the Songzhuang artist village, and so on. On two occasions we almost got sunstroke (he always come to Beijing during the height of summer).

We also took in operas together. On one occasion, Elliot (who at that point, because of his increasing resemblance to the mien of Lenin, I had taken to calling “Comrade Lenin”) invited me to the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing — known as the Giant Egg — to see the opera Carmen. He’s the kind of fellow who knows almost every classical opera inside out. He wore a white linen suit, and hummed along while keeping time. One time, my friend and I were celebrating our birthday, but the only thing playing was The Flower Girl, a North Korean propaganda classic that I’d grown up being brainwashed by in the Cultural Revolution. Wang Lixiong [王力雄, the author’s husband] took Elliot, me, and my good friend out, jokingly describing it as a session of Maoist era “remembering the sufferings of the past in order to appreciate the happiness today.” That night, Beijing was beset with an intense storm — like all the tears of North Korea were raining down on it.


Elliot Sperling in Lhasa in 1985. Photo: Woeser


I like to jokingly call Elliot “Genla” — a Tibetan honorific term for teacher. One time, we went to Chengde in Hebei to tour one of the seasonal imperial residences that a Manchurian emperor had given to his Buddha Dharma Grand Masters, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama (they’re commonly known as the “Small Potala Palace” and the “Panchen’s imperial residence”). With the help of Elliot providing some casual advice, I managed to write a piece about Chengde that was not too bad.

The entire trip, in fact, was both instructive and delightful. We came across a fake “Tibetan Master,” peddling candles to the tourists waiting in line. Elliot approached him with the utmost courtesy and began asking him questions in Tibetan. The imposter quickly lost his composure and the ruse was over. Apart from individual swindlers, the government was swindling the public on a far larger scale, trying to revise history with political motives. For instance, they attempted to turn the eastward movement of the Mongolian Torghut tribe at the end of the 18th century into “returning to the embrace of the fatherland,” and had a special exhibition and new relief sculpture produced for the purpose. Elliot snapped a photo and sent it to a scholar of Mongolia, receiving the facetious response: “It looks like you have made new discoveries in Chengde!”

There was another amusing detail that was also discovered, of course, by Elliot. At the Small Potala Palace there was a Five Pagoda Gate, that is, a city gate that had above it five differently colored pagodas, which corresponded to the Five Dhyani Buddhas: central, south, east, west, and north. But the Chinese and English explanation in front of it was riddled with errors. It not only claimed that the five pagodas were the five main schools of Tibetan Buddhism — the Yellow Hat, Gelugpa, Karma Kagyu, and Yungdrung Bön (笨波派) schools — but also made an error in the Chinese characters for the latter school. It had substituted the Chinese character 苯 [pronounced “ben”] in Karma Kagyu, for the character 笨 in “stupid” (笨蛋). On top of that, the Chinglish translation on the plaque read: “The stupid wave sends.”


As a Chinese dissident loathed by the government, myself and Wang Lixiong often have our freedom restricted and suffer house arrest. I’m under more restrictions. This is shown by the fact that, for instance, Wang can get a passport (though sometimes neither a passport nor a visa does much good, because national security police can nullify your travel right when you are about to board a plane to depart), while I can’t. We suspect it’s because of our different ethnicities [the author is Tibetan; her husband Han].

There was a period when danger felt imminent, and I began to doubt we’d escape it. It’s just as Mme Mandelstam put it: “Being offbeat, talking too much, and putting up a resistance… it seems that this is enough to get you arrested and annihilated.” So Elliot called me every morning on Skype, to see if I’d made it safely through another day. He would happily hoot in Tibetan and then Chinese: “Not bad!”

Mme Mandelstam wrote: “We live among the kind of people that can disappear into another world, sent into remote exile, concentration camps, or jails…” Indeed — our close friend, the moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, was on January 15, 2014, violently dragged away by dozens of police, in front of his two children, and taken from Beijing to Urumqi in Xinjiang and jailed. He’s still in prison. A week before he vanished, myself and Wang Lixiong met him at a Uighur restaurant near Minzu University in Beijing, then went to his house to call on his frail wife and sick mother.


Left to right: Wang Lixiong, Ilham Tohti, Elliot Sperling, and Tsering Woese. Photo: Woeser

Two years before he disappeared, Elliot and Ilham met for the first time, but hit off famously, at the same Uighur restaurant. In the group photo we all posed for, the feeling of trust and love of one another’s company we shared spilled out of the frame. Ilham’s daughter Jewher says that Elliot is “the best person in the world” — not just because he arranged for Ilham to spend time as a visiting scholar at Indiana University, but because when both of them attempted to board the plane, and Ilham was arrested, and the 18-year-old Jewher was suddenly alone on her way to the United States, Elliot took care of her. Her father had long prior entrusted her to Elliot’s care should it become necessary.

But Elliot wasn’t just solicitous and caring toward his friends. I once wrote in an essay: “Just like my friend and scholar of Tibet Elliot Sperling, though he studies the history of Tibet and its relations with China, he still pays utmost attention to Tibet’s political affairs and human rights. He once described his concern for Tibetan issues (he’d always correct you if you refer to Tibet in the Chinese term “xizang” 西藏, instead of 图伯特): It’s simply based on his support for the basic values of civil society and his wish to defend them, and has nothing to do with nation or ethnicity. It’s for this reason that he supports the Tibetan struggle for national survival and endurance.” This and the many other things he did seemed inspired by, as Albert Camus said in “The Rebel,” concern for others, rather than mere personal indignation.

I’ll provide simply two examples. Last May, in response to the Chinese government’s destruction of Lhasa’s old city in the name of “remodeling,” Elliot put out a call in the Tibet studies field and collected the signatures of 130 Tibetologists from around the globe, publishing “An open letter to Xi Jinping and UNESCO.” The letter stated: “This is not just a Tibetan problem; it is not just a Chinese problem. It is an international problem,” and that it would turn Lhasa into “an early 21st-century tourist town, shorn of its uniqueness and its innate traditional culture,” and called for immediate cessation of the destruction of Lhasa. Even though the calls didn’t stop the Chinese government, the protest itself demonstrated what an awful regime they are.

Another matter Elliot was involved in was the film “Duihua” (《对话》) produced by the independent Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Wo (王我), completed in March this year [i.e. 2014]. It’s a documentary about Tibet, Xinjiang, and related ethnic minority issues, and features a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a number of Chinese intellectuals over the internet, as well as a dialogue with Wang Lixiong about his thinking on the question of minorities in China. Elliot not only helped review the subtitles, but organized the premier at Indiana University.



The ruins of the Ganden Monastery. Photo by Sperling via Woeser.


Ganden monastery Another time, Elliot’s daughter, C., came to Beijing. She is really a beauty; anyone who set eyes on her would agree. And Elliot knew it, so he would, with a big grin on his face, say in Tibetan: “Like daughter, like father.” I’d assume a dubious expression and give him a little smack.

Actually, Elliot’s Bohemian style as a youth was indeed rather winsome. And even though these days, from all appearances any residual hippiness has been successful transformed into the air of a scholar, I’ve always felt that there was still a bit of hippie left inside. If it were otherwise, he wouldn’t have gone last summer to a Mexican restaurant with myself and two other Tibetans, and end up drinking so much that we wound up weeping maudlinly on one another’s shoulders. When Wang Lixiong heard that one he laughed and exclaimed: Sperling really is a hippie! He went out on a bender with you guys, half his age!

I really like his daughter — and not just because she’s beautiful. It’s also because in the spring of 1995, when Elliot brought the 7-year-old C. to Lhasa (he went a total of eight times, the last occasion in 2004), he taught her the Tibetan sentence: “Bod Kyi Dhak po bod mi yin [meaning “Tibet belongs to Tibetans.”] And so, whether she was visiting the Potala Palace whose true owners have in exile for decades, or paying homage to the ruins of the Ganden monastery destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, this little angel would, whenever she saw a monk, an elderly person or woman on pilgrimage, call out in her clear and crisp voice: “Bod Kyi Dhak po bod mi yin” Tibetans hearing her were astonished, and many were moved to tears. The first time I heard this story, I also nearly cried.


I thought that we’d see each other again this summer. In anticipation, I had bought two books on Amazon: “Hope Against Hope: A Memoir,” by Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip Mandelstam’s wife, and “Record of a Search for the Dharma in the Land of Snows: A Chinese Lama’s Oral History.” These were presents for a man who seemed to love books like his life depended on it. I also planned to take him to another Tibetan restaurant to try some truly Tibetan gourmet cuisine.

In June, when Wang Lixiong and I were traveling in southern Mongolia, Elliot sent a note that he’d received his visa without any problems. This really was a surprise, given that so many Tibet scholars, sinologists, and Xinjiang scholars, among others, have had their visas rejected for expressing views opposed to those of the Chinese government. Could it be that Elliot Sperling was a target of the communist party’s United Front work?

In the end, it wasn’t to be. In the afternoon of July 5, he arrived at the Beijing Capital International Airport after a 14-hour flight, and was not only denied entry to the country, but was forced into a small room by police, where he was photographed, interrogated, prevented from using his cell phone, followed to the toilet, detained for 90 minutes, and then put on the next flight back home. The following day when I saw him on Skype, ensconced again in his New York apartment like he’d never gone anywhere, it felt surreal.

Aside from the time and effort that had been simply wasted, just the visa and the plane ticket probably cost nearly $2,000. Was the Chinese government deliberately messing him around? Elliot, though, found time for humor. He held up the visa with a big black X through it and said: “Congratulate Elliot Sperling for receiving the Chinese Communist Party Human Rights Award!”

For my part, I was indignant. When I exposed the incident on my blog and on Twitter, media took note. The New York Times interviewed Elliot and quoted him saying: “I had a pretty clear notion about why I was being denied entry. For me, it was clearly about Ilham…. [It’s an] attempt to pressure those who speak in support of Ilham to retreat into silence, or at least to isolate them.” As for whether he would be able to come to China in the future, Elliot simply said: “I have done nothing wrong… and have no intention of conforming to authoritarian norms for the sake of a visa.”

Wang Lixiong said to me: “It looks like you two will only be able to meet on Skype in future.”


July 13, 2014



Articles by Elliot Sperling on Rangzen Alliance website:

Self Delusion, criticism of the Middle Way policy of the Tibetan exile government, Aug 12, 2014.

The Body Count, mass killings in Tibet in 1958, Sep 14, 2012.

Freedom and Independence…and Language, Nov 1, 2011.


原文《唯色:记埃利亚特·史伯岭》, translated from Chinese by China Change.




Is The Dalai Lama A Separatist?

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.




Faith in Addition to Face – To Facebook, Inc.

By Tsering Woeser, published: December 30, 2014


On December 26, 2014, I reposted on my Facebook page a video of Tibetan Buddhist monk Kalsang Yeshe’s self-immolation that occurred on December 23 [in Tawu county, Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, China], accompanied by an excerpted report explaining that self-immolation is a tragic, ultimate protest against repression. A few hours later, my post was deleted by the Facebook administrator. I was rather shocked when a Facebook notice of deletion leapt out on screen, which I tweeted right away with the thought, “It’s been more than six years since I joined Facebook in 2008, and this is the first time my post was deleted! Does FB also have ‘little secretaries?’”

Facebook's deletion notice.

Facebook’s deletion notice. Click to enlarge.

“Little Secretaries” refer to censors hired by Weibo, the Twitter-like microblog in China, and their job is to delete posts that are deemed “politically sensitive.” In China, that means content not welcomed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. As the government’s foot soldiers to suppress expression, the Little Secretaries are roundly loathed by Chinese Internet users and regarded as enemies of freedom. In China, my posts had been constantly subjected to censorship on domestic social media platforms that took orders from the Party’s propaganda department, to the point that my accounts were repeatedly removed altogether. To avoid censorship, I took the trouble, like many Chinese netizens, to scale the Great Fire Wall to visit websites outside of China, including Facebook. You can very well imagine then my moment of disbelief when I realized that Facebook had censored my post: Have Big Brother and his Little Secretaries taken over the world?

The incident attracted a lot of attention. It made rounds in Twitter’s Chinese community; media outlets such as the Voice of America and the New York Times reported on it. Today, VOA’s Chinese website published Facebook’s response:

Facebook has long been a place where people share things and experiences. Sometimes, those experiences involve violence and graphic videos. We work hard to balance expression and safety. However, since some people object to graphic videos, we are working to give people additional control over the content they see. This may include warning them in advance that the image they are about to see contains graphic content. We do not currently have these tools available and as a result we have removed this content.

Kalsang Yeshe (Credit: RFA)

Kalsang Yeshe (Credit: RFA)

The VOA report also said that, “a Facebook employee familiar with operational details at Facebook who prefers to remain anonymous told VOA on December 27 that Woeser’s post was reported by users but the number of users who reported the post cannot be revealed to the media out of consideration for protecting sources. He said that Facebook evaluates a post even if it is reported by only one user. He iterated that the post was deleted because of graphic content, not out of political motivation.” The VOA report further reported that, “In response to what Woeser pointed out, that Facebook allowed video of ISIS executions of hostages, the anonymous Facebook employee said the ISIS video didn’t show the moment of beheading. He said that he believes Woeser could re-post the video on Facebook if she excises it.”

While I appreciate Facebook’s response, as censors in China never bothered to answer my inquiries, it has not expelled all my questions.

This particular self-immolation occurred outside a police post. Whoever videotaped it took great risk to do so. Anyone involved in taping, photographing or disseminating videos or photos of self-immolation, once caught, would face severe punishment. Over a hundred Tibetans have been imprisoned for these acts. Tibetans who burn themselves to death are not seeking death for their own sake but to call attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. They die so that the Tibetans as a people may live in dignity. Those who took tremendous risk to videotape the self-immolation and to upload it online know perfectly that such videos will not be able to spread on Chinese websites, and they must be posted on websites in free societies such as Facebook for the world to see. When Facebook decides to delete the video to get rid of “graphic content,” it renders the sacrifice of the self-immolator and the risk taken by the videographer as nothing. Is that what Facebook wants to accomplish?

It seems that Facebook defends its deletion of my post from a professional, technical and neutral point of view. My question is, if the self-immolation video I posted is deemed “graphic,” what about the photo of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc burning himself to death in 1963 in protest of government persecution that was widely published in papers worldwide? Similarly, photos of exiled Tibetan Jamphel Yeshi running down a New Delhi street on March 26, 2012, during Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to India, were also widely published and viewed. Should these photos be censored too for being “graphic”? What could be more graphic than terrorists crashing airplanes into the World Trade Towers and victims jumping out of windows of the skyscrapers? In all the cases here, the very “graphicness” bespeaks the evil and the terror, and it calls for a moral response.

Western democracies have recently resolved to strike ISIS, and the public support for this is largely the result of the Jihadist videos of beheading hostages that have been disseminated online. Facebook defended its inclusion of these beheading videos which it claims do not show the graphic moment of beheading. But I, for one, saw videos of the beheading moment on Facebook. I even saw footage of the executioners putting the severed head on the torso of the dead. Even with a video without the moment of beheading, does it not “involve violence” and is it therefore not “graphic?” Terrorists want to terrify people, but instead, they have rallied the world to eradicate them.

If Facebook, out of professionalism, deletes content about dark realities and makes them go away from in front of our eyes, is it making “each Facebook user safely communicate with each other and with the world” as it claims? The fact of the matter is, such self-imposed blindness will only numb the mind and feelings, emboldening, even encouraging the evil.

It is not enough for Facebook to have Face; it must also have Faith. When evaluating content, it should not be content to skim over the mere surface. It must see and understand the meaning and value of an image. When professing neutrality, I hope Facebook remembers the words of Jewish writer and Nobelist Elie Wiesel: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

When I discussed the matter with friends, they thought, by limiting my questioning of Facebook to whether technical neutrality helps or hinders justice, I am in essence accepting Facebook’s claim that the deletion of my post was not politically motivated. They think that the incident is not as simple as that, and that I need to question whether Facebook was trying to curry favor with Beijing. On Facebook, videos of Tibetan self-immolations have not been censored before, and my friends argued that we have reason to worry that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is compromising on defending users’ freedom of expression as he seeks China’s permission to allow Facebook in China, given that he visited Beijing two months ago and met with high-ranking Chinese officials, and that a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Zuckerberg received Lu Wei, China’s Internet czar in Facebook’s headquarters where he ingratiated himself to his guest by showing that he and his employees were reading Xi Jinping’s writings to learn about China.

This chain of logic, should it really exist, shows how dictatorial power can directly limit freedom of expression in the free world through indirect manipulation. This is what’s most sinister and what the liberal democracies need to be vigilant about.

December 28, 2014, Beijing.



Tsering Woeser

Tsering Woeser

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


(Translated by China Change)

Chinese original




By Xu Zhiyong

Earlier this month, the New York Times published an essay by Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) titled Tibet Is Burning. It was a pared-down version of the following translation that I did. Dr. Xu is the founder of Gongmeng (公盟), or Open Constitution Initiative, a NGO based in Beijing that provides legal assistance to the disempowered and politically persecuted. For much of the year, his freedom of movement was limited because the Chinese government is vigilant about his push for civil actions such as equal education rights movement. He visited Ngaba in October during a short period of freedom. –Yaxue

After spending the night in Chogtse Laird’s Castle (卓克基土司官寨) township, I took a cab in the early morning to Barkam (马尔康), the capital of Ngaba, or Aba, Prefecture (阿坝). Along G317, the main thoroughfare across town, stood brand new buildings with Tibetan-themed windows. But that was about the only thing Tibetan about them: the interior and the speed with which they had been erected were the same as elsewhere in China. You could see such new towns in almost every Tibetan area, likely a new round of development after the March 14th unrest in 2008.

In Barkam, I got on a bus to Zamthang (壤塘). I was going there to look for the home of a young man named Nangdrol (朗卓).

Almost all of the passengers were Tibetans. Half of them wore ethnic clothes, others dressed just like me, and a girl in jeans told me she was a nurse in Barkam. A crowd of two dozen or so from Qinghai was on their way to worship Chenrezig (观音), goddess of compassion.

Ngaba, along with Golok in Qinghai (青海果洛) and southern Gansu province (甘肃南部), are traditionally the Amdo Tibetan region. I first visited the plateau 21 years ago with college friends from Lanzhou University. In Labrang Monastery in Xiahe (夏河拉卜楞寺), we met a young lama with a Chinese name Chen Lai. “Our tulku suffers great pain and humiliation,” he told us. Back then it at least looked peaceful, but now, sad news keeps arriving.

The bus passed by large, roadside billboards for China Unicom. A robed, dark skinned young man smiled to me after talking on his cellphone. From his scruffy look, I could tell he came from a herding community. He reminded me of my stop in Ngaba in 1990s on an aborted journey to Tibet. Having crossed the Erlang Mountains, the great pastureland suddenly came into sight, a sea of flowers, colors and fragrances. Beyond, a rich brown, not green, extended all the way to the horizons. Fortunately for us, the bus broke down midway, and the enthralled passengers dashed to the meadow under the curious watch of fat moles on the roadside. That was the Ngaba I remembered, and for me, that was the eternal Ngaba.

The young lama next to me was from a monastery in Hongyuan County. He had accompanied his mother to Barkam for treatment, and, taking the opportunity, he was visiting Chenrezig too. He invited me to visit his monastery. Passing by a checkpoint where a red banner read, “Stability Maintenance Calls for Fast Response to Emergencies,” the young lama said he hated the sight of armed soldiers as he struck a gun-toting pose.

Zamthang is a county in Ngaba prefecture with a population of over 30,000 Tibetans in 6,000 square kilometers of meadows and gorges. The county seat resembled a small township in interior China where the government building commanded the view and small eateries and shops lined the two streets. The biggest monastery, situated in Barma township (中壤塘乡), was about 50 kilometers to the east in a basin.

Because of a road closure due to construction, I didn’t leave for Barma until seven o’clock in the evening in a brand new Chang’an economy car on which I had hitched a ride earlier. The driver, also the owner, a 24-year-old young man named Sonam, had just bought the car days ago in Chengdu. We had agreed on a charge of 100 yuan for my ride.

I was Sonam’s third passenger, the other two being two young Tibetans going to Nanmuda  township (南木达乡). Are you Buddhist followers? I asked them. They were. One of them took out a pendulum portrait of the Dalai Lama from his chest and asked if I knew who he was. He is our true Holiness, he said.

Have you…… heard about the…… self-immolations? Like, burning oneself? I finally breached the topic.

We know, they said.

A mix of snow and rain had begun to fall. Hail beat against the windows.

Pardon me, but do you hate the Hans? Do you? I asked them because Nangdrol used the word “Han devils” in his death note before he set himself on fire here in Barma.

Do you happen to know Nangdrol? He’s a 18-year-old young man who self-immolated. I want to visit his parents…..I am so sorry.

Surprised, my fellow travelers became friendly. They said they had been to the site as many Tibetans had. People set up white tents at the intersection where he had self-immolated. Many, many Tibetans, hundreds and thousands of them, came. He is our hero.

Thank you for trusting me. Thank you.

It was completely dark when we arrived in Barma township. At a lamppost, Sonam got off to ask a middle-aged man for directions. The latter waved his hand to signal no. So did the next few people Sonam asked. At an intersection, he asked two men on motorcycles, and the three seemed to break into an argument. A lama came to the window to examine me. “Sorry,” Sonam returned, “they scolded me for taking you here.”

A minivan approached us. Two men jumped out of it and upbraided Sonam indignantly. Fear and hostility shrouded the place like night. In silence, we left Barma township.

“We are Tibetans,” Sonam started all of a sudden. “We are Buddhists, but we can’t go to Lhasa.”

I knew. These days Tibetans have to obtain permission to go to Lhasa. Years ago in Golmud (格尔木), I had seen many of them on their prostrating pilgrimage to Lhasa, but not anymore. Since the self-immolation in Lhasa last year, they had not been able to go on pilgrimages.

I spent the night in Nanmuda, in a small lodging called “Pengzhou Hotel” run by a Chinese. It rained again. I tossed to and fro and had a high-altitude headache. I regretted having sent Sonam for directions—I should have faced those angry Tibetans myself.

The next day was a beautiful autumn day in the valley. The gilt roof of a magnificent temple pointed to a blue sky dappled with clouds, colorful sutra streamers fluttered above green meadows, and the air brought sutra chants from afar. I went back to Barma in a cab.

In Zamthang Monastery, crimson cloaked lamas were having their morning session in the main hall. I waited outside until a young lama—he couldn’t have been more than 20 years old—passed by to fetch water. He took me to the adjoining hall where a middle-aged lama sat cross-legged in a corner.

Do you have Nangdrol’s photo?

Sorry I don’t have it with me.

Then I can’t help you.

A teen lama offered that there was a Nangdrol among the second-grade Buddhism students, but asking several second-graders nearby, no one knew about any self-immolators.

Asking passersby, they didn’t know or merely shook their heads. An old Tibetan woman took me to the construction site next to the monastery where another monastery was being built to no avail.

In the elementary school near the monastery I asked an armed soldier guarding the gate where the secondary school was. Online reports said that Nangdrol was a student. The soldier suggested that I check out the nearby compound where a Chinese flag flew. Inside the school yard there were soldiers in fatigues.

“There is no secondary school here,” people told me.

The road back to Zamthang was open only for an hour from midday to one o’clock. I had to leave. Along a creek, a row of poplars basked in the golden sun, and a group of young lamas in crimson robes were holding a session. Reluctantly I climbed into a cab, trying to remember my last view of Barma. I had been to many places over the years but never felt so lost.

A mile or so down the road, we passed by a village on a slope. I stopped the driver and begged him to wait for me—for half an hour at most. In the little roadside shop, the owner hesitated to answer my inquiry. “I don’t want to leave like this,” I pleaded. Finally he told me that Nangdrol’s home was right behind the old school near his shop. Up on the slope, an old couple pointed to a house not far away. Over there, the old woman said, he was a good boy.

It was a small, mud-plastered house enclosed in mud-brick walls, similar to those found in the countryside of Gansu province. Near one side of the walls stood five tall sutra streamers, the tallest in the village.

The iron gate was locked. I prayed, my head dropping low. Nangdrol, I love you.

Perhaps his parents would emerge from behind the gate, and accept me on my knees. Perhaps they would drive me away angrily, like the old woman did by the celestial burial platform in Lhasa years ago. But I would not leave; I would take it and take everything. I would tell them I am sorry, and this is a place I have come many times……

A middle-aged woman and a boy passed by. She said she knew Nangdrol and he was the most handsome young man in Barma. His parents live in a faraway cattle farm, he also grew up there, and sometimes you could see him on his motorcycle. That day, he wore new clothes, freshly bathed, new from top to bottom, with a fresh haircut too. He wore a pair of glasses that day, asking people, “Am I handsome? Am I?” Then he came to the intersection. Then he……

I don’t hate Han Chinese, she said, we are a peace-loving people, and we would rather endure our pain.

He raised his hands over his head, the boy said, with palms pressed together, kneeling down. He did this six times.

He was only 18 years old. Around noon on February 19, 2012, Nangdrol set himself on fire at the intersection near the Zamthang Monastery. In a note left behind, he said, “Raise your unyielding head, for the dignity of Nangdrol. My loving parents, brothers and relatives, I am leaving this world. I am going to set myself on fire for the benefit all Tibetans……I pray the Tibetan people’s liberation from the Han Devils. Under the rule of the Han Devils there has been immense suffering, and it is unbearable. The Han Devils have invaded Tibet and seized Tibetans. It is impossible to live under their evil law, impossible to bear this torture that leaves no scars. The Han Devils, having no love and compassion, and they destroy Tibetan lives. I pray for the long life of (Gyalwa Tenzin Gyatso) his Holiness the Dalai Lama!”

Over the last three years, more than 70 Tibetan monks and laypersons self-immolated, more than 40 of them from Ngaba. Everywhere on this plateau, the scarless torture continues.

I don’t know how else to express my sorrow. I gave 500 yuan to the woman and asked her to give it to Nangdrol’s parents, letting them know that a Chinese had been here.

I am sorry, Nangdrol, we are mute as you and your fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom. I am sorry that we have too many inhibitions. The Hans are a cursed people, victims themselves, living in estrangement, infighting, hatred and destruction. Nangdrol, I love the cities and villages to the east as well as this beautiful plateau, your homeland. I hope that, when this land is free one day, your people will enjoy the cities, plains and coasts where I have lived. We share this land. It’s our shared home, our shared responsibility, and it will be our shared deliverance.

While we’re on the issue of sovereignty, let’s talk about Tibet

The other day, I highlighted China’s argument for why it should be considered the rightful owner of the Diaoyu Islands – in short:

  • Military aggression should not be rewarded with new territorial claims
  • Treaties signed under duress should not be acknowledged
  • Historical claims should be the major determining factor in ownership, giving special priority to “first come, first serve”
  • Claims made by other gov’ts on land that is already being administered by another power are “illegal”

So, while we’re on the issue of sovereignty, let’s take a look at why China claims Tibet as its territory (according to the somewhat misnamed site,

The peaceful liberation in May 1951 freed Tibetans from the fetters of imperialistic encroachment to enter a new epoch. Certain members of the ruling class, however, were unwilling to acknowledge the trend of historical development and dreamed to preserve serfdom. In March 1959 they started an armed rebellion intended to fragment the country. The central government, under the approbation and support of the Tibetan people, took decisive measures to disbanded local government of old Tibet and suppress the rebels and at the same time carryout democratic reforms in Tibet…

Or in other words, the Chinese military forced Tibetans to sign an unequal treaty, giving the Chinese rule over a land that prior to China’s claim had been settled first by an independent people. Even by the Chinese account, Tibet had an independent gov’t as recently as 1959, where as the last time China administered the Diaoyu islands was 1895.

So, given the similar nature of these claims, one might expect for the protests made by Tibetans to be treated with the same understanding and support as protests against Japan made by Han Chinese.

This was Beijinger’s protest against Japan last week (credit to Sinostand for the pics):

And here is how authorities responded to protests for a free Tibet (these pictures are mild compared to what reports from Tibetan groups suggest have happened in other confrontations)

Now a Chinese Nationalist might be encouraged to argue that the protests in Tibet were cracked down on because of their violent nature.

A Toyota dealership set on fire as a part of Anti-Japanese protests

And that the Central gov’t should not listen to “foreign forces” (Tibetans in exile), even though Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said of the recent protests,

“Whether the Japanese side takes seriously China’s position, listening to the just appeal of the Chinese public and adopting correct attitude and actions, will affect the development of the situation,”

Now, I know that it is not surprising for China (or any country) to hold one set of ideas for a foreign country, and another for themselves, but perhaps the next time the issue of the Diaoyu Islands comes up with your angry Chinese friend, you can tell them you completely agree, and then ask them to fight for a Tibetan sovereignty with their new found passion for “indisputable facts” and international law.

Out of control gov’t official abuses power – a very generic post

On return from more than a week on the road, I caught up with my China news and found it all to be a bit…predictable. In response I’ve created the following template that seems to exist somewhere to save all of you time.

A gov’t official (or family member of an official) was caught abusing their power by murdering/embezzling/forcing farmers off their land/covering up a scandal for a company in X province. The story first appeared on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, late last week and built to a crescendo over the weekend.

SomeGuyWithACamera posted pictures of an angry crowd ranging between dozens and thousands, which were deleted within 24 hours by censors. Calls to the local gov’t went unanswered. A man from the gov’t in the neighboring district said that, “The foreign forces conspiring to bring down China,” had organized this protest in co-operation with the Dalai Lama, he only gave his surname – Wang.

On Weibo there was a wide variety of reactions. ImAngry tweeted, “Gov’t officials are always abusing their power while they claim to be serving the people.” A very different response came later from PossiblyWuMao saying, “Gov’t officials only have our best interests at heart and we shouldn’t expect them to stop at red lights/refuse invitations to expensive dinners/not flee overseas with embezzled money.”

I could go on, but I think you get my point. After several years of consuming almost every scrap of Chinese news, the narrative has gotten stale. The idea that seems to be behind these cases is that Weibo is a tool for ensuring justice in an unjust country, and that the Chinese gov’t is slowly reforming.

As an American, I am lured to this reading, as it reflects my own desire to see the Chinese people taking control over their country. However, we have yet to see a meaningful clean up in gov’t as a result of the widespread abuses we learn of on a daily basis. As much as I hate to say it, Weibo is at best a band-aid or a safety valve – not a source of meaningful reform. If it were, we would be seeing aggressive legislation and an easing of the limits placed on Chinese journalists instead of GT fluff pieces about acceptable levels of graft.

I don’t mean to say that Weibo is fruitless, it has enabled us to get a much bigger picture of what is happening in China, but it is still a carefully managed virtual world with very real boundaries. As a friend in Chengdu told me, he had seen reports of a self-immolation near his home (unrelated to Tibet) and within fifteen minutes of stumbling across the story it had completely disappeared, far too quickly to be picked up by foreign media or anyone else.

Weibo gives a voice to individual Chinese people, but does not allow for a collective voice to call for change. As was noted in a recent study, most criticisms of the gov’t survive censorship while posts relating to organizing much of anything are quickly deleted.

My fear is that in an effort to show the growth of people power in China, we’ve created an image of a  country that is reforming while officials are allowed to bend laws for their own needs and the gov’t shies away from anything that might someday curb their power. Instead of portraying Weibo as the hero of the tales we tell, it would be a better use of ink (and bandwidth) to focus more closely on the groups and individuals pushing for change.