Repression in Tibet Remains Shrouded in Opacity

In recent weeks, Tibet-focused media outlets have reported that Tsewang Norbu, a popular young singer, died after self-immolating in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. CDT was unable to independently confirm the reports and there has been no official announcement regarding his death.  The singer’s Weibo account, which boasts nearly 600,000 followers, is currently suspended. A notice appended to the account reads: “The user is currently suspended for violating relevant laws and regulations.” The comment sections on all his posts have been locked by Weibo and a chat room-style hashtag dedicated to the singer has also been deleted from the platform. However, the singer’s name still returns search results, among them posts mourning his loss and subtly referencing reports of self-immolation.

The difficulty in confirming Tsewang Norbu’s death and its circumstances stems in part from the severe restrictions the Chinese government places on international journalists’ access to the region. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China noted in its annual report that all four journalists who applied for access to the Tibet Autonomous Region had their applications denied. Tibet remains one of China’s least accessible regions. The U.S.-based think tank Freedom House ranked Tibet the least free region in the world. At South China Morning Post last week, Owen Churchill detailed a U.S. State Department assessment that found diplomats and journalists were systematically denied access to Tibet

The obstacles, the report alleged, included harassment of US journalists, the stonewalling of diplomats’ engagements with locals in Tibetan areas outside Tibet, and the refusal by the Chinese government to greenlight any visits to Tibet by the US chargé d’affaires at its Beijing embassy.

In one incident, a US diplomat reported being blocked from boarding a plane during a personal trip to a Tibetan prefecture – referring to one of the areas outside Tibet that are home to large populations of ethnic Tibetans. Another was prevented from accessing a prefecture on a cycling tour.

[…] Those [members of the press] who were selected for [Chinese government-organized tours of Tibet] were “closely watched and prevented from visiting locations or meeting people other than those presented by [Chinese] officials hosting the tour”, the State Department said. [Source]

In February, Associated Press correspondents Dake Kang and Sam McNeil reported on the state of society in Tibet; during the course of their reporting, Kang was deported from a Tibetan region of Sichuan

Why have Tibetans seemingly acceded to Chinese rule after centuries of self-governance and decades of fervent protest and civil disobedience? The answer, based on interviews with more than a dozen Tibetans inside and outside of China, is that in many ways Beijing’s plan to tame Tibet is working.

[…] Such efforts have helped win support from some young Tibetans, said one Tibetan from a poor, rural part of the plateau, who agreed to speak anonymously in order to be candid. Generational rifts are emerging, as memories of an independent Tibet recede into the past and young urban Tibetans adopt Han Chinese manners and attitudes.

[…] “I am a true Tibetan, and at the same time I am also a true Chinese,” said Kunchok Dolma, 28, a Tibetan in Chengdu who is a devout Buddhist and also teaches modern dance in flawless Mandarin. “There’s no conflict between these things.”

She is bothered that Tibetans can no longer obtain passports, by job postings that openly bar Tibetans from applying, and by restrictions on travel to Lhasa. But, given the region’s troubled past, she largely accepts state policy as being for the greater good. [Source]

The Tibetan language is in particular danger. Both Tibetan and Uyghur were reportedly removed from the language learning application Talkmate and banned from the video streaming site Bilibili in late 2021. Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan language activist, was released from prison into likely house arrest in early 2021 after spending five years in prison on “ethnic separatism” charges for speaking to The New York Times about his language-education activism. In December, James Griffiths of The Globe and Mail wrote about a system of assimilationist boarding schools that threaten to strip Tibetan children of their cultural and linguistic heritage

While boarding schools for Tibetan children have been promoted by the state for decades, the scale of the system and its growth since 2008 have not been previously reported. The Tibet Action Institute drew on official data to estimate that 806,218 Tibetans between the ages of 6 and 18 currently attend a boarding school – 78 percent of the 1,039,370 children attending school in Tibetan regions.

[…] One Tibetan who attended one of those schools – whom The Globe and Mail is identifying by the pseudonym Tenzin so he could speak freely, without concern for his family back in Tibet – said that while instruction was still largely in a Tibetan language, “the content of what we studied was almost all Chinese.

[…] “When you are cut off from your language and culture and history, you lose a sense of who you are, and eventually it feels like you’re losing the very fabric of your humanity,” he said. “You don’t feel complete.”

[…] Officials in Sichuan recently published a “10-year action plan for educational development in ethnic minority regions,” which calls on local governments to “advance the boarding school system” with the aim of increasing capacity to 820,000 students by 2030. [Source]

An op-ed published in the state news tabloid Global Times in February of this year accused Canada of “projecting” its own “genocide” against indigenous communities onto China. “Canada is the legacy of imperialism and genocide masked with a smiling face,” the opinion piece alleged. Such criticism is far from original: The Tibet Action Institute report on which The Globe and Mail based its report draws an explicit connection between North American residential schools and the Tibetan boarding school system. As the report states: “There is strong evidence that the colonial boarding school system for Tibetans is designed to achieve the same end as the residential school systems in Canada and the United States, and the state-run training schools and institutions for the ‘Stolen Generations’ of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families in Australia.”

Meanwhile, the long-running tension between Chinese authorities and Tibet sympathizers in Hollywood has continued with the removal of actor Keanu Reeves’ films from the Chinese internet after he performed at a benefit concert for charity Tibet House US in early March. Reeves was once a darling of the Chinese film scene. He filmed his directorial debut, “Man of Tai Chi,” in China with backing from the state-run China Film Group—although not without running into censorship issues. A scene depicting underground fighting and police corruption had to be shot in Hong Kong because, as Reeves told a Canadian interviewer, “In Beijing there’s no underground fighting. And there’s no corrupt police officers.” Now, he has been scrubbed from the internet in seeming retaliation for performing in a benefit concert for Tibet House US.

Hollywood movie studios and actors often self-censor in order to avoid such fates. References to Tibet are often scrubbed from American films hoping to secure Chinese theatrical releases: examples include “World War Z,” which excised a note mentioning that Lhasa was the last zombie-free city, and Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” which re-envisioned a Tibetan character as a Celtic woman played by Tilda Swinton. At The Los Angeles Times, Rebecca Davis reported on Keanu Reeves’ erasure from the Chinese internet shortly after his film “The Matrix: Resurrections” became the first Hollywood film to be released in Chinese theaters in months

Last Monday, China’s major streamers removed the vast majority of Reeves’ filmography from their sites and wiped search results related to his name in Chinese — the cumbersome transliteration “Jinu Liweisi.”

[…] ​​At least 19 films starring Reeves were removed from the Tencent Video platform, while all but one — “Toy Story 4” — were removed from other top streamers Youku and Migu Video. Sites like Bilibili and Xigua Video also saw purges. Though “Toy Story 4,” which features Reeves as the voice of motorcycle-riding stuntman Duke Caboom, remains online, its credits are unusual: They unfurl in English except for the voice cast, which alone switches over to Chinese and lists only the local dubbing cast, avoiding any mention of Reeves’ name.

[…] “It’s a curious case that’s worth following. We tend to think of the censorship machine in China as this really coordinated monster, but the fact that we’re seeing these conflicting signals [between the online and theatrical markets] suggests that some of these measures come from different places,” said Alex Yu, a researcher at China Digital Times, a U.S.-based news organization that translates and archives content censored in China. [Source]


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