Interview: Tenzin Norgay on the State of Surveillance and Propaganda in Tibet Today

In the latest installment in our interview series focusing on Tibet, we talk to Tenzin Norgay, a Research Analyst at the International Campaign for Tibet, where he has written reports on surveillance, propaganda, and the political leadership of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. He previously worked at the Tibet Policy Institute and the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, both based in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Tufts University, where he wrote his dissertation on “Self-Determination: The Case of Tibet.” He recently answered questions from CDT via email about the challenges of gathering information from within Tibet since 2008, and the current state of government surveillance and propaganda in the region. The interview has been lightly edited for grammar and punctuation.

Tenzin Norgay

China Digital Times: During the 2008 uprising in Tibet, you were working for the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala. Can you talk a little bit about what your work was like at that time, when you were receiving and confirming reports of protests and other actions from inside Tibet?  

Tenzin Norgay: The 2008 spring uprising was 15 years ago, but it still feels like yesterday. A lot was going on that spring. We were overwhelmed by the information we were receiving then. It was hard to keep track of everything, although we worked late into the night. We would return home from the office well past midnight for several weeks. A lot of media were interested in the Tibet story, and a lot of journalists arrived in Dharamsala to cover the Tibet story on the ground as it was very difficult to report inside Tibet. We received reports of protests in Tibet directly from Tibet as well as from Tibetans in the diaspora who had learned from their family members or relatives in Tibet. I remember receiving quite a lot of phone calls from Tibet directly on our office telephone, which was quite unusual. When we asked the callers if they were at risk calling us directly, the callers would tell us not to worry as the phone number belonged to a protester who had died during the protests. Everyone knows that telephone calls are monitored, especially calls to a human rights organization like us. But then people were creative in finding a workaround for the surveillance. Even if the authorities found out that phone calls were made to us, their investigation would have led to a protester who their forces had shot dead during a protest.    

CDT: How has the work of gathering information from Tibet changed since 2008? Without revealing any sources or putting anyone in danger, can you explain how you are able to confirm facts and accounts about what is happening inside Tibet?   

TN: A lot has changed since 2008. Gathering information from Tibet has become so much harder. It’s become a huge challenge to confirm the facts of what is happening inside Tibet. It is a well-known fact that the Chinese government has a very sophisticated surveillance network in Tibet. But then there are ways around that surveillance. I will not describe how we are able to have communications with the Tibetans in Tibet, as that would give away our work strategies. All I can say is that communication is very challenging, but it is still possible through creative means on a small scale.  

CDT: How do you identify and counter disinformation and propaganda that is coming out about Tibet?  

TN: Propaganda, or the sugarcoated term “publicity,” is a hallmark activity of the Communist Party of China. I would not trivialize CCP propaganda. It is evil and very powerful. Chinese propaganda is no longer raw or crude. It is sophisticated. In the past, it was very easy for all to see propaganda as it is. But in the last decade or so, Chinese propaganda has become sophisticated. Inside Tibet, propaganda is still quite crude, but they know that rinse-and-repeating it conditions people to believe it as the truth over the long term, especially in a black box where other sources of information are blocked off. After all, Mao himself said that telling a lie a thousand times makes it the truth.  

The challenge for the CCP is doing its propaganda work in the external environment. They still rely on old tricks from the playbook. I observed how methodically they tried to push their propaganda point that COVID-19 originated in the United States to counter the global finger-pointing blaming Wuhan as the origin of COVID-19. On Tibet, the CCP have scaled up their propaganda through Chinese global media like CGTN and global social media like Twitter (now X). They may not have gotten their propaganda point across, but it certainly is stifling the debate on all issues. If we look at the recent disinformation incident on His Holiness the Dalai Lama and how an innocent interaction with an Indian boy is manipulated, it was first cooked up and spread far and wide on the global social media. Except for a few, most would not care to research and try to find out the truth in a fast-paced world.  It was a huge propaganda win for the CCP.  

Some preach countering propaganda with propaganda. But that is the wrong approach in my opinion. The best strategy to counter propaganda is to present your own views against Chinese propaganda and educate others on Tibet and let others make their own judgment. We cannot counter Chinese propaganda scale to scale. We simply do not have the resources to do that. But we have the truth and that can sustain the Tibetan movement.  

CDT: You have reported that in late 2022, when anti-COVID lockdown protests broke out in China following the fire in an apartment building in Xinjiang, Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) didn’t know about what was happening in China but that they noticed a sudden increase in surveillance. Can you describe what was happening inside Tibet during that time? 

TN: The white paper movement had started in China. Ordinary Chinese were fed up with the nonsense that the Chinese government was putting them through in the name of containing COVID-19. One after the other Chinese cities rose up and showed their anger against the unending restrictions in their lives due to COVID lockdowns. The CCP took note of that anger and ended the so-called zero-COVID policy lest the Chinese people wage a full-scale revolution against the CCP. The powerful CCP had no choice but to listen to the voices of the ordinary Chinese people. 

But the anger, frustrations and grievances shown by Tibetans are dealt with differently by the CCP. They don’t care about the Tibetan voices and immediately sweep it under the carpet as “separatist” sentiment and launch multifaceted campaigns to control their lives even tighter. That is exactly what happened after the 2008 spring uprising in Tibet. With the round-the-clock surveillance and creation of Tibet as a black box, Tibetans don’t have access to information about what is happening in China, let alone globally. The only information that reaches their ears is through Chinese state media and public notices issued by the authorities. State media and the authorities certainly would not tell the Tibetans that Chinese cities are fed up with zero-COVID lockdown and are revolting against the policy. Since there are no independent news providers, Tibetans do not know the latest developments in China. Even if they come to learn about it, it would be after weeks, months or even years. Very few Tibetans know how to use a VPN to jump the Great Firewall. When the Chinese people were rising up in the Chinese cities, the authorities were stepping up their measures in Tibet with extra security to thwart any solidarity protest despite all the controls against free flow of information. Except for a few Tibetans, most were unaware of the developments in China, but they were seeing extra security and they could feel that something was going wrong for the Party.  

CDT: Recently there has been a move by several members of Congress asking the U.S. government to impose export controls on technologies used in DNA and other biometric data collection in Tibet, specifically by Thermo Fisher Scientific. Mass DNA collection has been reported even of children in kindergartens, and without the right to refusal. What are your main concerns about how the Chinese government may use this data and how it may impact Tibetan people? 

TN: As of now, the evidence shows that mass DNA collection work is being carried out by the police in both the officially designated Tibet Autonomous Region and the Tibetan areas outside the region. Just because it is being carried out by the police is concerning. Why should the police be collecting DNA of millions of Tibetans in the first place? It shows that the entire Tibetan population is being treated as criminals. The bigger concern is how this mass DNA collection will be used in the future.  What are the CCP projects that the DNA datasets will be connected to and for what reason? I suspect the bigger goal might be to prove Tibetans as Chinese through “scientific evidence.” This concern may sound outlandish but only time will tell us what the goal is. In the short term, I can imagine the DNA data is being used in all kinds of public security bureau work. Ordinary Chinese and certainly the global population might think this does not impact them directly. This is true to some extent in the short term. But norms are being changed slowly and they will feel the impact in their lives in the form of new norms where it is OK for authorities to collect DNA on a large scale. This is how authoritarian diseases spread slowly like cancer.  

CDT: In a report CDT issued this spring based on government procurement documents, the TAR was the source of relatively few big data cloud computing surveillance contracts that our researchers were able to access. There were signs of heavy spending in Tibetan areas outside the TAR. The assumption we made was that information for that region was not as available as it was for other provinces, but that the government is using big data methods for surveillance and control in Tibet. What is the current status of big data analytics in Tibet for government surveillance? What are the main concerns about how this data could be used? Does it differ from how it is used in other regions of China? 

TN: The first question that occurs to me is why are the Chinese authorities collecting so much data of Tibetans? There is no need for it as security is already very tight and people’s lives are controlled very tightly. I think the project is for perfecting the state of surveillance. Chinese surveillance is not perfect and the authorities know that. Information technology and big data analytics and now artificial intelligence are powerful tools and changing the world for good or bad. The Chinese authorities want to leverage these powerful tools unfortunately for control and repression of Tibetans. I am not a specialist in big data analytics but I do see the purpose of it in Tibet will be for repression. 

CDT: The United Front Work Department is now responsible for religious affairs in China, elevating a CCP office over state bureaus in that domain, which is part of a broader Sinicization campaign for religions and ethnic minorities in China. In the past five years, the UFWD budget has tripled in the TAR. What are the primary areas where that budget has been used? 

TN: In my research I found that the United Front Work Department budget has tripled in the TAR, from budget documents that were publicly available. But I doubt the authenticity of those budgets in terms of the numbers. First the numbers seem very small and second there are several revision budget documents that were released for a particular year even after a couple of years have already passed. I really doubt the credibility of those documents, but it does shed some light on trends. The budget trend shows that a lot of money is being used for ideological indoctrination work in the form of increasing capacity of the United Front Work Department and the materials they need for the ideological indoctrination of Tibetan society. The campaign that has been going on full scale in Tibet is the CCP project of “fostering consciousness of the Chinese nation community.” The United Front Work Department implements this project, and they have huge funds to reach their objectives. There is not much physical violence or bloodshed in the United Front work, but they aim to hollow out the mind and soul of the Tibetans through constant political and ideological indoctrination over the long term. The metaphorical “death by a thousand cuts” strategy may be appropriate to describe the United Front Work Department’s activities in Tibet. They are aiming to eradicate the Tibetan mind and soul slowly and steadily.  

CDT: A report by ICT said the goal of the UFWD’s work in Tibet is to “push the monastic community away from its traditional religious system and toward the one designed by the party.” Is there a long-term future for Tibetan Buddhism inside Tibet and if so, what does it look like? 

TN: The CCP has given up on its utopian dream of eradicating Buddhism in Tibet. They gave that up decades ago after trying so hard only to find their endeavors fall flat. What the CCP has been hoping for is the withering of Buddhism through the process of time. That too doesn’t seem to work for them. The CCP never understood Buddhism and there is little hope that they will ever understand it.  

In the current CCP governance strategy, they seem to have high hopes for their laws to control Buddhism. There are a whole bunch of laws designed to suppress Tibetan Buddhism and to control the lives and activities of the Buddhist teachers. It does not seem to be working to their liking.  For instance, the State Administration for Religious Affairs’ (known externally as National Religious Affairs Administration) Order No. 19 “Administrative Measures for Religious Activity Venues” came into force on September 1, 2023, to curb Buddhism and other religions. Yet several hundred thousand Tibetans and non-Tibetans showed up at a remote site in eastern Tibet from September 15-17 to receive teachings from a young Buddhist teacher whose previous incarnation was deeply revered by the faithful.  This shows that the CCP does not see the effect they desire behind promulgating such laws. Order No. 5. issued in 2007, which seeks to legitimize the CCP’s choice of the next Dalai Lama, will similarly fall flat. Unjust laws and policies do not win the hearts and minds of the Tibetan faithful. It’s only the Buddhist teachers’ wisdom and practice that attract followers. So long as the CCP exists and continues their nonsense, the Tibetans and other practitioners will continue to throw themselves at the feet of their teachers. Hearts and minds trump laws and policies in Tibetan society. 

In sum, I would say there is a long-term future for Tibetan Buddhism inside Tibet, not because of a lack of CCP’s sinister designs, but because of Tibetans’ deep love and connection to their teachers. Also, there is a huge number of Chinese believers of Tibetan Buddhism in Chinese cities. The believers place more trust and belief in their faith in Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan teachers than the CCP. This makes the CCP jealous of the Buddhist teachers and their influence in a big section of Chinese society. To them it is irrational for the ordinary Chinese to follow Tibetan Buddhist teachers as they don’t deliver tangible and material things like the CCP does. Yet, Chinese in millions practice Tibetan Buddhism and throw themselves at the feet of Tibetan Buddhist teachers. That’s why we see, from time to time, CCP issuing circulars to millions of its ground workers to stop the visits of Tibetan teachers in their respective localities. CCP circulars phrase that as “containing the eastward spread of Tibetan mysticism” which means stopping the spread of Tibetan Buddhism from Tibet in the west to Chinese cities in the east. Materialism has its limits and Tibetan Buddhism fills the spiritual void in Chinese society.  

CDT: How could the international community better support Tibet at this moment? 

TN: The international community can support Tibet in several ways. The first step is to be a critical consumer of Chinese government propaganda on Tibet. The Party’s global propaganda outreach paints a rosy picture of Tibet and Tibetans becoming modern under the rule of the CCP. Modernity is not wrong but destroying cultures and traditions in the name of modernity is. That is what the CCP is aiming to do in Tibet. It is important to listen to the Tibetan experience of CCP’s governance. CCP has a monopoly of power and force in Tibet and it is critical to listen to the Tibetans who are the object of CCP’s rule. The truth is covered up in the CCP’s rosy discourse on Tibet and it is the job of the international community to uncover the truth or at least not fall for Chinese propaganda. The Chinese government blocks all independent researchers and journalists to travel to Tibet to see the truth. This is doubled down with paid Chinese and foreign propagandists who back the Chinese government either due to their ideological alignment or for money.  It would be silly to counter these propagandists, but it would be wise to know that they are propagandists and it’s their job to praise the Chinese government and present atrocities as modernity and development to the public.  

Citizens of the world can urge their governments to raise abuse of Tibetan human rights with the Chinese government. It may seem that whatever is happening in Tibet does not impact their lives directly, but the atrocities in Tibet will impact their lives gradually in the form of changed global norms if atrocities and human rights violations in Tibet are not checked. For instance, mass DNA collection is not possible anywhere in the world, but it might become normal everywhere in the world in the future if the practice is not checked in Tibet.   

For over two years now, China has been trying to change the global country name of Tibet to the Chinese term Xizang. The Chinese government campaign to change the term Tibet is being unrolled incrementally and strategically on the global stage. As of now I didn’t see any evidence of the Chinese government directly threatening other countries to adopt the Chinese term in referring to Tibet. But the CCP may issue threats in the future when they don’t see progress in their effort to change Tibet to Xizang. All propaganda and potential threats must be pushed back hard. The world has known Tibet as Tibet, and there is a story of an independent Tibet behind that term. The CCP does not like that. The Uyghurs have been objecting to their country name Sinicized as Xinjiang. It is East Turkestan but everyone knows the country as Xinjiang. Don’t let Tibet become another Xinjiang. Tibet must remain Tibet. 

Tibet is a country under foreign occupation. Tibetans are undoubtedly a people living under foreign occupation. As a people, Tibetans have the collective right to self-determination, both in the external and internal dimensions of the right. Millions of colonized people worldwide have been freed in the past, but a few still remain unfree. The truth is Tibetans are living under China’s colonization. To support the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination is not radical, but the right thing to do in a sea of a million wrongs in the world, and in China in particular.  

In such a repressive environment, how do Tibetans in Tibet hold onto their cultural identity? How does the world find out what is happening there? How do exiles stay connected with their families and homeland? Where can we find hope for the future of Tibet and Tibetans? CDT has launched this interview series as a way to explore these questions 15 years after the 2008 uprising across the Tibetan region, and to learn more about current conditions in Tibet, efforts to preserve Tibet’s religious and cultural heritage, and the important work being done every day by activists, writers, researchers, and others to help and support Tibetans inside and outside the region. Read more about the origins of the series and all interviews we have conducted so far.

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