The two-day Laogai in Tibet conference organized by the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, D.C. was educative in every sense of the term. In addition to enlightening the people who came to attend the sessions, the events were eye-openers to the seven Tibetans, all but one of whom were Laogai (the dreaded Reform through Labor system established by China to exploit and oppress prisoners) survivors.
The first day’s session, held on June 8, 2012 at the United States Congress, saw the survivors testifying about their experience. They also had a taste of American democracy and congressional interest when two members of Congress not only came to express their support, but also took the opportunity to publicly voice their feeling that the Obama Administration was not proactive enough in taking up the Tibetan issue with China.
Following the weekend break during which the survivors had private interactions with some members of the Tibetan community and a taste of Virginia Beach, the second event was at the Laogai Research Foundation on June 11, 2012.
To me, the second-day’s session seemed to have more substance. It was held in a discussion-style format with the survivors putting their experience in the broader context of the dreaded Laogai system. Harry Wu, the head of the Laogai Research Foundation, who himself is a Laogai survivor, became their main debating partner of sort. It was clear that Harry wanted the Tibetans to really look at their experience not only from a victim-mentality mindset, but also to see that it is a part of China’s Laogai agenda. As the survivors made their comments, Harry intervened several times, sometimes appearing agitated, to provoke and encourage them to look more thoroughly at certain aspects of their experience.
One of the survivors talked about his daily routine in the prison: get up at 6 am work in a vegetable farm during the day, cell door closes at 6 pm followed by a study of newspapers for the next hour and a half, then free time till bed time at 9 pm. Harry asked him to expand on the political study session: what was done during that time? what was the format? Who was appointed to lead the discussions? The survivor responded to which Harry said these need to be highlighted as these are characteristics of the Thought Reform aspect of the Laogai system.
Another survivor related that he had been in the Laogai prison for four years from 1959 to 63 and thereafter was released but continued to have restrictions, Harry was calculating something on a paper as he prodded the survivor on the aspects of his experience outside of the prison. He then said that these were very much part of the Laogai framework and that he should actually say that he was part of the Laogai system for 22 years (the four years in prison and the 18 years outside of it). There was a moment of cultural difference here as the survivor mentioned that other Tibetans may not agree that his period outside of the prison was Laogai because he could go home at night. But Harry emphasized that this external impression cannot hide the insidious nature of life during the day.
The survivors were also encouraged to dwell deeply into products made or produced in prison and what would be the consequences if the quota was not met. An intense discussion took place on the issue of continued usage of prisoners in the production work after the completion of their sentences. The survivors referred to such a system in their respective prisons. Harry said this is the “job placement personnel” system, which is again a characteristic of the Laogai system.
On the second day’s session, I was asked to make some remarks during which I made two points. First, I said the experience related by the Tibetan survivors were symbolic of the commonality in the experience of people who have suffered under the Chinese Communist authorities’ brutal Laogai system. Whether it was Tibetans, Chinese, Uyghurs, Mongols or others, they have suffered this in a similar way, whether during the Cultural Revolution or before or after that period. I said this was an opportunity for the Tibetan survivors to put their experience in perspective, to go beyond their individual experience to show how these fit with the broader Chinese Laogai agenda. The second point I made was that the survivors should make the case to the international community on why the Tibetan case is different despite this commonality in experience. I referred to some Sinologists who tend to look at the Tibetan case from a Chinese perspective and tend to undermine the Tibetans saying their experience is no different from those of the Chinese. I suggested that the case should be made in terms of difference in the background and the cause for their incarcerations, which had political, racial, ethnic, cultural, etc. dimensions.
The seven participants in the conference were Ms. Ghang Lhamo, Mrs. Ngawang Sangdrol, Mr. Tubten Khetsun, Mr. Dolkar Kyab, Mr. Jampa Monlam, Mr. Lukar Sham, and Mr. Tsewang Dhondup. Their biography can be found on the website of the Laogai Research Foundation, which also intends to post the text of their testimony.
Now that the dust has somewhat settled on the Republican Party’s search for its presidential candidate, the time may be right to look at how the tiny Tibetan American community and Tibet supporters should be approaching the forthcoming American presidential elections.
The trend among new immigrants to the United States is to start with being a single-issue voter and gradually evolve into considering multiple issues as factors that will affect their voting pattern. Obviously, to Tibetan Americans, the issue of how a Democratic candidate (namely current President Barack Obama) or a Republican Candidate (Governor Mitt Romney) stands on Tibet will have considerable impact in who they vote for. I personally know of Tibetan Americans who profess being Democrats but nevertheless voted for President George W. Bush on account of his attitude towards Tibet.
In the Mitt Romney campaign website there is no specific reference to Tibet. However, there are two paragraphs on human rights under “China and East Asia” wherein it says, “Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the fact that China’s regime continues to deny its people basic political freedoms and human rights.” It continues, “A Romney administration will vigorously support and engage civil society groups within China that are promoting democratic reform, anti-corruption efforts, religious freedom, and women’s and minority rights.” It concludes, “Mitt Romney will seek to engage China, but will always stand up for those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy.”
Since President Obama had already served a term and been a Senator before that, we have records of his position on Tibet. If you visit the website of the International Campaign for Tibet, you will get an idea of how he has approached different aspects of the Tibetan issue, both when he was a Senator and as the President (please see our compilation of Obama Administration Statements on Tibet.)
Additionally, as yet, it is only President Obama who has responded to a questionnaire on Tibet that ICT had sent to potential presidential candidates some time back. (Tibetan Americans and ICT members may want to encourage Mitt Romney to respond to the questionnaire. The ICT questionnaire web page provides links to Governor Romney’s webmail, Facebook and Twitter sites).
In his response to the questionnaire, President Obama says, “As President, I have strongly supported the preservation of the unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions of Tibet and the Tibetan people throughout the world.” He adds that “I have met with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama at the White House twice since taking office, in 2010 and 2011, and I commended his commitment to nonviolence and dialogue with China and his pursuit of the “Middle Way” approach.”
The Obama Campaign website interestingly has a section targeted at Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders. May be this is an area that those Tibetan Americans for whom multiple issues will be a factor in their voting decision should be looking at, too.
Whatever it may be, I hope to see the Tibetan American community becoming more proactive during this election and to strengthen the case that United States’ interest in Tibet is American interest, too.
In the post-1959 period a new expression took birth among Tibetans in exile reflecting the importance of nurturing the next generation. Young Tibetans were referred to as “seeds of future Tibet” and given lots of advices on the responsibility that the nomenclature came with.
A generation has changed since then but the term is still used as a slogan to encourage the younger Tibetans to be actively involved in their community, whether politically, socially, culturally or even spiritually.
I recalled this when I read the sad news about the untimely passing away of Adam Yauch, he of the Beastie Boys fame. I have had the privilege of meeting him and working with him in the course of my responsibilities at the International Campaign for Tibet. If there is any organization or individual that has single handedly shaped the mindset of a large number of youngsters regarding Tibet, that would be Adam. Helped by his colleagues, Adam used the power of music and the energy of the young Americans (and subsequently youngsters in many parts of the world) to pay attention to the plight of the Tibetan people and the injustice taking place in Tibet.
The most radical change, if you will, took place with the establishment of the Milarepa Fund and its organization of a series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts. I saw the concert held in Washington, D.C. in 1998 at close quarters. Not just the concert goers, but even nature seemed to have been energized that afternoon, what with an unexpected storm and lightning strike on the concert venue. I saw the birth of a new generation of Tibet supporters that day. It was certainly a milestone in bringing the Tibetan issue to the attention of the younger generation of Americans, and took the Students for a Free Tibet to a new level. Even though I could not generate a taste for hip hop I did buy one of the Beastie Boys’ CD that was released subsequently, looking at that as my way of showing appreciation.
One of the issues that Adam and the Tibetan Freedom Concerts took up then was the boycott of the Holiday Inn in Lhasa because the Chinese authorities were using it in their propaganda to depict a peaceful view of the situation in Tibet. Subsequently, Holiday Inn announced the ending of its involvement in that hotel in Tibet.
I have also been a witness to Adam’s passionate way when Tibet supporters launched the campaign against a proposed World Bank support to a Chinese Government project to relocate Chinese to Tibetan areas in 1999. We were together in strategizing on how best to take up the issue in our negotiations with World Bank officials and holding press conference outside their office in Washington, D.C.
Everyone who had some knowledge of Adam know of his unassuming attitude. At the same time he was yet another example that a celebrity could be more than an ornament to any cause he or she endorsed, which is the general perception. During the time Adam served on the Board of the International Campaign for Tibet, I have seen him engage in deep discussions with fellow board members on different aspects of the Tibetan issue. Even as he did this I noticed that he did not forget, simple things, even if was to put the kettle to boil for tea to the participants of the Board meeting when it was held in his loft in New York City one year.
Adam’s marriage to Dechen Wangdu la could also be interpreted as a symbol of his unification with the Tibetan people, physically and mentally. My condolences to Dechen la and her family and pray that Adam will have a speedy rebirth to continue his socially useful productive work.
The Bo Xilai affair is a development of seismic proportions in domestic Chinese politics. It is also one that should be put in proper perspective.
To recap, Bo Xilai, who until recently was the party boss of Chongqing and presumed to be ascendant to the highest rung of leadership in Beijing, was purged from the party and power. The downfall began when his deputy, Wang Lijun, went to the U.S. Consulate in Chengu with, reportedly, incriminating information about Bo. The intrigue deepened when the information included an accusation that Bo and/or his wife, Gu Kailai, were involved in the November 2011 death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman living in China.
Initially, the official Chinese media said that Heywood has died of alcohol poisoning, a charge that, along with his body’s cremation without autopsy, raised eyebrows. They changed their story by April 10, when Xinhua reported that Gu Kailai and an aide were “highly suspected” of “intentional homicide” of Heywood.
Many China watchers are keeping a keen eye on the Bo Xilai downfall for clues to the factional battles in the upcoming once-a-decade leadership transition in Beijing, and analyzing what it means for the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power.
But the turn from a case of palace intrigue into a murder mystery has heightened interest. Here’s where a little perspective is in order.
Xinhua’s April 10 report said, “according to senior officials…China is a socialist country ruled by law, and the sanctity and authority of law shall not be tramped. Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved.” An April 18 Xinhua editorial promised a thorough investigation into the death, which it claimed showed the Communist Party’s adherence to the rule of law.
Were that it were so.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of “intentional homicides” are committed by the Chinese state every year. (The count is much higher if you count “unintentional” homicides, such as death as a result of torture wounds). In China and Tibet, impunity is a way of life for Chinese authorities.
We see little evidence that cases of killings by Chinese authorities are thoroughly investigated with the aim of bringing the perpetrators to justice. The U.S. State Department has reported that, on occasion, the Chinese press does report on prisoners who die of “unnatural deaths,” although there is no mention of anyone arrested or convicted in response. Official explanations can be outlandish, such as a depiction of a stab wound to the heart as a pimple scar (see below). As stated in the Tibet section of the Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2010:
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings; however, it was not possible to verify independently these reports. There were no reports that officials investigated or punished those responsible for the killings.
Official claims that the Gu Kailai case demonstrates the integrity of the Chinese criminal justice system must be challenged by foreign reporters writing about it (given the quality of the foreign press corps in Beijing, I am confident that they will). Moreover, they should put this case in perspective and use this opportunity highlight the pervasiveness of state-sponsored homicides committed with impunity in China and Tibet.
This is not to say that the Bo-Gu-Heywood affair shouldn’t be treated as a spectacle, because it is an extraordinary development. But it is important to remember that if justice is claimed to have been done in this case, it does not mean that there is justice in the People’s Republic of China.
Excerpts from the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2010 (most recent edition) for China (with Tibet section):
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