China: Quashing free expression at home and abroad

Every time I watch the video of Tibetan nomad Runggye Adak going off-script while giving a speech at a major festival in Eastern Tibet, I’m struck by the disconnect between the simple action he took and the enormous consequences that followed. Adak, in full view of thousands of people, said what so many Tibetans think: “If we cannot invite the Dalai Lama home, we will not have freedom of religion and happiness in Tibet.” He went on to call for the 11th Panchen Lama and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to be freed.

These are extremely common sentiments among Tibetans, but Adak paid a high price for voicing them out loud. After he walked away from the microphone he was seized by Chinese police, and within a month he had been charged with ‘provocation to subvert state power.’ During his trial he defended himself, saying: “I wanted to raise Tibetan concerns and grievances, as there is no outlet for us to do so.” Just the same, he was given 8 years in prison.

With that incident in mind, it was shocking and disappointing to see a co-owner of Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC help Chinese agents remove Lhadon Tethong from their store last week. Lhadon, the director of the Tibet Action Institute, had come to an event featuring Chinese State Council Information Office Deputy Director Guo Weimin with the intention of asking him about Tibet. As seen in the video below she started speaking several minutes into his remarks, which were delivered in promotion of Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s book The Governance of China:

Xi Jinping's Book Launch – PART 1:Lhadon Tethong, Director of Tibet Action Institute, and Pema Yoko, Acting Executive…

Posted by Students for a Free Tibet on Thursday, September 17, 2015

Politics & Prose co-owner Bradley Graham, seen here pushing Lhadon out of the store, once wrote in the Washington Post that he’s concerned about the erosion of democratic discourse. Isn’t democratic discourse eroded when a store owner helps silence a Tibetan voice in favor of a state propaganda official from an authoritarian government? The Party has annihilated democratic discourse inside China. Last week they were able to export a small piece of their repression to a bookstore in America’s capital which bills itself as “a forum for discussion addressing the salient ideas of the day.”

While we’re on the subject, are there any salient ideas in Xi’s book? The Atlantic describes it as having “portcullises of dullness” which seem to “forbid readers from entering any further.” The “droning cadences” of Communist Party propaganda feature “familiar abstractions, the insistent buzzwords, and the numbing repetitions.” Xi’s description of the Chinese dream contains “unsettling echoes of 20th-century ethnic nationalism,” a paradise “primarily built for people of a single race.” The Chinese race, naturally- and to be clear, the idea that Tibetans and Uyghurs and Chinese are somehow all Chinese is a rhetorical fig leaf over the racial reality of the People’s Republic of China.

Tibetans inside Tibet run incredible risks whenever they speak their minds. It’s deplorable to see them silenced when they find opportunities to demand answers from Chinese officials outside China- especially when the author of the book is the leader of a police state sustained by the denial of free expression.

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John N

John N

John N is a research associate at the International Campaign for Tibet.

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