Ashwin Verghese

Abuse of privilege: Roisin Timmins and access to Tibet

Roisin Timmins

Roisin Timmins, an English-speaking correspondent for Chinese state media, was blasted on social media for filing a mendacious video report from Chinese-occupied Tibet.

There are many ways to define privilege. One might be who gets to go where.

If you’re Roisin Timmins, you get exclusive access to Tibet, one of the world’s most geographically and politically secluded countries, which is currently in the stranglehold of China’s stringent isolation policies.

Having brutally occupied Tibet since 1959, China now has the region on complete lockdown. A recent report from the US State Department says the Chinese government “systematically impeded travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas outside the TAR for US diplomats and officials, journalists, and tourists in 2018.”

No doubt the same was true for citizens of other countries—except Chinese citizens, who increasingly make tourist trips to Tibet, where they are presented with a Disneyland version of Tibetan culture and history.

The situation is worst of all for Tibetan exiles, including thousands of Tibetan American citizens, who are cruelly denied the right to visit their ancestral land. Since I began working for ICT last summer, I’ve been dismayed by the number of Tibetans I’ve met who’ve never been allowed to set foot on Tibetan soil.

This exclusion is also extreme for international journalists. In March 2019, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China released a position paper noting the TAR is the only region of China that journalists need government permission to enter, and that such permission is rarely granted.

So how, then, did Timmins—who described herself as a journalist in a 2018 interview with her alma mater, Leeds Trinity University in England—enter Tibet earlier this year?

The answer is easy: She took a job as a correspondent for Xinhua, an official Chinese state news agency, leading to this fiasco of a video report filed from the TAR.

If you want to spare yourself six minutes of wasted time, let me assure you: The video is trash. In it, Timmins conjures the profound insight that “There’s much more to Tibet than yaks and temples” and sets out to show how, under Chinese rule, Tibetans have “modernized their education, their healthcare, their whole way of life without losing their identity.”

Of course, that thesis itself is sheer nonsense. More than 1 million Tibetans have died as a direct result of China’s invasion and occupation of their land, and Tibet’s rich and ancient culture is slowly being devoured by China’s assimilationist regime.

But to back up their bogus claim, Timmins and crew interview a number of Tibetans—who might have felt horrific pressure to say the right things as state media cameras filmed them—and regurgitate a set of Chinese government talking points, all of which are easy to rebut. For example:

  • Tibet’s population is 90% Tibetan. According to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), ethnic Chinese outnumber Tibetans in Tibet. China has also implemented policies incentivizing intermarriage between Tibetans and Chinese, hoping to breed out Tibetans in a kind of slow, covert genocide.
  • China brought democratic reform to Tibet. There is no democracy in Tibet or China. China is a one-party authoritarian regime. If Tibetans ever did get to vote freely, surely they would vote to kick their repressive Chinese leaders out.
  • Schools are helping to preserve Tibetan culture. In July 2018, Chinese officials banned Tibetan schoolchildren from taking part in religious activities during their summer breaks. Buddhism is at the heart of Tibetan culture. So if anything, China’s control of the education system is helping to eradicate Tibetan heritage, not protect it.
  • China is bringing jobs to Tibet. Just a few weeks ago, Radio Free Asia reported that a Tibetan graduate student whose essay on declining government job opportunities for Tibetans went viral was hauled out of class and has been detained ever since. As I tweeted, this is the reality of China’s economic development in Tibet. Tibetans are discriminated against in the job market and viciously punished when they complain.
  • China is helping to preserve Tibet’s environment, including by hiring Tibetan herders as forest rangers. Put aside for a moment the mining, bottled water production and reckless development policies China has unleashed in Tibet. Chinese authorities have also forced Tibetan nomads off their ancestral lands and onto ill-fitting settlements. Not only is this stunningly inhumane, but scientists everywhere (including in China) have reached a consensus that indigenous stewardship is crucial for the health of ecosystems, making China’s approach to Tibetan nomads both savage and environmentally destructive.

Apart from the obvious inaccuracies, Timmins’ piece is problematic in a more foundational way. Timed to distract from the media attention surrounding the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s forced exile from Tibet, the video claims the anniversary actually marks “Serfs’ Emancipation Day,” the Rubicon moment when Chinese troops freed the Tibetan people, who, according to this narrative, lived as serfs in a feudal order.

To set the record straight, the Dalai Lama has acknowledged that Tibet had many problems at the time of China’s invasion, when he was just a teenager, and insisted he would have enacted reforms. Indeed, in exile, His Holiness helped set up the CTA to provide democratic representation for the Tibetan diaspora. This transition to democracy was completed in 2011 when the Dalai Lama retired from politics, fully severing church and state.

But no matter what injustices took place in Tibet decades ago, none of them could possibly justify China’s ravenous annexation of the country. In fact, Beijing’s claim that it took control of Tibet to liberate the Tibetan people is sickeningly reminiscent of the propaganda past imperial powers have used to defend their crimes.

Case in point: The British Empire consumed India, my country of birth, looting its abundant resources, restructuring its economy to serve English commercial interests, exacerbating religious divisions that eventually led to a bloody Partition and dehumanizing the Indian people, all while claiming to help them.

Like Tibet, India had its share of social plagues, the untouchability of the caste system high among them. But a violent conquest by foreign profiteers was hardly the right cure. Every civilization has its particular ills, and every empire uses them as a pretext for invasion and plunder. To avoid creating as much damage as it’s intended to fix, social reform needs to come from the bottom up, not from the barrel end of a colonizer’s gun.

My outrage at India’s subjugation and despoiling by the British is part of the reason I wanted to join ICT in the first place. As heir to a history of oppression, I felt the need to speak out against colonialism wherever it occurs, even if it’s perpetrated by Asians like me.

Of course, China too was touched by the heavy hand of foreign domination during the bygone age of imperialism. Beijing is right to decry the humiliation it faced from Westerners and Japanese in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and its continued anger and paranoia are understandable. But unfortunately, as so often happens, the onetime victim has now become a swaggering bully. Rather than demonstrate solidarity with its Tibetan neighbors, who were themselves once invaded by England, China has instead imposed on them a form of settler colonialism that is shamefully similar to the sufferings inflicted on indigenous peoples throughout the world.

By producing a video purporting to show the progress benevolent Chinese have bestowed on backward Tibetans, Timmins is serving as apologist for an evil empire. Yet I feel incensed by her work not just as a native of India but as someone who—like Timmins herself presumably—grew up in a Western democracy.

No doubt Western countries have been immensely hypocritical in preaching freedom and equality for some while enforcing subservience and hierarchy on untold others. As an American citizen, I take part in political debates, vote regularly and criticize my government frequently in the hopes of fueling change. Yet the thought of living in a place where I’m unable to do even those things, meager or ineffective as they may be, gives me chills.

For all their inadequacies, open societies where people have at least basic freedoms are certainly preferable to totalitarian countries like China. Coming from the UK, Timmins ought to have been sensitive to that. Instead, she has produced work that is—to borrow a phrase George Orwell used to describe another gleeful propagandist of empire, Rudyard Kipling—“morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.”

Timmins is among a privileged few in world history who have had the relative freedom to say what they want and go where they please. She was even able to travel to Tibet, a place many Tibetans in the diaspora have never been able to see. And to get that access, all she had to do was betray the humane values of liberty, justice and civil rights.

Timmins did herself no favors with her attempted self-defense on Twitter, in which she deigned to “make it clear what my job is” and “what it isn’t,” as though merely stating that her role is to do what Xinhua tells her to makes what she did acceptable. If only Roisin would realize ‘I was just doing my job’ has never been a good excuse.

As I told Timmins on Twitter, no one was holding a gun to her head; she could have chosen to do something else with her life. (Relevant side note: Chinese troops have pointed guns at the heads of many Tibetans and Chinese, who do not have the array of life choices that Timmins has.) Perhaps Timmins enjoys the perks of her job, but there is likely something more insidious at play. Tom Grundy, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Hong Kong Free Press, brought the subtext to the surface in a comment on one of Timmins’ tweets:

Though Timmins is now performing the role of social media victim, the backlash she has faced is purely of her own making. For me personally, I’m disgusted by her work in part because it seems she and I have as many commonalities as differences. We appear to be close in age; we are both from the West; and we both work as PR people for groups involved in the same contentious issue—except I acknowledge my role for what it is while Timmins calls herself a journalist.

When I decided to join ICT, I realized I was likely forfeiting the possibility of traveling not only to Tibet, but also to China unless major changes come to that country. Yet I was fine with my decision because I knew which side of the Tibet issue I wanted to be on. I knew I could criticize the Chinese government from the safety of the US without facing jail time and torture—something Tibetans surely cannot do. Even overseas, many Tibetan exiles feel unable to criticize China openly because they fear what Chinese authorities will do to their family members in Tibet.

Access to Tibet is a privilege conferred not by Tibetans themselves, but rather by the Chinese powers who continue to rule over their land. Timmins gained that privilege by dint of being a useful tool for the occupying forces. She could have opted to do countless other things for a career, but she made her choice of her own accord.

Sadly, given the glib, defensive posture she has assumed on social media, it seems unlikely Timmins will reverse course any time soon. But hopefully the controversy she ignited will lead others like her—and me—to use the tremendous privilege we have to speak up in support of the Tibetan people, not their oppressors.

Lights, camera, retraction: How China cut Tibet out of movies

Kundun

Chinese troops in the 1997 movie “Kundun,” directed by Martin Scorsese. After the film premiered, Disney’s CEO traveled to China to apologize for releasing it.

“You’re not going to see something that’s like ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ anymore,” says Larry Shinagawa, professor at Hawaii Tokai International College, in a recent New York Times piece titled “How China Is Rewriting Its Own Script.”

That’s cause for concern, because when I was growing up, movies like “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun,” both of which opened in 1997, helped introduce me—and surely many Americans in my generation—to the Tibetan issue. If such films are no longer made, how will kids today discover this important topic?

Hollywood screenwriters love a good-vs.-evil story. Twenty years ago, they found a great one in Tibet.

Just imagine this pitch to a producer: admirable but outnumbered protagonists follow a wise elder who teaches inner peace and spiritual growth. The antagonists, meanwhile, are an evil empire bent—as real-world events have shown—on actual global domination.

Not even George Lucas could do it better. So why, then, did Hollywood turn its back on Tibet?

The sad answer is that, for now, the evil empire is winning.

According to the Times report, written by reporters Amy Qin and Audrey Carlsen, “China wields enormous influence over how it is depicted in the movies Americans make and watch.”

The Chinese gained that influence by using many of the same tactics that every colonial power uses: invade when local institutions are weak, buy off the elites and spread fear to squelch dissent.

In the case of Tinseltown, the takeover was obviously less dramatic. But it largely followed the same script.

Hollywood studios were weakened by years of declining revenue and competition from online streaming. China swooped in with huge wads of cash and the promise of a blockbuster market for foreign ticket sales.

As a result, Hollywood executives today are simply too afraid to make a movie that could offend China. That means no more “Seven Years in Tibet” or “Kundun.”

Apparently, the release of those films helped provoke Chinese censorship in the first place. In the mid-1990s, Disney was just breaking into the Chinese market when the government in Beijing heard about “Kundun,” a beautiful film on the early life of the Dalai Lama directed by screen legend Martin Scorsese and written by Melissa Mathison, an International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) Board Member who died in 2015.

China’s leaders raged against the movie, Disney pulled back on its marketing campaign, and Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, traveled to China to apologize to the Chinese prime minister—and to negotiate a new theme park in Shanghai. (As a supporter of Tibet and an ardent cinephile, I took heart in this line from a 1998 Film Comment article: “You decide: who’ll be lucky to be even a footnote in movie history, Eisner or Scorsese?”)

Following that experience, it’s safe to assume that no studio today would greenlight a film like “Kundun.” But even when Tibetans come up organically in a story, Chinese pressure forces them out.

Case in point: the 2016 Marvel epic “Doctor Strange.” In the comic books, the titular doctor learned his craft from the Ancient One, a wise Tibetan sage.

But in the movie, the Ancient One is Celtic and played by Tilda Swinton, a white actress from Scotland. Although Disney—once again behaving as nefariously as any of the villains in its cartoons—claimed it was trying to avoid a stereotypical portrayal of Asians, the screenwriter shockingly admitted, “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that [the character is] Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.”

Unfortunately, Hollywood, the land of make believe, is not the only place where China’s government has pressured Americans to pretend Tibet isn’t real.

The 2018 annual report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission notes that earlier this year, “the Shanghai branch of the Cyberspace Administration of China shut down Marriott’s Chinese website for a week as punishment for listing Taiwan as well as Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet as separate from China on a questionnaire for customers.”

Like its peers in La-La-Land, Marriott sheepishly apologized. ICT followed up with a letter to Marriott’s CEO, Arne Sorenson.

The Commission’s report also states that China doesn’t have to tell European diplomats not to mention Tibet; instead those diplomats simply choose on their own not to bring it up because they don’t want to face Beijing’s wrath.

The result is arguably the most insidious form of censorship: self-censorship. And it’s becoming more common on the issue of Tibet.

Unlike in the movies, good doesn’t always triumph over evil in real life. Hollywood, which once championed the Tibetan cause to kids like me, now shuns the Tibetan people.

Thankfully, there’s still hope for a better ending. Movie studios may fear getting banned by China, but Tibetan-Americans already face that reality. Although Chinese citizens are free to travel throughout the United States—and Chinese officials throw their weight around unimpeded in this country—China restricts Tibetan-Americans from visiting their homeland.

The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in September and unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, aims to change that situation by denying US visas to Chinese officials who prevent Americans from entering Tibet.

According to Congressional Quarterly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act in the Senate, said that Chinese authorities are “literally undertaking an effort to strip people of their identity.”

Although we can no longer count on our favorite movies to protect that identity, we can—and should—still lobby our government to do so.

Don’t be evil: Google must abandon plans for censored search app in China

A screen shot of Google’s website. ICT has signed a letter insisting that Google abandon its plans for a censored search app in China.

Ok Google: What is evil?

That’s a question the world’s most popular search engine might need to ask itself.

As Google reportedly develops plans for a censored search app in China, the International Campaign for Tibet has signed a letter insisting that the tech behemoth scrap the project immediately.

The letter, written by the International Tibet Network and signed by 170 groups worldwide that are working on Tibet, says “There is little doubt that ‘Dragonfly,’” the proposed app, “would have an immense negative impact on the human rights of Chinese citizens, Tibetans, Uyghurs and other nationalities who, like all global citizens, deserve an undivided internet and free access to information.”

According to news reports, Dragonfly would fully adhere to China’s extreme censorship laws, which block access to content disfavored by the country’s authoritarian regime. The app would allegedly remove search results for blacklisted websites and search terms banned by the government, including “Tibet,” “democracy” and the “Dalai Lama.”

The development of the app comes as China ramps up its oppression of ethnic minorities. In Tibet, a historically independent nation that China has occupied for nearly 70 years, severe restrictions have been placed on religious freedom, freedom of speech and freedom to travel. Tibet has been cut off from the outside world, with foreign observers largely denied access to the region while China carries out its human rights abuses. The people of Tibet can be jailed and tortured for flying the Tibetan flag or promoting the Tibetan language. Trapped in this repressive environment, more than 150 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009.

Meanwhile, China’s brutalization of Uyghur Muslims has reached a level that the Washington Post describes as ethnic cleansing. Echoing some of the worst crimes against humanity of the past century, China’s government has forced as many as 1 million Muslims into modern-day concentration camps, where they are forced to recite pro-government propaganda and renounce their Islamic beliefs.

Yet this is the moment Google has chosen to try to reenter the Chinese market. That fact is even more astonishing when you consider the company’s history. Google previously left China in 2010, saying “we don’t want to engage in political censorship.” In the eight years since, censorship in China has grown far worse.

Google is famous for its motto, “don’t be evil.” Tellingly, the company removed “don’t be evil” from its code of conduct earlier this year.

Google was founded 20 years ago by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the latter of whose family fled the Soviet Union to escape state-sponsored discrimination. Now these two men are part of a project that would help China discriminate against Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Sadly, Google’s development of Dragonfly is part of a trend of Western corporations appeasing the Chinese government over its policies in Tibet. In just the past few months, Mercedes Benz apologized to China for quoting the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post, while Marriott fired an American employee who used a company account to like a pro-Tibet tweet.

These examples show how China uses its economic clout to export its brand of censorship around the globe. Now, Google wants to help China’s leaders impose censorship at home.

The letter from the International Tibet Network—which is addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and copies Page and Brin—says that “Google would not purely be ‘respecting’ national laws if ‘Dragonfly’ launched in China; it would be actively implementing them.”

The dire situation facing Tibetans and Uyghurs should be a cause of urgent concern for the global community. Unfortunately, for greedy businesses like Google, it is just another chance to make money. All of us must continue to speak out against the Chinese government, but we should also direct outrage at any corporation that would enable its censorship, torture and ethnic cleansing.

Ok, Google? Don’t be evil.

Read the letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

10 years after “Leaving Fear Behind” exposed Chinese repression, situation in Tibet has only gotten worse

Golok Jigme, who helped create “Leaving Fear Behind,” being interviewed by International Campaign for Tibet Vice President Bhuchung K. Tsering about the ongoing human rights crisis in Tibet 10 years after the documentary premiered.

Ten years ago this month, a bold documentary exposed the repression ordinary Tibetans faced under the Chinese occupation of their country.

A decade later, the situation in Tibet has only gotten worse.

The documentary, “Leaving Fear Behind,” features interviews with average Tibetans describing, in heart-wrenching detail, the inhumanity of Chinese rule, as well as their feelings about the then-upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

I started my new job as Communications Officer with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) earlier this summer, and one of the first things my colleague John N., ICT’s Advocacy Officer, told me to do was watch “Leaving Fear Behind.”

It was a wise call: There was something uniquely moving about seeing the faces of the real people of Tibet and hearing them explain their own life experiences, and I felt inspired to work even harder to advance their cause.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, there’s information below about how to watch it. But keep reading, because the story of how “Leaving Fear Behind” came to be is almost as compelling as the documentary itself.

Plight of the Tibetan people

Appearing onscreen toward the end of the 25-minute documentary, the filmmaker, Dhondup Wangchen, says his goal was “not to make a famous or particularly entertaining film. This film is about the plight of the Tibetan people–helpless and frustrated.”

That frustration can be seen throughout the footage, with Tibetans decrying China’s severe restrictions on their freedoms and way of life.

Several of the people interviewed in the film talk about China’s efforts to force Tibetans off their land in order to steal Tibet’s rich natural resources.

The Tibetans also discuss their lack of religious freedom, as well as their desire to see the return of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama was forced into exile in 1959 after China invaded Tibet, and he has not returned to his homeland since.

In a particularly poignant scene, an elderly Tibetan wipes away tears as the Dalai Lama is seen on TV receiving the United States Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

Several of the Tibetans in “Leaving Fear Behind” say China’s hosting of the Olympics had done nothing to improve their situation. Indeed, a few months before the Games began, large-scale protests against China broke out across the Tibetan plateau.

“China was awarded the Games on the condition that the situation in China and Tibet would improve,” one monk says. “…However, after they were awarded the Games, there has been no greater freedom or democracy, and repression is getting stronger and stronger.”

Despite this repression, Wangchen says nearly all of the more than 100 Tibetans interviewed for the film agreed to have their faces shown: “Some said that we absolutely had to show their faces, otherwise it wasn’t worth speaking to them.”

Journey to leave fear behind

To create the documentary, Wangchen and Golok Jigme, a Tibetan monk and activist, spent about six months making a perilous journey through the eastern regions of Tibet.

After they finished shooting, both men were arrested, but they successfully managed to smuggle their footage out of the country.

On August 6, 2008, “Leaving Fear Behind” premiered in secret before a group of foreign journalists in Beijing, just days before the Olympics began.

Although the documentary reached the outside world, both Wangchen and Jigme were arrested for their attempts to exercise free speech. Wangchen was given a six-year sentence, and, after being subjected to close surveillance and mistreatment by Chinese police after his release, he decided to flee the country.

On Christmas Day 2017, Wangchen arrived in San Francisco and was finally reunited with his family in San Francisco. Earlier this year, he described his ordeals—including the depraved conditions in China’s jails—during his testimony to the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Jigme was also arrested and severely tortured. He managed to escape and go into hiding, where he lived in constant fear until he was able to flee to India in 2014.

A few weeks ago, Jigme was in Washington, DC for the US State Department’s first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. US Vice President Mike Pence praised Jigme in a speech during the event, saying “we are honored by your presence, and we admire your courage and your stand for liberty.”

Worsening situation

“Leaving Fear Behind” has been screened in several countries since its release, including at a 2014 showing in the European Parliament that ICT helped to organize.

In the US, the film can be watched on YouTube with English subtitles.

Although the film and the filmmakers made it out of Tibet, Jigme said in a recent interview with ICT that, “Basically, under the Chinese Communist authoritarian rule, under [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, the situation has become much worse” in Tibet since 2008.

“Leaving Fear Behind” was an act of extraordinary courage by ordinary Tibetans who simply wanted the world to know about the enormous repression they faced. As we mark the 10th anniversary of this brave film, all of us who care about human dignity must redouble our efforts to advance human rights and self-determination for the people of Tibet.