Ashwin Verghese

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.