John N

China’s Greater Leap Backward

globe illustration

Part of Oliver Munday’s illustration for The Atlantic.

James Fallows’ recent cover article for The Atlantic, entitled “China’s Great Leap Backward,” is an important and timely piece. In it the veteran China writer describes how repression in the PRC has grown under Xi Jinping, and considers the implications for the United States. His article is especially significant because it arrives during a time of potential upheaval for America’s China policy under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, which has already deviated from long-standing diplomatic precedent by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan.

To briefly summarize his points, Fallows notes an increasingly hard line being taken in a number of key areas: communication, where China’s censorship of the internet and press grows ever stricter; civil society, where the Party is turning the screws ever tighter on religious groups, NGOs, and unions; extraterritorial actions, where attempts to enforce Beijing’s will outside the borders of the PRC grow ever bolder; failed reform, where the political climate grows ever darker; anti-foreign sentiment, where foreigners living inside China and foreign companies doing business inside the country are viewed with ever more suspicion; and the Chinese military, which grows ever more aggressive as territorial disputes with a dozen neighboring countries continue to fester.

These are all serious issues, and Fallows lays them out with the care and insight that comes from his long experience with China. Reading the article, though, I couldn’t help but to think that another crucial factor had been omitted: Increasing repression in Tibet and East Turkestan. The way China treats “minority nationalities” serves as an essential indicator of how committed it is to using violence and repression to stay in power. If you want to know how far the Party might go to control Chinese citizens tomorrow, you need only look at what they’re doing to Tibetans and Uyghurs today.

Including the Tibetan and Uyghur experience in his article would only strengthen Fallow’s case, too. Take his first category, communication: As bad as things are in China proper for internet usage and journalism, they are far, far worse in Tibet and East Turkestan. Tibet remains largely closed to foreign journalists; in recent years they’ve been chased out by police and government officials, denied entry, and forced to sign a document promising they wouldn’t try to return. Other journalists successfully reported from Tibet only after entering through subterfuge (in one case incurring subsequent blowback from Chinese embassy officials who harassed the writer in multiple countries), or after bypassing police checkpoints by hiding in the backseat of a car (this happened multiple times). In 2008 foreign journalists in Tibet faced mass expulsion, and since then reporting from inside the Tibet Autonomous Region has been limited to Potemkin tours arranged by the Communist Party.

Chinese snipers

Chinese snipers disappear from their usual positions on Lhasa rooftops when foreign journalists visit the TAR.

On the internet front, too, struggles with finding a good VPN might seem quaint to some people in Tibet and East Turkestan. Chinese authorities have taken to pulling the plug entirely and removing all internet access when they feel the need arises; they did so most famously in East Turkestan. The entire area, which has a population of 22 million, went without internet access for ten months in 2009. The BBC reported that those who needed to get online were forced to travel hundreds of miles to neighboring provinces to do so.

Chinese police raid

Hooded and armed Chinese police raid an internet café in northern Tibet.

The plug has been pulled repeatedly in Tibet as well, inspiring one New Republic writer to visit the Tibetan region of Ngaba to take a look at life behind China’s ‘cyber curtain.’ A few years ago one resident of Tsoe, a city in Gansu’s Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, complained to me about the unpredictability of these outages. The internet would disappear after a protest or before a sensitive date, and the entire area would remain offline for days, or weeks, or months. Beijing may be more comfortable doing this to Tibetans and Uyghurs than to the inhabitants of well-to-do Chinese megacities like Shanghai, but we should be mindful of the fact that they’ve developed these tools, and that they’re willing to use them.

In reviewing the repression of civil society, Fallows mentions restrictions on religious practice and the demolition of churches in China. The flattening of churches is cruel, but today it’s hard to read the word ‘demolition’ without thinking about the campaign of destruction at Larung Gar in Tibet, the largest Buddhist institute in the world. More than 9,000 monks and nuns have been expelled since the demolitions began in late July, according to the latest reports from Radio Free Asia. In broader Tibetan civil society, the case of Tashi Wangchuk is illustrative of how little room non-Chinese grassroots activists are afforded in the PRC: He now faces up to 15 years in prison for his efforts to support the implementation of truly bilingual Tibetan and Chinese education systems in Tibet.

Finally, no account of China’s growing use of extraterritorial repression could be complete without a look at Nepal:

Nepal is a case study in how a rising China has come to exert itself over its neighbors. Landlocked and impoverished, with a chaotic political system and recovering from natural disaster, Nepal has capitulated easily to Beijing’s will — and nowhere has that been more strongly expressed than in the fate of would-be immigrants from Tibet.

Responding to demands from China, the Nepalese have installed heightened security on the border. A phalanx of undercover police and informants now makes it almost impossible for Tibetans to cross into Nepal, except by extraordinary means such as the zipline.

Tibetans already in Nepal — many of them born here — are facing new restrictions on getting refugee certificates, jobs, drivers licenses and even exit visas to leave the country.

In all of these categories, the Party’s political crackdowns are hitting Tibetans and Uyghurs harder and more regularly than the average Zhou in China. The results can be deadly, as in these cases where Tibetans were tortured to death in Chinese prisons over the last few years. Another high-profile case is that of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a beloved Tibetan religious leader who died in custody last year while serving an unjust sentence. Just last week the number of Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule reached 146 when a man named Tashi Rabten set himself on fire and died. His wife and children were detained and beaten by the police when they asked that his body be returned to the family. The situation in East Turkestan is no better; a Times reporter who visited earlier this year found the region seething with anger under a sustained crackdown. The recent transfer of Communist Party official Chen Quanguo from the Tibet Autonomous Region to East Turkestan is another bad omen; the man distinguished himself by developing and applying innovative new techniques of repression.

Heavily armed police

Heavily armed police, a constant presence in the heart of Lhasa and in towns across Tibet, would be considered a very unusual sight in Chinese-populated regions of the PRC.

Fallows notes that the United States still has the power to shape the realities in which China chooses its future course. It is vitally important for this power to be used to make concrete improvements in the human rights situation in Tibet and East Turkestan. As the next administration shapes a new China policy, prominent writers like James Fallows can play an important role in ensuring that the human rights concerns of Tibetans and Uyghurs aren’t overlooked. He starts his piece with a question: “What if China is going bad?” I might answer that with another question: Looking at how it treats ‘ethnic minorities,’ how can we say that it hasn’t already gone bad?

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.

Xi Jinping as a Living Buddha

Communist Party officials visiting Beijing for annual meetings shook up the internet and saddled themselves with reams of bad press last week when they harshly attacked the Dalai Lama. That in itself isn’t anything new; even headline-grabbing accusations like claims that the Dalai Lama ‘betrays his country and his religion’ are just new iterations of Beijing’s old themes. What really got people’s attention is the way Party officials claimed ownership and mastery over the Tibetan Buddhist concept of reincarnate lamas: “Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China,” senior Party official Zhu Weiqun told reporters.

cartoon

NYT editorial cartoon- Xi Jinping tries to issue spiritual orders to the Dalai Lama.

There’s an obvious absurdity to this claim; Tibet expert Robert Barnett mentioned seeing Zhu’s statement “through the prism of Monty Python.” It might be useful to look at some of the specifics regarding Beijing’s claim though, in order to fully appreciate the absurdity of these ideas.

To begin, the Party has been riled up by comments the Dalai Lama made over the last few years concerning his reincarnation. He has speculated that he may return outside the borders of the People’s Republic of China, or as a girl, or that he may not be reborn at all. He has emphatically repeated that senior Tibetan Buddhist leaders, and the Tibetan people at large, will end up making the final decisions, and in the meantime as long as he remains in good health these matters won’t have to be decided for some time. Hence this reply, delivered by Padma Choling, the Chinese-appointed governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region: “Whether he wants to cease reincarnation or not, this decision is not up to him.”

Here the obvious absurdity reveals itself: if we take the Dalai Lama to be a human manifestation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, then we can safely say that the decision certainly does lie with him, and not with some department of the Communist Party of China. Padma Choling also asked reporters “if the central government had not approved it, how could he have become the 14th Dalai Lama? He couldn’t.” And yet, he did- because the central government he’s referring to now, established by the Communist Party, didn’t yet exist when the current Dalai Lama was recognized. The central government of China at the time was that of the Republic of China, which has since relocated to Taiwan. It’s worth noting that their involvement was minimal, as well- their representatives arrived after traditional Tibetan methods had been used to confirm the identity of the child, and they merely joined other foreign delegations in attending the enthronement ceremony. The Party would like you to believe that they presided over the ceremony, but historian Tsering Shakya has found no evidence supporting this claim.

Recently the Party has begun insisting that the use of a Qing dynasty relic called the Golden Urn is crucial for recognizing reincarnate lamas. My colleague Pema Wangyal examined the history of the Golden Urn last year, and his findings significantly undermine the Party’s position. The Golden Urn was only involved in the selection of three out of the fourteen Dalai Lamas, and just two of the first ten Panchen Lamas. Notably, the current Dalai Lama was selected without the use of the Golden Urn.

The Communist Party obsession with the Golden Urn has a much deeper flaw, though. As Elliot Sperling points out, the only reason the Golden Urn had any legitimacy in the past is that the emperors of the Qing dynasty practiced Tibetan Buddhism. Emperor Qianlong was acknowledged as an emanation of Manjusri, and he was considered by some to have powers of discernment that might help in the process of searching for reincarnations. Today’s Communist Party leaders have no such faith, and no such acknowledged spiritual roles. The rules of the Communist Party would even appear to make this impossible, as atheism is a must for senior Party leaders.

Even then, the patron-priest relationship that linked the Dalai Lamas to China in the past was formally abrogated by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1913. In the absence of any such arrangement, Beijing would be wise to leave spiritual matters like the recognition of reincarnate lamas to qualified spiritual authorities. This will spare them from the absurdity of documents like State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, a 2007 Chinese law which says people who plan to be reborn must complete an application and submit it to several government agencies for approval. It’s a law which somehow manages to make a mockery of both the Communist Party’s supposed atheism and the religious institutions of Tibetan Buddhism.

To borrow their words, Zhu Weiqun and Padma Choling have taken an ‘extremely frivolous and disrespectful attitude’ towards this issue, and a good first step towards sorting it all out would be for them to stop intentionally conflating the relationships Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism has had with the Communist Party, the Republic of China, and the Qing dynasty. Tibetan Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama are perfectly capable of making their own decisions regarding the future of Tibetan Buddhist institutions, and they should be free to do so without outside interference.

How does one incite ethnic hatred in China?

Imagine a country which is openly denying ethnic minorities the right to check into hotels, and to receive passports. Imagine a country where a rights lawyer from the majority ethnicity calls these kinds of policies ‘ridiculous.’ And finally, imagine a country where the criminal charge of ‘inciting ethnic hatred’ that soon follows is brought against the lawyer for opposing these policies, and not against the government agencies responsible for instituting them.

The lawyer is Pu Zhiqiang, a smart and steadfast man whose commitment to defending rights runs all the way back to his participation in the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement. He has defended high-profile Tibetans, including Karma Samdrup, and Perry Link described his outlook on minorities in the PRC thusly:

In his comments on Uighurs and Tibetans, Pu tries to appreciate how ethnic minorities see things—not ideologically but as practical matters of daily life. He hears about a new regulation ordering that Buddhist temples in Tibet hang portraits of the top Chinese leaders—all Han—and that the stated reason for the move is “to dissipate religious consciousness.” He posts: “Are Han heads insane? Or only the head Hans?”

Pu Zhiqiang

Pu Zhiqiang

The latest word is that Pu rejected the charges as groundless from his cell in a detention center, but it seems unlikely a Party-picked judge will agree- as Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times reminds us, as of 2013 Chinese courts had an acquittal rate of just 0.007%. Jacobs referred to legal experts who say that the issue centers on “China’s party-run judiciary, a system in which the police, prosecutors and judges work together to ensure convictions.” The consequences could be severe for Pu, who would face an 8-year prison term. The evidence presented by the government as proof of his incitement of ethnic hatred comes in the form of a handful of Weibo posts, the equivalent of tweets.

Meanwhile, Tibetans find it difficult to leave the country, and difficult to stay in it as well. Freedom of movement is one of the most basic and fundamental human rights, something enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to which China is a signatory) and in the first Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (although it was later removed after the institution of the hukou system). The restrictions on passports, which are implemented in some places by requiring Tibetans to hand in old passports and then denying them new ones en masse, are completely unlike the way the Communist Party treats Chinese people. Domestic travel has become just as difficult, with Tibetans who live outside the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] finding it difficult or impossible to visit the TAR, and with Tibetans inside the TAR encountering new restrictions on their movement within their own ‘autonomous’ region. “We can’t accept Tibetans,” one hostel worker told Radio Free Asia. “It’s clearly stated in the police regulations.”

By choosing to charge Pu while they continue the practice of structural discrimination, the Party makes it clear that in their view ‘ethnic hatred’ isn’t incited by those who violate the rights of China’s ethnic minorities, but rather by those who call for these violations to end. It’s a view that reflects the absolutely dominant position that the Chinese hold in the Communist Party, and one that leaves no place for the view of the minorities- a polar opposite to the way Pu viewed the Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow recently wrote from a Chinese elementary school where students are taught mnemonic devices involving bloodthirsty Japanese people, and where parents muse about how “Tibetans are considered inferior and such allegedly inferior people will never lead China.” In Xi Jinping’s China they’re far less likely to get in trouble for ‘inciting ethnic hatred’ for saying something like that than someone else would be for commenting on it.

Beijing should learn From the Scottish Referendum

Scotland and Tibet

Left: Scottish voters line up at a polling station.
Right: Snipers on a Lhasa rooftop.

Following the Scottish independence referendum through state-owned Chinese news outlets, one might have noticed that they struck an apocalyptic tone. Global Times variously referred to it as a “shock,” “a tremor shaking the whole Western system,” a “[fierce] outbreak of secessionism,” “a white knuckle ride,” and a case of a minority “sabotaging” the unity of a country[1]. A Yes vote would “wreck the whole UK,” and make Britain a “second-class nation.” These predictions started out looking foolish, but ended up looking even worse on September 19, when the world awoke to find that Scotland had peaceably voted to remain a part of the UK.

To begin with, the framing of the issue reflected the peculiar narratives crafted by Beijing. One Global Times headline asked if a minority would decide the UK’s fate[2]. But this referendum concerned Scotland first and foremost, and it should be noted that the Scottish are not the minority in Scotland, but are in fact 84% of the population. It seems quite sensible that the Scottish would determine the fate of Scotland, and it’s hard to see how members of the Chinese Communist Party Standing Committee could argue with that; every single one of them, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, has been ethnically Chinese. The real question is whether or not the UK should be in control of Scotland, and it’s here that we find Beijing’s real objection. If the Scottish can debate and vote on their union with the UK, why shouldn’t the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese be allowed to do the same today in regards to the PRC?

At times the stories almost seemed to be trying to goad London into overreacting. The Global Times wrote that “liberal practices in the UK might have worked in the past, but now are facing immense uncertainty.” But if we look at the illiberal practices favored by Beijing in responding to perceived threats to their authority- tanks in Tiananmen, missiles aimed at Taiwan, armored personnel carriers driving around Hong Kong, and rule by force in Tibet- and look at the outcomes they’ve fostered, the difference couldn’t be any clearer. On September 18 an astonishing 84.6% voter turnout rendered a democratic decision in which the level of violence never rose above strenuous flag-waving. Contrast this with China, where the Global Times says that “legal, political and moral systems play an effective role” in curbing separatism, but which has been roiled by massive Tibetan protests, harsh crackdowns, and over 130 self-immolations over the last few years. In one revealing news story, one county in Tibet has made so many arrests lately, and anticipates so many more in the future, that they’ve had to enlarge the paramilitary police detention center used to hold Tibetan political prisoners.

It seems that the system China is mainly dependent on force and the threat of violence, while in reality the local legal, political, and moral systems actually did result in peaceful outcome for Scotland. China should find inspiration there instead of deriding it, and allow the minorities of the PRC to freely exercise self-determination in deciding their own futures as well.

Warning – The safety of links to Chinese news sites cannot be guaranteed:
[1] Global Times: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/882270.shtml
[1] Global Times: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/881434.shtml