Kate Saunders

Flawed study of self-immolation and Tibetan violence raises questions on London stage

Pah la

The Tibetan nun Dashar played by Millicent Wong in a scene from Pah-La (Picture: Helen Murray/Royal Court)

A play about a Tibetan Buddhist nun who self-immolates leading to an explosion of violence gave a rare prominence to discussions on contemporary Tibet in a cultural sphere as ‘Pah-La’ concluded its run at the Royal Court Theatre in London (April 3 – April 27).

Pah-La situates its action in contemporary Tibet in 2008, featuring the self-immolation of a Buddhist nun, staged with the whiff of kerosene and circuit of flames inches from the audience that shoot towards the ceiling before the space is plunged into blackness. Even more shattering, although far less convincing, are the scenes to follow, compelling a London audience to consider the searing reality of what Tibetans have endured since the wave of self-immolations began in 2009 – the incarceration and torture of a nun who survived setting herself on fire, the brutal violence of state oppression, the deeply rooted fears of evisceration of Tibetan Buddhist civilization.

Such representations of Tibetan experience are rare given Beijing’s far-reaching and systematic efforts to silence, subvert and politicize depictions of Tibet that differ from those of the CPC. We are much more familiar with the neuralgic responses of pre-emptive capitulation and self-censorship from Hollywood and in the arts.

In Doctor Strange, for instance a mystical Tibetan guru in Marvel comics’ legend was played by white actress Tilda Swinton as a Celtic sage. Movies in the mould of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, depicting China’s invasion, and ‘Kundun’, Scorsese’s moving biopic of the Dalai Lama (with a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, deeply-missed board member of ICT) are unlikely to appear any time soon. When the creators of ‘Pixels’ wanted to show aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall of China, Sony executives worried that the scene might prevent the 2015 movie’s release in China, so they blew up the Taj Mahal instead. The new nationalist, assertive mood, in which Hollywood villains cannot be Chinese otherwise they risk jeopardizing the vital Chinese market, was epitomized in the Chinese action movie Wolf Warrior II, which became the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time. Here, the villain is American, and in the final battle of the film tells Chinese hero Leng, “People like you will always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it.” Leng beats the villain to death and replies, “That was fucking history.” The film closes with the image of a Chinese passport and the words: “Remember, a strong motherland will always have your back!

Pah-La’s significance in bringing contemporary Tibet to the international stage (first London, other performances will follow) was acknowledged by reviewers; veteran theatre critic Michael Billington welcomed Pah-La’s “attempt to breach the inherent parochialism of British theatre” while Time Out said: “Given that Tibet has steadily drifted out of Western discourse as China’s star has ascended, it feels, above all, important that ‘Pah-La’ exists.

Rarer still, then, that a writer takes an immersive approach and seeks to follow through ideas and personal testimonies through interviews and a journey into Tibet itself – which Abhishek Mazumdar makes surprisingly public given the dangers to Tibetans this must have entailed, saying that it involved clandestine nocturnal incursions into the two main prisons in Lhasa, Drapchi and Chushur (Qushui). In addition Abhishek – who has tackled contemporary themes of conflict and violence for instance in Kashmir in other plays – has also spoken about receiving threats and harassment from representatives of the Chinese government.

The drama of the play’s creation as depicted in such interviews and public statements would matter less in terms of evaluation of the work if Abhishek had created an entirely fictitious piece with fictitious characters, inspired by Tibet’s recent history. But Abhishek invites us to consider Pah-La as a literal expression, a direct transmission, of his several years of research, interviews and encounters in Tibet and the exile diaspora. And this is why the play has provoked some serious questions for Tibetans and others who have sought to follow closely the unfolding situation in Tibet – particularly since March 2008 transformed the political landscape.

Pah-La is premised on an idea that gathered force for Bengali playwright Abhishek, which is how can Tibetans, who are firmly non-violent, turn violent? In Abhishek’s reading of contemporary history, this is what happened for the first time in March, 2008 (while tangentially referring to a Chushi Gangdruk resistance fighter defecting to the PLA, the play elides the historical context of armed uprisings against Chinese invaders in the 1950s and ‘60s).

In doing so, Pah-La presents a narrative that hews uncomfortably close to that of the Chinese Party state, which depicted the ground-breaking and overwhelmingly peaceful protests of March, 2008 onwards simply as “one violent riot” in Lhasa on March 14 of that year. This narrative gained ground internationally with the “Lhasa riots” still being used as a convenient shorthand to define and therefore misrepresent a wave of several hundred mainly peaceful protests involving nomads, schoolchildren, scholars, monks and nuns that swept across the plateau in the buildup to the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. As several Tibetan reviewers point out, the play does not contain even a passing reference to the other protests across the plateau at that time, which continued into 2009, and later. (Review by UK based Tibetans Georgina Choekyi Doji, Tenzin Zega, Dechen Pemba, Kunsang Kelden, and Sonam Anjatsang.)

Yet this period was so significant in Tibet’s contemporary history that it was characterized by one of Tibet’s most important intellectuals, the Amdo writer Tagyal (Shokdung) as: “Tibet’s peaceful revolution…a re-awakening of Tibetan national consciousness and solidarity”.

Abhishek contends – and there is no reason to doubt this – that much more serious violence was perpetrated by Tibetans than has been made public so far, in Lhasa on and after March 14, 2008.The issue is not that these claims are implausible, as they are not, but that Pah-La gives a disproportionate focus on Tibetan violence based on evidence that is not yet in the public domain, and that apparently also ignores the painstaking documentation of what happened in 2008 by Tibetan observers, organizations and international media.

In conversation at the Royal Court in London with Abhishek, he told me that in his depictions of violence by Tibetans he used only the incidents described by Tibetan sources, including the burning of a school and references to rape by Tibetan men. “I would not have used accounts by the Chinese I interviewed, as this would have skewed the picture,” he said. In the Tibetan Review piece – the Tibetan reviewers include Dechen Pemba of High Peaks Pure Earth, who documented and translated Tibetan writings about 2008 and beyond – also point out that the more dominant voices in the play belong to the Chinese characters. Similarly, to critique a scene of sexual assault by a Tibetan man of a Chinese woman – as the same fair and balanced review did – is not to deny that rape by Tibetans did not exist in 2008, it was to make the point that the way it was depicted in Pah-La came across as “strange and inappropriate”.

The three pages of acknowledgements in the script of Pah-La give a disturbing insight into the nature of Abhishek’s research inside Tibet, even while they are obliquely framed. Almost any encounters in today’s Lhasa are unlikely to escape the reach of one of the most dystopian and intrusive police and security states in the world. Before he was transferred as Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region to Xinjiang in 2016, soldier-turned-politician Chen Quanguo developed a system combining cutting edge surveillance technology with the deployment of tens of thousands of Party cadres in monasteries, schools, and homes, with the aim of rewiring Tibetan thoughts and beliefs, giving rise to fears of nothing less than obliteration of cultural and religious identity. Abhishek thanks sources for “risking their lives so that the rest of us could hear your stories”. But it is not clear that the real stories of those nuns, or other Tibetans, are being told and given due weight in Pah-La, even despite the genuine insights and at times, one suspects, direct quotes gleaned from his research.

The second act of ‘Pah-La’ in particular seems oddly unmoored from lived Tibetan experience of 2008 and beyond. For example, the dialectical debate between the Chinese prison guard and his captor, Tibetan nun Dashar, centering on a polygraph machine was unconvincing, even while Abhishek’s research on the sale of a number of such machines from Hong Kong to Lhasa after March 2008 is interesting and thought-provoking. (ICT has monitored the use of polygraph or ‘lie-detector’ tests among officials in eastern Tibet, linked to an evaluation of their political loyalty to the CCP. The reports, published in Chinese state media, are evidence of a disturbing new level of intrusion into the private lives and thoughts of Tibetans, indicating the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia in the official sphere and the CPC’s insecurities over the erosion of its authority.)

Abhishek’s research should not be discounted, but nor should the painstaking documentation of March, 2008 onwards by Tibetans and Tibet organizations, as well as the monitoring of Tibetan self-immolations since Kirti monk Tapey set himself ablaze on February 27, 2009, after a prayer ceremony was cancelled at his monastery. With breathtaking courage, in 2008, Tibetans inside Tibet propelled the issue to the top of the international news agenda prior to the Beijing Olympics in August, China’s ‘coming out party’ on a global stage. (See ICT’s report).

Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser was one of those key voices, with more than 3 million internet users visiting her blog, and daily updates translated into numerous languages. There were so many wrenching stories – the blind monk who committed suicide, the lama who was beaten when he tried to prevent a protest from escalating, the hundreds of monks, hooded, bloody, with bare feet, dragged from Drepung monastery onto the Lhasa train to be taken to camps in remote Qinghai. Thousands of Tibetans were ‘disappeared’, often being taken from their homes in the middle of the night to face extreme brutality in ‘black jails.’ The spike in numbers of political prisoners since March 10, 2008, was the largest increase that has ever occurred in Tibetan areas of the PRC under China’s current Constitution and Criminal Law.

Woeser documented the internal lives and feelings of Tibetans, too, at that time; in one of her poems, ‘Fear in Lhasa’, she described how the fear in the city today is greater than at the time of three key events in Tibet’s contemporary history – the Lhasa Uprising, which led to the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile in March 1959, the Cultural Revolution, and the imposition of martial law in March 1989. She wrote: “A hurried farewell to Lhasa/Where the fear starts at the Potala and strengthens as you go east, through the Tibetans’ quarter/Dreadful footsteps reverberate all round, but in daylight you won’t glimpse even their shadow/They are like demons invisible by day, but the horror is worse, it could drive you mad/ A few times I have passed them and the cold weapons in their hands.”

Referring to the scale and scope of the crackdown that followed the protests, Abhishek says: “You could not believe a regime would turns so mad. There was a sense of madness across the board.” Pah-La points towards an aspect of 2008 that is little known, which is the resignations of Tibetan and Chinese prison guards and police from their jobs due to revulsion at the violence that followed the protests and riots, of which Abhishek appears to have some knowledge. He also hints at a way of viewing the protests through the lens of gender via the character of a female prison guard who blames the chaos on “all the fathers”; the Tibetan men for engaging in violence, the Chinese for responding with such overwhelming brutality.

An equally contentious point in Pah-La has proved to be that the (Tibetan) violence in Lhasa in March 2008 was sparked by the self-immolation of a Tibetan nun. Abhishek explained to me that he had heard the rumour of the self-immolation of a Tibetan nun prior to the March protests in 2008 several times; he later said that one of his sources had seen her name on a prison list. He also contends that there have been many more self-immolations than the 155 documented by ICT and other organisations. (The self-immolation in the play takes place on a remote hillside on a railway track in faraway Kham, with no explanation for why the nun Dashar then appears in a prison cell in Lhasa. There is no railway in Kham, yet, the ‘steel dragon’ traversing the Tibetan plateau that opened in 2006 runs from Qinghai to Lhasa).

According to current information, the wave of self-immolations that have swept across the Tibetan plateau began with the Kirti monk Tapey who set fire to himself on February 27, 2009, after a religious ceremony at his monastery in Amdo (Ngaba) was cancelled. (The first self-immolation in Tibetan society in the modern era took place in exile in Delhi, India, on April 27, 1998, when Thubten Ngodrup set himself on fire – and later died – as a Tibetan Youth Congress hunger strike was broken up by Indian police.)

Tibetans have said that when they hear of a self-immolation, they pray that the individual dies, rather than survive the ordeal that follows. Tapey survived. Monks from Kirti monastery in exile said that police opened fire on him after extinguishing the flames, and that according to further information received three years later (demonstrating the extent of the information blackout), “They are not allowing the bullet wounds on his arms and legs to heal, but repeatedly re-opening them in the name of medical treatment.” The same sources said that when Tapey was taken to hospital after his self-immolation in Barkham the first thing he said to his mother was, “I am not the son you want to see. I should have died that day, but I didn’t manage it.”

An official documentary shown on Chinese TV in 2012 showed Tapey in hospital, wearing monks’ robes, with his head, neck, arms and legs heavily scarred, sitting under a pink quilt emblazoned with the word ‘Love.’ Despite the heavy pressure he must have been under to express his regret, or blame the Dalai Lama, in the video Tapey simply talks carefully only about his physical condition, saying that most parts of his body have physically healed and he can write slowly with one of his hands. The humanity of hospital staff is conveyed through a nurse, speaking to the official news agency Xinhua, who says: “With Tibetan incense, prayer beads and Buddhism sutras laid on his bedside table, Tapey normally spent no less than an hour participating in Buddhist services in both the morning and evening.”

Another monk who self-immolated and is depicted in the same video gives a similar succinct message to camera, omitting any mention of regret and manipulation by “external forces” (despite inevitable pressure to single out the Dalai Lama as being responsible). Eighteen-year old Kirti monk Lobsang Kelsang, who set fire to himself on September 26, 2011, was filmed in his hospital bed saying: “I have no words but thanks – doctors have given me another life, they all treat me well.”

The Party state narrative on March 2008 was immediate and unambiguous. When CCTV made a documentary called “Records of the Lhasa Riots” in 2008, footage of the incidents on March 14, 2008, was broadcast over and over again on primetime television in China, and was made into a DVD. The deaths of Chinese shop workers were broadcast repeatedly on Chinese national television, with little or no mention of the Tibetan shop workers who died in the same fires – and no mention of Tibetans killed when Chinese troops opened fire, or afterwards following torture. (Leading Tibetan historian and scholar Tsering Shakya wrote in the book “The Struggle for Tibet” written with Wang Lixiong that when much larger riots broke out in Wengan, Guizhou and inland China, even Chinese bloggers wondered why the protestors in Lhasa had been demonized on national television as criminals, while in Wengan the local leadership was sacked, an investigation team sent to review local policies, and news of the incident scarcely reported in the official media at all.)

The official response was far more muted and ambiguous when the self-immolations began. It was not until May 2012 –three years after Tapey set fire to himself in 2009 – that the Chinese state media produced its most elaborate response in the form of a video broadcast in both Chinese and English (with some variations between the two) on Chinese Central Television (CCTV), China’s predominant state television broadcaster. The preparation time accorded to the documentary, and a series of articles published a month later which gave more human details about those who had self-immolated, gave a sense of individuals within a bureaucratic system struggling for an adequate and coherent response.

It is still not known exactly how many people were killed or died after torture following the events of March, 2008; the Beijing leadership engaged in a comprehensive cover-up of the torture, disappearances and killings across Tibet combined with a virulent propaganda offensive against the exiled Tibetan leader, Nobel Peace Laureate the Dalai Lama.

Pah-La is a flawed but passionately-felt attempt by the playwright to lead us to a deeper understanding, and it poses serious questions. More answers will come from inside Tibet over time; just as it is only now that we have gained a fuller comprehension of the sheer scale of the killings and oppression in March, 1959, through Jianglin Li’s essential analysis of eyewitness sources and classified government records.

The most powerful scene in Pah-La, for me was entirely without dialogue. Nuns are darting around a dark stage amidst fluttering religious texts, in the gaze of a gleaming Buddha; Buddhist mantras can be heard amid Communist Party slogans. It is a moment when the sheer power and energy of Tibetan culture and individuals seeking to transcend their terror through the transformative impacts of Tibetan Buddhism can be sensed.

At an after-show talk during Pah-La’s run in London Abhishek Mazumdar reflected on his experience meeting a child who later apparently died of starvation in prison, after March 2008. “What sort of play do you write after that? With Tibetans I speak to, there is often a sense of having lived through an experience that is so harsh, it is not that one doesn’t want to talk about it, it is that one doesn’t have the words.”

Tibetan football team make an impact

I’m not by any means a football fan, but the arrival of the Tibetan team in London for the CONIFA World Football Cup – bringing together dispossessed nations and others locked out of FIFA – kicked off something rather special.

For a start, no other team had been given a personal blessing by the Dalai Lama, who in a special audience before their visit to the UK urged them to set an example of compassion. They are the only team in the history of football, no doubt, to present their opponents with khatags, white blessing scarves, before the game – and to assert that winning or losing are not important. The British media hailed them as the undoubted stars of the show, with many journalists making a special effort just to attend the matches of the Tibetan team.

The controversial nature of their participation gained headlines, too. Organizer Paul Watson said that CONIFA were talking to several firms about sponsorship that would have totaled six figures. “But at quite a late stage they each came to us and said: ‘Um, yes, but you’d have to take Tibet out’,” he told The Guardian. “We’d underestimated the difficulty of coming up against China and the FIFA network.” What did CONIFA do? “Obviously we refused to comply.” Sometimes pushback against China and defense of principles comes from unexpected quarters.

That same sense of solidarity was evident at every match. And wherever the exile Tibetan team played, the exile Tibetan community of Britain came too, with Tibet flags, banners – and momos. In Bracknell Town, a fan wrote on Twitter that the Tibet supporters had brought food for everyone – “Not seen that at the Emirates before”. After matches impromptu picnics were held in parks near by; there was joyful circle dancing and a real sense of pride that Tibetans were competing in a world football tournament.

The ten-day event in London has brought together 16 teams from nations, minorities and regions not part of FIFA to compete in an alternative World Cup. The competitors include the Romani people, the North American region of Cascadia, Matabeleland, Panjab and United Koreans in Japan.

The players in the Tibetan team are from the exile diaspora in India, Nepal and Bhutan with some from North America, Europe and two from the UK. One of the team, Wangchuk, said that he had never been back to Tibet after escaping across the Himalayas as a child, carried by his mother, 17 years ago. She had said to him that in India, he would have more opportunities to study and work. If he remained in Tibet, she told him, he would have no education and have to do construction work.

Newspaper coverage of the Tibetan soccer team.

A month ago, Wangchuk told a British journalist, he was able to get in touch with a family member, his sister, for the first time since he left. She told him that their mother had died. “He said that they are not able to talk about politics, the Tibetan situation or even Indian society, because the Chinese government ‘will know.’ But he did tell his family he would be playing on the national team. His sister cried of happiness.”

Another member of the team, Nyendak, told The Independent it is “a privilege to be part of the national team squad… I am really proud to represent Tibet globally.” He said that football is the closest thing Tibetans have to a national sport, and he believes the team will be backed “by all Tibetans, in and outside Tibet”.

There was a neat symbolism to the Tibetan team coming together in London. Prior to the Chinese invasion in 1949, Britain was the only country to formally recognise Tibet as an independent nation, because British representatives were stationed in Lhasa from 1904 to 1947 to liaise with the Tibetan government. And during this period, Tibetans were first introduced to football by the British Trade Agency in Gyantse. The introduction of British military training at Lhasa in 1913 and increase in the army and introduction of the modern police force in the early 1920s saw more football in Tibet. According to the Tibetan National Sports Association, some of the veteran players of popular teams like the Lhasa, the Potala, the Drapchi and Security Regiment, are still alive today.

After a match against Kabylia at Enfield – the Tibetan team had lost, but were philosophical, and a Tibetan friend observed simply that it could have been worse, it could have been 12-1 – I made an informal presentation to the team on behalf of ICT. Mindful of the historic connection, it included some England football team kitbags. But most of all we wanted to express our support and admiration for the spirit and grit of a team who have played with loyalty to their nation and culture first and foremost, and in doing so, succeeded in reaching people across the world with the story of Tibet.

Nomads land: ICT advocacy at UNESCO

“The wide, deceptively empty spaces of the high grasslands can no longer be categorized as just beautiful stretches of land. They are also spaces of continuing protest or contestation.”

– Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, ‘A Home in Tibet’ (Penguin India)

Tenzin Choekyi reads ICT’s statement at the UNESCO Committee meeting while Chinese delegates below the balcony celebrate the inscription and take photographs.

In Krakow last month, important decisions on the world’s most important cultural and natural landscapes were made in a politically-charged environment at the annual UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. A vast landscape of wetlands, wildlife and lakes on the Tibetan plateau, traditionally the domain of Tibetan nomads, was among the sites being discussed – in UNESCO terms, the Hoh Xil ‘property’ of the Chinese Communist Party government.

In a report released just prior to the opening of the meeting, the International Campaign for Tibet documented how the Hoh Xil nature reserve on the Tibetan plateau – Achen Gangyap in Tibetan – is in the middle of three major nature reserves that increasingly exclude normal Tibetan land use such as nomadic herding, situate the state as the sole agency of control, and encourage mass tourism. (Gabriel Lafitte has closely tracked progress towards the nomination on his blog.)

China’s official nomination proposal for this vast area of Qinghai, twice the size of Belgium, required UNESCO World Heritage Committee members to accept a framework that specifically labelled traditional pastoral land-use a threat, involving the criminalization of traditional productive and sustainable activities as pastoralism and gathering medicinal herbs. It involved tacit acquiescence with China’s ambitious and elaborate state-engineering policies that are re-shaping the landscape of the world’s highest and largest plateau – notably, the removal of Tibetan nomads from their land.

Tibetan nomads have protected the land and its wildlife for centuries, and are responsible for Hoh Xil being recognized as World Heritage in the first place. Their essential involvement as stewards of this vast landscape in order to maintain the long-term health of the ecosystems and the water resources that China and Asia depend upon is acknowledged by grasslands experts and scientists within the PRC, as well as internationally. There is a consensus that indigenous stewardship and herd mobility are essential to the health of the rangelands and help to mitigate climate change.

So ICT went to Krakow to speak on behalf of the nomads. Together with Tenzin Choekyi, a skilled Tibetan advocate who studied Tibetan pastoralism and Chinese grasslands policy, we talked to Ambassadors, staffers and international NGOs both in UNESCO offices in Paris beforehand and directly at the Committee itself. We made a presentation at a global Civil Society Forum in Krakow organized by Berlin-based NGO World Heritage Watch before the opening of the UNESCO meeting.

After Choekyi spoke about the implications of unexamined inscription of Hoh Xil at the NGO Forum in Villa Decius (a stately former Renaissance palace that now hosts cultural dialogues), the room fell silent. It was clear that few had grasped the significance of China’s nomination. While the Chinese government flatly denied that it had relocated any nomads from the ‘property’, our research gave reason to assume that China had indeed removed Tibetan nomads from the area prior to making its World Heritage bid (detailed in ICT’s report). International conservation body the IUCN also stated in its evaluation that the Chinese state party would seek to move those remaining into different types of work.

Protecting the wildlife of Hoh Xil

Images of the Hoh Xil area showing Tibetan antelope crossing a road at the UNESCO Committee meeting.

Serious concerns about China’s nomination for UNESCO status had already been raised in a substantive report by IUCN, which sent a scientific evaluation team to Hoh Xil last year. IUCN raised major concerns about the exclusion of herders and the dangers to wildlife presented by unqualified endorsement by UNESCO, including to the iconic species, the Tibetan antelope, adopted by China as mascot for the Olympic Games in 2008. Tibetans such as Sonam Dargye lost their lives protecting the Tibetan antelope, or tsö, from poachers in Hoh Xil. (See Gabriel Lafitte’s blog.)

IUCN also admitted that local people had expressed concern to them about relocations – a significant acknowledgement, given the dangers faced by Tibetans or local Chinese people who dare to raise even moderate concern about projects prioritised by the Beijing leadership. The Chinese government does not allow Tibetans or other ‘ethnic minorities’ to express views that are different to those of the Party state, and this is a high-profile project which matters to Beijing.

We argued that for these reasons and others, inscription of Hoh Xil without further assessment contravened both UNESCO and IUCN guidelines, including the principles of FPIC (free, prior and informed consent) and UNDRIP (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) which are recognised in UNESCO Operational Guidelines.

Privately, many officials expressed their concern and support, but no member of the Committee was prepared to volunteer any formal amendments to the language of the nomination seeking to guarantee that traditional nomadic life of Tibetans must be respected and guaranteed in the nomination document as a precondition for the inscription, including a land use plan that establishes the right of Tibetans to graze their animals.

UNESCO’s brand equity is highly sought after; Tibet has become a major destination for Chinese tourists, with official (and inflated) statistics stating that by the end of 2020, the number of annual visits to Tibet should reach 20 million. According World Heritage status to Hoh Xil, a wild landscape between Lanzhou and Xining, on the way to Lhasa, will contribute towards a strategy that identifies ‘safari tourism’ as a key area for expansion.

An Economist article last week drew attention to the new popularity of ‘glamping’ for Chinese tourists in wilderness areas – with tourists staying in luxury yurts or nomad tents as the authorities settle nomads across the PRC.

Mapping the sacred landscape

We also pressed for the mapping and description of sites of sacred and cultural importance, with free access to the sites as well as the freedom for Tibetans to practice their religion there. The latter would have supported an innovative approach being developed by some Tibetan environmentalists working on a bid to have the Hoh Xil and Sanjiangyuan areas declared as a Sacred Natural Site (SNS) under Tibetan community control, in direct contrast to the nomination by China to UNESCO. This is a category that has no official status, although the IUCN concept of an ICCA, an Indigenous or Community-Conserved Area, is similar. It is linked to a more widespread promotion of ‘sacred’ landscapes as a means of conserving nature and culture. (See for instance http://sacrednaturalsites.org/items/the-sacred-natural-sites-of-kham/).

In her book, ‘A Home in Tibet’, Tibetan poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa explains the connection of Tibetan nomads with the landscape, highlighting rituals in monasteries in Kham, her home area, that link man and nature, and are “a feature of Tibetan religious life indicative of the belief that both the natural world and humans are psychological and moral beings dependent on each other for their survival.” She writes that her relative Dorje “carries the land in his body. He remembers the rocks he played on and the trees he hid behind. […] He knows the treasures of the land: gold, silver, stone. He says lamas have known for decades of the precious metals buried in the soil. It is the duty of the people to keep the treasures in the land. […] Such a culture of beliefs […] has protected the mountains, the rivers and the animals thus far.”

The vote on Achen Gangyap came up after lunch in Krakow on July 7. It was clear that the nomination would go ahead without any amendments. Kuwait expressed its “sincere admirations to the commitment and excellence that People’s Republic of China demonstrates in enriching the diversity of our World Heritage”, while the Philippines even congratulated China on its “very beautiful dossier” that was “a pleasure to read”. Amidst the praise for the PRC – although China’s policies are devastating Tibet’s fragile landscape – several countries did at least refer to the importance of the nomads and their integral link to protection of the plateau. The Ambassador for Portugal said: “We know how local communities and their traditional users contribute to preserve the landscape and the conservation of species and their habitats. This coexistence seems to be an essential dimension of the property’s Outstanding Universal Value, and should be thoroughly upheld and safeguarded.”

When the nomination was overwhelmingly approved, the large Chinese delegation were jubilant, to the extent that the Polish Committee Chair Dr Jacek Purchla had to advise the Committee that there was a specific area for delegates to celebrate approval of nominations, and that was outside the hall, not inside.

Above the hubbub on the floor of the Committee as representatives from different governments came to congratulate China, Tenzin Choekyi read our prepared statement. You can watch it here – what you do not see is the Chinese delegation gathered around, taking photographs of Choekyi, as she stands to face representatives of the world’s governments, responsible for making critical decisions on the earth’s natural and cultural heritage. (The transcript of Choekyi’s statement is here: https://www.savetibet.org/unesco-approves-controversial-world-heritage-tibet-nomination-despite-concerns/)

Gabriel Lafitte observed: “Politics trumped facts on the ground, inconvenient facts such as China’s removal of most of the Tibetan nomad guardians of the landscape to remote concrete settlements on industrial urban fringes, with nothing to do, dependent on state handout rations. The decision by the World Heritage Committee says much about what we may grieve for on our paths old and new. The rubber stamp of anything proposed by China is axiomatic, and has little to do with heritage.”


The eventual outcome makes it all the more important for ICT to continue its advocacy, in partnership with Tibetan advocates.

    • We forged new links with civil society advocates from across the globe, from Polish environmentalists and lawyers defending ancient forest, to Turkish activists speaking out against the razing of historic villages. In powerful demonstrations of solidarity, when individuals made statements to the Committee, other civil society activists would stand with them. (The hard work by NGOs and experts under the umbrella organisation World Heritage Watch resulted in further assertions of the importance of civil society in world heritage decisions and the establishment of an International Indigenous Peoples Forum on World Heritage.)


    • The controversy over Achen Gangyap (Hoh Xil) went global; it was covered in the international media from the New York Times to the BBC.


  • The Chinese government was forced to respond to UNESCO and issue a statement stating that it will “fully respect the will of the local herders and their traditional culture, religious beliefs, and lifestyle”. Several governments made specific statements on protecting the nomads in their statements to the Committee; for instance, Portugal and Finland opened up the discussion by references to the need to protect Tibetan nomads. International conservation body IUCN also gave a clear message on Hoh Xil in its new document on the World Heritage list: “The traditional use of the site by nomadic herders has co-existed with nature for millennia. The World Heritage listing unequivocally supports the rights of the Tibetan pastoralists in the area.”

IUCN, in its statement in Krakow, also explicitly referred to “international rights norms” that need to be observed with regard to Tibetan herders and pastoralists, which acknowledges the broad significance of human rights principles for land-use policies, an assurance that was something ICT had pressed for.

The work must continue to help ensure that Tibetan pastoralists are protected, and to seek to support Tibetan conservationists in their skillful work at a grass roots level wherever possible.

A heartfelt new song about Tibetan nomads is circulating online, sung by well-known singers inside Tibet: In order to understand Tibetan feelings about their integral connection to the Tibetan landscape, Tenzin Choekyi translated some of the lyrics as follows:

“Studying the development of days and herds
Gathering the beauty of the nights’ constellations
Are the nomads of the plateau
Studying the development of days and herds
Gathering the beauty of the nights’ constellations
Are the owners of the plateau
In the depth of your mind is the luminosity of the sun, the moon and the stars
In your home are the values of the ancestral forefathers
Oh hear…

You are the first to uphold our plateau’s foundation

You are the last to uphold our plateau’s foundation.”

‘Burning against the Dying of the Light’: Politics of protest and self-immolations in Tibet highlighted in major international exhibition

An unflinching examination of the politics of protest in Tibet, confronting new audiences with the anguish of self-immolations in Tibet, is currently a part of an international art Bienniale in Belgium on the theme of justice, until May 21.

The last testimonies of self-immolators, smartphone videos, portraits and Tarkovsky-like official footage are brought together by film-making duo Tenzin Sonam and Ritu Sarin to shattering effect in ‘Burning against the Dying of the Light’ at the Contour 8 Bienniale.

Tenzin and Ritu, a film-making duo based in Dharamsala, India, frame the self-immolations within the context of the worldview of Tibetan Buddhism – “as do the self-immolators themselves” – and the stark threat to the survival of Tibet as a civilization, a sovereign and distinct entity. They write that the work “attempts to locate this unprecedented and dramatic expansion of dissent within a historical continuum that has its roots in the occupation and colonization of Tibet under Chinese rule six decades ago.”

At the heart of the exhibition, a prayer wheel slowly turns, adorned with a single khatag and tolling a bell, its ring intended to dispel ignorance. Unlike a typical Buddhist prayer wheel, it consists of its bare armature, ringed by metal bars with rolls of religious text exposed at its centre. Embedded within it is a video screen showing footage of self-immolations shot on camera-phones in close, unsparing detail by witnesses whose names we will never know, and who may have been thrown into prison as a result.

In ‘Two Friends’, a single channel video depicts 22-year old former monk, Ngawang Norphel, blackened almost beyond recognition as a human being, speaking on camera to monks who are tending him after his self-immolation.

“When we hear of a self-immolator, we pray that he or she has died,” says one Tibetan friend. The video of Ngawang Norphel, lying covered in an orange quilt in the monastery, is utterly harrowing. Struggling to form words, he asks the monks more than once of the fate of his friend Tenzin Khedup, 24, who set fire to himself at the same time and died. In an unbearably poignant exchange, Ngawang Norphel asks whether his friend has died, and the monks reassure him that: “Tenzin Khedup is fine. He is home.” “Is he dead?” “He is not dead.” Ngawang Norphel survived for several more weeks before dying in a Chinese hospital.

Many Tibetans who have self-immolated have sought to underline the religious context of their acts, or have sought to be close to monks with the belief that the appropriate prayers will then be offered after their death by fire. Some have died with their hands clasped in prayer, while many of those who have self-immolated have done so beside a stupa, monastery or nunnery. Others have self-immolated during important prayer ceremonies. Overwhelmingly, Tibetans who have set fire to themselves and who have risked their lives in peaceful protest have called for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet.

Lines from the famous letter by Thich Nhat Hanh to Martin Luther King in Ritu and Tenzin’s exhibition further illuminate the sacrifice of those individuals burning their bodies: “A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to the body; life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, ie to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.”

On the wall, lines from a poem left by 17-year old nun Sangye Dolma, whose luminous and beautiful face appears here more as a classical painting than selfie, reveal a message of hope beyond despair. Like many of those who set themselves on fire in Tibet, it is not addressed to the U.N., the international community but to fellow Tibetans, written in solidarity, and urging them to “Look my Tibetan brothers and sisters! Look at the land of the snow. Our destiny is on the rise. […] Children of the snow lion! Do not forget that you are Tibetan. Tibet is an independent country.”

Tenzin and Ritu, whose feature films and documentaries include ‘Dreaming Lhasa’ and ‘The Sun Behind the Clouds’ (http://whitecranefilms.com/), have also created a 25-minute film, Drapchi Elegy. It tells the story of Namdrol Lhamo, one of the 14 ‘singing nuns’ imprisoned in the notorious Drapchi prison in Lhasa in the early 1990s for peacefully demonstrating against Chinese occupation and rule. This deeply poignant film, showing Namdrol at work in an elderly people’s home, and at home in Belgium, “reflects on the loneliness of political exile, and on the direct progression of the Tibetan freedom struggle, from the defiance of the nuns in the 1990s to the sacrifice of the self-immolators 20 years later.”

Remembering her time in prison, Namdrol weeps as she remembers the remarkable solidarity that exists, and continues to exist today in exile, between her sisters in prison – “We used to comfort each other – when we were doing this, or singing silly songs, we were happy”. You can see the film at: http://www.ibraaz.org/channel/164

‘Burning against the Dying of the Light’ is on display in the historic town of Mechelen, half an hour by train from Brussels, until May 21. Contour Biennale 8, with its theme this year of ‘Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium’ is symbolically sited in the grounds of the Great Council, established in Mechelen during the 15th Century for law to be enacted across Dutch, German and French territories. Consistent with the theme, other works include the transformation of the wine cellar of a 15th century manor once owned by the city’s watchmakers into an underwater oceanic zone reflecting on ideas of ecological solidarity. In the House of the Great Salmon, originally owned by a monastery for lepers, the Karrabing Film Collective looks at barriers for indigenous people – racialised and colonized incarceration, poverty and securitization.

‘Burning against the Dying of the Light’ compels new audiences unfamiliar with the Tibet story to confront the self-immolation protests in Tibet “as part of a continuing struggle to prevent the light of an entire civilization from dying out”, according to Tenzin and Ritu. They write: “A number of these fiery protests have been captured on mobile phones and secretly made available to the outside world. This act itself is punishable by long prison sentences. The hurriedly shot videos bring home in graphic and horrific detail, the physical reality of self-immolations. To witness a living human body engulfed in flames is a truly distressing and disturbing sight. But what right do we have to turn away our faces when the very point of such a public protest is to draw our attention to the cause they represent?”

Remembering Harry Wu

Harry Wu

Harry Wu addressing the “Flame of Truth” torch relay in Washington, D.C. in September 2012 organized by the Tibetan community in North America to draw attention to the plight of the Tibetan people.

Harry Wu, the human rights crusader who ensured the Chinese name for prison labor camps entered the Oxford English Dictionary, has died aged 79. He served the first period of his 19 years in prison camps in the fearsome Qinghe farm in the Beijing area, and it was there, on an ox cart leaving the graveyard, that he made a promise to himself that began his life’s work.

It was the early 1960s, at a time of desperate famine, and Harry had been returning to barracks after burying his friend, Chen Ming, a mild-mannered, reserved man who had been arrested as a ‘thought reactionary’ at around the same time as Harry.

That morning, in the cell, when Harry and the other prisoners woke up, Chen Ming didn’t move, and he didn’t sit up for the 4 o’clock meal. His cellmates assumed he was dead, like so many others in the prison camp – which housed inmates in an advanced state of starvation, kept apart from the healthier prisoners. An hour later, the duty prisoners arrived to take away Chen Ming’s body. At midnight, he came back. Harry was told that a duty prisoner in the storage room had seen a hand reach up and shake the door. It was one of the seven bodies piled up before being taken by ox cart to the mass graves. Everyone thought it was a ghost – but it was Chen Ming. He was not quite dead.

Harry persuaded the guards to feed his friend. “He is not an ordinary prisoner – he has come back from hell,” he told them. Chen Ming was given two corn buns; he grabbed them from the plate and stuffed them both into his mouth at once. A few seconds later, he clutched his stomach in pain and dropped to the floor. He was dead. His stomach, weakened from months of starvation, could not digest so much rich corn so quickly.

All night, Harry watched over Chen Ming’s body. As other prisoners slumbered around them, Chen Ming’s face brightened, taking on a rosy hue typical of the last stage of oedema, known as ‘the last redness of the setting sun’. Harry began to think. Usually he would save his energy by making his mind a blank. But that night he began to wonder what his own life was worth – what his friend’s life had been worth. “If I die tomorrow like Chen Ming, I thought, my life will have been worth nothing,” he said later. “But somehow I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to surrender.”

The next morning, when the duty prisoners came to take Chen Ming’s body, Harry refused to let go of his friend. The surprise of the security captain on duty at Harry’s emotions – an unusual occurrence in a prison camp where the living and the dead were often indistinguishable – outweighed his anger. He climbed into the ox cart and sat next to Chen Ming’s body, wrapped in a quilt among several other corpses. The cart rolled into a section of the camp known as 586 dotted with small pieces of wood marking the graves. Harry said: “Suddenly my mind became animated, and I had what seemed almost a revelation. Human life has no value here…It has no more importance than a cigarette ash flicked in the wind. But if a person’s life has no value, then the society that shapes that life has no value either. If the people mean no more than dust, then the society is worthless and does not deserve to continue. If the society should not continue then I should oppose it.” He made a promise to himself that he could not “slide into nothingness: one day we are all going to be a handful of dust. So we mustn’t waste our life.”

Harry had to reclaim some value from the fear and death that defined his life in the laogai, or Chinese prison camp system. He decided to do this by remembering everything he could about the camps, and by publicizing the truth about them when he was finally free. He began to train his mind by practicing elephant chess in his head, and retelling the plots of his favorite novels – Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities among them. He used what Solzhenitsyn termed the “prisoners’ telegraph system: attentiveness, memory, chance meetings”. Whenever he was beaten during struggle sessions in the Cultural Revolution, he would shield his head from the blows. And when he was pulled from a coal mine after an accident, his first anxiety was that it might have affected his brain, and therefore his memory.

It was this promise that drove him to reveal to the world the true nature of the Chinese laogai system with the aim that it would take its place in history beside Treblinka and Dachau, and for the word laogai to enter the English dictionary, just as the acronym gulag has come to signify the Stalinist labour camps. In doing so, Harry had to “cross the line between life and death” once again.

More than 40 years after his release from the camps, Harry arrived in San Francisco with $40 in his pocket. His sister had arranged for him to be a visiting scholar at Berkeley, California, but she couldn’t support him financially, so he worked in a doughnut shop. At first, he tried to live a normal life, but he couldn’t forget the people he’d left behind, the prisoners like Chen Ming who had died. He was awarded a research scholarship at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, and began the work he had prepared for during his imprisonment. He travelled the length and breadth of the USA to compile the first database of its kind of the experiences of laogai prisoners. He lobbied the US Congress and European MEPs about the prison camps and their exports to the West; he ploughed through Chinese internal documents to find the smallest details and the most shocking truths.

And then he decided he had to go back to China, risking his life, freedom and happiness to revisit the labor camps and gather evidence that would prove to the wider world that they exist. He found a devoted ally in his former wife, Ching-Lee, a Taiwanese secretary for the Minister of Economic Affairs in Taipei. Although Ching-Lee had never heard of the laogai until she met Harry in a coffee bar in Taipei, she became committed to his cause and in 1991, they spent their honeymoon filming labor camps undercover in China.

Harry made five dangerous journeys into China on his own and with Ching-Lee, documenting and exposing human rights abuses. For parts of the trips, he was accompanied by journalists from the American CBS network and Yorkshire TV, and once by the late, and much-missed, pioneering broadcaster Sue Lloyd-Roberts of the BBC. Each visit produced remarkable footage, giving the West its first glimpse inside the Chinese prison labor camp system. It forced the U.S. and European governments to take human rights abuses in China seriously, and U.S. Customs, under pressure from Congress, began to make seizure orders on suspicious goods coming in from China – it is illegal in the U.S. and U.K. to import prison labor. Once Harry disguised himself as a Chinese public security officer to enter a camp; at other times he posed as a U.S. businessman and a tourist.

Sue Lloyd-Roberts remembered that, during their undercover trip to China in 1994, Harry met a 29-year old prisoner who had been sentenced to 19 years for taking part in a street brawl. He was 23 when he was arrested, the same age as Harry when he was first detained in the late 1950s. Sue said: “Harry emptied our Jeep of food and gave it to the young man, who lived in a tiny shack guarding the piles of cotton picked by the prisoners. He sat with the prisoner, tears running down his cheeks, reliving and sharing the desolation and hopelessness that had overwhelmed him when, still in his twenties, he saw no future outside China’s prison camps. Our driver and I had to force him back into the Jeep before the guards returned and arrested us.”

On his trip in 1995, Harry was registered as a U.S. citizen and travelled under his legal name of Peter H. Wu. He got an entry visa, but knew that he was one of 49 dissidents who had been named on a secret government blacklist in May 1994. On this list he was labeled a ‘category 3’ person, which meant in effect that border authorities were to seek immediate instruction from higher authorities on how to handle the case, while their charges are kept either in isolation or under close surveillance. On 19 June, 1995, Harry was detained at the Chinese border post of Horgas when he tried to enter from Kazakhstan, together with North Carolina law student Sue Howell. They were escorted into Xinjiang and locked in a guest-house. Sue Howell was expelled, taking back a message for Ching-Lee from her husband: he told her that she should remember China was his home. His parents and his brother had died there under the Communist regime, and they were buried there. That was his place, and if he died there, that was OK he had said.

Within days of his arrest, an international campaign in the USA and Europe was gearing up to free him and his case became an international cause celebre. The International Herald Tribune depicted him in a convict outfit with other prisoners busily sewing ‘Free Harry Wu’ T-shirts, with a guard saying, “Prisoner Wu, you’ll be assigned to Machine 309 on aisle 9! And step on it – a big rush order just came in!” One man locked in a lakeside villa guarded by men with machine guns had become the focus of a storm in an already strained relationship between China and the USA.

When Harry was arrested in 1957, he didn’t have the benefit of a trial. In 1995, he had a four-hour trial and a lawyer. He was handed a sentence of 15 years for spying. The sentence came in two parts, and the second was expulsion from China. Harry didn’t know whether it would mean he served the sentence before being expelled and was astonished to hear the expulsion was to take place immediately. “So I had no choice, I had to go home,” he used to say, deadpan. He disembarked at San Francisco wearing jeans and a baseball cap, and quoting Hemingway.

Later in his life, in exile, Harry’s sense of purpose was entwined with a strong spiritual awareness; he was a Catholic, connecting to the kindness and teachings he remembered from his childhood at school in Shanghai. He became close to the Dalai Lama and was a passionate advocate of the Tibetan cause, including the stories of Tibetan prisoners such as Ama Adhe, who spent 27 years in prison in Tibet, in his Laogai Museum in Washington.

In the camps, Harry had clung to his love of literature by keeping his small collection of books, despite the danger if they were discovered. He loved art, enjoying the work of Rembrandt and Monet, and once said to me that if his life had been different he would have loved to be a painter. But that last glance at the graveyard numbered 586 – with pieces of quilt still sticking up from the earth after Chen Ming was buried – had seared itself into Harry’s memory, never to be forgotten. He knew the truth of the Russian proverb: “Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.”

Also see:

A red dress too far? Xi goes to the Palace in the UK’s ‘epic kowtow’ to China

Parliament square

Protests at Parliament square.

The day before UK PM Cameron entertained Xi Jinping for a pint in his local pub last week, a Chinese Tiananmen survivor and two young Tibetan women were locked up overnight by police in London and informed they were not allowed to be ‘within 100 metres’ of the ‘victim’ of their ‘harassment’, Chinese Communist Party boss Xi.

It was a troubling conclusion to a week in which the UK government faced an angry public backlash to ‘the great British kowtow’, in which the authoritarian leader of the Chinese Communist Party, currently presiding over the most serious crackdown in the PRC in a generation, was accorded a glittering surfeit of Royal pomp and obsequiousness in line with Chancellor Osborne’s new China policy of doing whatever the Beijing leadership wants.

As the golden carriage bearing Xi Jinping and the Queen progressed down a Mall lined with cheering Chinese students with immense red flags, uniform tee-shirts, drummers and dragons, dissident writer Ma Jian had tears in his eyes. “The message from the Chinese tyrants to their subjects is clear: if the queen of the UK, the oldest democracy in the world, lavishes your president with such respect and approbation, then what right have you to criticise him?” Ma Jian wrote.

Tibetan protesters

Sonam and Jamphel, the two Tibetan protesters arrested during Xi Jinping’s London visit, welcomed by members of the Tibetan community in London on their release.

There were numerous attempts by the Chinese students and security personnel to obscure or intimidate the small number of Tibetans, Chinese (Falun Gong and others), Uyghur and other protesters on the Mall. Carole Beavis wrote that she was “singled out by three official looking Chinese men, who effectively herded me away from the event, lowered my arm holding the camera.”

Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK coincides with a terrifying crackdown on civil society in China in which lawyers and human rights defenders have been targeted, with many enduring horrific torture. More than 140 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, an act emerging from anguish at unbearable oppression, while moderate Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti is serving life in prison for peacefully advocating dialogue.

But it is not only within the PRC. Xi and the top Party leadership are aggressively seeking to export their assault on civil society and to roll back freedom and democracy in other parts of the world.

The three arrests in London last Wednesday are in the context of police being pressed elsewhere in Europe to take stronger measures against peaceful demonstrations (for example in Denmark and Belgium.

Shao Jiang’s protest took place as Xi Jinping arrived in the all important ‘square mile’, the financial centre of London (Chancellor Osborne wants London to be the worldwide center for renminbi trading).

TV footage shows Shao Jiang, a British citizen who was imprisoned for 18 months after involvement with the Tiananmen Square protests, stepping into the road with two small white placards bearing the statements ‘end autocracy’ and ‘democracy now’. Several police officers charge towards him, knocking him off his feet, helmets flying, and take him into custody.

Soon afterwards, two Tibetan women who had been displaying Tibetan flags nearby were led away by police and all three held overnight in the cells.

At the police station that night, the duty officer told me that they were accused of ‘conspiracy’ ‘to commit threatening behaviour’. But Shao Jiang had been on his own – could they mean that perhaps he had been thinking of standing in another part of the public highway with his two placards? Perhaps the two young women, Sonam and Jamphel, were conspiring to go and grab a cup of tea afterwards, as it was a grey and rainy day?

As they were being held in custody, police went to each of their homes and seized laptops, phones, and USB sticks. All three depend on their laptops for work; the computer of Johanna Zhang, Shao Jiang’s wife, who works as an artist and translator, was even taken. This was a chilling step, particularly given the obvious resonances; in Tibet and China, people understand the visceral fear associated with a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

Shao Jiang

Chinese Tiananmen survivor Shao Jiang is released on bail at Bishopsgate police station (charges are now dropped) by Tsering Passang, head of the Tibetan Community in Britain, and Kate Saunders.

In a debate in Parliament on Monday (October 26), Shao Jiang’s MP, Emily Thornberry, asked for the Home Office Minister to advise her “how I can hold to account those who made the disgraceful decisions to arrest someone who was, on the face of it, behaving in a way that was entirely peaceful, who should not have been arrested and whose house should not have been searched?” MP David Winnick, referred to “British police action with Chinese characteristics”. (Video available here.)

The arrests made front page news in the UK, in the context of an overwhelming public backlash against the UK government’s ‘epic kowtow’ to Communist Party boss Xi. Business leader and expert on China James McGregor, chairman of consultancy APCO Worldwide, told the BBC’s influential Today programme: “If you act like panting puppy the object of your attention is going to think they’ve got you on a leash. China does not respect people who suck up to them.” Mark Steel mused in The Independent: “If trade helps improve human rights, it’s about time we let North Korea and Isis run some of our industries.”

Steve Hilton, the UK PM’s former strategy advisor, tore into his friend Chancellor Osborne, arguing that kowtowing to China does nothing for Britain’s economic health: “Of course the Beijing oppressors would prefer not to be lectured in public on human rights. But if a convicted murderer said he’d prefer not to be lectured in public on the morality of killing people, would we say: ‘OK, we’ll keep your verdict secret’? […] China is a superpower, aggressively spreading its influence. Our security and economic opportunity depend on an orderly world, underpinned by the values of openness. We need to stand up, strongly, for openness. If the world slides towards the opposite values, those of the Beijing dictators, we should be very nervous.”

In the meantime, The Times reported that senior military and intelligence figures have warned ministers that plans to give China a big stake in Britain’s nuclear power industry pose a threat to national security (see this great video).

In a bizarre media postscript to the visit, I was invited to join a Sunday morning TV show on which Ken Livingstone bucked the trend with the bizarre claim that the Dalai Lama had no credibility because he was a CIA stooge, while TV presenter Tricia Goddard did agree that the Duchess of Cambridge’s dress at the state banquet was a step too far.

Kate looked stunning as she clinked glasses with President Xi, but did she need to wear red, in homage to a man who is China’s most authoritarian and paranoid leader since Mao? A man who is so controlling that he even banned cartoons of Pooh Bear, after Chinese micro-bloggers picked up on an uncanny resemblance between a photograph of Xi and President Obama and a cartoon image of A. A. Milne’s cartoon creations.

As if to prove that another approach is possible, this week Dutch King Willem-Alexander made a strong public statement by raising human rights at a state banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

On Wednesday night, two days after questions were raised in Parliament about their arrests, Scotland Yard said that the three protesters had been “released from their bail with no further action”. Their laptops and phones were returned today.

The ‘danger of Buddhism existing in name only’: translation of a speech by Gyaltsen Norbu, the ‘Chinese Panchen’

Gyaltsen Norbu

Gyaltsen Norbu

ICT has translated into English the first major speech in Beijing by Gyaltsen Norbu, known as the ‘Chinese Panchen (Gya Panchen)’ because he was selected by the CCP after the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama and acknowledged by Tibetans as the authentic incarnation, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, was ‘disappeared’ in 1995. There is no indication of his whereabouts or welfare 20 years later.[1]

Gyaltsen (Gyalcain) Norbu, 25, was installed by the Chinese authorities as part of their efforts to ensure control of Tibet and assert their authority over a future incarnation of the Dalai Lama,[2] and is compelled to conform to the role of ‘official’ Panchen Lama as a ‘patriotic’ figurehead with allegiance to the CCP. This perhaps makes one of his statements in the March 2 speech, before top Chinese leaders at a Party meeting,[3] all the more telling. Because of the shortage of monks in Tibet and “quotas set too low”, he says, there is “a danger of Buddhism existing in name only”.

Gyaltsen Norbu made the usual provisos in line with Party policy, asserting that Tibetan Buddhism is thriving in Tibet, just as the 10th Panchen Lama carefully framed his arguments.[4] But his main contention counters existing policy – for instance, officials do not even admit to monastic ‘quotas’.

The context of the March 2 speech, which has appeared so far only in Chinese in the state media, is an intense debate on the future of Buddhism in Tibet and China. More Chinese people are becoming devout followers of Tibetan lamas,[5] and Xi Jinping talks about the importance of China’s ‘traditional cultures or faiths’ including Buddhism. The Chinese Communist Party wants to give an impression that Buddhist faith is flourishing in Tibet and is acutely aware that the leaders of its main schools all reside in exile, with the Dalai Lama a globally respected figure. So they may be seeking to use Gyaltsen (Chinese: Gyalcain) Norbu in a more sophisticated way than before, and his comments may reflect an approach that some officials want to convey. Even so, Gyaltsen Norbu’s speech was reminiscent of the skillful phrasing used by the 10th Panchen Lama in parts, and he has made lengthy visits to a number of Tibetan monasteries, with senior lamas and scholars as his teachers. Their concerns appear to be reflected in his comments.

Gyaltsen Norbu’s speech is framed carefully in accordance with the Party line on religion, stating that in the “glow of the Party’s ethnic and religious policies”, Tibetans, Uyghurs and other ethnicities enjoy “freedom of religious belief” and normal religious practice and preservation of culture. But his main contention differs from policies that threaten the survival of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet today, as he pinpoints the shortage of monks in Tibet and “quotas set too low” as serious problems.

The Chinese authorities do not openly admit that ‘quotas’ on monks and nuns in monasteries and nunneries exist. The government line is that the correct number of monks varies according to the monastery’s capacity to support them; Buddhist associations and monastic management committees are the proxies for the government in approving or reviewing such matters. In effect, this represents a government-approved ‘quota’.[6]

On February 12, Gyaltsen Norbu was pictured by the state media with Sun Chunlun, the head of the United Front Work Department who is also on the top Politburo.[7] It is unlikely that Gyaltsen Norbu would make the March 4 speech before members of China’s top leadership[8] without any official approval beforehand, although this may not have been from the United Front Work Department, which seeks to uphold a strong line on religious policies in Tibet and hostile approach towards the Dalai Lama. By directly addressing his remarks to Yu Zhengsheng, one of China’s top leaders who heads an important Party committee on ethnic and religious affairs, Gyaltsen Norbu effectively cut out any attempts by Tibetan or other less senior officials to filter his comments. Such officials, including from the United Front, normally serve as a buffer telling the central government that central religious policies are a success and there is no need for concern.

The context of the Chinese Panchen Lama’s comments is a deteriorating environment for Tibetan Buddhism which worsened significantly after overwhelmingly peaceful protests swept across Tibet in March and April 2008. The Chinese Communist Party state responded to the protests by intensifying an established anti-Dalai Lama campaign, issuing sweeping regulatory measures that intrude upon Tibetan Buddhist monastic affairs and implementing aggressive “legal education” programs that pressure monks and nuns to study and accept expanded government control over their religion, monasteries, and nunneries.

A further factor contributing to the shortage of monks – and one that is not mentioned in Gyaltsen Norbu’s speech, although it is perhaps implied – is the expulsion of monks and nuns from many monasteries, particularly in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Since a wave of overwhelmingly protests spread across Tibet in March, 2008, monasteries of historic and cultural significance have been targeted by the authorities. After monks from the ‘Great Three’ monasteries in Lhasa of Sera, Drepung and Ganden took to the streets in March, 2008, the monastic population has been subject to intensified suppression and the strengthening of control mechanisms.[9] Hundreds of monks have been expelled and arrested from these three monasteries, leading to serious fears for their survival as religious institutions.[10]

Gyaltsen Norbu’s comments appear to reflect a genuine alarm that monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region that once housed thousands of monks are now reduced to a few hundred whose main responsibility is no longer religious study but tending to the buildings and tourists. Many of the monks in these major monasteries were from Amdo, Kham, Mongolia, and the broader Himalayan region, and Gyaltsen Norbu does not mention in his speech the policies restricting them from studying in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The number of monks studying at large religious encampments in Tibetan areas of Kham, such as Larung Gar (Serthar) serves as a visible reminder of the potential that monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region are not allowed to fulfill.

After the 2008 protests, Tibetan language, culture and monasteries have been depicted by many Party officials as a source of instability. In his speech, Gyaltsen Norbu re-frames the issue by depicting them instead as a source of “stability”, saying: “Tibetan Buddhism is capable of playing a huge role in national economic and social development, and social harmony and stability.” In this way he opens a discussion of Buddhism and Buddhist ceremonies and rituals as something that people in the Tibet Autonomous Region require, and the lack of ability to provide these services as a shortcoming.

Gyaltsen Norbu gives a higher number of monks and nuns in Tibetan areas than usually acknowledged in official statistics, indicating that even this higher figure is not enough. He refers to 1,787 religious venues with 46,000 resident monks and nuns in the Tibet Autonomous Region, plus 783 monasteries and 68,000 monks and nuns in Sichuan, and 660 monasteries and 44,500 monks and nuns in Qinghai. This is a total of 158,500 without including the Tibetan areas of Gansu and Yunnan. The figure of 46,000 resident monks in the Tibet Autonomous Region has been standard in official representations since the 1990s.[11] More recently United Front Work Department official Zhu Weiqun gave the figure of 140,000 monks and nuns in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas.[12]

While not recognized as the legitimate Panchen Lama by Tibetans, Gyaltsen Norbu has made lengthy visits to a number of Tibetan monasteries and had access to senior Buddhist teachers and scholars. Their concerns may be reflected in his comments; he makes specific reference to particular areas, for instance to the western area of the Tibet Autonomous Region where the sacred Mount Kailash is situated, saying: “I went to Ngari, and I learned: Ngari [Chinese: Ali, Tibet Autonomous Region] has 75 monasteries, and not one of them can hold a Buddhist meeting [in accordance with proper religious procedures and protocols.]”[13]

Few insights have been available into Gyaltsen Norbu’s views due to the stringent oversight of his activities and management of his public appearances by the Party authorities, who require him to convey the message that Tibetans have freedom to practice their religion. Although monks are often instructed to display his photographs, there is little evidence that many adhere to this request. After arriving in exile in India, a monk from Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, the Panchen Lama’s seat, told ICT: “Since Gyaltsen Norbu was chosen as the Gya Panchen Lama, the majority of monks have lost their trust in the monastery, as well as lacking loyalty to the Chinese choice. When Gyaltsen Norbu visits [our monastery], you are not allowed to leave for two days before and after his visit, or it will be considered a political act. Usually young monks don’t display his photos in our rooms but elderly monks, for example my teacher, they always tell us to display it but they say, ‘Don’t worry. Just do whatever they say. If you don’t accept him from your heart then it doesn’t make any difference whether you display his photo or not.’”[14]

The Chinese Panchen Lama’s comments are made in the context of a complex, changing picture in Tibet. Beyond the stringent measures of state control, there are of course other social and economic factors involved in the decline in numbers of monks at many monastic institutions.[15]

In Tibet today, an oppressive crackdown co-exists with the resilient spirit of the Tibetan people in defending their religion and culture, and a growing Chinese interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Last month, remarkable footage from Kumbum monastery, one of the great Gelugpa institutions in Tibet, showed thousands of Tibetan pilgrims gathering at a prayer ceremony despite an intimidating paramilitary troop presence.[16]

At the same time, Tibet’s religious culture is inspiring millions inside the PRC; increasing numbers of Chinese people are becoming practitioners, with many making devout pilgrimages to Tibet, or following Tibetan lamas. Some popular lamas have tremendous influence and following among Chinese, and prominent indications of this trend include a front page story about a Tibetan lama in a Chinese magazine, People Weekly, telling the story of “how a young shepherd becomes a great Tibetan Buddhist teacher of millions of students, with over 1.5 million followers on Weibo”.[17] In January, a former Chinese Communist Party official Xiao Wunan invited the BBC into his home and showed them footage of his audience with the Dalai Lama.[18]

While these developments are of immense importance to Tibet’s future, and despite the evidence of some moderate and progressive views, a White Paper released by the Chinese state media on April 15 provided sobering confirmation of the current dominance of the anti-Dalai Lama, ‘anti-separatist’ power-bloc in the Beijing establishment.[19]

[1] ICT report, ‘The Communist Party as Living Buddha’, https://www.savetibet.org/the-communist-party-as-living-buddha/

[2] Tibetans refer to Gyaltsen Norbu as ‘Gya Panchen’, meaning Chinese Panchen. Panchen Lamas have previously played a role in the recognition and subsequent education of Dalai Lamas, and vice versa, which is why control over the institution is considered to be so crucial by Beijing.

[3] It is published in Chinese here: http://www.mzb.com.cn/html/report/150330384-1.htm So far, there does not seem to be an English translation in the Chinese state media.

[4] The Tenth Panchen Lama died on January 28, 1989, after enduring 14 years in prison in the Mao era. He had submitted what is believed to be the most extensive internal criticism of Chinese Communist policies ever submitted to the leadership, documenting the mass arrests, executions and oppressions in Tibet that followed the 1959 Uprising. Mao Zedong famously denounced the report as “a poisoned arrow shot at the Party” and its author as a “reactionary feudal overlord”. It was published by Tibet Information Network in London (now closed) in 1997, in English translation.

[5] See for instance http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30983402

[6] The Chinese term used by Gyaltsen Norbu to convey this is bianzhi (编制), which can be translated as ‘personnel quota.’

[7] Xinhua, February 12, 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/photo/2015-02/12/c_133991060.htm

[8] It was at the Third Session of the 12th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee.

[9] Numerous reports detail the suffering of monks in custody. Tibetan writer Woeser wrote on her blog: “During the monks’ time in detention, a 22-year-old monk called Jigme Phuntsog who had fallen ill and been seriously misdiagnosed by the military hospital deteriorated suddenly after 20 days and died without being treated. Another monk of around 30 years old simply couldn’t bear it any longer. He started banging his head against the wall and then jumped from the window when he was taken to hospital. He broke several bones and is deaf in one ear.” See ICT report, ‘A Great Mountain Burned by Fire’, https://www.savetibet.nl/fileadmin/images/ictreports/A_Great_Mountain_Burned_by_Fire_ICTReport.pdf

[10] Monks in other areas of Tibet, who traditionally visited these monasteries for period of study, are no longer allowed to do so. The Chinese state media acknowledged that a total of 1200 monks from Drepung and Sera had been expelled in 2008. For full details, see ICT report, ‘A Great Mountain Burned by Fire’, https://www.savetibet.nl/fileadmin/images/ictreports/A_Great_Mountain_Burned_by_Fire_ICTReport.pdf. The Chinese authorities have also singled out other important and influential centres of Tibetan Buddhist culture outside the Tibet Autonomous Region – notably Kirti monastery in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Amdo), where the current wave of self-immolations in Tibet began in 2009. The situation at Kirti escalated in 2011 when monks from the age of 18-40 were taken away from the monastery under the pretext of giving them “legal education”. Local laypeople who tried to prevent them being removed were violently beaten by troops surrounding the monastery. As with Sera, Ganden and Drepung in Lhasa, the authorities used the pretext of taking monks away “for study” or “legal education” as a means to reduce and control the monastic population at Kirti. A full account of these developments is given in International Campaign for Tibet’s report, “Storm in the Grasslands: Self-Immolations in Tibet and Chinese Policy”, December 2012, http://www.savetibet.org/resource-center/ictpublications/reports/storm-grasslands-self-immolations-tibet-and-chinese-policy.

[11] The figure of 1,787 religious ‘venues’ in the Tibet Autonomous Region has also been given in previous official statistics, such as an article in China Daily on December 24, 2012. The same article referred to progress made in the ‘patriotic education’ campaign in the Tibet Autonomous Region, reporting that: “In 2014, more than 50,000 copies of [patriotic education] documents were distributed [….] to Buddhist monasteries across the Tibet Autonomous Region and more than 100,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns participated the sessions.” The article noted that one of the main subjects of the campaign was for monks and nuns to declare their dissociation with the “Dalai clique”.

[12] His comment in 2012 was as follows: “There are 3,542 monasteries and 140,000 monks and nuns in Tibet and other Tibetan-populated regions.” (Xinhua, 7 March, 2012).

[13] In his speech, Gyaltsen Norbu says that Buddhism has specified that where four or more monks have formed a group, they should regularly hold Buddhist meetings in order to discuss and inspect their adherence to the precepts.

[14] The same monk said that even so, ordinary Tibetans recognize the pressures that Gyaltsen Norbu is under given his unique role: “I have heard that Gyaltsen Norbu is smart and recognizes his Tibetan identity and responsibility.” ‘An Insight into the Gya Panchen’, p 53-55, ‘The Communist Party as Living Buddha: The Crisis facing Tibetan Religion under Chinese control’, ICT report, http://www.savetibet.org/the-communist-party-as-living-buddha/

[15] For instance, see papers by Dr Jane Caple from Manchester University, who writes: “Monastic actors are facing serious challenges as they attempt to ‘move with the times’ while maintaining the soteriological and mundane bases of monastic Buddhism in rapidly changing political, economic and social contexts. Thus far, accounts of the revival have largely been framed in relation to the Chinese state, the shifting public space for religion and culture and the ‘Tibet question’. This study attempts to ‘see beyond the state’ to examine other contingent factors in the ongoing process of renewal and development.” (‘Seeing beyond the state: The negotiation of moral boundaries in the revival and development of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in contemporary China’, Jane Caple, 2011, https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/uk-ac-man-scw:199630.)

[16] ICT report, March 9, 2015, http://www.savetibet.org/self-immolation-and-protest-in-tibet-amid-intensified-security-in-buildup-to-march-10-anniversary/

[17] May 16, 2014, http://www.savetibet.org/newsroom/tibet-tidbits/

[18] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30983402

[19] http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2015-04/15/c_1114974653.htm