Guest Editorial by Dr Lezlee Brown Halper, M.Phil (cantab.), PhD (cantab.) is a Tibet scholar who has extensively travelled in and written about South Asia. She is the co-author of Tibet: An Unfinished Story
In 2015 the world witnessed the largest movement of people fleeing violence and oppression since World War II. Included are four million Syrians among others from the Middle East and North Africa who have fled the ravages of war and ethnic persecution. The image of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi’s body lying dead on a Turkish beach near Bodrum is an image few will forget- his young life sacrificed to the desperate hope for freedom from war and the safety of Europe.
His plight, an example of the latest and most vivid abuse of captive peoples, reminds us that tyrannical oppression is not limited to Syria.
Just as these refugees risk their lives to reclaim their dignity and a future for their families, so the oppressed Uighurs in Xinjiang, and the Tibetans, struggle against China’s oppressive military governance. Who can forget the searing images of Tibetans, doused with petrol, who set themselves alight in Lhasa’s public square. Since February 2009, 143 Tibetans have self- immolated in protest of Beijing’s iron- fisted rule. In August of this year a mother of five, Tashi Kyi, from Eastern Tibet, died after setting herself ablaze in protest of Chinese agents who were demolishing Tibetan houses in her village.
But pay this no mind. A Beijing White Paper released in September informs us, in a glowing account, of Chinese economic, social, spiritual and environmental improvements in Tibet. We are assured that, in fact, Tibet today is basking in a “golden age”…. But facts are stubborn little things.
Tibet’s peculiar “golden age” means Tibetans are not permitted to practice their religion. It is unlawful to carry a picture of the Dalai Lama or to celebrate His Holiness’ birthday or to possess any of his teachings. The monasteries are carefully controlled by the Communist Party with each Monk assigned a Communist Party minder; nomads are no longer free to roam with their herds, and this year’s World Report from Human Rights Watch finds that China has adopted a two-track system for issuing passports. Han Chinese may access a fast-track while minorities must use the slow track. So while the Han travel freely with their new passports, the Tibetans find it nearly impossible to obtain one.
In 2012 the Chinese government ordered residents in the Tibetan Autonomous Region- 90 percent are Tibetans- to surrender their passports as new “ePassports” would be reissued. But, according to the Human Rights Watch report, replacements were not issued which, in effect, means that some 3 million Tibetans are unable to travel. (One Tibetan quoted in the Human Rights Watch report said: “It’s harder for a Tibetan to get a passport than it is to get into heaven”.) The report further finds that the new Chinese system prevents Tibetans from attending Buddhist festivals and events held by the Dalai Lama in India which are deemed “splittist activities” by the PRC; those caught attending are punished. These policies also apply to Muslim Uighurs and Hui who are prohibited from making pilgrimages to Mecca.
Since the protests in 2008, Tibet has experienced a harsh crackdown on civil liberties that has worsened under President Xi’s restrictive rule. On July 1st the Xi regime issued new security regulations that will further curtail minority rights in China. This new National Security Law gives Xi Jinping control over all aspects of security – from cyberspace to education to religion to speech and assembly. Criticism of the Communist Party is now prohibited; violators are to be punished. Any Tibetan who is suspected of being connected to an individual who has self-immolated or has discussed or shared the event on social media is subject to detention.
The new law is particularly notable because it claims the Party’s right to protect its interests not just in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, but also in the East and South China Seas.
In a State visit to the United States in September of this year President Xi used the same formulaic propaganda to explain China’s land grab in the South China Sea as Zhou Enlai did in 1950 when China invaded Tibet. Then Zhou explained to the world that Tibet had been a part of China since “ancient times”. Now 65 years later, in a joint press conference with President Obama at the White House, Xi told the media that the islands in the South China Sea had also been part of China since “ancient times”. In 1950’s China began its claim on the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin; today China is claiming 900,000 square miles of the South China Sea and the Japanese administered Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
In Washington, Xi promised not to “militarize” the islands which are claimed in whole or part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. Yet just days earlier satellite images showed Chinese workers completing as 10,000 foot runway on Fiery Cross reef–long enough to accommodate the PLA’s biggest military aircraft. (Fiery Cross reef is claimed by six nations.)
In a remarkable sleight of hand in 1954, Zhou Enlai placated Nehru who questioned Chinese maps showing Indian territory as part of China. Zhou explained the maps were old and would later be revised- of course they never were. Today even as Arunachal Pradesh is part of India and protected by its military, Chinese maps label it Southern Tibet.
If China wishes to have respect and influence on the global stage, it will have to gain credibility on a range of governance issues. Transparency would be a good first step. Today, China holds a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council yet, in an inexplicable contradiction, it continues to deny Chinese and Tibetans the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and religious freedom. Moreover, even as Xi was touting women’s rights at the United Nations in September his government continues to monitor and control female reproductive rights and imprisons feminists and female activists.
The 2015 Human Rights Watch report on China states: Chinese authorities have “unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years—an alarming sign given that the current leadership is slated to retain power through 2023”. What is even more alarming is the silence of world leaders whose “go along, get along” attitude has eshewed the public shaming that could pierce China’s blatant propaganda and move the Beijing authorities to more ethical governance.
© Dr Lezlee Brown Halper
Above photograph of Buddhist monks: https://pixabay.com/en/users/MartinPosta-907501/