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Blog: What’s going on in the Tibetan Blogosphere? Ask Dechen Pemba

September 16, 2010

Students for Free Tibet
August 29, 2010

A Tibetan netizen in her own right, Dechen Pemba,
publisher of High Peaks Pure Earth (the
remarkable blog that translates the writings of
Tibetans living in Tibet and China) provides
insight into the importance and the
vulnerabilities of the Tibetan blogosphere in her following post:

The Virtual Sweet Tea House: An Overview of the Tibetan Cyberspace

As a place to meet, share and exchange, the
Tibetan blogosphere has created opportunities for
Tibetan netizens that would be unimaginable in
the offline world. Keeping in mind the state of
internet censorship in the People’s Republic of
China today, these new spaces can be seen as new
outlets but also as new areas involving personal
risk. Tibetan cyberspace has opened up a new
opportunity for expression, which has also brought new risks to this community.

There are several blog-hosting sites, both
Tibetan and Chinese, that are favoured by
Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China (PRC)
today. One of the of the most popular Chinese
language sites is called Tibetan Culture Net or
simply TibetCul. TibetCul was started by two
brothers, Wangchuk Tseten and Tsewang Norbu, and
their head office is in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu
Province. According to Alexa, the web Information
Company, TibetCul receives over 400,000 hits
every month. TibetCul is primarily a news and
blog-hosting site but there are many different
sections on the site related to Tibetan music,
literature, films and travel. There is a BBS
forum (bulletin board) and there is even a
section dedicated to “overseas Tibetans”.

For all Tibet related news, blogs and cultural
activities, TibetCul is an invaluable resource
and source of information. Many posts translated
into English by High Peaks Pure Earth come from
TibetCul, such as the translation of the popular
Tibetan hip-hop song “New Generation” by Green
Dragon that was first featured on the group’s
TibetCul blog in February 2010 in which a gang of
Amdo rappers boldly proclaimed:

“The new generation has a resource called youth
The new generation has a pride called confidence
The new generation has an appearance called playfulness
The new generation has a temptation called freedom”

In a similar surge of pride in Tibetan identity
that featured on Tibetan blogs post-2008,
TibetCul blogs featured many poems and prose
articles with the title “I Am Tibetan” and new
posts are being written even today.

Heated discussions and debate take place on
TibetCul every day about all matters of concern
to Tibetans. One major example would be the
online vilification of well-known Tibetan singer
Lobsang Dondrup following photos posted on blogs
of him and his wife both wearing fur at their
wedding ceremony in early 2009. The photos were
quickly re-posted across many blogs, incurring
the wrath of angry Tibetan netizens and comments
criticising the couple flooded the internet
forums both in Tibetan and Chinese. This must all
be seen in context, in 2006, after the Dalai
Lama’s injunction against the wearing of animal
fur, a wave of fur burning protests took place in
Amdo and Kham. Hence the netizens anger and
loathing for the couple. Shortly after, Lobsang
Dondrup posted an apology online through his friend’s TibetCul blog.

The above observations on TibetCul demonstrate
the nature of cyberspace in the ability to bring
people together in discussion and debate and also
the ability for the online content to transcend
national borders, “New Generation” has gone on to
become a popular song amongst Tibetans all over
the world and the “I Am Tibetan” poetry and
spirit has sparked Tibetan exile groups to hold
events to amplify voices from Tibet.

In a paper from 2004, Tibetan scholar Tashi
Rabgey referred to the Lhasa tradition of the
Sweet Tea House: “Throughout the 1980s, sweet tea
houses had served as important gathering places
for Tibetans to exchange news, air opinions and
discuss ideas.” However, “with the tightening of
political controls in the early 1990s [...] this
unusual space of lively, open debate was brought
to an end through constant surveillance.” The new
virtual Sweet Tea House contains Tibetans who are
literate in many languages but mainly in Tibetan,
Chinese and English and Tibetans from Central
Tibet, Kham, Amdo, India, USA and beyond, all in contact and dialogue.

Whilst the potential for contact and dialogue in
the Tibetan cyberspace is great, control of the
internet and the politicisation of the blog
content poses difficulties and risks. Monitoring
Tibetan blogs reveals that throughout the year,
at times deemed “sensitive” by the Chinese
government, Tibetan blog-hosting sites will
suddenly with no explanation or prior warning
either be taken offline or be offline “for
maintenance”. This happens typically for Tibetan
blogs around the time of March 10, the
anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against
Chinese rule in 1959. See this link for an
example of TibetCul suddenly disappearing offline
and this link for Tibetan-language blogs being taken offline.

Similarly, individual bloggers are in danger of
being targeted by the state for blog content
deemed to be dubious. The most famous example is
the Tibetan poet, writer and blogger, Woeser, who
was writing two blogs, one on TibetCul and
another on a Chinese blog hosting site but both
of which were suddenly shut down on 28 July 2006.
Woeser then had no choice but to start a new blog
on a server hosted outside the PRC but has since
faced a new set of problems such as server
cyber-attacks by Chinese nationalists, both to
her blogs and her Skype accounts.

Tibetan language blog-hosting sites have been
even more vulnerable than TibetCul and two
previously very popular sites have been
inaccessible since 2009, http://tibettl.com/ and
http://www.tibetabc.cn/ The latter was
particularly a great loss as prominent singer and
blogger Jamyang Kyi’s blog had previously been
hosted by Tibetabc but she seems to have stopped
blogging altogether since the site was closed down.

Two recent examples of individuals using blogs
and the internet for purposes of social justice
have been Dolkar Tso and Shogdung. Dolkar Tso,
the wife of environmentalist Karma Samdrup, was
blogging almost daily in June and July 2010,
documenting the events of her husband’s trial and
expressing her personal feelings about the
injustice of his sentencing to 15 years in
prison. Amazingly, Dolkar Tso persistently kept
blogging on Chinese blog-hosting site Sohu and,
at the last count, is on her fifth blog as the
others kept being shut down rapidly.

Tagyal, a writer and intellectual who used the
pen name Shogdung meaning “Morning Conch”, openly
spoke out in April 2010 following the devastating
earthquake that hit Yushu. He, along with several
other intellectuals, published an open letter on
Tibetan language blog-hosting site
http://www.sangdhor.com in which they expressed
condolences and at the same time were critical of
the Chinese government in their handling of the
earthquake relief efforts. Following this open
letter, Shogdung was arrested and is still facing
trial. Following Shogdung’s arrest, the site
Sangdhor was taken offline for several months and
has only recently come back online.

The last two examples of Dolkar Tso and Shogdung
illustrate the importance of Tibetan blogs as
sources of information and as ways to highlight
injustice but evidently this comes at a great
price for the individuals involved. The virtual
Sweet Tea House is ultimately as vulnerable as
the Lhasa tea houses of the 1990s were and is
likely to remain so as long as Tibetan blogs remain behind the Great Firewall.

______________________________

Dechen Pemba is a UK born Tibetan, based in
London.  She is the editor of the website High
Peaks Pure Earth, which provides insightful
commentary on Tibet related news and issues and
translations from writings in Tibetan and Chinese posted blogs.
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