Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Technology Reaches Remote Tibetan Corners, Fanning Unrest

May 28, 2012


TONGREN, China — The young Buddhist monk, his voice hushed and nervous, was discussing the self-immolations and protests that have swept Tibetan regions of China when the insistent rap of knuckle on wood sounded behind him.

Knock, knock, knock.

His guest flinched, but the monk calmly gestured to a desktop computer next to the religious shrine dominating his cramped bedroom in this monastery town in Qinghai Province.

The electronic knocking simply signaled the arrival of a message on Tencent QQ, China’s wildly popular messaging service.

These days, the unmistakable marimba jingle of iPhones and the melodic bleep of Skype can be heard in lamaseries across this remote expanse of snowy peaks and high-altitude grasslands in northwestern China. Even Tibetan nomads living off the grid use satellite dishes to watch Chinese television — and broadcasts from Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America.

“We may be living far away from big cities, but we are well connected to the rest of the world,” said the 34-year-old monk, who, like most Tibetans who speak to foreign journalists, asked for anonymity to avoid harsh punishment.

The technology revolution, though slow in coming here, has now penetrated the most far-flung corners of the Tibetan plateau, transforming ordinary life and playing an increasingly pivotal role in the spreading unrest over Chinese policies that many Tibetans describe as stifling.

Rising political consciousness has found expression through a campaign of self-immolations that the authorities have been unable to stamp out. Since March 2010, at least 34 people have set themselves ablaze, the vast majority of them current or former Buddhist clerics, many of them young.

Despite government efforts to restrict the flow of information, citizen journalists and ordinary monks have gathered details and photographs of the self-immolators, pole-vaulting them over the country’s so-called Great Firewall. In some cases, blurred images show their final fiery moments or the horrific aftermath before paramilitary police officers haul the protesters out of public view. News accounts, quickly packaged by advocacy groups and e-mailed to foreign journalists, often include the protesters’ demands: greater autonomy and the return of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has lived in exile since 1959.

“Technology is facilitating an awareness that is rippling out faster than ever before,” said Kate Saunders, communications director of the International Campaign for Tibet in London.

The awareness is influencing a generation raised under Chinese rule but skeptical of official propaganda that maligns the Dalai Lama or brands the self-immolators as terrorists.

Even middle school students, thousands of whom took to the streets this year to protest the elimination of Tibetan textbooks, have become fluent in the language of resistance.

Dicki Chhoyang, a minister in the Tibetan government in exile, said many of the self-immolators reflected a cohort that is better educated than the previous generation and increasingly connected to the outside world. “You’re seeing a generation that’s much bolder and has a high level of political consciousness,” Ms. Chhoyang said, speaking from Dharamsala, India. “They want to send an unequivocal message about how firmly they feel about the situation in Tibetan areas.”

Many analysts say the contrast with the aftermath of unrest four years ago is striking, noting that it is still difficult to know exactly what happened during and after the 2008 rioting that started in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Tibetan advocacy groups say hundreds across the region died at the hands of the police. The government acknowledges only two dozen deaths, most of them of Han Chinese killed by rioters and several of Tibetans convicted and executed for their role in the violence.

“We have no idea how many Tibetans died in 2008, but within 24 hours we have received photos of everyone who died by self-immolation,” said Robert J. Barnett, the director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University.

Tibetan exiles and advocacy groups say they increasingly receive calls during impromptu street rallies. The communication pipeline goes both ways; during a demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy in London, one participant beamed back live images to Tibetan friends via Skype.

Monks like Dorje, a 23-year-old at the Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai, are typical of an increasingly wired and worldly generation. His room is decorated with the acoustic guitar he sometimes fumbles with late at night, Kobe Bryant posters and images of a beloved living Buddha.

His most prized possession, though, is the computer he uses to download Celine Dion ballads and news from Tibetan advocacy groups. “All of us know how to jump over the wall,” he said slyly, referring to software that circumvents Chinese Internet restrictions. “I think all of us are aware of our Tibetan identity more than ever.”

Such activity, however, can be perilous. Dorje said a fellow monk was taken away by the police in March, days after a friend in Sichuan Province called to report the latest self-immolation. The monk’s mistake, he said, was to share the news with too many people. “The police are everywhere,” Dorje said.

Exile groups say government efforts to choke off information have been largely successful in much of the Tibet Autonomous Region, where security is draconian and foreign journalists are forbidden to go. Chinese jamming equipment, for example, prevents most Lhasa residents from listening to Radio Free Asia, according to its executive editor, Dan Southerland.

But to the east, in predominantly Tibetan areas that until recently were more lightly administered, the fear of retribution has yet to stanch the sharing of information. Once part of greater Tibet and known by the historic names Amdo and Kham, the areas are comparatively wealthy and have long been a crucible for intellectual ferment and dissent. It is here, in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan Provinces, that the self-immolations and most of the mass protests have been taking place despite a heavy military presence.

These days, the authorities require Tibetans who want to make photocopies of documents — from religious texts to farming manuals — to get permission from the local police, and Internet cafe customers must hand over their state-issued identification cards. After a self-immolation this year in Gansu Province, the police corralled witnesses inside a market, confiscated their cellphones and deleted photos of the episode, residents said.

At Labrang, an enormous monastery popular with tourists, monks said the temporary tower that looms over the temple complex can intercept cellphone chatter, or shut it down entirely. Security officials, they say, did just that last summer during the visit of the Panchen Lama, the top religious figure handpicked by Beijing, whom many Tibetans view as illegitimate. “For five days, all our phones were dead,” one monk said.

Losang, a high-ranking monk at Labrang, said such tactics were only briefly effective because the authorities must eventually restore service or risk crippling the local economy.

On a recent afternoon, Losang, a sharp-tongued man in his mid-40s, latched the door to his home and showed off the contents of his computer: video footage of a recent religious festival, scanned images of government directives and banned images of the Dalai Lama. After lingering on a photo of the 21-year-old monk whose self-immolation last year set off the most recent spate of suicides, he was asked whether he thought such imagery inspired copycats.

He shook his head and said government strictures, not photos of the dead, were prompting young people to take their own lives. “When you choke a person,” he said, “you should not be surprised when they kick back.”

Shi Da contributed research.


CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank