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A Lone Tibetan Voice, Intent on Speaking Out

May 7, 2008

Writer Seeks to Chronicle Events in Areas Hit by Crackdown
By Jill Drew
The Washington Post Foreign Service
 May 6, 2008; A10

BEIJING -- Each morning, it is the same. She rises and heads to her computer to write, to pierce the silence that otherwise shrouds events these days in Tibet, her homeland.

Woeser, a 41-year-old writer who uses only one name in the Tibetan tradition, knows she risks arrest. Hers is one of the only Tibetan voices within China that still reaches the outside world, now that the Chinese government has arrested hundreds and essentially blacked out most communication from Tibetan-inhabited areas.

Though she lives in Beijing, Woeser still has contacts across the Tibetan plateau, and she has been using them to funnel information onto her blog since the deadly March 14 riots in the region's capital, Lhasa. The government has said that the riots and the unrest that followed were caused by violent separatists. Woeser is constructing an alternative narrative -- one of protest sparked by long-festering resentments against Chinese repression of Tibetan culture and the Buddhist religion.

It has not been easy. Late last month, hackers attacked Woeser's site and locked her out. Previously, security officials had put her under house arrest. A policeman had warned her to stop writing about Tibet.

"I told him, 'Apart from Tibet, I have no interest in writing,' " said Woeser, the world's best-known contemporary Tibetan writer. "I want to record all of the history and be a witness to what is happening now."

Government Control

AAs Olympic torchbearers prepare to scale the Tibetan side of Mount Everest and envoys of the Dalai Lama have begun informal talks with their Chinese counterparts over the current crisis in Tibet, a global battle rages over how to interpret what is happening in the remote Himalayan region. But almost entirely absent from the discussion are voices of Tibetans living within Tibet, the people who can describe everyday life and let others judge whether they are being wronged.

"The main voice is hers," said Robbie Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York. "She is one of the very, very few Tibetans who have been able to put their name to the discussion and have managed to stay afloat."

Woeser's writing finds no favor in the Chinese government. Her books are banned here and three different blogs she maintained on Chinese servers have been shut down in the past two years -- on government orders, a friend at one of the Internet companies told her. Her current blog,, is hosted on a computer server in the United States, but even that one temporarily succumbed to an attack April 26.

"It's not only me. Many scholars do not have freedom of speech. Their blogs and Web sites are also blocked," Woeser said in a telephone interview from her 20th-floor apartment in China's capital. Although her house arrest has been lifted, officials from the local security bureau keep watch at her building, and she says she is often followed.

"This reflects the Chinese government's strict control over speech," she said. "They don't want me to leave this kind of record, to talk about what happened in Tibet in a real way. This voice is what the government does not want to hear."

Another Tibetan writer and researcher, Jamyang Kyi, was arrested April 1 at her office in the state-owned television station in Xining, capital of Qinghai province. A well-known singer and television presenter, Jamyang Kyi wrote about women's rights. She once wrote a poem to Woeser, praising her for her work.

With the living words spread forth from your heart

I see the footprint of our ancestors in the mountains of the Plateau.

An Unlikely Dissident

In many ways, Woeser is an unlikely dissident. She was born in Lhasa to members of the Communist Party. Her father was a deputy commander of a local unit of the People's Liberation Army, making his family well-positioned to benefit from China's control of the region.

"I used to believe the army came to Tibet to set Tibetans free," Woeser said.

When she was 4 years old, her family moved to a Tibetan area of Sichuan province. After the worst ravages of China's Cultural Revolution had passed and schools reopened, Woeser and her friends were educated in Chinese. No studies were offered in the Tibetan language. Although she can speak Tibetan, Woeser, like many of her generation, never learned to read or write her native tongue.

She returned to Lhasa after getting her college degree in Chinese literature. "My way of thinking was not based on reality," she said. "All I wanted to do was write poems."

She had not thought much about Buddhism before returning to Lhasa; as party members, her parents practiced no religion. But once she was back in Tibet, Woeser said, she was drawn to the teachings of Buddhism and began to cherish its culture.

Her politics, too, began to change. After a friend returned from Hong Kong with an autobiography of the Dalai Lama, Woeser devoured it. When China intervened in the selection of the 11th Panchen Lama and named its own candidate as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, Woeser felt the same insult as her Tibetan friends. "China controlled the monks so strictly," she explained. "When you live in Tibet and you hear and see these things every day, you will change."

In 1999, Woeser published her first poetry collection, which explored Tibetan identity and dealt with sensitive issues indirectly, using lyricism and metaphor. Her next book, a compilation of prose essays, was direct, and it did not take long for authorities to ban it. Woeser was told to leave her job at a state-supported literary journal, unless she repented for her political mistakes. She lost her income, her pension, her security.

"My writing became very obvious," she said. "My father always taught me that I have to listen to the Communist Party when it talks, and that when I write, I have to balance between what I feel and what the party says. But I've found that that's impossible to do."

She moved to Beijing and, the following year, married dissident writer Wang Lixiong, who supported her through what she sees as the turning point in her life. She would not admit political mistakes, but rather would give voice to truths about Tibet. If she couldn't publish in China, she would publish in Hong Kong or Taiwan. If China would not listen, maybe the outside world would.

By the time Woeser left Lhasa, she was already well into another sensitive topic -- an account of the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, based on interviews with 70 participants. The work, which became the topic of two books she published in Taiwan, was actually inspired by photographs her father had taken of temples being smashed and people targeted as class enemies being beaten and humiliated in public struggle sessions. Little has been recorded about the experiences of Tibetans during that time, and scholars are eager to translate her books into English. One volume has already been translated into French.

Woeser has applied many times for a passport, but has always been denied the right to travel overseas. Until now, it has not really mattered, she said. Her small apartment in Beijing is a warm place, decorated in Tibetan style, and she feels comfortable there, spending her days in front of her computer except when she travels to Tibetan areas on reporting trips.

But since March 14, she said, life in Beijing has become very hard. "There are so many extreme nationalists who know so little about Tibet, who are so shallow about a lot of things," she said. "I really resent it."

When she's inspired, she writes a little poetry. But mostly she is documenting as best she can the situation inside Tibet. According to her reporting, at least 150 Tibetans were killed in the Lhasa riot, not just the 22 mostly Han Chinese deaths the government has acknowledged.

"Sometimes I'm scared, especially when I hear my friends have been beaten up," she said. "But I feel I have a responsibility to do this. Some things are really hard to know now, but if I know something, I will write it."

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.
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