Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Woeser: A rare Tibetan critic sues China's government

July 24, 2008

The Associated Press
July 22, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- The poet Woeser has long been a rarity -- a Tibetan
living in China who doesn't flinch from publicly criticizing the
Chinese government. Now the activist is taking another unusual step.

After being repeatedly denied a passport for three years, the Beijing
resident has sued the government demanding to be given the document
she needs to travel outside the country, hoping the fight will draw
more attention to China's tight grip on Tibet and its people.

Woeser's willingness to openly confront authorities makes her stand
out. Most Tibetans are reluctant to do that, even more so than
environmental and human rights activists. If they complain at all,
they often do so in hushed tones and under the cloak of anonymity.

Their reticence speaks volumes about the harshness of Beijing's
repression in their Himalayan homeland — which communist troops took
control of in the 1950s — and its policies aimed at diluting
Tibetans' culture and identity.

Woeser, who like some Tibetans uses only one name, says China's
clampdown in Tibet has worsened since violent protests against
Chinese rule in March that Beijing says killed 22 people, but foreign
activists claim took many times that number.

The lawsuit is another way to draw attention to Tibet's treatment,
she said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"I'm not expecting to win. But if you don't take action, there's no
chance to let the outside world know the truth," Woeser said. "It's
an opportunity to talk about the unfair treatment of Tibetans over the years."

The 42-year-old woman who stands barely 5 feet tall has sought to be
a channel for her people's voices.

In 2005, she started blogging on issues rarely discussed in Tibet:
AIDS, prostitution, environmental damage and a new railroad that
critics say is flooding that region with Chinese migrants.

"She went into unknown territory. I think no Tibetan had ever spoken
out so openly in print or in the media," said Robbie Barnett, an
expert on modern Tibet at Columbia University.

"When she first started to write about these things, I think everyone
assumed that her position would be impossible to sustain. But she has
never faltered. ... The risks she took were off the chart," he said,
calling Woeser "a poet who forgot to be afraid."

Her essays and poems are filled with colorful and sometimes brutal
detail about the Tibetan way of life. They provide a glimpse into a
deeply religious culture that has been shut off to much of the world.

Her stance is not without cost: Her books are banned in China, and
security agents watch her apartment. At one point, she was confined
to house arrest. Authorities shut down three of her blogs.

The fourth was one of the few sources of news coming out of the
sealed-off region during the March crackdown. Then hackers posted
threats against her on the blog and rendered it unusable. She has
since started a fifth blog that is still running — for now.

That Woeser has become a symbol of dissent is an unlikely turn. Her
parents were loyal communists, and her half-Chinese, half-Tibetan
father was a deputy commander in Tibet for the People's Liberation Army.

Born in 1966 -- the start of Mao Zedong's radical and devastating
Cultural Revolution -- Woeser spent her childhood in Lhasa, the
capital of Tibet.

"I was devoted to Chairman Mao," she recalled.

She began questioning that view when she left Lhasa to go to high
school and university in Chengdu, the capital of neighboring Sichuan province.

For the first time, she was a minority and often felt discrimination.
She read banned translations of the Dalai Lama's autobiography and
John Avedon's "In Exile from the Land of Snows," which chronicles the
lives of Tibetan exiles and Chinese persecution of Tibet's Buddhists.

"There were things in there that were the opposite of what we had
been taught," Woeser said.

After school, she became an editor of a literary journal in Lhasa,
where she met monks who described the protests and subsequent
crackdown in Tibet in 1989 while she was away. Those conversations
further radicalized her views.

In 2004, the government literary association expelled her for
"political errors" after she published a collection of essays which
mentioned that the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader vilified
by China's leadership, is revered by Tibetans.

The stigma and loss of her job drove her to Beijing, where she
married Wang Lixiong, a Chinese democracy activist and author.

It was in Wang's hometown of Changchun that Woeser applied for a
passport in 2005 after police officials in Lhasa told her she would
never get one in her homeland.

When Woeser sent friends to make inquiries, police told them she
posed a danger to state security, the reason often given for keeping
dissidents in check.

Woeser dismisses the label.

"I'm an author who writes from home all the time. If I really am
posing a threat to society, doesn't it make the great country of
China seem very weak?" she said with a laugh.

For Tibetans, it is nearly impossible to get a passport, and many
risk their lives trying to flee across Himalayan mountain passes into
Nepal and India.

"It's hard to say whether she will win or not," said her lawyer, Mo
Shaoping, who has made his name defending China's dissidents. "Both
Woeser and her husband are sensitive figures ... but no matter who
they are, they should enjoy their basic rights as citizens."

Earlier this year, Woeser was unable to accept a Freedom of
Expression prize from the Norwegian Authors' Union in person because
she does not have a passport. Her husband accepted the award in Oslo
on her behalf.

"I still have hope in China, which is such a strong nation," Woeser
said. "I hope it will be strong enough to give me a little space."
On the Net:

* Woeser's blog in Chinese:
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank