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Invisible Tibet: keep on blogging to the free world (profile on Woeser)

February 12, 2009

When Lhasa rioted a year ago, Tibetans in exile logged on to the only
site they trust

Jane Macartney, The Times,
February 11, 2009

Catching up with Tibet's most popular blogger isn't simple. Tsering
Woeser is under constant surveillance, so we agree to meet on a street
corner in Beijing. The subterfuge seems pointless: Woeser is easy to
spot. Her slightly hippy style sets her apart - for our meeting she has
chosen dangling earrings and a glass pendant in Buddhist colours, bought
on her last visit to the Tibetan plateau. Its blues, reds and yellows
remind her of the colours of the banned Tibetan Snow Lion flag. “I
mentioned it to the shopkeeper as a joke,” she says. “He was shocked. Of
course, I bought it.”

By birth, upbringing and education, Woeser should be a Tibetan at ease
in the Chinese system, a successful member of the Tibetan elite. But
this vivacious woman, who looks much younger than her 44 years, is the
most outspoken Tibetan voice in China, a fierce critic of Beijing rule
in the deeply Buddhist Himalayan region. Her views have won her
widespread fame among Tibetans in exile - and, not surprisingly, the
attention of the Chinese security apparatus. These days, her books are
banned and her movements are monitored. She was detained by police last
year during a trip to her birthplace to see her mother. None of this
deters her. “If it happens, it happens. I write what I write.”

What she writes is not only poetry but a blog that openly criticises
Chinese rule in Tibet. It is already in its fifth incarnation. After it
was closed down repeatedly by the authorities in 2006 and 2007, she
posted it on an overseas server. Then, after the riots a year ago in
Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in which 22 people were killed - mostly
ethnic Han Chinese - and unrest spread across Tibetan regions, the
overseas blog was hacked and closed down twice. Undaunted, she resumed
writing about “Invisible Tibet” on woeser.middle-way.net.

Figures compiled overseas show more than three million hits on her blog
in the past year, mostly after the March unrest, when it was the main
source of information for Tibetans looking for an alternative to
propaganda. Now her account of the unrest, with photographs, is to be
published in Taiwan to coincide with the first anniversary of the riots.
“It seems that people look to me,” she says, humbly.

Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in the US, says
that Woeser has entered unknown territory: “No Tibetan has spoken out so
openly in print or in the media. She has never faltered, and the risks
she took were off the chart.”

She is now the best-known Tibetan after religious figures such as the
Dalai Lama, whose photograph smiles from a shrine in her home. “She is
something very rare - a deeply feeling, caring person and a poet who
forgot to be afraid ,” says Barnett.

Woeser seems surprised by her fame. “I'm a very ordinary person,” she
says, “but not many Tibetans have the means to get around the censors.”

She was born in Lhasa to a father who was a half-Tibetan, half-Han
Chinese officer in the People's Liberation Army and a mother who was the
daughter of a minor aristocratic Tibetan family. Her parents were young
and idealistic converts to the Communist cause, although some in the
military were opposed to her father's decision to wed a Tibetan woman.

Woeser was born in 1966, the first year of the ultra-leftist Cultural
Revolution. Within four years the family left for her father's native
Sichuan province, to escape the worst excesses of revolutionary fervour.

It was the start of a new life for Woeser. Her parents switched to
speaking Chinese rather than Tibetan. Her schooling was also in Chinese
- the language by which Woeser could rise in society but also the only
way for Tibetans, with so many dialects, to communicate with each other.
“My parents spoke Tibetan together but Mandarin with us,” Woeser says.

She did well at school and won entry to a high school in the provincial
capital, Chengdu, for ethnic minority children. But while she and her
classmates used the same textbooks as Chinese children, the exams were
simpler because Tibetans were seen as less able. Although she wanted to
go on to the prestigious Sichuan University to study Chinese, she was
only offered a place at the Southwest Nationalities School.

Woeser began to write poetry and planned to become a journalist. She
dreamt of returning to Lhasa and when, at the age of 24, a novel that
she wrote was published by the Tibetan Literary Association, the
publishers fulfilled her dream by offering her an editing job there.

Her father decided that the whole family should return.Within a year,
though, he was dead. His blood pressure failed in the rarefied air of
Lhasa, 12,000ft above sea level. Woeser was devastated. “He always felt
that my ideas were out of line, too dangerous, and he worried about me,”
she says. “But it was after he died that I really began to feel that I
was a Tibetan. ”

Shortly before her father's death she had come across a translation of a
book available only to government officials. It was a banned work, In
Exile in the Land of Snows by John Avedon, describing the 1959 flight
into exile of the Dalai Lama and Chinese repression of the abortive
uprising that triggered his escape. She had been taught to regard
Tibet's god-king as a bad man; now she wondered. She asked her father,
and “he told me that 70 per cent of the book was true”. Then an aunt,
also in the Army, told her that 90 per cent of it was correct.

Thus began a loss of innocence and of trust in the Communist Party that
had nurtured her. Her writing began to change. She devoted herself to
studying Tibetan, although she still writes in Chinese, and began to
take classes in Buddhism.

She produced a volume of prose essays, Notes from Tibet. “I expected the
publishers to censor mentions of the Dalai Lama,” she says, “but they
left almost everything.” Its publication, in 2003, marked the start of
her internal exile.

Recalled to to Lhasa from a visit to Beijing, Woeser was ordered to make
a self-criticism for Notes from Tibet. She refused. She parted ways with
the Tibetan Literary Association, losing her salary, pension, flat and
all the other perks of a government employee. But she had found her
vocation.

Encouraged by the Chinese author Wang Lixiong, whom she later married,
she sifted through a collection of photographs taken by her father
during the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. A book of these searing images
of persecution, accompanied by her interviews with survivors, was
published in Taiwan, and her fame spread.

The rebellious spirit that once angered her father now irks the Chinese
authorities, who have refused to give her a passport. She has vowed to
take them to court.

After the March riot, police confined her to her flat - but with no
proof that she had broken the law, their only options were to cut off
her internet connection or detain her, both methods of last resort for a
Government keen to avoid bad publicity.

Woeser says modestly that Tibet's monks are the real heroes, and admits
fearing arrest. “But it would give me time to study the Buddhist
scriptures,” she laughs. “My main worry is whether they will let me wear
my contact lenses in prison.”
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