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China Is Trying a Tibetan Filmmaker for Subversion

November 4, 2009

By ANDREW JACOBS
The New York Times
October 31, 2009

CHONGQING, China -- A self-taught filmmaker who
spent five months interviewing Tibetans about
their hopes and frustrations living under Chinese
rule is facing charges of state subversion after
the footage was smuggled abroad and distributed
on the Internet and at film festivals around the world.

The filmmaker, Dhondup Wangchen, who has been
detained since March 2008, just weeks after
deadly rioting broke out in Tibet, managed to
sneak a letter out of jail last month saying that his trial had begun.

"There is no good news I can share with you," he
wrote in the letter, which was provided by a
cousin in Switzerland. "It is unclear what the sentence will be."

As President Obama prepares for his first trip to
China next month, rights advocates are clamoring
for his attention in hopes that he will raise the
plight of individuals like Mr. Wangchen or broach
such thorny topics as free speech, democracy and greater religious freedom.

With hundreds of lawyers, dissidents and
journalists serving time in Chinese prisons,
human rights organizations are busy lobbying the
White House, members of Congress and the news
media. In some ways, the pressure has only
intensified since Mr. Obama won the Nobel Peace
Prize, raising expectations for him to carry the torch of human rights.

Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students
for a Free Tibet, said Mr. Obama had an
obligation to press Mr. Wangchen’s case and the
cause of Tibetan autonomy in general, given his
decision not to meet the Dalai Lama in Washington this month.

That move, which some viewed as a concession to
China, angered critics already displeased with
what they say was Secretary of State Hillary
Rodham Clinton’s failure to press human rights
during a visit to China in February.

"Beijing is emboldened by such moves," Ms.
Tethong said. "They see a weakness in the U.S.
government, and they’re going to exploit it. This
idea that you’ll gain more through some backroom
secret strategy does not work."

Until now, the case of Mr. Wangchen, 35, has
received little attention abroad. Uneducated and
plainspoken, he was an itinerant businessman
until October 2007, when he bought a small video
camera and began traveling the Tibetan plateau
interviewing monks, yak herders and students about their lives.

Tsetring Gyaljong, a cousin who helped him make
the documentary, said that Mr. Wangchen’s
political awareness was sharpened nearly a decade
ago, when he witnessed a demonstration in Lhasa,
the Tibetan capital, that was quickly broken up by public security officers.

"He saw how it was dissolved in two or three
minutes and how everyone was taken away," said
Mr. Gyaljong, speaking from Switzerland, where he
has lived in exile since escaping from Tibet.
"There were no pictures, no testimonies, and he
felt like the world should know that Tibetans,
despite the Chinese portrayals, are not a happy people."

Out of 40 hours of footage and 108 interviews
came "Leaving Fear Behind," a 25-minute
documentary that is an unadorned indictment of
the Chinese government. Although given the choice
to conceal their identities, most of his subjects
spoke uncloaked and freely expressed their
disdain for the Han Chinese migrants who are
flooding the region and their love for the Dalai
Lama, who has lived in exile since 1959.

In his own comments at the start of the film, Mr.
Wangchen said the approach of the 2008 Olympics
had compelled him to record the feelings of
Tibetans, many of whom were less than
enthusiastic about the decision to hold the Games in Beijing.

"We have no independence or freedom, so Tibetans
have no reason to celebrate," said one young
woman standing by a road. "The Chinese have
independence and freedom, so this is something they can celebrate."

On March 10, 2008, Mr. Wangchen traveled to Xi’an
in central China to hand over the tapes to Dechen
Pemba, a British citizen who ferried them out of
the country. That same day, a protest in Lhasa
turned into a rampage that left at least 18
people dead, most of them Han Chinese.

On March 26, Mr. Wangchen and Golog Jigme, a
Buddhist monk who helped him make the film, were
arrested. Mr. Jigme was subsequently released.

"It really is a remarkable coincidence," Ms. Pemba said.

Mr. Wangchen’s family hired a lawyer, but the
authorities barred him from court last July,
leaving Mr. Wangchen with a public defender.

Before he was forced to drop the case, the
lawyer, Li Dunyong, said Mr. Wangchen had told
him that he was tortured and that he had
contracted hepatitis B while in custody. Since
then, he has been held incommunicado. Officials
at the Xining Intermediate Court in Qinghai
Province, where Mr. Wangchen is being held, would not comment on his case.

Mr. Wangchen seemed acutely aware that his
project could get him in trouble. Just before he
began filming, he sent his wife and their four
children to India, where they live along with his elderly parents.

In an interview from Dharamsala, where she works
as a baker, Mr. Wangchen’s wife, Lhamo Tso, said
she feared she might not see him again for many, many years.

"As a wife, I’m very sad to be without the person
I love so much," she said. "But if I can separate
out that sadness, I feel proud because he made a
courageous decision to give a voice to people who don’t have one."
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