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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Interview: Conversation with Dechen Pemba

February 9, 2010

HRIC/Tibetan Voices in China
Phayul
February 8, 2010

Human Rights in China (HRIC): How would you
describe where you are at this moment of your work -- and how you got here?
Dechen Pemba: I guess to begin I’d have to
explain that I moved to Beijing with the
intention of learning the Chinese language and
getting to know the place. And having worked on
Tibet for quite a few years beforehand, I
realized I had no particular experience of living
there and of feeling restricted or not. I think
now it’s gotten to a point where to really get to
know Tibet today, you have to know what China is
like. So that was my main goal and I think I
would have liked to stay there longer had I not
been deported—asked to leave—one month before the
Olympics. I didn’t really see myself there as an
activist or anything like that. But one thing
that really came out of that experience is that I
was really interested in Tibetan voices. It’s
also interesting and crucial to look at what
they’re saying and not saying. Are the voices
that we hear circumscribed, or do they have
prescribed notions, or are they saying new
things? So I went looking into the Internet and to blogging.

HRIC: So when you were asked to leave China, you
went back "in" through the blogosphere!
Dechen Pemba: Yes, exactly -- because I was under
an informal five year ban from China that was verbally conveyed to me.

HRIC: Did they actually say that to you?
Dechen Pemba: They said, according to the laws of
our country, you’re not allowed to come back for
five years. I really told them I wanted the ban
in writing, but I never received it. I was
promised a written copy. I actually said I wanted
it immediately, because they had this piece of
paper with my name on it in Chinese. They never
really identified themselves. They just put me on a plane.
I would like to go back. I am ready to. So we’ll
see. When I am back in London, how can I really
keep in touch with what Tibetans on the ground
are really discussing and feeling?

HRIC: When you talk about bloggers, are you
talking about Tibetan blogs that are maintained
in exile, or are you also able to look at some
bloggers who are writing from inside Tibet?
Dechen Pemba: When I set up High Peaks Pure
Earth, I wanted it to be a translation project
that only translated blogs from Tibetans who are
either in Tibet or in China. Now it’s been up and
running just over a year, and over the last year
I’ve been doing a master’s degree in Chinese
Studies so I’ve been quite busy, but now I’m
going to have a lot more time to focus on it now
that I’ve finished my degree and handed in my dissertation.

HRIC: What was your dissertation on?
Dechen Pemba: My thesis was looking at Tibetan
voices as imagined by the Chinese. I’m interested
in voices of minorities in the cultural
production of the People’s Republic of China.

HRIC: How does one retrieve the Tibetan voices "as imagined by the Chinese"?
Dechen Pemba: The imagined voices are very
interesting. I don’t know if I can sum up my
thesis but I was looking at cultural productions
since the 1980s and since that time you did have
a lot of Chinese writers looking to minority
cultures. This was, you know, the Root-Seeking Movement.
I looked at film, music, and literature.
Recently, I looked at two novels, Wolf Totem and
The Tibet Code. The Tibet Code only came out last
year and since then there have been seven volumes
and they’ve been huge best sellers in China. It’s
all about Tibet but written by a Han Chinese
author. This was sort of a flip side to my
blogging project because these are officially
recognized voices of minorities as imagined by
Chinese. None of these are banned literature. In
fact, the opposite, they’re very popular,
mainstream. So I was fascinated by how Wolf Totem
and The Tibet Code can be such bestsellers and
they’re all about Inner Mongolia and Tibet and minorities.

HRIC: What was your conclusion?
Dechen Pemba: Very simply stated, my conclusion
was that Chinese authors, in imagining minorities
and minority voices, are in fact reflecting on
Han Chinese identity and Han Chinese themes, and
what emerges has very little to do with minorities themselves.

HRIC: Most appropriated re-imaginings are about
the author/artists engaged in re-imagining others.
Dechen Pemba: Exactly. In the 1980s, the
root-seeking voices, they were appropriating. I
think now, even the most recent examples, are
very similar. These works of art are all part of
popular culture. The Tibetan blogs we are
translating on High Peaks Pure Earth are all
freely accessible in China and Tibet. The only
writer we regularly publish whose writings are
banned in China and Tibet is Woeser -- she’s the
most well known Tibetan blogger.1 Nothing is
considered banned or subversive until its shut down.

THE AXE OF CENSORSHIP:

HRIC: : On the Chinese language blogs, a piece
could be available but then suddenly it will be
removed. The situation is not static—the red line
moves and you don’t usually know it has moved
until you’ve crossed it. So how do you deal with
that? Are you finding this with some of the
Tibetan blogs that you’re translating?
Dechen Pemba: We’ve actually had that experience
several times where we’ll find an article and
we’ll save the link and we’ll want to have it
translated so we’ll send the link to the
translator and it’s gone or it’s been blocked.
Also, quite often, an entire website will be
suddenly inaccessible. Several of the main
Tibetan blog hosting sites are closed down during any sensitive period.

HRIC: : But is your site accessible inside?
Dechen Pemba: No it’s not. It’s accessible only
if you have a proxy. But I am trying to move the
platform somewhere else so it will be more accessible.

HRIC: Can you share some generalizations from
your observations of Tibetan blogs? What are
permissible topics? What contents trigger the axe of censorship?
Dechen Pemba: The axe comes down based on the
political climate, and any time there are
sensitive anniversaries. For instance, in the run
up to the 10th of March, nothing could be
uploaded. Also, all the main Tibetan blog sites
were blocked for the entire month of August. When
the blogs came back up we discovered that a lot
of content that was deemed political had been removed.

HRIC: : What is deemed political besides the obvious?
Dechen Pemba: Anything that sort of openly
discusses Tibetan identity being threatened or
comments on any political events. Also
experiences of oppression or experiences of
torture or anything like that. We found some
interesting things as well. For example, some
areas of culture are deemed less sensitive than
other areas of culture, so a lot of Tibetan
writers are blogging about the Tibetan language.

IT’S OKAY UNTIL IT’S NOT OKAY

HRIC: On your August 3rd blog, entitled :Looking
at Criminal Cases to Examine the Non-Special
Policies towards Ethnic Minorities,” you posted a
Chinese propaganda poster which reads, "Long live
the great unity of all the peoples of the whole
nation."2 Do you think that particular slogan
"The great unity of the people"... has been
effective domestically and why did you choose that picture for the posting?
Dechen Pemba: : At High Peaks Pure Earth we
always try to be true to the original posting and
never insert our own opinion. So with that
posting, we tried to recreate Woeser’s original
Chinese blog post in English, using the same
image that she used. That particular photo was a
1950s Chinese propaganda poster so we had to
translate that into English. We tend to provide
some background, for instance links to mainstream
media articles on special policies towards
minorities. People who are interested can then do
their own research but I really don’t think it’s
the job of High Peaks Pure Earth to say to
people, this is how you should feel about this
issue or these policies. We really shouldn’t
dilute Tibetan voices, because we really want the
voices to be translated and to speak directly to the reader.

HRIC: It’s a bit of a challenge though because
editing is a political act and translating is a
political act. There’s no way to get around
choices being made. But you’re aware of that.
Dechen Pemba: Yeah, completely. The choices we
make in what to translate and what to upload onto
the blog are quite informed by the general
political climate. There are always certain
themes discussed in the Tibetan blogosphere at a
certain time more than at other times and we want to reflect those trends.

HRIC: Do you have contact with the bloggers you
translate and do they know what you’re doing?
What is their reaction to knowing their voices are reaching beyond China?
Dechen Pemba: : At High Peaks Pure Earth, we
don’t have any direct contact with the bloggers.
The blogs we are looking at are all blogs that
anybody who can read Chinese or Tibetan can read
themselves because they are accessible. The only
sort of direct exchange or interaction would be
with Woeser because she has a link to High Peaks
Pure Earth on her blog. And in the past she has
taken blog posts we’ve translated that she hasn’t
seen before and had them translated into Chinese.
So in that way you see some kind of exchange and
flow happening between the three languages. One
thing I’d really like to do with High Peaks in
the future is either make it bilingual or
trilingual in order to create some kind of forum
where people who read in English, Tibetan, and
Chinese can all meet in one place, and every
single article can be read in the original
language and in the two other languages as well.
The background to High Peaks Pure Earth is that
since the protests started in March 2008, there
was actually a wealth of information on Tibetan
blogs and this wasn’t really being used as much
of a resource for information. Instead everyone
was focusing on information blockades and the
lockdown and how nobody could actually go to the
Tibetan Autonomous Region. But you could find
hints of things that were going on from blog posts.

HRIC: You mean from what was cut?
Dechen Pemba: Either from subtle mentions on the
blogs or from things coming through in poetry.
Blogs were one resource that I think was really
being underused for information. Also, Woeser was
doing an amazing job of documenting every single
protest, every little incident. Her blogs were
being translated into English and published on
China Digital Times. That was really valuable
information that was originally only available in
Chinese. For me that was a sign.

HRIC: How is Woeser able to keep doing that?
Because the authorities knew she was doing it and
she has even been published in our publications.
I’m just amazed she can keep doing this work. What’s your read on that?
Dechen Pemba: : Woeser’s a very unique person
amongst Tibetans inside. The fact is for many
years now she’s been blogging and writing and her
books are published in Taiwan—so I think she has
quite a high profile. There have been many
profiles of her in Western media, and even in
Beijing. Tibet groups have also realized the
value of her work because of the Tibet updates
she has been writing this past year. So, I think
she’s really reached a kind of profile we haven’t
seen before at all for a Tibetan.

HRIC: Sometimes the high profile does protect a little bit of space.
Dechen Pemba: I think it does. People are often
surprised that she can say as much as she can.
She’s very daring; she’s really pushing the
boundaries of what Tibetans even dare to do in
China. I think she applied for a passport two or
three times and was rejected, so she hired a
lawyer and started to sue to test the legal
system. It’s really brave. At the same time I
think it’s important to be aware of the very fine
line surrounding the space she has.

HRIC: I think it’s like Ai Weiwei. He appears to
be given space as an example of the fact that
people can in fact be critical. But then if at
some point they decide you’ve crossed the line
you can even get beaten up for trying to be a witness.3
Dechen Pemba: I think it’s pretty much patent in
China that it’s okay until it’s not okay.

HRIC: That’s right.
Dechen Pemba: And then you just really don’t know.

HRIC: That should be one of the taglines for this
discussion! I think we hear this a lot from
foreign observers, "Well I know someone and they
can do this and they can do that” as an example
of “progress” and greater openness. But it’s the
nature of an authoritarian state that it’s okay
until it’s not okay. The other part of it is --
you don’t know when it’s not okay in advance.
Dechen Pemba: And you don’t get to decide.

TIBETAN YOUTH

HRIC: You have this whole generation of young Han
Chinese in their twenties who have a dangerous
historical amnesia about what happened in 1989.
It’s the exact opposite for Tibetan young people.
They are the most active, they carry their
history, they remember their history, and are
pushing the older people to do something. Young
people in Tibet are subjected to the same
brainwashing and propaganda that Han Chinese are
and also face the very difficult pressure of
having to learn Chinese while fighting to keep
their identity. How is it that they are blogging in this robust way?
Dechen Pemba: I think the difference between the
Han Chinese young people and the Tibetans is that
the sense of identity for the Tibetans is
constantly being reinforced all throughout their
lives because of the backfiring of these ethnic
policies. The policies are meant to sort of
promote minorities but when you promote
difference, you end up strengthening the sense of
being different. I’m thinking of young people who
are uprooted from their Tibetan families and
backgrounds and sent on these special programs to
inland schools. An obvious implication is that
the children will be assimilated into mainstream
Han Chinese society. But what usually happens
instead is that the child realizes that they’re
really not from this culture and they start
missing their home and their family. Their sense
of identity as Tibetan is reinforced—I think this
is how these policies backfire. I also think that
Tibetans really have a sort of historical
continuity, that it’s really important and that
maybe it’s under threat. That’s why last year,
with all the protests happening, young Tibetans
were taking part because their parents went out
to protest and wanted their children to go with them.

HRIC: Whereas for the Tiananmen generation inside
China there is a kind of complicity in
maintaining silence because some people are benefiting.
Dechen Pemba: I think families and parents are
talking about what happened when the Chinese
came, and the young people feel it’s really
important not to forget that past. There’s also a
feeling of responsibility for the generation.
Students I had contact with in Beijing had a
strong Tibetan identity. Even those who were
fully bicultural would still say they are Tibetan
and blog in Tibetan and speak in Tibetan. That
was one of the best things about living in
Beijing—interacting with all the Tibetan students.

HRIC: How were the relationships between the
Beijing students and Tibetan students?
Dechen Pemba: I felt like generally they were
quite good. They had friends and the Tibetan
students had to share dorm rooms with Chinese
students, but I always got the sense that the
Tibetans were one group and the Chinese were one group.

LEAVING FEAR BEHIND
HRIC: Can you talk about the documentary Leaving Fear Behind?
Dechen Pemba: This is really the one project that
came out during the Olympics last year that
really brought Tibetan voices directly to the
public. When talking about the film, what I find
so fascinating is the fact that Tibetans were
looking for a way to express themselves
nonviolently and with a new tool. Instead of a
protest or some banners, these Tibetans were more
creative and traveled around Tibet for months
with small, cheap video cameras documenting every
Tibetan they met answering three simple
questions. First, what do you think about China
and Tibet? Second, what do you think about the
Olympics? And third, what do you think about his
Holiness, the Dalai Lama? This was their attempt
inside Tibet to bring Tibet to the Olympic Games.
I think it was important to support new forms of
resistance like videos and documentaries.

HRIC: I really like how you framed the project as
using a new tool for activism. I think people
don’t change by being talked at, but we change
experientially. And the challenge for these new
tools is to promote a fundamental change in
values necessary for China to become more open,
more tolerant, more democratic, and more
respectful of rights and human dignity. People
have to somehow experience something different to
imagine and build something different. That’s why
I’m so excited about technology because it has
the potential for enabling people to access
different experiences. You can hear a lot of
propaganda about Tibetans, but if you can see and
hear different realities, you might view Tibetan
people differently than this propaganda.
Dechen Pemba: That was a big part of the
documentary project. Everybody who agreed to be
on camera agreed not to have their face covered
up or distorted, so when you watch it you feel
like you are talking to them face to face. It was really very brave.

HRIC: Did you read the criticism focusing on
whether people were fully aware of the risks? How
did the documentary makers respond to this?
Dechen Pemba: I completely understand those kinds
of feelings. They are dealing with an oppressive
regime who could find the participants if they
wanted to. However, I had 100 percent trust in
the people doing the project, and they were the
ones taking the risks. One was a monk and one was
a farmer, they were not filmmakers, but they
wanted to figure out a way to take on China and
get Tibetan voices out. So they traveled all over
Tibet and took over 40 hours of footage. When
they went to some of the villages, people were
waiting for them and just lining up to be on
camera to give their testimony. Villagers were
saying, there are these people who are filming,
it’s going to be shown for the Olympics, it’s
going to be shown all over the world, we can
really do something. When I heard stories like
that, I felt, how could I not support this
project? One of my favorite quotes from the
footage didn’t make it into the 25 minute
version. It’s from a nomad who says that he feels
like Tibetans in China are like stars on a sunny
day—they can’t be seen. I really feel like the
whole idea behind the film was to make Tibetans
seen and make Tibetans heard at a time during the
Olympics when they were going to be invisible.
People are expressing their grievances so
politely and so eloquently in the film that it’s
not really such a surprise that the uprising
happened. The last day of filming was the 10th of
March 2008. And after that, everything changed.

SPACE FOR CULTURAL EXPRESSION

HRIC: After one year, do you feel this blogging
has changed the space for cultural expression inside China?
Dechen Pemba: Yeah, definitely. You can read
anything from nuanced, subtle political
commentary to the standard boring stuff someone
did that day. For me the best, most defiant blog
posts are the ones which are clever and creative.
For instance, during the Dragon Boat Festival
which everyone has to celebrate all over China, a
Tibetan student wrote that we should celebrate,
but if you read further he said, let us celebrate
a festival our forefathers had never heard of and
let’s celebrate by eating something our
forefathers had never tasted before. So through
humor, through irony, you can really say a lot.

HRIC: I think using humor is so effective.
Dechen Pemba: Really. It was such a great blog
post. I just read it over and over again and it
was such a comment on history, and on the Chinese
government hijacking the holidays. This year was
even more extreme because the Tibetans decided
not to celebrate Tibetan New Year and the
government forced people to celebrate.

THE FUTURE

HRIC: So now that you’re finished with your
master’s degree, what are you going to do full time?
Dechen Pemba: I’ve got a little bit of funding
for the website, so maybe I can do High Peaks
Pure Earth for a little bit, but I can do that
from anywhere. I have to think of a way to keep
up with Chinese. There are a lot of Tibetans
doing Tibetan work but not so many learning
Chinese so that’s something I think that makes me
quite unique. For my thesis I read The Tibet
Code, which hadn’t been translated into English.

HRIC: So you read the whole thing in Chinese?
Dechen Pemba: Yeah, I had to! I saw it
everywhere, I saw Chinese people on the subway
reading it. The Frankfurt Book Fair did a study
of the bestselling novels of 2008 and 2009 in
China, and number one was The Tibet Code and number three was Wolf Totem.

SOFT POWER

HRIC: What’s your assessment of this strategy of
soft power and the impact of that strategy in the
international community abroad?
Dechen Pemba: I find it so interesting that you
have all these China scholars who would never
comment on Tibet, on minorities, or on anything
too sensitive because it might affect their field
work or their ability to go to China. I do admire
the China scholars who really speak out.

HRIC: Part of enabling soft power is that
academics, governments, and even media are
engaged in an implicit exchange -- avoiding
sensitive issues or groups in exchange for
access. China’s control of information is not
just information control, it’s control over what
can be said, how it can be said, when it can be
said, and to whom. And a lot of that is through
technology itself. Also the government uses the
police state apparatus, thuggism, and regulation
and law to promote nationalism—a domestic form of
soft power. What are the implications of this domestic flexing of soft power?
Dechen Pemba: On three or four main Tibetan sites
you have to fill out your identification number
and real name in order to register and write.
After two or three blog sites that had been shut
down in August came back, they said they were
having some problems. They didn’t specify what,
but the site did say, please be careful what you post.

HRIC: This is advising you to self-censor.
Dechen Pemba: Yes, the Tibetan blogosphere, as
with the situation on the ground in Tibet itself,
is a space where the goalposts are constantly
changing. However, more often than not, it’s when
you hear the least from the ground that you should be the most worried.

Notes:
1. Woeser is the well-known Tibetan author of the
book Notes on Tibet (????), and multiple other
books, poems, and essays. Her blog, Invisible
Tibet, is available at http://woeser.middle-way.net.

2. Woeser, "Looking at Criminal Cases to Examine
the Non-Special Policies towards Ethnic
Minorities," High Peaks Pure Earth,
http://www.highpeakspureearth.com/2009/08/looking-at-criminal-cases-to-examine.html,
posted August 3, 2009.

3. Ai Weiwei (???), a prominent Chinese artist
and social commentator, was beaten by Chengdu
police and detained in his hotel room for 11
hours when he tried to attend the trial of
Sichuan earthquake critic, Tan Zuoren, as a
witness. Human Rights in China, “Police Beat and
Detain Supporters of Sichuan Earthquake Critic
Morning before Trial," August 12, 2009,
http://hrichina.org/public/contents/171835.
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