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Resurgence of Tibetan Cultural Pride Draws Chinese Ire

July 6, 2010

Kate Woodsome
Voice of America (VOA)
July 5, 2010

Washington, July 5 -- Tibetan artists,
intellectuals and, now, environmentalists in
China are facing an increasing threat of arrest
and prolonged detention in the wake of the 2008
protests against Beijing’s rule. Observers say
the crackdown on figures normally left out of
politics signals China’s growing concern about a
resurgence of pride in Tibetan cultural identity.

Songs of protest

In a popular Tibetan song, Tashi Dhondup sings of
broken families, Chinese occupation, and the
sterilization of the Tibetan race. The album,
“Torture Without Trace,” was released after rare
anti-China protests swept Tibet two years ago,
leaving as many as 200 people dead.

Dechen Pemba, a British-born Tibetan who
publishes English translations of Tashi Dhondup’s
songs on the blog High Peaks Pure Earth, says the album became an instant hit.

"Tashi Dhondup’s songs were really popular
amongst Tibetans because everybody had been
feeling so traumatized after the events of 2008
and the protests and the crackdown,” Pemba says.
“The song was passed around through the Internet.
People were using their mobile phones and playing
them to each other and passing them around."

Tashi Dhondup is now serving a 15-month sentence
of re-education through labor for singing what
authorities call "subversive songs."

Cultural crackdown

He is one of more than 50 Tibetan cultural
figures believed to be detained, disappeared,
tortured or harassed since the 2008 protests.
That figure is according to the International
Campaign for Tibet, a rights watchdog group,
which says Tibetan intellectuals are facing their
harshest crackdown since the Cultural Revolution.

ICT researcher Ben Carrdus says the profile of
Tibetan protestors is changing, and that makes Beijing nervous.

"Post 2008, there was a real reaction against the
oppression that the Chinese authorities were
putting on those forms of expression," says
Carrdus. “And it was seen across the board from
high school students to Tibetan nomads to
Tibetans who worked for government to university teachers."

Official intellectuals

For years after the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan
musicians and poets stayed mostly away from
politics and some writers were even regarded as
“official intellectuals” approved by Beijing.

One of those writers, Shogdung, had been scorned
by many Tibetans for his attacks on Tibetan
Buddhism and culture. But the 2008 protests
changed that. His new book, "The Line Between Sky
and Earth," is an indictment of China's policies
in Tibet. Carrdus says it was a dramatic shift.

"Having been an official intellectual, he then
reneged on his loyalty to the party line and
wrote some very powerful essays about he’d been
mistaken. A very humble apology really that he
had been misguided by the party line and he was reneging on it," says Carrdus.

Shogdung was detained in April and has not been heard from since.

New targets

China has historically tolerated little criticism
from Tibetan activists, and these recent arrests
are typical of Beijing’s longstanding policies in
the region. But the detention of Tibetan arts
collector and environmentalist Karma Samdrup has
raised new concerns about the reach of Chinese policies in Tibet.

Karma Samdrup won both Beijing’s praise and the
world’s for his environmental protection work.
But his reputation did not save him from a
15-year prison sentence for grave robbing.
Supporters say Karma Samdrup is being silenced
for speaking out against the detention of his two
brothers, who accused local officials of poaching.

Local power

Robbie Barnett, a leading Tibet expert at
Columbia University in New York, says the case
shows how local officials in Tibet appear to have
greater influence in shaping Beijing’s policies there.

"Whoever it is that is chasing Karma and who are
trying to get him for some reason went way beyond
their normal powers. He wasn’t living in the
Tibet region, so they had to get him detained by
another region, in this case, Xinjiang," says
Barnett, adding that authorities also had books
praising Karma Samdrup banned across China.

Barnett admits it is hard to determine what is
happening in China. But he says it appears local
officials are exaggerating Tibetan threats for professional gain.

"A lot of evidence suggests the Chinese
leadership is not really looking very carefully
at policies in Tibet," he says. "It’s leaving it
to a handful of people who probably have their
careers invested in being known as hardliners who
crack down on any kind of dissent. These are the
people who seem to be running places like Tibet."

Development with a cost

China has not commented on the recent arrests.
Beijing says its policy of developing Tibet's
economy will bring stability to the region. But
that investment comes with a cost.

Barnett says bilingual education is being cut,
government employees and their families are
banned from Tibetan Buddhism, and monks, nuns and
laypeople are forced to join patriotic three-month re-education sessions.

"This is what China’s main policies have been as
a kind of compensation for the policies that it
thinks are its main strategies, which is boosting
economic investment," says Barnett. "So it’s made
Tibetans pay by these very draconian cultural
restrictions. And it’s this that has triggered
the recent spread of protests in the last two-three years."

Since China invaded Tibet in the 1950s, a new
generation of Tibetans has grown up knowing only
Chinese rule. But the elders who knew
independence are not ready to let history be
forgotten. Barnett says Tibetans retiring from
decades of government service are secretly
publishing memoirs of the early days of Chinese
occupation. He says this emerging history is
changing the way young Tibetans think about their future.
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