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Tibetan Writer's Intellectual Journey Leads to Trial

August 13, 2010

ANDREW JACOBS
The New York Times (USA)
August 11, 2010

BEIJING -- If Tragyal was surprised when the
police showed up at his office in April, he did
not show it, his co-workers say. If anything, he
wondered what had taken them so long.

Tragyal, a Tibetan who writes under the name
Shogdung, had been an employee at a state-run publisher.

It turns out that the public security bureau in
the western province of Qinghai simply needed a
full month to translate his Tibetan prose into Chinese.

That night, as officers searched his home,
carting away computers, handwritten notes and
copies of the offending book, Mr. Tragyal, who
like many Tibetans uses one name, stood by
silently. "He was perfectly serene in front of
the policemen, and this somehow calmed my fears," his wife wrote in an e-mail.

His trial is expected to begin this month in the
provincial capital, Xining. His book "The Line
Between Sky and Earth" will undoubtedly be the
main evidence. An employee of a state-run
publishing house whose earlier books called on
Tibetans to slough off their superstitious ways,
Mr. Tragyal, 47, faces the charge of "splittism,"
one of the gravest crimes under Chinese law. If
recent history is any guide, the trial will be brief and the penalty severe.

The book, published illegally in March, is a
poetic, painstakingly written indictment of
Chinese rule and a call for a “peaceful
revolution" against what Mr. Tragyal describes as
Beijing’s heavy-handed governing style.

Such strictures have tightened since spring 2008,
many Tibetans say, when a deadly burst of rioting
in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region,
elicited a government response that has sent
hundreds of monks, nomads, students and
shopkeepers to jail -- and several of those
accused of rioting to their deaths. But unlike
previous crackdowns on dissent in Tibet and
adjoining provinces, the current campaign has
deeply unnerved those Tibetans — educated,
middle-class and bilingual -- who always kept their heads down.

Robert J. Barnett, director of the modern Tibetan
studies program at Columbia, said two years of
detentions, secret trials and torture accusations
had prompted soul-searching and quiet resistance.
Elderly Tibetan cadres have published memoirs on
long-forgotten massacres by Communist troops.
Middle-age functionaries have openly voiced
qualms about their role in China’s bureaucracy.
Online, the young and the radicalized post
provocative anti-Chinese comments. "People are no
longer hiding behind the tradition of
self-censorship that comes from fear,” Mr.
Barnett said. "What we’re seeing is a new kind of intellectual heroism."

That shift can be seen in the public
transformation of Mr. Tragyal, better known by
his pen name, Shogdung. The founder of the New
School of Thought, he ran an informal salon in
Xining where other young iconoclasts shared the
writings of philosophers like Friedrich von Hayek
or denounced the Tibetan belief in reincarnation.

"Some people misunderstood him, saying he opposed
Buddhism," said Phagmo Tashi, a friend and a
filmmaker. "The truth is, he only opposed certain
aspects of religion that violate universal values like freedom and dignity."

If Mr. Tragyal was once maligned for sentiments
that some deemed anti-Buddhist, or for printing
his essays in state-run newspapers, he has become
something of a hero since publishing "The Line
Between Sky and Earth." Its print run of 1,000
copies -- and the thousands of pirated versions
that followed -- quickly sold out in Qinghai and beyond.

In the book, he apologizes for his previous
writings and his failure to speak out after the
Lhasa riots, saying, "I kept a disciplined
silence and stayed passive like a coward, ultimately out of fear."

What changed him, he said, was the sight of so
many monks marching in the streets and the
stories about harsh punishments for the
protesters. He was also moved by passive
resisters like Runggye Adak, a nomad whose
videotaped paean to the Dalai Lama earned him an eight-year prison term.

"I got to thinking that there could be no worse
suffering than this, even if someone were to
murder your own father, because every time my
thoughts turned to the methods of torture used by
the dictators, my hair stood on end, I got goose
bumps and my heart leapt out of my throat," he wrote.

But perhaps the most audacious sections of his
book call on the Tibetan intelligentsia and state
workers to stop cooperating with the Beijing
government and to wage a campaign of civil
disobedience. Though Mr. Tragyal was careful not
to advocate Tibetan independence, it is unlikely
that the authorities would recognize such a distinction.

"I’ve read the book again and again, but I don’t
see anything that breaks the law," said his
daughter, Yeshi Tsomo, 25, an editor at a
state-owned Tibetan-language publisher. "I fear
the government won’t care because they probably
don’t like the idea behind the book."

In recent months, a number of prominent Tibetans
have been given long prison sentences based on
what defense lawyers contend was flimsy evidence or forced confessions.

The highest-profile case involved Karma Samdrup,
an antiques dealer and philanthropist who was
tried on 12-year-old charges of selling stolen
relics. His real offense, family members say, was
seeking the freedom of his two brothers, who were
detained after accusing a local police chief of
hunting endangered animals in a nature preserve.

In June, Mr. Samdrup was sentenced to 15 years in
prison. In a sign of the legal system’s
capriciousness, his lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, said he
had not learned until Aug. 2 that Mr. Samdrup’s
appeal had been turned down a month before -- the
day after it was filed. More worrisome, Mr.
Samdrup’s wife said, is that he has essentially
disappeared, with both the detention center and
the court claiming they have no idea where he is.

"How is it that such a good man can be made to
suffer so much?" his wife, Zhenga Cuomao, asked in an interview.

It is the sort of question that Mr. Tragyal poses
again and again in his book. He asks why Tibetan
society is suffused with fear and why China
ignores the human rights conventions it has signed.

At the end of the book, he acknowledges that his
very words will lead to his own perdition. "I am
naturally terrified at the thought that once this
essay has been made public, I will eventually
have to endure the hot hells and cold hells on
earth," he writes. "I may ‘lose my head because
of my mouth,’ but this is the path I have chosen,
so the responsibility is mine."

Helen Gao contributed research.
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