a. Freedom of Speech and Press
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Tibetans who spoke to foreign reporters, attempted to provide information to persons outside the country, or communicated information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent through cell phones, e-mail, or the internet were subject to harassment or detention under “crimes of undermining social stability and inciting separatism.” During the year authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas sought to strengthen control over electronic media and to punish individuals for the ill-defined crime of “creating and spreading of rumors.” According to official news reports in January, TAR officials punished 141 individuals for “creating and spreading rumors” online between June 2015 and January.
In March public security authorities charged Tashi Wangchuk, an entrepreneur and education advocate from Jyekundo in the Tibetan Region of Kham, now part of the Yushu TAP in Qinghai Province, with “inciting separatism,” according to The New York Times. Tashi’s lawyer told the Times in August that public security case files he had reviewed indicated that the charge was based on Tashi’s participation in a late 2015 Times report about the lack of Tibetan language education in Tibetan areas. Tashi was detained in January, but his family members were not informed until late March, and he remained in detention awaiting trial at the year’s end. Tashi had no known record of advocating Tibetan independence or separatism, according to the Times, and has denied the charges against him.
On May 9, the Wenchuan County People’s Court sentenced Jo Lobsang Jamyang, a monk at Kirti Monastery and a popular writer who addressed issues such as environmental protection and self-immolation protests, to seven years and six months in prison on charges of “leaking state secrets” and “engaging in separatist activities.” The trial was closed, and his family and lawyers were barred from attending. Soon after he was detained in April 2015, 20 Tibetan writers jointly called for his release and praised his writings. Authorities held Jamyang incommunicado and reportedly tortured him during more than a year of pretrial detention.
On May 14, authorities detained Jamyang Lodroe, a monk from Tsinang Monastery in Ngaba TAP, without providing any information about his whereabouts or the reason for his detention to the monastery or to his family. Local sources told RFA reporters that it was widely believed that authorities detained Lodroe on account of his online publications.
Press and Media Freedoms: The government continued to severely restrict travel by foreign journalists. Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and this permission was rarely granted. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China’s annual report stated that reporting from “Tibet proper remains off-limits to foreign journalists.” This same report noted that many foreign journalists were also told that reporting in Tibetan areas outside the TAR was “restricted or prohibited.”
Authorities tightly controlled journalists who worked for the domestic press and could hire and fire them on the basis of political reliability. In February TAR Television announced job vacancies with one of the listed job requirements to “be united with the regional party committee in political ideology and fighting against separatism.” CCP propaganda authorities remained in charge of local journalist accreditation in the TAR and required journalists working in the TAR to display “loyalty to the Party and motherland.” The deputy head of the TAR Propaganda Department simultaneously holds a prominent position in the TAR Journalist Association, a state-controlled professional association to which local journalists must belong.
Violence and Harassment: Chinese authorities arrested and sentenced many Tibetan writers, intellectuals, and singers for “inciting separatism.” In February the Malho (Hainan) Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court in Qinghai Province sentenced Druklo (pen name: Shokjang), a writer and blogger from Labrang in the Tibetan Region of Amdo, to three years in prison for “inciting separatism.” According to various sources, Shokjang wrote poetry and prose about Chinese government policies in Tibetan areas that enjoyed significant readership among Tibetans. Chinese security officials took Shokjang from the monastic center of Rebkong in March 2015, and no information was known about his welfare or whereabouts until the sentencing almost a year later.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Domestic journalists were not allowed to report on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment.
Since the establishment of the CCP’s Central Leading Small Group for Internet Security and Informatization in 2014, the TAR Party Committee Information Office has further tightened the control of a full range of social media platforms. According to multiple contacts, security officials often cancelled WeChat accounts carrying “sensitive information,” such as discussions about Tibetan language education, and interrogated the account owners. Many sources also reported that it was almost impossible to register websites promoting Tibetan culture and language in the TAR.
The Chinese government continued to jam radio broadcasts of Voice of America and RFA’s Tibetan and Chinese-language services in some Tibetan areas as well as the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway. As part of a regular campaign cracking down on unauthorized radio and television channels, the TAR Department of Communications conducted an investigation in the Lhasa area in June and found zero “illegal radio programs.”
According to multiple sources, authorities in Qinghai Province confiscated or destroyed “illegal” satellite dishes in many Tibetan areas. In addition to maintaining strict censorship of print and online content in Tibetan areas, Chinese authorities sought to censor the expression of views or distribution of information related to Tibet in countries outside the PRC. In February the PRC ambassador to Bangladesh pressured organizers of the Dhaka Art Summit to remove an exhibit that displayed the handwritten final writings of five Tibetans who had self-immolated in protest of Chinese government repression.
National Security: In 2015 China enacted a new National Security Law that includes provisions regarding the management of ethnic minorities and religion. The PRC frequently blamed “hostile foreign forces” for creating instability in Tibetan areas and cited the need to protect “national security” and “fight against separatism” as justifications for its policies, including censorship policies, in Tibetan areas.
Authorities curtailed cell phone and Internet service in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time, during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. When Internet service was restored, authorities closely monitored the Internet throughout Tibetan areas. Reports of authorities searching cell phones they suspected of containing suspicious content were widespread. Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information.
In February the head of the TAR Party Committee Internet Information Office asserted that “the Internet is the key ideological battlefield between the TAR Party Committee and the 14th Dalai (Lama) clique.”
In November the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a cybersecurity law that further strengthened the legal mechanisms available to security agencies to surveil and control content online. Some observers noted that provisions of the law, such as Article 12, could disproportionally affect Tibetans and other ethnic minorities. Article 12 criminalizes using the internet to commit a wide range of ill-defined crimes of a political nature, such as “harming national security,” “damaging national unity,” “propagating extremism,” “inciting ethnic hatred,” “disturbing social order,” and “harming the public interest.” The law also codifies the practice of large-scale internet network shutdowns in response to “major [public] security incidents,” which public security authorities in Tibetan areas have done for years without a clear basis in law. A work conference held in Lhasa on November 8 urged the TAR and other provinces with Tibetan areas to step up coordination in managing the internet.
Throughout the year, authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Well-organized computer-hacking attacks originating from China harassed Tibet activists and organizations outside China.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
Authorities in many Tibetan areas required professors and students at institutions of higher education to attend regular political education sessions, particularly during politically sensitive months, in an effort to prevent “separatist” political and religious activities on campus. Authorities frequently encouraged Tibetan academics to participate in government propaganda efforts, such as making public speeches supporting government policies. Academics who refused to cooperate with such efforts faced diminished prospects for promotion.
Academics in the PRC who publicly criticized CCP policies on Tibetan affairs faced official reprisal. The government controlled curricula, texts, and other course materials as well as the publication of historically or politically sensitive academic books. Authorities frequently denied Tibetan academics permission to travel overseas for conferences and academic or cultural exchanges. Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.
In May senior officials of the state-run TAR Academy of Social Science encouraged scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” and held a conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “fight against separatists.”
Policies promoting planned urban economic growth, rapid infrastructure development, the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expansion of the tourism industry, forced resettlement of nomads and farmers, and the weakening of both Tibetan language education in public schools and religious education in monasteries continued to disrupt traditional living patterns and customs.
Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese are official languages in the TAR, and both languages appeared on some, but not all, public and commercial signs. Inside official buildings and businesses, including banks, post offices, and hospitals, signage in Tibetan was frequently lacking, and in many instances forms and documents were available only in Mandarin. Mandarin was used for most official communications and was the predominant language of instruction in public schools in many Tibetan areas. Private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval to print in the Tibetan language.
A small number of public schools in the TAR continued to teach mathematics in the Tibetan language, but in June the Tibet Postreported that TAR officials have replaced Tibetan language mathematics textbooks in all regional schools with Mandarin versions. Sources reported that WeChat users in the TAR discussing the issue were subsequently visited by public security officers and given warnings.
According to sources, there were previously 20 Tibetan language schools or workshops for local children operated by Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Sichuan Province’s Kardze TAP. After the 2015 release of the Kardze TAP Relocation Regulation for Minors in Monasteries, authorities forced 15 of these schools to close and relocated their students to government-run schools.
The Kardze TAP has the highest illiteracy rate (above 30 percent) in Sichuan Province, compared with a national rate of 4 to 5 percent. Despite the illiteracy problem, in late April the central government ordered the destruction of much of Larung Gar, the largest Tibetan Buddhist education center, a focal point for promoting both Tibetan and Chinese literacy.
China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law states that “schools (classes and grades) and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the media of instruction.” Despite guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, many primary, middle, high school, and college students had limited access to Tibetan language instruction and textbooks, particularly in the areas of modern education.
China’s most prestigious universities provided no instruction in Tibetan or other ethnic minority languages, although classes teaching the Tibetan language were available at a small number of universities. “Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and ethnic Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, offered Tibetan language instruction only in courses focused on the study of the Tibetan language or culture. Mandarin was used in courses for jobs that required technical skills and qualifications.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Even in areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize and play a meaningful role in the protection of their cultural heritage and unique natural environment. Tibetans often faced intimidation and arrest if they protested against policies or practices they found objectionable. A 2015 RFA report stated that authorities in Rebkong County in the Tibetan Region of Amdo, now administered under Qinghai Province, circulated a list of unlawful activities. The list included “illegal associations formed in the name of the Tibetan language, the environment, and education.” Sources in the area reported that this list remained in force and no new associations have been formed since the list was published.
In February 2015 public security officials in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, detained a group of Tibetans who were peacefully protesting the government’s seizure of land in Zoige County in the Tibetan Region of Amdo, now administered by Sichuan, outside a meeting of the Sichuan Provincial People’s Congress. In April four of these Tibetans were sentenced to prison terms of two to three years.
On June 23, a protest by Tibetans on Qinghai Lake over the demolition of unregistered restaurants and guest houses was violently dispersed by security forces, leading to the arrest of five demonstrators and the injury of at least eight others. Authorities decreed that these small businesses were illegal and needed to be torn down and that residents should leave the area, which was a popular tourist location. Local Tibetans likened it to a “land grab” meant to benefit ethnic Chinese at their expense.
At the Sixth Tibet Work Forum in August 2015, the CCP ordered a large-scale campaign to expel students and demolish living quarters at Larung Gar, the world’s largest center for the study of Tibetan Buddhism. The expulsion and demolition campaign commenced in July. According to a local CCP directive, authorities must reduce the resident population to no more than 5,000 by September 2017. Before the campaign began, the population at Larung Gar was estimated to range between 10,000 and 30,000. In July authorities banned foreign tourists from visiting the area.
In August authorities in the Kardze TAP in the Tibetan Region of Kham reportedly prevented Tibetans from holding a religious gathering and traditional horse race festival after Dargye Monastery, the organizer of the events, and local residents refused a government order to fly the PRC national flag at the two events, at the monastery, and from residents’ homes.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
Chinese law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government severely restricted travel and freedom of movement for Tibetans, particularly Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns.
In-country Movement: Freedom of movement for all Tibetans, but particularly for monks and nuns, remained severely restricted throughout the TAR, as well as in other Tibetan areas. The PAP and local public security bureaus set up roadblocks and checkpoints on major roads, in cities, and on the outskirts of cities and monasteries, particularly around sensitive dates. Tibetans traveling in monastic attire were subject to extra scrutiny by police at roadside checkpoints and at airports.
Authorities sometimes banned Tibetans, particularly monks and nuns, from going outside the TAR and from traveling to the TAR without first obtaining special permission from multiple government offices. Many Tibetans reported encountering difficulties in obtaining the required permissions. This not only made it difficult for Tibetans to make pilgrimages to sacred religious sites in the TAR, but also obstructed land-based travel to India through Nepal. Tibetans from outside the TAR who traveled to Lhasa also reported that authorities there required them to surrender their national identification cards and notify authorities of their plans in detail on a daily basis. These requirements were not applied to ethnic Chinese visitors to the TAR.
Even outside the TAR, many Tibetan monks and nuns reported that it remained difficult to travel beyond their home monasteries for religious and traditional Tibetan education, with officials frequently denying permission for visiting monks to stay at a monastery for religious education. Implementation of this restriction was especially rigorous in the TAR, and it undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced teachings from a select number of senior teachers based at major monasteries scattered across the Tibetan Plateau.
Foreign Travel: Many Tibetans continued to report difficulties in obtaining new or renewing existing passports. Sources reported that Tibetans and other minorities had to provide far more extensive documentation than other Chinese citizens when applying for a Chinese passport. In the TAR, a scholar needs to get about seven stamps with signatures from various government offices to apply for a passport, in addition to other standard required documentation. For Tibetans, the passport application process could take years and frequently ended in rejection. Some Tibetans reported they were able to obtain passports only after paying substantial bribes. Tibetans continued to encounter substantial difficulties and obstacles in traveling to India for religious, educational, and other purposes. Individuals also reported instances of local authorities revoking their passports after they had returned to China.
In November Chinese officials in the Tibetan Regions of Kham and Amdo under the administration of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu Provinces visited the homes of Tibetan passport holders and confiscated their documents, according to an RFA report. Officials claimed the passports were collected in order to affix new seals on them, but Tibetans suspected the timing was intended to make it impossible for them to attend an important religious ceremony known as the Kalachakra, which the Dalai Lama planned to conduct in India in January 2017. Additional reports in December indicated that travel agencies in China were told explicitly by local authorities to cancel trips to India and Nepal during this same period. The apparent travel ban also reportedly extended to ethnic Chinese travelers. Tibetans who had traveled to Nepal and planned to continue on to India reported that Chinese officials visited their homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. Sources reported that explicit punishments included placing family members on a blacklist, which could lead to the loss of a government job or difficulty in finding employment; expulsion of children from the public education system; and revocation of national identification cards, thereby preventing access to other social services, such as health care and government aid.
Tight border controls sharply limited the number of persons crossing the border into Nepal and India. In 2015, 89 Tibetan refugees transited Nepal through the Tibetan Reception Center, run by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kathmandu, en route to permanent settlement in India. This compared with 80 in 2014, down from 171 in 2013 and 242 in 2012.
The government restricted the movement of Tibetans in the period before and during sensitive anniversaries and events and increased controls over border areas at these times. In February there were reports that travel agents in Chengdu were forbidden to sell package overseas tours to Tibetans for the months of March and July, the periods of time around Tibet Uprising Day (March 10) and the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 6).
The government regulated travel by foreigners to the TAR, a restriction not applied to any other provincial-level entity in the PRC. In accordance with a 1989 regulation, foreign visitors had to first obtain an official confirmation letter issued by the TAR government before entering the TAR. Most tourists obtained such letters by booking tours through officially registered travel agencies. In the TAR, a government-designated tour guide had to accompany foreign tourists at all times. It was rare for foreigners to obtain permission to enter the TAR by road. In what has become an annual practice, authorities banned many foreign tourists from the TAR in the period before and during the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Foreign tourists sometimes also faced restrictions traveling to Tibetan areas outside the TAR.
The decline in the number of foreign tourists to the TAR was more than offset by an increase in domestic ethnic Chinese visitors to the TAR. Unlike foreign tourists, Chinese tourists did not need special permits to visit the TAR.
Officials continued to tightly restrict the access of foreign diplomats and journalists to the TAR. Foreign officials were able to travel to the TAR only with the permission of the TAR Foreign Affairs Office, and even then only on closely chaperoned trips arranged by that office. With the exception of a few highly controlled trips, authorities repeatedly denied requests for international journalists to visit the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see section on Freedom of Speech and Press).
In September The Washington Post reported that “the Tibet Autonomous Region, as China calls central Tibet, is harder to visit as a journalist than North Korea. There were only a handful of government tours organized for journalists in the past decade, all closely controlled.”