Tibet: behind the facade

Soldiers march through Lhasa (Credit RFA)
14th June 2021

The version of Tibet that the CCP does not want you to see

In June this year, a delegation of journalists and photographers were invited to occupied Tibet by the Chinese government on a tightly regulated visit. Since then, photo essays have begun to emerge, showcasing the beauty of Tibet and some of its historic and cultural riches.

At no point on their tour would these journalists have had the opportunity to hear how Tibetans truly feel about the occupation of their country or its policies. The only way that Tibetans can safely talk about life in Tibet is to flee into exile. Instead, journalists were being sold a version of Tibet in which Tibetans are happy and loyal to the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping.

We believe journalists and their readers deserve a balanced view. Here, we present our own photo essay of Tibet, showing the reality of a brutal occupation and the courageous attempts of Tibetans to resist it.  

The ten Tibetans who were arrested for protesting at a slaughter company

On 29 June 2020, Ten Tibetans were sentenced to between 8 to 13 years in prison and fined up to 70,000 Yuan (equivalent of 11,000 USD) for taking part in a protest against a Chinese slaughter company and other construction projects in Sangchu County, eastern Tibet.

Monk Losang Thubten is seized by police after a solo protest in May 2016 in Ngaba, eastern Tibet. Losang Thubten carried a portrait of the Dalai Lama and walked along the main street of Ngaba Town, which is known among Tibetans as "Martyrs' Street" due to the number of protests that have taken place there over the years. The level of security and surveillance in Tibet makes large-scale protests almost impossible today, so solo protests have been the chosen method of some Tibetans, even though they inevitably result in arrest and long prison sentences.

A security camera attached to a prayer wheel in Tibet. Tibetans live under constant surveillance, from police on street corners to monitoring of their online and telephone communications, from households being ordered to spy on each other and CCTVs in monasteries to facial recognition software in taxis in Lhasa. In 2021, the US organisation Freedom House ranked Tibet as the least free place in the world in terms of civil rights and political liberties, alongside Syria.

The aftermath of demolitions at Jhada Nunnery in Driru County in October 2015. Chinese authorities expelled 106 nuns from the nunnery, which is 500 years old, before demolishing residential quarters. The nuns were returned to their families in neighbouring counties and were banned from wearing their robes or reciting prayers.

An overwhelming security presence at the Monlam Prayer festival at Kumbum Monastery in 2015.  A Tibetan at the scene was reported as stating: “I was so afraid that I forgot to pray." This huge military deployment was repeated for the following four years.

Sometimes, a propaganda image can reveal an illuminating truth: an image of the Dalai Lama would usually occupy this space, but his image and the mere mention of him has been banned. Tibetans caught in possession of his image, such as Thardhod Gyaltsen, face severe punishment. Instead, monasteries and even Tibetan homes are ordered to display images of Xi and senior CCP officials. This photo from 2019 shows Chinese officials carrying out an inspection.

Monks being led away by security forces in 2008. In March 2008, protests in Lhasa swept across Tibet, catching the Chinese government off guard. The brave and largely non-violent protests were met with overwhelming force, some of which was caught on camera by journalists, shaming the Chinese government. Over 100 Tibetans were killed during the protests, while scores of protesters remain missing or in prison to this day.

Soldiers march in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Since 2008, the Chinese government has vowed that such protests should never be allowed to happen again and a policy of maintaining "stability" at all costs has been implemented through mass surveillance and a suffocating security presence. The architect of many of these policies, Chen Quanguo, is currently overseeing a genocide against the Uyghur people to the north of Tibet.

Police patrolling the village of Dza Wonpo in eastern Tibet on January 2020. They were deployed to the area following peaceful protests by Tibetan monks at the local police station the previous November. The protesters threw leaflets in the air demanding Tibetan independence. Four monks were subsequently arrested and one of them, Tenzin Nyima, has since died from injuries sustained in detention.

Demolitions taking place in 2016 at the religious community of Larung Gar in Serthar County, eastern Tibet. Between June 2016 and May 2017, at least 4,000 monks, nuns and  students were forced to leave the site and their homes razed. Some residents would return home from errands to discover new locks on their door, religious gatherings were banned and monks and nuns who were forced out were ordered to sign documents pledging that they would never return. 

Aerial images of Yarchen Gar, another huge religious community in eastern Tibet, known colloqially as the CIty of Nuns. It has been subjected to repeated intereference from the Chinese authorities, including the forced removal of thousands of residents and demolitions of homes. The destruction of homes on the western bank, the nuns' quarter, has been traced with Free Tibet using satellite imagery.

The only known picture of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. He was kidnapped shortly after being identified as the 11th Panchen Lama, one of the most revered teachers in Tibetan Buddhism, in 1995. He was six years old, making him the world's youngest political prisoner at the time. 26 years later, his whereabouts and condition remain a closely guarded secret, despite repeated appeals for information from Tibetans. Those calling for his release inside Tibet inevitably risk arrest.

The flag of the People's Republic of China flies outside the Potala Palace in Lhasa. While CCP guides are happy for tourists and visiting journalists to look at the Potala Palace, they are less likely to recall how, in 1959, it was the scene of a massacre as protesting Tibetans were fired upon by the Chinese Army. During this violence, the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet for his life and has never been able to return, while every image or the mere mention of him in Tibet is criminalised. Meanwhile, the empty Potala Palace is treated as a tourist spot or a backdrop for photos.

Tibetans' lives under CCP rule are subject to repeated interference, with new restrictions often issued in the form of notifications. These restrictions often discriminate against Tibetans inside their own country, such as the notice on the left, issued in Lhasa in May 2021 in preparation for World Tourism Day. The notice grants Tibetans only three and a half hours to make offerings and prayers, while visiting tourists are permitted seven and a half hours.

On the right is a notice issued in 2018 by local authorities in Chamdo City, central Tibet. In the interests of protecting children's "ideological education", it forbids families from participating in religious activities associated with the holy month of Saga Dawa.

Tibetans in Chapcha County challenge local officials over the demolition of their homes in 2015. The community's houses and businesses were demolished after the government claimed the land to use for a tourist attraction. The banner, written in Chinese, says: "we need to survive, we need to eat". The protest was broken up by police.

A school in central Tibet, complete with Chinese flag and images of Xi Jinping and other CCP officials. Despite officially being protected as a "minority" language, the Tibetan language is being marginalised across Tibet through deliberate policies to promote Mandarin Chinese. Measures include banning monasteries from teaching Tibetan to their surrounding communities and the education of Tibetan children in residential schools. In 2016, the Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk was arrested for his peaceful work to promote the Tibetan language, ultimately serving five years in prison.

Lhundrub Drakpa, a Tibetan singer who was sentenced to six years in prison in June 2020. He was arrested in May 2019, less than two months after releasing his song “Black Hat”, which criticised government policies in Driru County.

Security personnel patrol Lhasa in the run up to 10 March 2021. Travel restrictions and tightened security are in place around this date, the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, although Lhasa remains one of the most closely-surveilled places on Earth all year round.

Faces of a few of the Tibetans who have carried out self-immolation protests against the occupation. At least 159 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 with the majority of these protests proving to be fatal.

Information supplied by Tibet Watch