Tibetan and Uyghur reporters are under siege in Bejing’s war on free expression
BY ERICA HELLERSTEIN
17 FEBRUARY, 2022
A few years ago, a Tibetan journalist living abroad received a cryptic invitation to coffee from a man who claimed to be a childhood friend. The name didn’t ring a bell to the reporter, who covered Tibet from outside the region, but he agreed to meet up with the long-lost acquaintance at a local hotel’s cafe.
When the journalist arrived, he was greeted by a person who didn’t look familiar. He wasn’t a childhood friend. Instead, the man told the reporter, he worked with one of China’s state security agencies. He explained that before their meeting, he had paid a visit to some of the reporter’s family members back in Tibet — who were fine, he assured him — and then waved over two men sitting at a nearby table. The trio then besieged the journalist with questions — “Who are your sources in Tibet? How do you get your information?” — but the reporter refused to answer and hurried out of the hotel.
A few weeks later, he was ambushed on his walk home from work. According to one of the reporter’s former colleagues, two men sprung out of a vehicle, thrust a black hood over his head, and pushed him into the car. The van drove around for hours as the men interrogated the reporter about his contacts in Tibet and searched through his phone. Again, he refused to answer. After several hours, the kidnappers dropped the reporter off near his house, warned him not to turn around for five minutes, and sped away.
According to a U.S.-based Tibetan journalist who had worked with the kidnapped man, this was the end of his colleague’s career in media. He was terrified that his journalism work could put him and his relatives back in Tibet in harm’s way. “He was so worried about his family he quit reporting right away,” he explained. “He said, ‘I’m not going to risk my life and my family’s lives.’”
The U.S.-based Tibetan journalist, who was privy to the events leading up to and including the kidnapping, asked for anonymity and to withhold the location of the kidnapping to protect his colleague’s identity.
Fear of retaliation against family members back home, which forced the Tibetan reporter out of his media job, is a key feature of China’s pressure campaign against diaspora journalists and writers, particularly for members of religious and ethnic minority groups like Uyghurs and Tibetans.
They are among the 55 ethnic minorities in the country outside of the Han Chinese majority, who make up more than 90% of the population. Under China’s President Xi Jinping, Beijing has pursued a sweeping policy of “Sinicization” aimed at assimilating the country’s ethnic minorities into the dominant Han culture. This approach includes a crackdown on local languages and religions and has been accompanied by wide-ranging and ambitious initiatives by the Chinese government to silence its critics. Both efforts can be seen as separate expressions of the same larger goal: to create a homogenous national identity defined by the state, with no room for alternative points of view. People who challenge the government’s sanctioned identity narratives can be subject to pressure, even when they live far away from China.
Writers and journalists from the country’s ethnic minorities, therefore, find themselves at the hostile intersection of China’s multi-pronged war against independent speech and identity.
In Tibet, which has been under Beijing’s control for decades, the Chinese government’s long-simmering campaign of cultural erasure can be seen as a progenitor of the oppression it later unleashed on Xinjiang, which has been described as a genocide by U.S. officials. There, more than one million Uyghurs have been sent to concentration camps and the relatives of exiled reporters face relentless persecution, intimidation, and harassment. Many people I interviewed pointed out that the former party secretary in Tibet subsequently became the Chinese party secretary of Xinjiang. In Tibet, he expanded policing and cultural assimilation, and developed a widespread surveillance system. Experts say he continued to implement those same policies in Xinjiang. While the repression and government justification for it is distinct in each respective region, some see Tibet as a testing ground for the campaign later deployed in Xinjiang.
Beijing’s pathology around minorities’ distinct cultural identities is rooted in an understanding that they can act as a counterweight to the government’s desire to control the narrative. “They recognize the power of words and culture as an animating force,” said James Tager, the director of research at PEN America. “And they have these policies of culture diminution or cultural erasure, particularly in Xinjiang, and similarly, somewhat less intense but somewhat more sustained, is the effort to diminish Tibetan culture. Peaceful cultural advocacy is potentially criminal in China.”
According to the U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House, “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world” — referring to the suite of tactics from surveillance technology to physical violence, intimidation, and harassment that governments use to persecute citizens of their own countries who live overseas. In China, the targets of this campaign include ethnic minorities like Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Inner Mongolians, as well as Han Chinese reporters and writers covering China critically. Their experiences are a case study of what a well-resourced regime can do when it weaponizes technology, repression, and fear to create a sweeping information suppression apparatus that reaches around the globe.
“The full scope of censorship needs to be understood as not only what is explicitly being banned but by the message that the targets of the censorship internalize. It’s called the chilling effect,” explained Tager. “And many writers across cultural and social spheres will feel chilled because they know that people who are seen as too critical of (Chinese Communist Party) governance may put their family members within China at risk.”
For Tibetan diaspora journalists, threats of retaliation against family members remain a powerful tool in the transnational repression playbook. The region has been under China’s control since the 1950s, when it was invaded by the newly formed People’s Republic of China. After an unsuccessful uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India and set up the Tibetan government in exile, where some 90,000 Tibetans currently live, and which remains a focal point for the exile media community as it seeks to cover one of the world’s most restrictive media environments from outside.
Tibet is ranked as the worst place globally for civil liberties and political rights according to Freedom House — tied with Syria and above South Sudan, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea. Media outlets within Tibet are controlled by China, international broadcasts are routinely jammed, foreign journalists must apply for — and are often denied — permission from the Chinese government to go to the region, and Tibetans who pass information to foreign media risk arrest. Today, human rights groups and exile journalists say it has effectively become walled off from the foreign press.
“Nowadays people tend to think that because Tibet is not coming up too much in the news, it’s because nothing is happening in Tibet. That’s not true,” Kalden Lodoe, the Tibetan service director at Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C., told me. “The information flow is totally blocked there.”
For journalists covering it from afar, like Lodoe’s team, “we feel like we are digging into a very strict police state where people are watched constantly,” he added. “It’s escalated and it’s only going to get worse. They have created this fearful society where if you have any contacts outside you will be in trouble.”
Authorities impose harsh penalties on Tibetans who communicate with journalists or family members living overseas who send information to exile media. According to data provided to Coda by the India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, over the last decade, 98 Tibetans have been detained for contacting journalists and source intermediaries outside the region. Sixteen are currently imprisoned and serving their sentences. Prominent cases include Kunchok Jinpa, a Tibetan tour guide who was detained in 2013 and later sentenced to 21 years in prison for “leaking state secrets” by providing information to foreign reporters about protests in Tibet. Jinpa died last February while serving his sentence due to reported paralysis and brain hemorrhage. Another well-publicized case is the imprisonment of Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan language advocate who was released from prison in China last year after spending five years behind bars over a charge of “inciting separatism” based on an interview he gave to The New York Times.
Some diaspora writers and journalists fear their work could expose relatives and sources in Tibet to detention or arrest, and sources in exile can be wary of communicating with the press for the same reason. They say that exiled journalists’ and writers’ family members still living in Tibet come under pressure from Chinese authorities.
Sonam Tobgyal, a researcher with the U.K.-based human rights nonprofit Tibet Watch, said families living in exile with relatives still in Tibet have received threatening calls from unknown numbers after news leaks from the region that officials suspect they are connected to. “They will say, ‘If you do this again, your family is in your hands,’” he said.
In Xinjiang, the relatives of diaspora reporters are also under siege. As of March 2021, more than 50 family members of journalists with Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service have been arrested by Chinese officials, according to the broadcaster, including relatives who have gone missing.
“The tactical maneuver is to make everyone think twice before they think or write or publish and to think about whether there could be negative consequences for their family members, their friends, and their communities,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch.
In Tibet, the relative of one Radio Free Asia reporter was severely beaten and detained for a week after speaking to the news service, according to Lodoe. Two additional relatives of the same reporter were arrested and imprisoned for sharing information with the agency, and the family members of other Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan journalists have gotten visits from local officials. “People are very scared,” he said. “For example, our reporters in Washington, D.C., their families have told them, in coded language, ‘we are fine, please don’t call us.’ It’s not just one or two. Many reporters will not even talk to their parents nowadays.”
The lingering possibility of family and source retaliation carries a heavy psychological toll for exiled Tibetans working in the public eye. A Tibetan writer based out of India, who asked to be anonymous to protect his family’s safety, told me authorities have stopped by the home of his family members still in Tibet and interrogated them about his work and his whereabouts. “I recently got a message from my sister saying, ‘don’t come back to Tibet,’ the police were searching for me,” he said. Because of the risks, he added, “I hardly communicate with my parents. If I talk with them, we talk about sensitive issues in a code way.”
In the months before the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, Tibet was gripped by anti-government protests marking the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. Eager to avoid bad international press in the lead-up to the games, Beijing moved swiftly to stamp out coverage of the protests, barring foreign reporters from entering Tibet and censoring and blocking international news reports and broadcasts. Tibetans who passed information to foreign media faced stiff penalties, including detention and imprisonment. Later, China responded to the unrest by ratcheting up control of the media and expanding surveillance and policing, according to human rights groups.
Experts and journalists I spoke to said the situation in Tibet has worsened in the fourteen years since the protests, aided by a sophisticated surveillance dragnet in which police, cameras, facial recognition, online surveillance, and self-censorship are ubiquitous. “China is more effective now because they’re employing their whole state and human resources to spy, monitor, and surveil everything,” said Tibet Watch’s Tobgyal.
The Chinese messaging app WeChat has complicated the communication landscape for people within and beyond Tibet. The platform, which is China’s most popular messaging app, has given a place for diaspora Tibetans and their loved ones at home to stay in touch, while simultaneously exposing them to government surveillance. A 2020 report by the Canada-based cybersecurity research organization Citizen Lab found that the platform surveils accounts from outside of China and uses that content to train censorship algorithms deployed on accounts registered in China. Tibetan WeChat users have reportedly been detained for sharing photos of the Dalai Lama, spreading “rumors” about coronavirus on the app, and setting up a chat group without registering it with local authorities as required.
Despite the privacy and security risks, the app became widely adopted by Tibetans overseas, with an estimated 70% of the diaspora population using the platform as of 2019. In 2020, however, India banned the platform — a move Tenzin Dalha, who researches Chinese cybersecurity with the Tibet Policy Institute, said has presented communication barriers between exile reporters and Tibetans and their contacts back at home. Some use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to get around the ban, but others do not have the technological know-how to figure it out. For the latter group, Dalha explained, “their communications completely broke down since the Indian government banned WeChat. There’s become more like a communication vacuum between inside and outside Tibet.”
Now, as all eyes are on Beijing for the Olympics, sources I talked to describe a complete information blackout from Tibet. Updates from the ground have halted, leaving family members living overseas in complete darkness about what’s happening at home.
“We don’t know what’s happening inside Tibet,” Tobgyal told me. “If you have family in Tibet, it’s scary. You aren’t able to talk to them and you don’t know what’s going on. So you have to anxiously wait.”
Beijing’s clampdown on press freedom in Tibet has broadened over the last several years. It now sweeps up writing that’s not politically inflected. Even a year ago, there were a handful of websites in Tibet that published content about Tibetan culture, language, and the environment, according to Tseten Wangchuk, a senior editor with the Tibetan Service for the U.S.-funded international news outlet Voice of America. Now, Wangchuk said, “They all shut down. I think there used to be a borderline, a gray area where you could talk about the environment, Tibetan language, and things like that. Now it seems like nobody can write about anything — any topic — that’s outside of government control.”
There are clear links between China’s hostility toward Tibetan cultural writing and its Sinicization campaign, which has sought to eradicate the distinct religious and cultural identities of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongolians. PEN’s James Tager said that Beijing sees cultural promotion as a threat. “Beijing tends to view expressions of culture through the lens of potential criminality. Particularly in ethnic minority communities, they treat cultural promotion, cultural engagement, cultural activism, as a substitute for political activism that they see as threatening and illegal.”
The assimilation project has taken aim at mother tongue education for ethnic minority groups. Under China’s “bilingual education” policy, schools in Tibet have shifted to teaching in Mandarin over Tibetan, according to human rights groups. A recent report by the U.S.-based Tibet Action Institute found that roughly 800,000 Tibetan school children are enrolled in boarding schools where they are taught primarily in Chinese. “Wait another 10 years and almost no one will speak Tibetan anymore,” said Human Rights Watch’s Richardson.
In Xinjiang, China’s campaign of repression, surveillance, and cultural erasure has been described as a genocide by the Biden administration. Chinese officials have sent more than one million Uyghurs to concentration camps, demolished mosques, and banned Uyghur language education in schools. Uyghurs living overseas, including prominent journalists, are subject to intimidation and threats. According to Alim Seytoff, Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service director, eight U.S.-based reporters for the news division have family members in Xinjiang who are in detention or have disappeared. Seytoff said some of those reporters had relatives approached by Chinese authorities. “They basically said, ‘Tell your relatives in America working at Radio Free Asia to stop telling the world what’s happening,’” Seytoff said.
And in Inner Mongolia, the Chinese government in 2020 rolled out a new policy phasing out language instruction in schools from Mongolian to Mandarin, setting off massive protests. Enghebatu Togochog, director of the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, said the policy generated such fierce blowback because language is seen as the final symbol left of Mongolian’s distinct cultural identity. Already, Togochog said schools have implemented the language change and said the organization has heard of instances in which officials have taken down Mongolian language signs.
“Right now what we are facing is wholesale cultural genocide,” he said. “First our political rights were taken away. Then our way of life was completely changed. Language is pretty much the last defense of Mongolian identity, so just get rid of that and these people will become Chinese.”
China’s crusade against free expression has turned the country into the most aggressive jailer of journalists in the world. The regime has placed at least 127 reporters behind bars — more than half of whom are Uyghur — according to the global press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, which ranks China 177th out of 180 in its World Press Freedom Index. Beijing’s clampdown on the press has escalated dramatically under Xi Jinping’s leadership, who, Reporters Without Borders argues, has “restored a media culture worthy of the Maoist era, in which freely accessing information has become a crime and to provide information an even greater crime.”
Crucially, this campaign is not just limited to China. Over the last decade, China has invested heavily in its global media footprint, acquiring shares in foreign media outlets and vastly expanding the reach of international TV broadcasting. The state-owned China Global Television now airs in more than 160 countries while independent Chinese media overseas has shrunk.
Cedric Alviani, Reporters Without Borders’ Taipei Bureau Director, who has written extensively about press freedom in China, characterized Beijing’s approach to the press as: “If you can’t kill it, buy it.” The outcome, he added, “is that now, in 2022, there’s very few Chinese language overseas media that are critical of the Chinese regime.”
Adversarial reporters or journalists who cover Beijing’s policies in an unflattering light outside the country have come under diplomatic pressure from Chinese embassies overseas, including foreign reporters like a Swedish journalist who received a threatening email from the Chinese Embassy in Sweden in 2021, accusing him of spreading anti-Chinese misinformation and demanding he cease his coverage or “face the consequences of your actions.”
For journalists with Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service in Washington, D.C., the risks of the work are well understood.
“Our reporters understand the difficult situation we are in,” Seytoff told me. “But in spite of the detention and the disappearances of our loved ones, in spite of the fact that China is committing genocide against our people, and in spite of all of this tremendous psychological pressure on us, I think we have kept our cool. We are deeply devoted to journalism.”