Agam's Gecko
Friday, July 25, 2008
Tibet's poet / citizen journalist, Woeser, lives in Beijing.
Photo: Ng Han Guan / AP

here is always a puzzle -- for me, at least -- when reading about Chinese judges' sentencing decisions. There are almost always two components to the punishments meted out (excluding the death sentence cases): a period of incarceration and a period of "loss of political rights." Such an example is found in the immediately preceding post. The Tibetan monk tells how he was sentenced to "three years in prison, and two years' loss of political rights." What exactly are the political rights of a citizen, which make it a form of punishment to lose them?

Plenty of rights are apparently outlined in the country's constitution, but these rights are also (apparently) not worth the paper they're printed on. Another current example of this is the widely-reported announcement a few days ago, that the authorities were preparing three "protest pens" in Beijing for pre-approved demonstrations during the Olympics. The official who made the revelation during a press conference told the assembled scribes that under the constitution, Chinese citizens' right to protest or demonstrate is legally protected. Yet no one expects any Chinese citizens to make use of these "protest pens," festooned as they are with closed circuit cameras.

In other words, you have the right to protest. You do not have the right not to be abused by the state in retribution for your protest. Some "political right" that is.

There is no freedom to speak one's conscience (if it should differ with the Party's ideology), no freedom to publish (anything that differs from the Party policy), no right to worship (at any but Party-sanctioned institutions). Where are the political rights? The fundamental political right -- the right of the people to choose their own political leadership -- is right out. The Communist Party has the single biggest right: a mandate to permanently rule the country, written into that same constitution.

One basic political right that all citizens of every country would expect, is the right to hold a passport (of course, with certain proof of identity, and the expected fees). It's simply an identification document legally affirming citizenship in one's country. It is certainly a loss of political rights to have a passport revoked, or withheld from the citizen. But this is another "loss of political rights" which requires no court verdict, if you happen to be a fearless Tibetan poet.

The Tibetan writer Woeser, frequently referred to on this page as Tibet's citizen journalist in Beijing, wants a Chinese passport. Police officials in Lhasa told her she would never get approval for a passport there (it's nearly impossible for Tibetans to get one), so she applied in her Han Chinese husband's hometown. The document has been repeatedly denied to her over the past three years. So she's suing the government. Tibet scholar Robert Barnett calls her "the poet who forgot to be afraid."
"I'm not expecting to win. But if you don't take action, there's no chance to let the outside world know the truth," Woeser said. "It's an opportunity to talk about the unfair treatment of Tibetans over the years."
Woeser lives under constant surveillance in Beijing, and earlier this year was placed under house arrest, unable to leave her apartment. Through it all (including repeated hacker-hijackings of her web log) she continued reporting much of the limited amount of information coming out of her homeland, which was being relayed to her through her personal networks. She took incredible risk to do this, but has so far survived. Her blog, Invisible Tibet (written in Chinese), also endures.

After she had asked friends to make official inquiries about the reasons she was having such a difficult time acquiring her passport, they were told that the Tibetan poet posed a "danger to state security."
"I'm an author who writes from home all the time. If I really am posing a threat to society, doesn't it make the great country of China seem very weak?" she said with a laugh...

"I still have hope in China, which is such a strong nation," Woeser said. "I hope it will be strong enough to give me a little space."
The lady has a remarkable faith toward the country that bans her books, and won't let her receive the international acclaim she has earned with her writing (awarded the Freedom of Expression prize from the Norwegian Authors' Union this year, and unable to accept it in person). Using the Olympic spectacle to promote a vision of China's strength, the authorities would look pretty silly in this trial if they claim the state is afraid of a Tibetan poet. China's leaders would do well to study Aung San Suu Kyi's philosophy of Freedom from Fear, maybe they wouldn't be so touchy. Woeser seems to have already mastered the practice, having much in common with Daw Suu.

A new translation of Woeser's poetry has been published in English: Tibet’s True Heart. More exerpts and ordering information is on the book's website. Not a lot of her work has been translated, although China Digital Times had been translating her Tibet dispatches, but that seems to be discontinued. Some essays are available at Tibet Writes. Very highly recommended is a two-part essay she published this month, on meeting some Tibetans far from home in Beijing. These conversations include a lot of accounts of what went on in Lhasa a few months ago. These essays defy my usual synopsis treatment, and are essential reading for those who wish to understand the situation.
Part 1: The Fear in Lhasa, as Felt in Beijing
Part 2: Lhasa, Making Sound in Fear
It's exceedingly difficult to know what has been going on in Tibet, other than through such accounts as those. The Chinese government has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent independent reporters from getting anywhere near Tibetan areas. So it was with great (and pleasant) surprise that I chanced upon the news that a reporter from the Far Eastern Economic Review was given a five-day pass to report from Lhasa. Kathleen McLaughlin is now in the Tibetan capital, from whence she has now sent two dispatches on her Lhasa Diary. Yesterday, she ran into her first official obstruction.
How much we get to see and whether people will be willing to speak honestly with us remains unclear. Our requests to visit the Drepung Monastery – once the biggest monk-training school in Tibet – were rejected. The monastery, which critics charge has become a prison camp for monks, remains closed to outsiders. After just a few hours here, I can already tell that the elusive truth I’m looking for will not be easily found.
There is another new entry on the page today, but as yet no sign of getting to the bottom of any of the important questions. One truth, of which there was never much doubt, comes through clearly. Security is very tight, and Tibetans are afraid to say too much. She only has three days remaining -- hardly enough time to build up any trust or friendships. But as the single independent source in Lhasa at the moment, worth keeping an eye on.

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