ICT logged 159 protests throughout Tibet during the period from March 10, 2008 when the protests started in Lhasa, until the middle of August 2008, when ICT published the first of two reports so far about the protests (see “Tibet at a Turning Point: The Spring Uprising and China’s New Crackdown). Since the publication of “Tibet at a Turning Point”, ICT has logged a further tally of 76 protests in Tibet, bringing the total number of logged protests to 235, as of late October 2009.
However, it should be noted that this number can in no way be regarded as a reliable indicator of the actual number of protests that have taken place. For instance, according to a report on April 2, 2008 by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, there were 150 incidents in all Tibetan areas of the PRC in the two weeks from March 10 to March 25, 2008 alone. Additionally, the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) report that in a three-week period from late February 2009 until March 21, 2009, they had received information on as many as 28 protests in a small part of eastern Tibet involving the arrest or detention of 60 people.
It is not known how Xinhua or local authorities throughout Tibet define a protest. The 150 incidents reported in the April 2, 2008 statement by Xinhua were described as “beating, smashing, looting, and burning”, an idiomatic Chinese phrase which has been in circulation since at least the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and which is used to describe practically any kind of social “chaos” or disturbance, peaceful or otherwise.
If the figure of 150 incidents throughout Tibet in the period from March 10 to March 25 is in any way reliable – an average of 10 protests per day – it could be extrapolated that the total number of protests is significantly above and beyond the total logged by ICT – although any such number would be little more than conjecture. Perhaps ironically, the 150 incidents reported by Xinhua lends a great deal of credibility to TCHRD’s reported figure of 28 protests in a similar time-frame although in a much smaller geographical area of just several counties in eastern Tibet.
The implication by Xinhua that the protests were incidents of “beating, smashing, looting, and burning” is possibly intended to justify deploying huge paramilitary forces throughout Tibet, as well as perhaps intending to ‘degrade’ protestors to violent criminals as opposed to people with genuine grievances against the authorities. While the Chinese authorities have implied that the 150 incidents in a short period of March 2008 were violent, ICT logged only 15 protests between March 10 and the middle of August 2008 where violence was perpetrated by protestors against people or property, and possibly not even half a dozen between the middle of August and the present day.
ICT’s definition of a protest by which the total of 235 protests was arrived at is based on a process of evaluation when corroborating the information available, and deciding whether reports of two or more incidents in the same area and at the same time were in fact related and therefore in effect one protest, or whether the incidents were unrelated and therefore two protests. ICT saw but could not corroborate numerous reports of smaller protests, often by lone protestors, particularly in eastern Tibet, and those reported protests have not been logged pending confirmation of available details.
The nature of protests
Another complication when logging the protests in Tibet is the changing nature of protest. During the initial wave of protests in March 2008, people took to the streets in numbers or alone, shouted slogans, posted and distributed handbills and raised the banned Tibetan national flag over monasteries and on occasion over schools and other government buildings. All such acts are undeniably explicit acts of protest, particularly when taking into account the slogans that people reportedly shouted or distributed on leaflets or in graffiti: commonly reported slogans shouted by protestors included calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, calling for Tibetan independence, for the release of the Panchen Lama and for religious freedoms, as well as slogans used as rallying calls for unity among Tibetans.
There was a second identifiable wave of protests following the first, which involved people responding to measures that the authorities took to address the first wave of protest. These measures included greatly intensified “patriotic education” in monasteries, schools and state-run work places across all of Tibet, which in the case of monasteries in particular provoked further protests similar in nature to the protests that had occurred in March 2008.
However, more subtle and less easily quantifiable forms of protest are now being deployed. Writers across Tibet, for instance, have produced eloquent poetry, prose and reportage giving personal accounts of the protests since March 2008 that are completely at odds with the official condemnatory accounts of the protests. Numerous writers in Tibet – as well as throughout other areas of the PRC – have been sanctioned and even imprisoned for their writings, and in such a repressive climate, such writing should be regarded as protest – which is not to detract from its literary and other merits. (ICT has published a compilation of writing from Tibet since the protests of March 2008, called “Like gold that fears no fire: New writing from Tibet,” available here in pdf.)
One of the most significant forms of protests to have emerged in this third wave of protests is civil disobedience. In eastern Tibet in particular, in parts of Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in modern-day Sichuan province as well as in neighboring areas of the TAR, there was a broadly supported and observed farming boycott: families refused to work the land in protest at the number of people in the region who had been detained or “disappeared”, leaving families short-handed to work the land. People identified as “ring-leaders” in the farming boycott were targeted by the authorities, and in several cases, people were reportedly forced into fields by armed police to till the land ready for the spring sowing.
In Drango (Chinese: Luhou) county in late March 2009 for example, police beat a group of people who refused to work the fields after officers had traveled to their village and tried to persuade them to till the land. Fourteen people were hospitalized, according to ICT’s sources, one of whom suffered a nervous collapse (see: SP 090325ii Drango).
Another form of civil disobedience was evident in the determination across all of Tibet not to mark the Tibetan New Year (Losar), which in Tibet’s traditional lunar calendar fell at the end of February 2009, and would typically have involved several days of festivities and celebrations. In 2009, however, people not only didn’t observe celebrations as a memorial to those who had been killed, people also pointedly refused to participate in activities that the Chinese authorities had planned in an attempt to present an air of normalcy.
In monasteries, monks too carried out acts of civil disobedience, including in several cases where the entire population of the monastery simply absconded rather than undergo “patriotic education”, leaving the monastery literally deserted. In June 2009 in Jomda (Chinese: Jiangda) county in Chamdo (Chinese: Changdu) prefecture in the TAR, the fact that monks at monasteries in one township had absconded led to the detention of two ethnically Tibetan officials responsible for organizing patriotic education; this in turn led to as many as 20 people attempting to stop the officials from being detained, several of whom were severely beaten and detained (see: TAR 090622 Jomda).
However, even as these more subtle forms of protest have been observed, people to this day are still staging more active protests of taking to the streets to hand out fliers, shout slogans, or hoisting the Tibetan flag, all at considerable personal risk to convince the Chinese authorities that is the Dalai Lama who represents their best interests.
These ongoing protests profoundly undermine the impression that the Chinese authorities are attempting to present not only to their domestic audience but also to the international audience of a stable, inclusive and contented society; but far more fundamentally, the Chinese authorities’ often brutal response to the protests drastically undermines their claims that the state “respects and protects” human rights, as recently enshrined in the Constitution of the PRC, while arbitrary detentions, police beatings and routine reports of torture and other forms of abuse similarly undermine the frequent claims that the PRC is “ruled by law”.
- Gansu Protests
- Qinghai Protests
- Sichuan Protests
- TAR Protests