The Moat and Apartheid

Tsering Woeser is a Tibetan poet, essayist and journalist based in Beijing. With a degree in Chinese literature, she reported from the Kardze region of Tibet and later from Lhasa. In 2003, she relocated to Beijing. According to Reporters sans frontières, she is one of the only Tibetan writers to write almost entirely in the Chinese language. She is winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation “Courage in Journalism Award” and author of the book Notes on Tibet.


Just like many other Tibetans did, we thought that ‘apartheid,’ this sort of horrid act, was far from our reality – that it was a thing of the Nazi’s 70 years ago, or South Africa 20 years ago, or like Israel’s blockade in the Gaza strip. Just like many other Tibetans, we didn’t realize that in the 21st Century we would be experiencing this frightening thing called ‘apartheid.’

May 27th, after two Tibetans from Amdo who had been working in a Tibetan restaurant in Lhasa self-immolated in front of Jhokang Temple, the Lhasa Municipal Police sent out to each of its county offices an ’emergency notice’ stating, “From May 29th onward, aside from the ID requirements already in place for Tibetans from the ‘Four Primary Tibetan Regions’ (Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan), there is now to be instituted additional checks in all counties of Lhasa,” and “as for non-locals in Lhasa who have not prepared the proper documentation at security checkpoints, they are to be sent back immediately.” Thus each layer of concentric ringed security checks would be like a moat around the city just as they are nicknamed in the emergency notice “‘Moat Levels I and II’ Security Stations.”

The moat bespeaks of the architecture of ancient Chinese cities. Meant to defend against foreign invaders, you use manual laborers to dig a trench, fill it with water and then this man-made river becomes a protective screen around the city wall. Obviously, China isn’t the only country to have implemented such things – other countries have as well. Throughout Europe, there are many castles that over the moat is constructed a drawbridge able to be raised and lowered that allows people to enter the castle, but prevents enemies from getting in. Essentially, a moat is entirely a military defense mechanism.

Nowadays, entering Lhasa through the moat of very strict security checks, is not meant to keep any non-Tibetans from entering the city. In fact, they just need a simple ID card to come and go without problem. Just as the ’emergency notice’ points out, the moat is expressly meant to keep out Tibetans from “the four primary Tibetan regions, which makes the area inside the moat a place where Tibetans from those places cannot enter. This modern reinterpretation of a castle moat around Lhasa is long and narrow like the Gaza Strip, which itself has become symbolically synonymous for an apartheid zone. Even without a full understanding of the situation in Tibet, this image of a moat in Lhasa carries with it a distinct odor of gunpowder and military rule.

What makes this moat different from the ones in ancient China is that this “moat” established to allow access to the city center includes security checks on highways, railways, and at airports. Not that long ago, a monk on pilgrimage from extremely fringe region of Muli (now located in Sichuan’s Liangshanyi Autonomous Prefecture; Tibetan: Lolo Prefecture) were detained at Gongkar Airport with the expectation that he provide documentation from local authorities as well as from the CCP religious authorities in charge of his temple. Just as the relevant authorities agreed to send over the proper paperwork, the airport security officials refused to accept the faxed documents and sent him back anyway. After three days spent in detention in the airport, he had no choice but to buy a ticket back and leave.

But in order to more clearly distinguish this, there is an account on Weibo where a Tibetan said his nephew and some of his Han Chinese friends were riding their bikes into Lhasa. They were stopped in Damshung county’s Wuma village, where the Han boys rode through without problem, but the Tibetan boy was stopped and forced to call a friend to come vouch for him, after which he was sent through metal detectors and searched. Only after all this was he allowed into Lhasa where he spent several days disconcerted and shaken up. This sort of racial profiling, with one group treated well while the other is treated like an enemy, not only is a kind of racist politic, but also it further antagonizes besotted ethnic minorities, cultivating separatist mentalities.

Ahmed Kathrada, a South African political prisoner who spent 30 years of his life in prison for protesting apartheid said in a speech, “Suppressing people’s rights based on ethnic categories, the new-comers that share a common ethnic background with the rulers of the regime make an effort to stomp out the livelihoods of the people who already live there, the people whose homeland this is, whose families have worked there for centuries…Imprisonment without trial, giving the majority of the people a minority of the land…I’m not sure if this is apartheid or something else entirely.”

He went on to say something more pressing, “We would also like to say that if you wish to continue with this system of apartheid while we have no means to force you to stop, then at least we can pull our support in terms of investment, economics, culture and politics.” Putting these statements in terms of the Tibetan people, it would be quite difficult to carry out similar non-cooperation tactics, but in the past couple years we’ve seen comparable acts of subversion among the people like refusing to celebrate the New Year out of respect for those killed that day, farmers strikes, “I am Tibetan” campaigns, and the Lhakar movement.

Note: Lhakar in Tibetan means “White Wednesday,” because Wednesday is considered the birth element day of the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan astrological calculations. For the past 4 years Tibetans in Tibet have chosen this day to highlight their Tibetan identity.

Originally appeared on RFA in Tibetan and Woeser’s blog in Chinese. English translation by ICT staff.

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