Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Invisible Tibet: keep on blogging to the free world

Catching up with Tibet's most popular blogger isn't simple. Tsering Woeser is under constant surveillance, so we agree to meet on a street corner in Beijing. The subterfuge seems pointless: Woeser is easy to spot. Her slightly hippy style sets her apart - for our meeting she has chosen dangling earrings and a glass pendant in Buddhist colours, bought on her last visit to the Tibetan plateau. Its blues, reds and yellows remind her of the colours of the banned Tibetan Snow Lion flag. “I mentioned it to the shopkeeper as a joke,” she says. “He was shocked. Of course, I bought it.”

By birth, upbringing and education, Woeser should be a Tibetan at ease in the Chinese system, a successful member of the Tibetan elite. But this vivacious woman, who looks much younger than her 44 years, is the most outspoken Tibetan voice in China, a fierce critic of Beijing rule in the deeply Buddhist Himalayan region. Her views have won her widespread fame among Tibetans in exile - and, not surprisingly, the attention of the Chinese security apparatus. These days, her books are banned and her movements are monitored. She was detained by police last year during a trip to her birthplace to see her mother. None of this deters her. “If it happens, it happens. I write what I write.”

What she writes is not only poetry but a blog that openly criticises Chinese rule in Tibet. It is already in its fifth incarnation. After it was closed down repeatedly by the authorities in 2006 and 2007, she posted it on an overseas server. Then, after the riots a year ago in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in which 22 people were killed - mostly ethnic Han Chinese - and unrest spread across Tibetan regions, the overseas blog was hacked and closed down twice. Undaunted, she resumed writing about “Invisible Tibet” on

Figures compiled overseas show more than three million hits on her blog in the past year, mostly after the March unrest, when it was the main source of information for Tibetans looking for an alternative to propaganda. Now her account of the unrest, with photographs, is to be published in Taiwan to coincide with the first anniversary of the riots. “It seems that people look to me,” she says, humbly.

Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in the US, says that Woeser has entered unknown territory: “No Tibetan has spoken out so openly in print or in the media. She has never faltered, and the risks she took were off the chart.”

She is now the best-known Tibetan after religious figures such as the Dalai Lama, whose photograph smiles from a shrine in her home. “She is something very rare - a deeply feeling, caring person and a poet who forgot to be afraid ,” says Barnett.

Woeser seems surprised by her fame. “I'm a very ordinary person,” she says, “but not many Tibetans have the means to get around the censors.”
She was born in Lhasa to a father who was a half-Tibetan, half-Han Chinese officer in the People's Liberation Army and a mother who was the daughter of a minor aristocratic Tibetan family. Her parents were young and idealistic converts to the Communist cause, although some in the military were opposed to her father's decision to wed a Tibetan woman.

Woeser was born in 1966, the first year of the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution. Within four years the family left for her father's native Sichuan province, to escape the worst excesses of revolutionary fervour.
It was the start of a new life for Woeser. Her parents switched to speaking Chinese rather than Tibetan. Her schooling was also in Chinese - the language by which Woeser could rise in society but also the only way for Tibetans, with so many dialects, to communicate with each other. “My parents spoke Tibetan together but Mandarin with us,” Woeser says.

She did well at school and won entry to a high school in the provincial capital, Chengdu, for ethnic minority children. But while she and her classmates used the same textbooks as Chinese children, the exams were simpler because Tibetans were seen as less able. Although she wanted to go on to the prestigious Sichuan University to study Chinese, she was only offered a place at the Southwest Nationalities School.

Woeser began to write poetry and planned to become a journalist. She dreamt of returning to Lhasa and when, at the age of 24, a novel that she wrote was published by the Tibetan Literary Association, the publishers fulfilled her dream by offering her an editing job there.
Her father decided that the whole family should return.Within a year, though, he was dead. His blood pressure failed in the rarefied air of Lhasa, 12,000ft above sea level. Woeser was devastated. “He always felt that my ideas were out of line, too dangerous, and he worried about me,” she says. “But it was after he died that I really began to feel that I was a Tibetan. ”

Shortly before her father's death she had come across a translation of a book available only to government officials. It was a banned work, In Exile in the Land of Snows by John Avedon, describing the 1959 flight into exile of the Dalai Lama and Chinese repression of the abortive uprising that triggered his escape. She had been taught to regard Tibet's god-king as a bad man; now she wondered. She asked her father, and “he told me that 70 per cent of the book was true”. Then an aunt, also in the Army, told her that 90 per cent of it was correct.

Thus began a loss of innocence and of trust in the Communist Party that had nurtured her. Her writing began to change. She devoted herself to studying Tibetan, although she still writes in Chinese, and began to take classes in Buddhism.
She produced a volume of prose essays, Notes from Tibet. “I expected the publishers to censor mentions of the Dalai Lama,” she says, “but they left almost everything.” Its publication, in 2003, marked the start of her internal exile.

Recalled to to Lhasa from a visit to Beijing, Woeser was ordered to make a self-criticism for Notes from Tibet. She refused. She parted ways with the Tibetan Literary Association, losing her salary, pension, flat and all the other perks of a government employee. But she had found her vocation.
Encouraged by the Chinese author Wang Lixiong, whom she later married, she sifted through a collection of photographs taken by her father during the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. A book of these searing images of persecution, accompanied by her interviews with survivors, was published in Taiwan, and her fame spread.

The rebellious spirit that once angered her father now irks the Chinese authorities, who have refused to give her a passport. She has vowed to take them to court.
After the March riot, police confined her to her flat - but with no proof that she had broken the law, their only options were to cut off her internet connection or detain her, both methods of last resort for a Government keen to avoid bad publicity.

Woeser says modestly that Tibet's monks are the real heroes, and admits fearing arrest. “But it would give me time to study the Buddhist scriptures,” she laughs. “My main worry is whether they will let me wear my contact lenses in prison.”

Other brave bloggers is is a blog by an Israeli, “Peace Man”, and a Palestinian, “Hope Man”, living on either side of the Gaza border. Both offered first-hand accounts of Israel's 22-day military offensive. is written by a British woman who manages to tackle Zimbabwe's many woes with insight, humanity and humour. is one of a huge number of Iranian blogs written in English, despite government censorship. This one stands out for its fluent writing and thoughtful analysis. is by 20-year-old “Najma” in Mosul, northern Iraq. It reads like a daily diary: pensive, personal and littered with the mundane as well as the realities of war.


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