Thought Reform: Repression, Intimidation and Control Are the Favoured Weapons of the Chinese Authorities in Tibet

By Caple, Jane | New Internationalist, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Thought Reform: Repression, Intimidation and Control Are the Favoured Weapons of the Chinese Authorities in Tibet


Caple, Jane, New Internationalist


On the morning of 1 May 1998 guards assembled hundreds of prisoners in the courtyard of Drapchi -- the main prison in Tibet's capital, Lhasa -- for a political ceremony. As the red flag of China was raised two voices cut through the air. 'Tibet is free and independent.' 'Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama.' The voices, quickly joined by others, sparked off the first of two demonstrations which undermined Chinese authority in Tibet in a way not witnessed since a decade ago when a series of protests rocked the streets of Lhasa. The consequences of the 1998 protests? The deaths of at least nine prisoners, including five nuns.

Forty years after establishing control the main political imperative of the Chinese Government in Tibet is to maintain 'stability'. This means quashing any desire for self-rule and seeking to eradicate loyalty to the Dalai Lama. A tourist in Tibet no longer sees tanks and machine guns on the streets of Lhasa; the authorities have become more subtle. Surveillance activities have intensified and 'thought reform' campaigns have been introduced, producing a climate of fear comparable to that during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Chinese police and security officers, both uniformed and plainclothes, are active and Tibetans are often coerced into providing information about colleagues and neighbours. Networks of informers operate in offices, work groups, schools, monasteries, apartment buildings and neighbourhoods. Hidden or visible surveillance cameras are widely used and communications are monitored. Compared with the size and sophistication of the Chinese security forces, there are really not that many Tibetans to watch, nor are they well-connected with each other or the outside world.

Tibetans are constantly reminded of the futility of opposing the Chinese authorities and the certainty of punishment if they do so. One monk recounted that when officials visited his monastery to conduct political education, they likened acts of defiance to 'the pathetic situation of an ant trying to fell a tree, which of course is totally impossible'.

The prisoners who shouted slogans inside Drapchi prison knew just what they were up against -- they knew they would be severely beaten, perhaps worse, for their peaceful protest. Many of them had originally been imprisoned for just such actions.

Among the prisoners singled out after the protests was a monk called Thubten Kalsang. 'Twelve police stamped on his crumpled body and beat him repeatedly with their batons for nearly half an hour,' says an ex-prisoner. Interrogated again the next day, Thubten Kalsang was beaten unconscious with electric batons and iron rods. 'He is now a decrepit wreck, staying at home awaiting his impending death.' Another exprisoner, a young nun, described how she was kept in her cell until her release, nearly 15 months after the demonstration. 'Because we did not see the sun for so long we almost fell when we saw it again on our release,' she said.

The 1998 protests showed that attempts to reform the thoughts of Tibet's political prisoners are failing, and that they are willing to risk torture, isolation and even death to prove that point.

One young Tibetan nun, Ngawang Sangdrol, embodies this spirit of resistance. In 1990, when she was only 13, Ngawang Sangdrol took to the streets of Lhasa to join a demonstration. Detained by the police and held for a year without charge, she was severely beaten during interrogations.

Fellow prisoners recalled how she was so thirsty she would try to catch rainwater in a mug by holding it outside her cell window -- but she was too small to reach beyond the bars. When she was finally released she returned home to the news that her mother had died and that the police had arrested her father, Namgyal Tashi, a staunch advocate of Tibetan freedom who has been in and out of prison most of his life. She had clearly inherited her father's defiance as it was not long before she was back on the streets of Lhasa, involved in another protest -- and was arrested. …

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