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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Into the dragon's den I went and came out unscathed (Conclusion)

August 6, 2008

A visit to Tibet and China
By Dhawa Dhondup (Acharya)
Phayul (India)
August 4, 2008

In the year of hosting the Summer Olympics things are going the
opposite way for China. This time of the year when it should be
balmy, summer peak-season for tourism, in western China hotel
occupancy is at its lowest. In Tibet it is worse. Even in a major
crossroad town of Dhartsedo, foreign guests at hotels number in
single digit. This was the case as late as in the second week of
July. (See Phayul news piece from AFP agency, dated 31 July 2008,
"Few foreigners in Tibet despite re-opening after riots.")

In the aftermath of the March protests, and alleged negative Western
reporting, by "a certain journalist," of the Sichuan earthquake,
there has been a terrible error of policy from the part of the
Chinese government. A Tibetan entrepreneur in Chengdu puts it this
way: "The government here is now not anymore thinking of making money
[from the Olympics tourism] - they are now paranoid of what upheaval
might occur next."

I came across five separate volunteers of Non-Governmental
Organizations (NGO) in Dhartsedo and Chengdu who were leaving Tibet
because they had been ordered to leave. On the morning of 6 July,
Chengdu bus-station officials refused to sell tickets to four
Westerners who wanted to go to Dhartsedo! On that day, barely a fifty
meters from the half-constructed hundred-room Holiday Inn at
Dhartsedo, all incoming vehicles were being stopped and checked by
police with paratroopers on standby.

For those who are trying to get into China it has become much more
difficult to obtain a visa. The new policy requires travelers to
apply in person at Chinese embassy/consulate. (To enter into Tibet
-"TAR" - a second-tier visa, or additional visa, called "Tibet
Permit" is needed but it is almost impossible to get.) A Korean
travel agent explained to me, "This year the visa rule is new. I
cannot apply for you, you must go to the Chinese embassy yourself.
This is same even for us Koreans! They have made it very difficult."
For me this part turned out to be a small hurdle compared to what was to come.

Upon arrival at Chengdu airport what should have been a routine
Immigration scan-and-stamp taking less than a minute became a twenty
minutes of gang thuggery I had to endure. When the officer (they are
all in Public Security Bureau green, army uniform) handling my
passport seemed to take too long a time to clear me, I suspected this
was not going to be easy. He asked me whether the place I was born is
in Australia or Tibet. When I truthfully responded that it is in
Tibet, he called over one of his colleagues and asked me in the
meantime to sit on one of the chairs on the side. While the pair
scrutinized the passport and the visa, with frantic consultations
over a mobile phone, all other passengers were being let through -
amongst them were three Caucasians. By now I was the only one left. I
was asked to collect my checked-in bag and come to an area which
looked like the staff lockers. All eight officials on duty, who by
now had no other passenger to check, ours being the last incoming
flight for the day, gathered where I was. The first question I was
asked was whether I spoke Chinese. I produced a copy of Lonely
Planet's Mandarin phrasebook and said that I don't speak the
language. Next they asked whether I was carrying any computer or
"hard-disc." I had anticipated such and accordingly had left in
storage at the third-country port of embarkation. My passport was
passed on from one official to another, and my bag was rummaged
through by all sixteen hands! They looked at my camera to find the
screen say "There is no image" - I had come well-prepared with a
blank SanDisk. The only item of concern was a tiny packet of Mani
Compassion Blessing Pills (I had left the bulk behind at the third
country). The officer who found it quite surprisingly remarked, "Are
these medicines?" and quickly tucked it back. The significance of
this was to dawn on me much later. By now I could not bear this gang
attack, and as such, I told them: I had a valid visa issued from
their Government; either they let me into the country or let me fly
back to Australia. This pack cornering of a lone Tibetan traveler and
pillaging-like gang groping of personal items was unacceptable.
Considering I hadn't yet set foot into the door, I couldn't say so,
but what I did say was they needed to make up their mind soon.

Whatever transpired, suddenly they themselves zipped up my bag and
told me it was fine for me to go through!

My concept of fairness was I would accept if I was turned away, which
was what I did ten days later when I was turned away from revisiting
Barkham for the second time in a week. I had travelled nineteen hours
by bus from Chengdu when I, the only 'foreigner', was asked to get
off the bus, at the police checkpoint a few kilometers from Barkham
("Maerkhang"). This was a day prior to His Holiness the Dalai Lama's
birthday. Between my protests of "Sichuan, Zhunggo - look, Zhunggo
visa" in patchwork Chinese the policemen kept repeating the only
English phrase they seem to know, "Maerkhang, no foreigner!." Again,
my passport was passed on amongst the policemen, but I never let it
out of my sight. The seniormost policeman on duty that morning nearly
handed over the passport back to me before he had a change of mind
and walked across the road, up the stairs, into an office within the
army barrack of which the soldiers were performing an exercise drill,
with guns in hand. Without having been asked, I followed the officer,
right past the glare of the soldiers. My passport was photocopied and
then handed back to me. This time nobody had touched my bag which I
had left down there on a bench beside the checkpoint.

I was told to go back to Chengdu by the next bus coming from Barkham.
An officer who looked like a local Gyarongwa politely gestured me to
take a seat, a very different mannerism from that of the senior
policeman who never once smiled during the encounter. Another fifteen
to nineteen hours towards Chengdu on an empty stomach was going to be
too much. I proposed to them how they would fare if they were to
travel for that long. I told them I would rather go to Dhartsedo, a
distance of about six hours. I was vocal and refused to sit down for
the fifteen minutes or so it took waiting for a bus. My triumph was
in being able to dictate the choice of place I would go away from
their checkpoint.

After staying for a day at Dhartsedo I went down to Chengdu. Early
next morning when I was at the lobby of the hotel I was staying, two
men and a lady approached me. Junior of the two men called my name,
extended his hand for a handshake. They wanted to have a talk with
me. I suggested to do so right there at the lobby. But they pointed
at direction away from the hotel. I thought these people were from
Public Security Bureau (PSB), and my instinct was to be defensive. I
said if they weren't happy with the lobby then we go to the Tibetan
restaurant next door.

When we were all seated I took the initiative aimed at gagging them
by telling them that I am a Tibetan living in Australia and that I
had registered with Australian Government site informing of my
travels and concerns should anything happen to me while in Tibet and
China. Quickly I added that I wasn't happy at all with all this
harassment of being interrogated. Through the interpreter lady the
senior man announced, "We are here for your safety." Producing an ID
badge he continued, "We are from the Foreign Relations Department."

I narrated to them my experiences of harassment at the airport at the
entry, and how unlawful it is, and how I was turned back from Barkham
checkpoint after a tiring bus journey over a day and night. I told
them if they really were for my safety they should have been there at
the airport and the checkpoint to help me. Surprisingly, they
apologized for all that and even blamed the local police at the
checkpoint. When I asked them how did they come to know of me, they
said they were contacted by the department branch in Barkham and that
they were from the Chengdu Headquarters of the Foreign Relations
Department, covering entire Sichuan. Nonetheless, they still wanted
to look at my passport. There followed a string of questions,
literally dissecting my personal history, marital status, job, and so
on. Four questions stood out - given the stress I was in I think I
responded firmly:

Chinese Officials: Have you been to Lhasa?

My response: I haven't been to Lhasa. I am a Tibetan and I can't
visit Tibet! Your government won't give this thing called "Tibet
Permit." You two gentlemen and a lady, wherever your hometown is -
Chengdu or Shanghai or Beijing - imagine you going away for a while
abroad and then when you want to return home, the government says you
can't come into your own country! This is what is happening to us.

(They apologized for this too! and said that in future if I were to
visit Tibet they would be happy to help me! I should have seized the
opportunity to ask them to help me visit Tibet and the capital Lhasa
then, but such wit slip through when your thoughts are occupied more
with getting out of the hassles at hand.)

Chinese Officials: You know there were troubles on 14 March in Lhasa.
Who do you think were responsible?

My response: This is a very complex issue. I cannot say who was
responsible, I wasn't in Lhasa. Say, if two cars collide there on the
road, you cannot say who was responsible without knowing all the facts.

(Before I could elaborate more they hopped to the next question.
Retrospectively speaking, I should have again seized on the
opportunity to dispel all of their official accusations.)

Chinese Officials: You know China is becoming stronger day by day.
This year Beijing Olympic Games will take place. What is your opinion?

My response: Just over a week back, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said
in front of an audience of thousands of Australians that His Holiness
supports the Beijing Olympics. Your government needs to know that His
Holiness is a good person who professes and practises peace. When the
earthquake happened here in Sichuan, Tibetans everywhere - in
Australia, Canada, India, Nepal, USA, Europe - donated relief money
and held prayer sessions.

(The senior official repeatedly uttered, "Thank you!." He added, "We
are happy to know this.")

Chinese Officials: What do you think foreign people think of China?

My response: What I am going to say is nothing to do with Xizang
(Tibet) and Zhunggo (China). People abroad think of China as a strict
militarily controlled country with no freedoms.

(When the interpreter had conveyed what I had said, the senior
official shook his head and remarked: "Terrible, terrible! When you
go back to Australia please explain to the people there that this is
not the case?" I pressed the point that if they really wanted people
to have a good impression of China they should start by being honest
and fair, treat decently the visitors, not harass them.)

Despite all their expressed gratitude, apologies and assurance of
help and future welcome, when at the end it came to leaving their
contact details I was given a hotmail address of the Interpreter! I
was too worn out to bother confronting them on their officiality.

This was not the end of woes for a Tibetan traveler in China. Two
days later when I was departing Chengdu, I noticed the Mani Pills
officer whose duty that day was to direct people to the queues at the
Immigration clearance. I smiled at him and said I was leaving. He did
remember me and shook my hands.

My passport was stamped and I was through, if only for a few seconds,
before a shout came from a side. Immediately I sensed it was for me.
A PSB personnel in full uniform with a hat called me aside. This time
I was indignant: I thought nowhere in world airports anyone gets
stopped once stamped clear. Here in China it was happening! I shouted
back at the officer why was I being held back when I had been already
cleared by their own officer at the desk. I deliberately wanted all
in the terminal to hear my protests. Embarrassed officials stole
glances at me in-between checking passports at their counters. There
was a Chinese traveler made to sit on one of the side chairs. I was
asked to sit next to him but I refused to heed so. Taking the
passport off my hand the officer gave a long look at it and started
making calls on his mobile, while I kept shouting this was unlawful,
discriminatory to the Tibetans, and that I had flight to catch. Out
of embarrassment I was asked to come into a side room (staff retiring
area) where a resting senior officer was disturbed out of his
slumber. Again, I refused to sit and kept following the official who
had my passport. It was at this time the Mani Pills officer came over
to where I was standing. In a very pleasant manner he pleaded me to
calm down! I told him that this was unfair and unlawful. Amazingly
and yet tellingly he said, "I am not the boss today, what can I do?"

By now the officer holding my passport had lost his face to hand over
the document to me; he gave it to the Pills officer to pass on to me!
With my back to them I took one of the slowest steps of my life,
symbolically telling them a Tibetan can walk undaunted with all pride
and identity intact. When the plane lifted off it was as if a
limitless sky of freedom had opened up, even in the confines of a
cabin. I experienced what it is like to regain freedom!

I was left with a very bitter taste of China. Within an hour of
landing in the free world I wrote a Letter of Complaint (appended
below) and e-mailed that to the Chengdu Headquarters of Foreign
Relations Department. Till date I have not received a response.

* * * * * * * *
(The Letter of Complaint)

From: ddhawad[
Subject: Amy - for your Foreign Relations Department

Amy (Translator),

This is Dhawa, the Tibetan-Australian whom your department guys had a
'talking' with at Wuwuci. I like you to pass on the following Letter
of Complaint to your Department:

To the "Foreign Relations Department of China" Chengdu,

As you are aware, I came to see Tibet and China, purely as a tourist
and a pilgrim. I had a valid Chinese Visa.

But I felt very offended and badly inconvenienced by the
discrimination I received from your Immigration (PSB) staff at
Chengdu airport on my arrival - they let everyone go through,
including Westerners, but I alone was questioned aside and my bags
were hand-searched by about eight Immigration staff! All because I
had a Tibetan name! Is this the image of China you would like to show
to the outside world?

When I made it through into China, I tried to visit Barkham
(Maerkhang), but I was turned back to Chengdu, from the police
checkpoint to Maerkhang! I had been on the bus for more than 19 hours
with no dinner and breakfast, and that too on a very bad road, and
they wanted me to go back to Chengdu!

Upon my arrival back in Chengdu, I was visited by people from your
Department, whom I initially thought were from PSB, to hassle me, a
mere tourist and a pilgrim. They told me that they were from "Foreign
Relations Department's main office in Chengdu." My passport was
looked at and every major aspect about my life - birthplace, parents,
marital status, job, travel plans, and so on - was questioned! And
all this only because they were doing it for my "safety" ("We are
here for your safety"!). I was asked about my views on the recent
protests in Lhasa and Tibet ("Who do you think is responsible for the
recent troubles in Lhasa?"). I was asked about my views on the
Olympics. At the same time they apologized for the hardship I
experienced in being turned back from Maerkhang - they told me it was
a mistake from the part of the local police at the checkpoint. At the
same time I was told that I was welcome for visits into Lhasa (Tibet)
and other parts of Tibet, such as Maerkhang.

Which part of your department's doublespeak I should believe in? If
you are concerned about my safety and if you really want to welcome
me into Tibet and China, why did you dig into every major aspect of
my life? As I said at the time, in the free world people are not
hassled and interrogated for being a mere tourist and a pilgrim. In
an Olympic year when there should be more visitors welcomed and
allowed to enjoy freely in the country, with no constant monitoring
and hassles from the officials, China seems to be doing the opposite!
As I said at my interrogation, His Holiness the Dalai Lama supports
the Beijing Olympics - His Holiness has so recently said openly in a
talk to many thousands of Australians that He supports the Beijing
Olympics. As I said at the same interrogation, when the earthquake
struck Sichuan, Tibetans abroad in Australia, Canada, the United
states, and in many parts of world donated money and said prayers.
Upon saying this, the interrogators said to me "We thank-you all for that."

As your department is a part of China, I hope China truly feels
appreciative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's peaceful and honest
approach, and understands the genuine sympathy and support Tibetans
everywhere have shown to the Chinese people post-earthquake.

When coming down from Kangding to Chengdu, the police at the main
Toll-gate into Chengdu stops every vehicle with Tibetan driver and/or
Tibetan passengers, while letting through all other vehicles. The car
I was in was also stopped and we were asked to get out and stand in
the open, to be stared at by all the passing motorists. Is this the
way your government makes the minorities feel happy? Is this the way
you treat the Tibetans?

When I was leaving China, even after my passport had been stamped
cleared at the Immigration counter (Chengdu airport), a senior
Immigration (PSB) personnel shouted at me to come aside and took my
passport and went from one cubicle side-office to another, trying to
bring the matter of a Tibetan traveller to the notice of a farther
higher levels of officials! I protested the discrimination and told
them I was a legal traveller with valid visa. I said I didn't feel
welcome and that this was going to leave on me a very bitter
impression of China.

As you can see from all these details, I was mistreated throughout my
time in China- at the entry, during the stay, and at the departure.

I write this to make it a formal Letter of Complaint to your
Government, and with the understanding that your Government treats
Tibetans fairly, leave all travellers hassle-free, and that through
such approach a genuine happiness prevails throughout Tibet and China.

Dhawa Dhondup
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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