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A Tibetan Blogger, Always Under Close Watch, Struggles for Visibility

April 27, 2009

The New York Times
April 25, 2009

BEIJING -- WOESER, a Tibetan poet and blogger
whose every word is of great interest to the
Chinese authorities, described the nightmare that
jolted her awake shortly before a reporter
arrived for what some might describe as a foolhardy interview.

She dreamed that she was back in Tibet and that
an army truck was passing before her, its cargo enveloped in green canvas.

One side of the truck was uncovered, however, and
inside she could see a heap of black-and-blue
bodies, Tibetans old and young, who had been battered into submission.

Desperate to record the sight, she reached for her camera but it was gone.

"The dream ends with me chasing the truck,
wailing and yelling," said Ms. Woeser, 42, who
follows Tibetan tradition of using a single name.

The nightmare vividly reflects the anxiety felt
by many Tibetans, both inside and outside China.
But it is a particularly fitting reflection of
the sense of helplessness that confronts one of
China’s best-known bloggers as she tries to
chronicle life in Tibet amid a continued yearlong crackdown on dissent.

Her books are banned here, and the blog she has
kept since 2005 is currently blocked. Still, with
foreign media banned from much of the Tibetan
plateau, Ms. Woeser’s blog, “Invisible Tibet,”
has become one of the few reliable news outlets
for those able to circumvent what is cynically
referred to as The Great Firewall.

Ms. Woeser has been kept especially busy by a run
of politically delicate dates, including the 50th
anniversary of the "liberation" of Lhasa by the
Chinese Army, which upended the Tibetan
aristocracy and sent the Dalai Lama into exile.
This year Beijing christened March 28 a national
holiday, Serf Liberation Day, but among many
Tibetans it was a time for mourning.

This year’s commemoration was made all the more
tense by a security lockdown that accompanied the
first anniversary of the riots in Lhasa in which
19 people were killed, many of them Han Chinese migrants.

In the weeks and months that followed, hundreds
of Tibetans were arrested; by her own tally,
based on accounts of those she said she trusts,
as many as 300 people may have died at the hands of public security forces.

"It’s impossible to know the exact number because
the bodies are always immediately cremated," she
said. "I am sympathetic to the loss of Han lives,
but I am angry at the government for responding
with such heartlessness. They have only made the
situation worse by awakening the anger of the Tibetan people."

A graceful, soft-spoken woman whose disquieting
tales are often punctuated by nervous laughter,
Ms. Woeser has become an accidental hero to a
generation of disenfranchised young Tibetans.
Like many of her peers, she was schooled in
Mandarin, part of a policy of assimilation that
left her unable to write Tibetan, and she grew up
embracing the official version of history -- that
the Communist Party brought freedom and prosperity to a backward land.

HER pedigree is all the more notable because her
father, the son of a Han father and a Tibetan
mother, was a deputy general in the Chinese Army who oversaw Lhasa.

It was only at 24, after seven years studying
Chinese poetry and literature, that she
reconnected with her Tibetan DNA. During a visit
to Lhasa, an aunt dragged her to the Jokhang
Monastery, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest
sites, and she found herself overwhelmed by the
emotional intensity of the faithful. "I was
crying so loudly a monk told my aunt, ‘Look at
that pathetic Chinese girl, she can’t control
herself.’ "It was that moment I realized I had come home," she said.

She moved back to Lhasa, found a job at Tibetan
Literature, a government-run journal, and began
delving into the history and folklore of Tibet.
In 2003, a publisher in Guangzhou put out her
first book, “Notes on Tibet,” a collection of
prose and short stories that quickly sold out. It
was just before the second print run that the
authorities took notice. They promptly banned the
book, saying it contained "serious political mistakes."

In their condemnation of the book, her employer,
the Tibetan Literature Association, said she had
glorified the Dalai Lama, harmed the solidarity
of the nation and "exaggerated and beautified the
positive function of religion in social life.”
They demanded a confession of her errors. She
refused, and found herself unemployed.

With no means of support, she moved to Beijing.
After gushing to friends about one of China’s
best-known writers, Wang Lixiong, an introduction
was made. They married a year later.

In contrast to Tibetan dissidents who agitate
from places of exile, Ms. Woeser’s is a rare
voice that emanates from China. Robert Barnett, a
professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia
University, described her as “fierce and
courageous” but said she was never strident. “She
is not a politician but a poet who quite late in
her career started talking about politics," he
said. "She is an eloquent reminder of what’s happening in Tibet."

One of her most startling recent projects is
"Forbidden Memory," a book of photographs taken
by her father during the Cultural Revolution.
Published in Taiwan, the book provides a
disturbing glimpse of the tumultuous decade that
destroyed thousands of temples and laid waste to
countless lives. There are pictures of trampled
relics, jubilant crowds bearing oversized Mao
portraits and a female living Buddha, head bowed
in humiliation, as she is hectored in the
streets. “My father loved photography and no one
dared stop him because he was in uniform,” she said.

The photographs also offer a telling window into
the soul of a conflicted man. Ms. Woeser recalled
her father as a devoted Communist who would
publicly denounce religion by day and seek refuge
in Buddhist texts at night. After he died in
1991, she found a dog-eared biography of the
Dalai Lama hidden on his bookshelf. "He was like
many Tibetans who work for the government," she
said. "They are divided inside. We call them people with two heads."

In recent years Ms. Woeser has become less
tolerant of Chinese rule and more vocally opposed
to the Han migrants and tourists who she claims
have diluted Tibetan culture and damaged a
fragile ecosystem. Such outspokenness has only
heightened the interest of the authorities, who
blocked her first three blogs. (The fourth, she
said, was destroyed by hackers.)

LAST year, she and her husband were briefly
placed under house arrest after they spoke to the foreign news media.

Her visits to Tibet are even more tightly
scrutinized. The police track her every move,
interrogating any friend who dares to meet with
her. "Most of my friends no longer have the guts to see me,” she said.

During her last visit in August, public security
officials searched her mother’s home in Lhasa,
confiscating computers and subjecting Ms. Woeser
to eight hours of questioning. When she returned
home, her mother, fearful for her safety, begged
her to pack her bags and go. “That was one of the
most heartbreaking moments,” she said.

Most of the news that appears on her blog arrives
through e-mail messages or via Skype, the
Internet calling service, although they are not
without risk. She said 13 of her friends are
still in detention, some facing charges that they
illegally disseminated details of arrests and
protests to the outside world. “Every day I cry
because I don’t know what’s going to happen to
them,” she said, glancing out the 20th-floor
window of her apartment, with its expansive view of a hazy Beijing sunset.

Despite her relatively high profile both inside
and outside China, she is well aware that her
liberty is fragile. Since 2004 she has been
waiting for a passport, which would allow her to travel and speak abroad.

"I feel so insecure inside," she said. "I feel
like I’m sitting on the edge of a cliff and I could fall down at any moment."
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