Tibetan voices censored around China’s Party Congress

Reports of a massive surveillance operation in Tibet and harassment of journalists covering Tibetan issues cast a shadow over eagerly anticipated leadership appointments expected tomorrow in Beijing.

Protests involving Tibetans setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule have increased in the past month as the 18th Party Congress approached, along with its customary restrictions on information, according to international news reports. At least four Tibetans self-immolated on November 7, the highest number ever in a single day, bringing to 70 the total number of incidents since March 2011, The New York Times reported.

These desperate acts of protest have been nurtured in the past four years by harsh penalties against Tibetans who express anti-government opinions, Tibetan experts say. CPJ research shows a growing trend of Tibetan journalists jailed since unrest in the region in March 2008. Yet Chinese authorities are responding to the wave of suicides using the same tactics–penalizing those who report on them, however obliquely. Police even forced a Times photojournalist to delete images of firefighters standing by in Beijing in case any Tibetan protesters tried to stage a protest while the Congress was under way, the newspaper reported.

China blocked independent human rights monitors from visiting the Tibetan Autonomous Region this month, Reuters reported. Qiangba Puncog, head of Tibet’s regional assembly, justified that decision to international reporters by inviting them to enter Tibet themselves: “(We) welcome all of you to go to Tibet to see Tibet’s real situation. Listening is false, seeing is believing,” he told a group, according to Reuters. Yet foreign journalists have long since been barred from the region except on officially organized tours, CPJ research shows.

Tibetan and minority rights activists have faced even tighter restrictions than their Han Chinese counterparts in advance of the Congress. Tibetan writer Woeser was ordered out of Beijing in advance of the Party Congress, according to her husband, Wang Lixiong, writing in The New York Times. He was also told to leave, he wrote.

In Tibet itself, a counterpart to censorship has arrived in the form of an invasive surveillance system, according to international news reports. A camera network known as “Skynet” may have “a camera on every road in Tibet and in the Tibetan areas of Gansu and Sichuan,” according to the U.K. Telegraph. Though little is known about the secretive system, the Telegraph reported that “officials at the 18th party Congress claimed … that the ‘Skynet’ network has divided the region into a closely monitored grid and that teams of security personnel can be mobilized within two minutes to put an end to the suicide attempts.”

This response might reassure delegates at the Party Congress hoping to stop the protests from revealing too much dissension in Chinese society, but does nothing to address the underlying concerns of the Tibetans carrying them out. As such, it is doomed to failure. If the next generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders really wish to stop the protests, they must address the root cause. Instead of trying to suppress Tibetan protests, they must start listening to them.

CPJ is honoring Dhondup Wangchen–the first of a wave of Tibetan journalists jailed since 2008–with an International Press Freedom Award this year. You can help by signing a petition calling for his release.