Monday, August 11, 2008

Arrested in Kham, Tibet

The following is the account of a close Taiwanese American friend of mine who was recently arrested and detained for 30 hours in Eastern Tibet. The story is quite remarkable, but if you don't have time to read it all, at least read the first few paragraphs, which describes first hand the situation on the ground in Kham as of last week. This is a report from an area that hasn't seen a foreign journalist in the past four months or so:

"As I arrived in Karze (Ch: Ganzi), I remember my eyes widening with alarm as I looked out the car window. Foreign travelers aren’t permitted to travel to this region of Kham (present day Western Sichuan) for a reason. The minibus driver took back roads to avoid the checkpoints in order for me to get to this Tibetan town which saw heavy protests this spring. I had just read an article about a Tibetan girl who was shot dead in the vegetable market here during one of the protests. Karze is the epitome of the word ‘occupation’. About every half a block, there is a squad of 10 to 15 People’s Armed Police in full battle gear. Dressed in fatigues holding rifles and shields, they sat in rows in front of convenience stores, they stood behind raised metal posts with cutout windows at the corners of the street, they camped under blue tarps in the middle of the sidewalk, they marched throughout the city looking for any signs of trouble. It looked like a war zone. Fear permeated the air. I could feel their prying eyes everywhere I walked. Was it really 2008 I kept thinking? In addition to the sea of armed police, bright red government issued banners with patriotic slogans hung in replacement of modern day advertisements everywhere. It reminded me all too much of the Cultural Revolution. There was one ideology acceptable, that of the government. For the first time in my life, I began to understand through fear, what the word ‘occupation’ actually felt like.

Soon after I arrived in Karze, I went to check my email and got a suspicious notification in broken English from Gmail warning me about the suspension of my account due to ‘unusual activities’. Knowing that Karze is at the center of a recent government purge and crackdown against ‘splittists’, I was becoming genuinely afraid. What did the Chinese Government know about me? Do they know that I helped start a group in Dharamsala that’s raised over 6,000 ‘illegal flag of the Snow Lion’? Do they know I’m collecting information for the Tibetan Government in Exile? Am I being followed like the US Embassy suggested? Paranoia grew as the possibility of being arrested for ‘inciting subversion’ was becoming more real in my mind. I wished that I had traveled on my American passport, in which case, the worst thing they could do is deport me. I wished I had known that traveling on my Taiwanese documents deprived me amnesty as an American.

When I returned to my hotel, a Tibetan was watching a government staged protest on TV. The narrator praised the People’s Armed Police for showing restraint against Tibetan protesters who were shouting “Independence for Tibet” in Chinese. The protesters on screen hurled themselves onto the shields of the Police and eventually ceased. The propaganda machine never ceases to amaze me. The Tibetan told me the government just filmed this a few kilometers away yesterday and is airing it on the local network. All the ‘protesters’ in the act were actually police themselves. I went back to my room and started filming the TV show on my camcorder and soon after, two policemen pounded on my door. I said I was changing and was trying to not shake as I was putting away my tripod. They looked around and asked what I was doing in Karze. One officer carefully studied my documents and warned me to be careful with what I do in town, that if I did anything suspicious, there would be ‘consequences’. It sounded like a threat. Little did I know that 2 days later, after he arrested me and got to know me, he would joke over a breakfast of hotpot that he tried his best to intimidate people while on duty. But after the officers left, my heart was still pounding and I couldn’t calm down even after 2 cigarettes. I rarely let fear stop me from doing what I want, but I began to seriously consider aborting mission and going back to India. I began chain smoking and after much apprehension, I bought a 600km bus ticket back to Chengdu bound to leave early next morning. I felt the suffocation of the occupation and saw the latent torture of cultural genocide and it left me in rough mental shape. I felt ashamed more than ever to be Chinese. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t help but feel defeated because I let fear win.

I thought I could ease my nerve for the time being by going to the Karze Monastery on the top of the hill. It was a steep climb up to the rooftop of the Monastery where you can get an incredible panoramic view of the entire town surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Aesthetic pleasure returned and I felt at ease. I took many photos of the valley and town, but couldn’t help myself from taking a few zoomed in shots of the military base. I didn’t realize I was playing with fire. I noticed that someone was holding his cell phone unusually high towards my direction, but I didn’t realize he was a plain clothed policeman following me. It was a beautifully serene atmosphere and having barely eaten, I didn’t comprehend what I was getting myself into. After a long rest, I began walking back down into town. All the sudden, the policeman who warned me the night before in my room, now dressed in normal clothes, told me to come with him. Fear was becoming reality – I was being arrested. I was told to sit and wait in the policeman’s office. More plain clothed police came and two of them started filming me. I asked what was going on, but no one answered my questions, they told me to “wait and see”. Before long, I was escorted by four plain clothed police to my hotel room where again, they told me to sit and wait until more police came. I said that I was an American citizen and have the right to call the US Embassy, but my demand fell on deaf ears. After about half an hour, there were more than ten police in my room. They closed the door, started filming and began searching through my things. I thought about how stupid it was of me to have taken the photos of the military base from the monastery rooftop and remembered all the photos I secretively took of the People’s Armed Police in Litang. I was so close to leaving! They soon found the photos and I knew that I was beyond screwed. My demand to call the US Embassy turned into a plea and it began to annoy them so they told me what I already knew, that I was a ‘Chinese citizen’ travelling on a ‘Chinese’ document in China, therefore, I will be prosecuted accordingly by Chinese Law. Shit, shit, shit I thought. I’m done for. Three Taiwanese Americans have been imprisoned in China in the last 2 years; I’m going be the fourth.

They began asking questions and compiled an official document for my case. I was charged with ‘illegally possessing state secrets’ by taking those photographs. I signed the papers and fingerprinted them. Then they told me to pack my things because I’ll be escorted to Kangding soon, their provincial headquarter 300km away for ‘further investigation’. I kept asking questions that they didn’t answer, so I stared at them in the eyes and tried to hold their attention through eye contact, thinking that maybe it’ll get some answers through sympathy. I wanted to win at least a human response. But all they told me was that they don’t have the power to determine my case here, that I need to Kangding where they can determine whether or not I am guilty of my crime. Sprinklings of patriotic party slogans were also regurgitated throughout the questioning. Lines about how now is the time when our glorious government needs our unyielding support quite frankly, disgusted me. They sounded excessively passionate and reminded me of brainwashed children. I asked if they were going to send me to prison, and they said if my background checks out clean and they see I have no ulterior motives, then I’ll be released. I remembered from a documentary I recently saw where one of China’s top lawyers commented that he’s lost 99% of the cases involving political ‘crimes’. Fuck I thought, it won’t take long to find out about my involvement in Dharamsala. My laptop was in storage in Chengdu and I didn’t bring anything ‘illegal’, but I made the big grand mistake of packing my 80GB external hard drive which I had everything saved on. I kept thinking about what was in that hard drive – photos of Tibetan flags, me holding Tibetan flags, me speaking on a microphone in front of a giant Tibetan flag, me distributing Tibetan flags, photos of the Dalai Lama, my name stated as the co-founder of the Raise Tibetan Flags Campaign (RTFC) in press releases and flyers, the entire RTFC website I put together, the recent application to the International Tibet Support Network I filled out with my name as the main contact – I began feeling desperately hopeless.

Before we left for the 12 hour drive to Kangding, we stopped for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Another car full of plain clothed police joined us for a big meal around the lazy Susan. Everyone else was in a jolly mood and eating away. Their stern demeanor changed at the table as they told me to try this eggplant dish and that pork soup. What the fuck I thought. Seriously, what the fuck going on? Aren’t I arrested? Didn’t the police woman sitting next to me just follow me to the toilet and watched me pee? Didn’t they just confiscate my cell phone and refused to let me call anyone? What made things even more strange for me was hearing them talk in Tibetan. I had never met a pro-Chinese Tibetan, and now I’m with a table full. But I think seeing my long face made some of them uncomfortable, so one of the officers reassured me that everything was going to be okay, as if appeasing a pouting child. They began telling me about the great things they are doing for this ‘backwards’ region, about the hospitals, schools and roads, praising themselves for their achievements, all coming from a Tibetan speaking perfect Chinese. I sat in silence. My fate will be determined tomorrow I kept thinking, on August 1st, 2008. Is it a coincidence? Last year, on the night of August 1st, I experienced the most physical pain I ever have in my life in the hospital. The doctor had to insert a catheter because I couldn’t even move my head. Tomorrow, on August 1st, 2008, will it be mental pain I’ll be experiencing in jail? I’m not a superstitious person, but I couldn’t help but wonder about this bizarre twist in fate.

On the evening of August 1, 2007, I missed the freeway exit I was supposed to take to meet a friend for Happy Hour. I remember thinking that I had to stop daydreaming while driving as I came upon bumper to bumper traffic on the 35w Bridge and was now going to be late to meet my friend. At 6:01 pm, without any warning, the pavement underneath me began to violently rumble, shaking my car harder and harder. I saw the bridge split open where my front bumper was and within seconds, my car took a nosedive towards the Mississippi River. I had locked my elbows and grasped on to my steering wheel for dear life. I remember an intense turbulence and seeing glass flying around me as I tumbled in the air. I don’t know how many times my car flipped, but it landed upside down, jammed on the bridge tussock and on top a steel beam which cut diagonally across my car. It took 13 seconds to fall 60 feet. I was suspended upside down only by the fibers of my shoulder belt but didn’t hit my head even upon the landing. I think I was too much in shock to feel fear at this point. I saw my blood dripping, but I didn’t feel the pain. Thinking the car might explode, survival instinct kicked in and I realized that I had to get out of the car as soon as possible. I wasn’t able to open the driver side door, but managed to crawl out of the passenger side door and then onto the steel beam which my car landed on. I crawled down to the bottom where I couldn’t believe what I saw. Looking up was open air where a massive five lane bridge fell into the debris I was standing on. A woman somewhere in the distance was screaming hysterically. I rushed over to the partially submerged cars nearby and some people suddenly appeared and asked if I was ok. I was bloody but still standing. I still don’t know who they were, but they told me to cross the river and climb up the bank. I don’t know if I lost consciousness when I was hanging upside down, because rescuers were already present by the time I got out of my car and there was a big group of bystanders watching from the riverbank. 190 cars were on the bridge when it collapsed. 13 people died. Many people suffered debilitating injuries. The girl next to me at the hospital had almost everything below her waist crushed. People in cars in front of me drowned and fell to their deaths. I only had deep cuts on my hands and fingers, a few small puncture wounds and a slightly fractured sternum. Will I be just as lucky on this August 1st?

On the drive to Kangding, I was in the back seat sandwiched between two police officers. To the right of me was a female Tibetan officer who had more than a few patriotic Chinese lines to share. To the left of me was the Chinese officer who warned me the night before I was detained and also the one who arrested me. He began chatting with me in the car. He said he really wanted to improve his English and this is long drive would be a good opportunity for him to practice if that was okay with me. The guy who threatened and arrested me now wanted to learn English from me. What the fuck I thought again. But I also reminded myself that it would be a good idea to get on their good side. So he went on asking me simple but poignant questions which are common to English learners, like what I believed in, what my life goals are and if I liked China. This lasted for hours until my answers became minimal and he eventually dozed off, on my shoulder. The Tibetan officer also fell asleep on my shoulder. I watched the digital clock in the car turn as it became midnight. It was August 1st, 2008, exactly a year after the bridge collapse and now I’m in a police car, red and blue siren flashing in the dark, on my way to being interrogated with two police officers sleeping on either side of my shoulder. I felt like Alice after falling into the rabbit hole. I didn’t fall asleep at all. I was thinking about life in prison. I thought about the shit that is probably piled up in the toilets. I thought about the self tightening cuffs that are common in Chinese prisons. I thought about the Tibetan nuns who described having electric cattle prods shoved into their vaginas. I thought about China’s reform through labor schemes for political offenders. I thought about all the different torture techniques practiced in Chinese prisons. I thought about what they would do with the bod gyalo (“Victory to Tibet”) tattoo on my neck. Would they born it off or carve it off? At one point, I was debating what sentence they would have to give me for me to want to kill myself. 15 years? If they gave me 15 years, I would be 39 when released. But then I also thought about Palden Gyatso, the Tibetan monk who spent 33 years in prison, how he didn’t give up. I’ve heard countless testimonies of political prisoners, and couldn’t believe I was also going to follow their fate. Mandela and Gandhi both served long terms. In fact, maybe prison strengthens the activist soul. Maybe only after you’ve tasted the bitterness of injustice will you dedicate your life to fight it with 110 percent. I rethought suicide. I’ve always believed that whatever doesn’t kill me will make me stronger, and there’s no better time than now to embrace this creed. In 15 years, I could master Chinese and Tibetan. But 15 years is unlikely since Chinese dissidents are usually sentenced to 5 to 10 years. Thoughts and wonderings carried on in loops like this until we reached Kangding in the morning.

They took me to a hotel room on the 4th floor with a view of the valley in Kangding. The head police chief who they called ‘boss’ was going to do the interrogation. He sat across from me by the window. Two more officers sat behind him and two more were sitting on the bed filming and taking notes. No one was in a uniform. The boss held a friendly tone. It didn’t feel like an interrogation. He just kept asking one question after another, trying to find discrepancies in my answers. Maybe it was because I was so tired, maybe it was because I swallowed my fear, but I transformed into someone else. If I told the truth, I would be sending myself straight to prison and endangering others. On the drive, I also had decided on an alias personality. I was Wen, the artsy, tree hugging, new age hippie – a politically inept traveler and devout Buddhist looking for myself by exploring the world. I exaggerated the language barrier so when I was asked a question I needed more time to think about, I would either ask them to clarify the meaning of certain Chinese words or use English words in my answers so they would have to stop and look up thw word. This bought me time to produce more believable lies. I’ve always been horrible at lying since and I’m often clumsy with my words when put on the spot, but this day was a definite exception. I’m not proud of the lies I told, but I can’t say I completely regretted it either. I became an actress. I gave brilliant answers and surprised even myself with my performance. For example, when the boss asked me if I had ever been to Dharamsala, I excitedly said yes, that I took the Tushita Introduction to Buddhism course which opened many doors to Buddhism and helped quench my spiritual thirst and that I also did a Vipassana Mediation course and went into detail about the feelings and emotions I experienced during the 10 day meditation. I went on describing my spiritual connection with the Indian Himalayas and my spiritual growth in India. I gave them more than enough detail from the things other people have told me from the courses. I knew that all Chinese officials are required to be atheists since Communism is suppose to be their religion, but I went on asking about the boss’ faith, what he would think he would spiritually develop if he meditated for 10 days. This made him laugh. The interrogation had turned into a conversation. For all the questions regarding Dharamsala, I kept answering with spiritual hippie talk. When he asked about what I thought about the Tibetans wanting independence, I played politically ignorant and asked him to explain the situation and what he thought. He went ahead and quite passionately talked about how he thought it was stupid for Tibetans to want such ‘independence’. I said that it’s not nice to call people stupid, that we should all have more compassion, but that I really should learn more about the issue and went back to talking about my ‘passion’ in Tibetan Buddhism. When asked about the photos I took of the military base, I explained the theories of composition and why I took the photos aesthetically. And then I went on about why I love photography, the magic of freezing time and whatnot. When they asked about my email account, I said that a few months back, I had a horribly messy and painful breakup with my boyfriend, so I cancelled my email account and decided to take a clean break. I went on feigning the pain of a broken heart and how hard it was to even stay friends, which didn’t stray too far from the truth and made the performance much more believable. After about two hours of questioning, the boss seemed satisfied. I actually managed to convince him I was an ignorant harmless girl. He said they just need to quick look through my things, confiscate my memory card and they’ll send me back to my hotel in Chengdu. Hope grew. Now the only evidence was left on the external hard drive. If they opened the hard drive, they would know I was lying all along.

The boss told me to wait in the hotel room until they finished looking through the external hard drive. Anxiety had dissipated at this point since I was certain of my fate and there was absolutely nothing I could do at that point. The only thing I could think of was trying a human approach. I wanted the police officers to get to know me and see that I’m not a bad person, that I don’t deserve to be locked up because I have different political opinions as them. I wanted them to feel guilty for imprisoning me. So we chatted, ate breakfast and watched TV in the hotel room. The Tibetan officer told me that she envied how many countries I have gone to, that when she was 24 she was married with a child and working full time for the Public Security Bureau. She said she wants to see the world, but it seems so impossible for her. She asked me about my home in America. I told her Minnesota had 10 thousand lakes and the biggest shopping mall in the world. She told me to guess the tune as she played Britney Spears on her pink cell phone. It was ‘Oops, I did it Again’. I began to see why she would cling tightly on to the romanticism of Communist ideology. She decided to take a nap and got into bed. I sat in the other bed and began talking to the officer who threatened and arrested me, the one who wanted to practice his English on the drive over. An Olympics program was running on low volume on the TV as we talked. He was a big sports fan and was excited to see the Olympics Games, especially basketball and track. He talked about how proud he was of China, like it was his own son. He did have a son, but didn’t mention him until I asked. We talked and laughed. He was a womanizer and grinned when he said if it were up to him, he would have multiple wives and asked if people in America were allowed to do that. I talked about the divorce rate and the ins and outs of dating in the US. I chatted with these two officers for more than four hours until different officers came into the hotel room and said it was time to go. I asked if they were coming to take me back to Chengdu and they said it would be a fun road trip, but it wasn’t up to them. They asked me for my email address and I had to remind them that I ‘cancelled’ my account. I looked at them with sad puppy eyes as I was escorted into a police car where again I sat in the middle of the back seat with four new officers. I was sure they had made all the arrangements for my imprisonment. I wondered how long it would be before my trial, knowing full well that fair trials in China were virtually non-existent for political offenders.

There seemed to be confusion about what to do with me. The car drove one direction, stopped and turned back to the hotel. The new officers pretended to not hear my questions about where they were taking me. I was escorted into another car at the hotel and we drove the opposite direction. They finally said they were taking me to Chengdu, but I didn’t quite believe them. I couldn’t tell if they were lying or annoyed. I tried to ask different questions to figure out if they were really going to release me in Chengdu, but my efforts were futile. They still wouldn’t give me back my passports and cell phone. When I asked why I couldn’t get them back, the officer in the front seat said he didn’t have them, that another officer in a different car had them. This made me feel uneasy after I heard the low battery tone of my cell phone beep from his pocket. I know there is a prison for political offenders in Chengdu and was sure that was where we were headed. When we stopped at a restaurant for lunch, they seemed to be in a better mood. They began joking with me like the last group of officers I was with. They told me to eat up and the Tibetan officer referred to me as ‘zema’, the Tibetan term for beautiful, but he commented that I would be more attractive if my complexion wasn’t so dark. Another officer asked me if it was too soon to start teaching English to his two year old son. I recommended that he find English language children’s programs like Sesame Street and Blues Clues, that it was best to start young. It was beginning to feel more at ease and clung on a tiny piece of hope, thinking that they wouldn’t be this friendly if they were going to put me away, would they?

It was a 5 hour drive to Chengdu. As we approached the city, just before 6pm on August 1st, the officer in the front seat asked what street my hotel was on. I perked up and couldn’t believe my ears. He’s not taking me to prison if he’s asking me where my hotel is! I told him I needed to check in my guidebook but was still stunned they were actually going to release me. I told them about what happened last August 1st and they told me to not worry, I’m safe because I’m with the police this year. A few minutes later, he asked if I would mind writing a letter confessing my ‘crime’ just for their records. It sounded suspicious since they already had written pages and pages along with the recorded files for my case. He said they wanted a confession written by me, that it won’t take long, and then I can take a taxi to my hotel. Did I have a choice to say no?

We arrived at another fancy hotel and they took two double rooms on the second floor. I wrote about a page and a half apologizing for taking photos of the military base and the armed police explaining that I wasn’t aware I was illegally possessing state secrets. I said I would learn to abide by the law of the country in the future. After I handed in the letter, it was dinner time and they insisted that I eat with them. I was anxious to go, but they joked that after spending a whole day with them that I didn’t even want to have a nice dinner at the end of the day. Seeing that I really didn’t want to stay, one of the officers said I could go now and come back later if I wanted to because there were still a few things they needed to talk to me about. Still feeling despondent and unsure of what was really going on, I agreed to the dinner. It was my fourth meal under custody with the police at nice restaurants. Two of the officers drank four bottles of beer. They were having a great time eating and laughing, holding up their glasses and saying ‘tashi delek’. I wondered if and when I’ll actually get released and when the charade will end. At dinner, the officer next to me said after dinner, we’ll go up to the hotel room and delete the pictures I wasn’t suppose to have taken, the ones that contained ‘state secrets’. I was surprised at this since the boss in Kangding said my memory card will be confiscated. I was impressed by his consideration. Then he mentioned the external hard drive for the first time. He said they found some things and they need to delete on the hard drive, but since it’s about 50GB worth of data, they’ll bring it to a shop and have it deleted overnight. I can come back the next morning to pick it up. I was still in disbelief. They found everything, they found out about all my involvement with Dharamsala and Tibetan flags, they didn’t question me about it and now they were letting me go. After they deleted the photos, took photos of them deleting the photos, they handed me back my passports and cell phone and waived me goodbye.

I picked up my empty external hard drive the next morning and was free. I couldn’t believe it. They found everything and decided to let me go. The most logical explanation was that it was too sensitive of a time to detain me, that it would look bad for the Chinese government to imprison a Taiwanese American activist during this sensitive time for Beijing. Was it the Olympics that saved me?

Now back in Dharamsala, something is haunting me, something that many Tibetans also have to live with. When I was questioned in Kangding, I lied and I didn’t stand up for what I believe in. I knew what the authorities wanted to hear and that was what I told them. I knew the consequences if I told them what I actually believed in. People may say that China is heading towards a bright future, but how can this country of 1.3 billion, one sixth of the world be under this form of control where an individual cannot express their difference in opinion? How did the IOC decide to award its prestigious games to a country where you can’t say what you think, read what you want and worship who you choose? I’ve never fully appreciated freedom until it was taken away from me, because it was something I had from birth. I’m able to write these words today, but a sixth of the world is not able to express what’s in their hearts without the fear of persecution if what they’re expressing strays from the Chinese government’s ideology. China is using fear to silence its people. But there will be a time when fear turns into defiance. It was Mao himself who said that it only takes a spark to start a prairie fire. It’s just a matter of who’s going to light the match.

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