An English teacher of Tibetan ancestry says her visa was in order and that she has no idea what her offense was. But Beijing is in the midst of a pre-Olympic crackdown on foreign residents.
By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Beijing, July 10 - As Dechan Pemba left her apartment Tuesday morning, seven or eight government security officials surrounded her, she says, including some who apparently had been waiting in her landlord's apartment.
The 30-year-old ethnic Tibetan, a British national who is a part-time English teacher, tried to explain that she was running late, but they insisted that she return to her apartment to talk, saying it would take only 20 minutes.
Instead, the two-year Beijing resident says, they held her for 4 1/2 hours, then she was unceremoniously put aboard an airplane, deported and told she couldn't return for five years.
Pemba says she repeatedly asked what her offense was, only to be told that she should know what crime she had committed.
"It's ridiculously paranoid," Pemba said Wednesday by telephone from London. "I can only speculate on why. It could be anything -- that I have Tibetan friends, that I have coffee with journalists. I don't know what they consider illegal."
Her visa was in order, she said, and wasn't set to expire until Nov. 23.
China is in the midst of a widespread crackdown in the final month before the Olympics, which will start Aug. 8. Pemba's story is a small pixel in a broader image of people being detained or forced to leave the country, some of them longtime foreign residents.
The government has said that Tibetans and separatists from the far western Xinjiang region plan to undermine the Olympics with violent plots, but critics have accused authorities of fanning fears to silence even peaceful dissent.
China said Wednesday that police killed five members of an alleged radical Islamic separatist group, wounded two and arrested eight others in Xinjiang for plotting to overthrow the state and slaughter ethnic Chinese.
For most foreigners affected by the stepped-up security, the welcome mat was rolled up over a period of weeks or months. But Pemba's short-order ejection is a rarity. She was forced to wrap up her life and leave within hours, an action reminiscent of treatment the Chinese government meted out decades ago.
Regulations here are often vague and leave wide latitude for interpretation. China is particularly concerned with anything related to Tibet after weeks of riots in March prompted a protracted crackdown. Even as Beijing has negotiated with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, Chinese officials have continued to condemn him as an evil "splittist."
Pemba is the daughter of exiled Tibetans. She grew up in London, speaks Tibetan and once worked for a Tibetan rights organization in Berlin. Her uncle, Tsering Shakya, wrote a well-regarded history, "The Dragon in the Land of Snows."
Presumably, Beijing knew all of that all along, Pemba said. She signed her name to the apartment lease, and has never been denied a visa, even as a visitor in 2004 while working for the Tibetan rights group.
Pemba said the government agents refused her requests to be allowed a call to the British Embassy as they bundled her off to the airport. They seized her cellphone, two Tibet books purchased in China and a "Dreaming Lhasa" T-shirt in Tibetan script.
She was allowed to pack only one bag, whose contents were scrutinized, and had to leave the rest of her belongings behind. They also seized her passport, tickets to Olympics rowing and athletics events and her Chinese bankbook, even demanding her PIN number. Two security officers videotaped the entire process.
Pemba's account of events could not be independently verified. Officials at the Public Security Bureau and Foreign Ministry said they didn't know about the case or declined to comment.
The British Embassy said Wednesday that it was aware of the case and had spoken to Pemba but had not been informed of her deportation by Chinese authorities.
Pemba said she was guarded by six police and other security officers on a minibus to the airport escorted by two black cars in front and one behind. All told, she estimates at least 30 people were directly involved, most in plainclothes.
"It was like they were making a documentary film," Pemba said. "They were polite, but quite firm and not friendly."
She said she was held at the gate until the last minute, and was the final passenger allowed to board, at which point they handed back her cellphone and passport.
Only after she was on board was she able to call her family and the embassy before the plane took off. She then noticed that they had looked through her phone messages, she said.
"This is unprecedented, especially without any known motive, and it required a lot of coordination to repatriate someone that quickly through immigration, the airline, surveillance," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based China researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"As the Olympics approach, the government seems to be more worried about embarrassment than actual security threats," he said. "We're seeing a very expansive definition of what's harmful to China."
In April, Pemba said, she was stopped briefly at the airport upon returning from London. And her apartment was searched in late May, although she said it was never clear what the police were looking for, and they did not ask questions or issue any warnings.
Pemba said the authorities declined to give her a copy of her deportation notice, although they said she would get one later. She also wonders why they would take her bankbook and PIN number.
"I feel very sad to be leaving my friends behind and worry for the personal safety of many of my Tibetan friends," she said in an e-mail to friends sent from London.
"It is an unfortunate way to leave a city that I feel a strong connection with, having been based there since September 2006. I hope that I can go back one day."