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Tibetan writer, a rare outspoken voice against Beijing's policies, sues Chinese government
AP[Wednesday, July 23, 2008 15:58]
Associated Press Writer

BEIJING, July 23 - The poet Woeser has long been a rarity _ a Tibetan living in China who doesn't flinch from publicly criticizing the Chinese government. Now the activist is taking another unusual step.

After being repeatedly denied a passport for three years, the Beijing resident has sued the government demanding to be given the document she needs to travel outside the country, hoping the fight will draw more attention to China's tight grip on Tibet and its people.

Woeser's willingness to openly confront authorities makes her stand out. Most Tibetans are reluctant to do that, even more so than environmental and human rights activists. If they complain at all, they often do so in hushed tones and under the cloak of anonymity.

Their reticence speaks volumes about the harshness of Beijing's repression in their Himalayan homeland _ which communist troops took control of in the 1950s _ and its policies aimed at diluting Tibetans' culture and identity.

Woeser, who like some Tibetans uses only one name, says China's clampdown in Tibet has worsened since violent protests against Chinese rule in March that Beijing says killed 22 people, but foreign activists claim took many times that number.

The lawsuit is another way to draw attention to Tibet's treatment, she said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"I'm not expecting to win. But if you don't take action, there's no chance to let the outside world know the truth," Woeser said. "It's an opportunity to talk about the unfair treatment of Tibetans over the years."

The 42-year-old woman, who stands barely 5 feet tall, has sought to be a channel for her people's voices.

In 2005, she started blogging on issues rarely discussed in Tibet: AIDS, prostitution, environmental damage and a new railroad that critics say is flooding that region with Chinese migrants.

"She went into unknown territory. I think no Tibetan had ever spoken out so openly in print or in the media," said Robbie Barnett, an expert on modern Tibet at Columbia University in New York.

"When she first started to write about these things, I think everyone assumed that her position would be impossible to sustain. But she has never faltered. ... The risks she took were off the chart," he said, calling Woeser "a poet who forgot to be afraid."

Her essays and poems are filled with colorful and sometimes brutal detail about the Tibetan way of life. They provide a glimpse into a deeply religious culture that has been shut off to much of the world.

Her stance is not without cost: Her books are banned in China, and security agents watch her apartment. At one point, she was confined to house arrest. Authorities shut down three of her blogs.

The fourth was one of the few sources of news coming out of the sealed-off region during the March crackdown. Then hackers posted threats against her on the blog and rendered it unusable. She has since started a fifth blog that is still running _ for now.

That Woeser has become a symbol of dissent is an unlikely turn. Her parents were loyal communists, and her half-Chinese, half-Tibetan father was a deputy commander in Tibet for the People's Liberation Army.

Born in 1966 _ the start of Mao Zedong's radical and devastating Cultural Revolution _ Woeser spent her childhood in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

"I was devoted to Chairman Mao," she recalled.

She began questioning that view when she left Lhasa to go to high school and university in Chengdu, the capital of neighboring Sichuan province.

For the first time, she was a minority and often felt discrimination. She read banned translations of the Dalai Lama's autobiography and John Avedon's "In Exile from the Land of Snows," which chronicles the lives of Tibetan exiles and Chinese persecution of Tibet's Buddhists.

"There were things in there that were the opposite of what we had been taught," Woeser said.

After school, she became an editor of a literary journal in Lhasa, where she met monks who described the protests and subsequent crackdown in Tibet in 1989 while she was away. Those conversations further radicalized her views.

In 2004, the government literary association expelled her for "political errors" after she published a collection of essays which mentioned that the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader vilified by China's leadership, is revered by Tibetans.

The stigma and loss of her job drove her to Beijing, where she married Wang Lixiong, a Chinese democracy activist and author.

It was in Wang's hometown of Changchun that Woeser applied for a passport in 2005 after police officials in Lhasa told her she would never get one in her homeland.

When Woeser sent friends to make inquiries, police told them she posed a danger to state security, the reason often given for keeping dissidents in check.

Woeser dismisses the label.

"I'm an author who writes from home all the time. If I really am posing a threat to society, doesn't it make the great country of China seem very weak?" she said with a laugh.

For Tibetans, it is nearly impossible to get a passport, and many risk their lives trying to flee across Himalayan mountain passes into Nepal and India.

"It's hard to say whether she will win or not," said her lawyer, Mo Shaoping, who has made his name defending China's dissidents. "Both Woeser and her husband are sensitive figures ... but no matter who they are, they should enjoy their basic rights as citizens."

Earlier this year, Woeser was unable to accept a Freedom of Expression prize from the Norwegian Authors' Union in person because she does not have a passport. Her husband accepted the award in Oslo on her behalf.

"I still have hope in China, which is such a strong nation," Woeser said. "I hope it will be strong enough to give me a little space."
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