A visit to Tibet and China
By Dhawa Dhondup (Acharya)
In the year of hosting the Summer Olympics things are going the opposite way for China. This time of the year when it should be balmy, summer peak-season for tourism, in western China hotel occupancy is at its lowest. In Tibet it is worse. Even in a major crossroad town of Dhartsedo, foreign guests at hotels number in single digit. This was the case as late as in the second week of July. (See Phayul news piece from AFP agency, dated 31 July 2008, "Few foreigners in Tibet despite re-opening after riots
In the aftermath of the March protests, and alleged negative Western reporting, by "a certain journalist," of the Sichuan earthquake, there has been a terrible error of policy from the part of the Chinese government. A Tibetan entrepreneur in Chengdu puts it this way: "The government here is now not anymore thinking of making money [from the Olympics tourism] - they are now paranoid of what upheaval might occur next."
I came across five separate volunteers of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) in Dhartsedo and Chengdu who were leaving Tibet because they had been ordered to leave. On the morning of 6 July, Chengdu bus-station officials refused to sell tickets to four Westerners who wanted to go to Dhartsedo! On that day, barely a fifty meters from the half-constructed hundred-room Holiday Inn at Dhartsedo, all incoming vehicles were being stopped and checked by police with paratroopers on standby.
For those who are trying to get into China it has become much more difficult to obtain a visa. The new policy requires travelers to apply in person at Chinese embassy/consulate. (To enter into Tibet -"TAR" - a second-tier visa, or additional visa, called "Tibet Permit" is needed but it is almost impossible to get.) A Korean travel agent explained to me, "This year the visa rule is new. I cannot apply for you, you must go to the Chinese embassy yourself. This is same even for us Koreans! They have made it very difficult." For me this part turned out to be a small hurdle compared to what was to come.
Upon arrival at Chengdu airport what should have been a routine Immigration scan-and-stamp taking less than a minute became a twenty minutes of gang thuggery I had to endure. When the officer (they are all in Public Security Bureau green, army uniform) handling my passport seemed to take too long a time to clear me, I suspected this was not going to be easy. He asked me whether the place I was born is in Australia or Tibet. When I truthfully responded that it is in Tibet, he called over one of his colleagues and asked me in the meantime to sit on one of the chairs on the side. While the pair scrutinized the passport and the visa, with frantic consultations over a mobile phone, all other passengers were being let through - amongst them were three Caucasians. By now I was the only one left. I was asked to collect my checked-in bag and come to an area which looked like the staff lockers. All eight officials on duty, who by now had no other passenger to check, ours being the last incoming flight for the day, gathered where I was. The first question I was asked was whether I spoke Chinese. I produced a copy of Lonely Planet's Mandarin phrasebook and said that I don't speak the language. Next they asked whether I was carrying any computer or "hard-disc." I had anticipated such and accordingly had left in storage at the third-country port of embarkation. My passport was passed on from one official to another, and my bag was rummaged through by all sixteen hands! They looked at my camera to find the screen say "There is no image" - I had come well-prepared with a blank SanDisk. The only item of concern was a tiny packet of Mani Compassion Blessing Pills (I had left the bulk behind at the third country). The officer who found it quite surprisingly remarked, "Are these medicines?" and quickly tucked it back. The significance of this was to dawn on me much later. By now I could not bear this gang attack, and as such, I told them: I had a valid visa issued from their Government; either they let me into the country or let me fly back to Australia. This pack cornering of a lone Tibetan traveler and pillaging-like gang groping of personal items was unacceptable. Considering I hadn't yet set foot into the door, I couldn't say so, but what I did say was they needed to make up their mind soon.
Whatever transpired, suddenly they themselves zipped up my bag and told me it was fine for me to go through!
My concept of fairness was I would accept if I was turned away, which was what I did ten days later when I was turned away from revisiting Barkham for the second time in a week. I had travelled nineteen hours by bus from Chengdu when I, the only 'foreigner', was asked to get off the bus, at the police checkpoint a few kilometers from Barkham ("Maerkhang"). This was a day prior to His Holiness the Dalai Lama's birthday. Between my protests of "Sichuan, Zhunggo - look, Zhunggo visa" in patchwork Chinese the policemen kept repeating the only English phrase they seem to know, "Maerkhang, no foreigner!." Again, my passport was passed on amongst the policemen, but I never let it out of my sight. The seniormost policeman on duty that morning nearly handed over the passport back to me before he had a change of mind and walked across the road, up the stairs, into an office within the army barrack of which the soldiers were performing an exercise drill, with guns in hand. Without having been asked, I followed the officer, right past the glare of the soldiers. My passport was photocopied and then handed back to me. This time nobody had touched my bag which I had left down there on a bench beside the checkpoint.
I was told to go back to Chengdu by the next bus coming from Barkham. An officer who looked like a local Gyarongwa politely gestured me to take a seat, a very different mannerism from that of the senior policeman who never once smiled during the encounter. Another fifteen to nineteen hours towards Chengdu on an empty stomach was going to be too much. I proposed to them how they would fare if they were to travel for that long. I told them I would rather go to Dhartsedo, a distance of about six hours. I was vocal and refused to sit down for the fifteen minutes or so it took waiting for a bus. My triumph was in being able to dictate the choice of place I would go away from their checkpoint.
After staying for a day at Dhartsedo I went down to Chengdu. Early next morning when I was at the lobby of the hotel I was staying, two men and a lady approached me. Junior of the two men called my name, extended his hand for a handshake. They wanted to have a talk with me. I suggested to do so right there at the lobby. But they pointed at direction away from the hotel. I thought these people were from Public Security Bureau (PSB), and my instinct was to be defensive. I said if they weren't happy with the lobby then we go to the Tibetan restaurant next door.
When we were all seated I took the initiative aimed at gagging them by telling them that I am a Tibetan living in Australia and that I had registered with Australian Government site informing of my travels and concerns should anything happen to me while in Tibet and China. Quickly I added that I wasn't happy at all with all this harassment of being interrogated. Through the interpreter lady the senior man announced, "We are here for your safety." Producing an ID badge he continued, "We are from the Foreign Relations Department."
I narrated to them my experiences of harassment at the airport at the entry, and how unlawful it is, and how I was turned back from Barkham checkpoint after a tiring bus journey over a day and night. I told them if they really were for my safety they should have been there at the airport and the checkpoint to help me. Surprisingly, they apologized for all that and even blamed the local police at the checkpoint. When I asked them how did they come to know of me, they said they were contacted by the department branch in Barkham and that they were from the Chengdu Headquarters of the Foreign Relations Department, covering entire Sichuan. Nonetheless, they still wanted to look at my passport. There followed a string of questions, literally dissecting my personal history, marital status, job, and so on. Four questions stood out - given the stress I was in I think I responded firmly: Chinese Officials:
Have you been to Lhasa?My response:
I haven't been to Lhasa. I am a Tibetan and I can't visit Tibet! Your government won't give this thing called "Tibet Permit." You two gentlemen and a lady, wherever your hometown is - Chengdu or Shanghai or Beijing - imagine you going away for a while abroad and then when you want to return home, the government says you can't come into your own country! This is what is happening to us.
(They apologized for this too! and said that in future if I were to visit Tibet they would be happy to help me! I should have seized the opportunity to ask them to help me visit Tibet and the capital Lhasa then, but such wit slip through when your thoughts are occupied more with getting out of the hassles at hand.) Chinese Officials:
You know there were troubles on 14 March in Lhasa. Who do you think were responsible? My response:
This is a very complex issue. I cannot say who was responsible, I wasn't in Lhasa. Say, if two cars collide there on the road, you cannot say who was responsible without knowing all the facts.
(Before I could elaborate more they hopped to the next question. Retrospectively speaking, I should have again seized on the opportunity to dispel all of their official accusations.) Chinese Officials:
You know China is becoming stronger day by day. This year Beijing Olympic Games will take place. What is your opinion? My response:
Just over a week back, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said in front of an audience of thousands of Australians that His Holiness supports the Beijing Olympics. Your government needs to know that His Holiness is a good person who professes and practises peace. When the earthquake happened here in Sichuan, Tibetans everywhere - in Australia, Canada, India, Nepal, USA, Europe - donated relief money and held prayer sessions.
(The senior official repeatedly uttered, "Thank you!." He added, "We are happy to know this.") Chinese Officials:
What do you think foreign people think of China?My response:
What I am going to say is nothing to do with Xizang (Tibet) and Zhunggo (China). People abroad think of China as a strict militarily controlled country with no freedoms.
(When the interpreter had conveyed what I had said, the senior official shook his head and remarked: "Terrible, terrible! When you go back to Australia please explain to the people there that this is not the case?" I pressed the point that if they really wanted people to have a good impression of China they should start by being honest and fair, treat decently the visitors, not harass them.)
Despite all their expressed gratitude, apologies and assurance of help and future welcome, when at the end it came to leaving their contact details I was given a hotmail address of the Interpreter! I was too worn out to bother confronting them on their officiality.
This was not the end of woes for a Tibetan traveler in China. Two days later when I was departing Chengdu, I noticed the Mani Pills officer whose duty that day was to direct people to the queues at the Immigration clearance. I smiled at him and said I was leaving. He did remember me and shook my hands.
My passport was stamped and I was through, if only for a few seconds, before a shout came from a side. Immediately I sensed it was for me. A PSB personnel in full uniform with a hat called me aside. This time I was indignant: I thought nowhere in world airports anyone gets stopped once stamped clear. Here in China it was happening! I shouted back at the officer why was I being held back when I had been already cleared by their own officer at the desk. I deliberately wanted all in the terminal to hear my protests. Embarrassed officials stole glances at me in-between checking passports at their counters. There was a Chinese traveler made to sit on one of the side chairs. I was asked to sit next to him but I refused to heed so. Taking the passport off my hand the officer gave a long look at it and started making calls on his mobile, while I kept shouting this was unlawful, discriminatory to the Tibetans, and that I had flight to catch. Out of embarrassment I was asked to come into a side room (staff retiring area) where a resting senior officer was disturbed out of his slumber. Again, I refused to sit and kept following the official who had my passport. It was at this time the Mani Pills officer came over to where I was standing. In a very pleasant manner he pleaded me to calm down! I told him that this was unfair and unlawful. Amazingly and yet tellingly he said, "I am not the boss today, what can I do?"
By now the officer holding my passport had lost his face to hand over the document to me; he gave it to the Pills officer to pass on to me! With my back to them I took one of the slowest steps of my life, symbolically telling them a Tibetan can walk undaunted with all pride and identity intact. When the plane lifted off it was as if a limitless sky of freedom had opened up, even in the confines of a cabin. I experienced what it is like to regain freedom!
I was left with a very bitter taste of China. Within an hour of landing in the free world I wrote a Letter of Complaint (appended below) and e-mailed that to the Chengdu Headquarters of Foreign Relations Department. Till date I have not received a response. (The Letter of Complaint)
Subject: Amy - for your Foreign Relations Department
This is Dhawa, the Tibetan-Australian whom your department guys had a 'talking' with at Wuwuci. I like you to pass on the following Letter of Complaint to your Department:
To the "Foreign Relations Department of China" Chengdu,
As you are aware, I came to see Tibet and China, purely as a tourist and a pilgrim. I had a valid Chinese Visa.
But I felt very offended and badly inconvenienced by the discrimination I received from your Immigration (PSB) staff at Chengdu airport on my arrival - they let everyone go through, including Westerners, but I alone was questioned aside and my bags were hand-searched by about eight Immigration staff! All because I had a Tibetan name! Is this the image of China you would like to show to the outside world?
When I made it through into China, I tried to visit Barkham (Maerkhang), but I was turned back to Chengdu, from the police checkpoint to Maerkhang! I had been on the bus for more than 19 hours with no dinner and breakfast, and that too on a very bad road, and they wanted me to go back to Chengdu!
Upon my arrival back in Chengdu, I was visited by people from your Department, whom I initially thought were from PSB, to hassle me, a mere tourist and a pilgrim. They told me that they were from "Foreign Relations Department's main office in Chengdu." My passport was looked at and every major aspect about my life - birthplace, parents, marital status, job, travel plans, and so on - was questioned! And all this only because they were doing it for my "safety" ("We are here for your safety"!). I was asked about my views on the recent protests in Lhasa and Tibet ("Who do you think is responsible for the recent troubles in Lhasa?"). I was asked about my views on the Olympics. At the same time they apologized for the hardship I experienced in being turned back from Maerkhang - they told me it was a mistake from the part of the local police at the checkpoint. At the same time I was told that I was welcome for visits into Lhasa (Tibet) and other parts of Tibet, such as Maerkhang.
Which part of your department's doublespeak I should believe in? If you are concerned about my safety and if you really want to welcome me into Tibet and China, why did you dig into every major aspect of my life? As I said at the time, in the free world people are not hassled and interrogated for being a mere tourist and a pilgrim. In an Olympic year when there should be more visitors welcomed and allowed to enjoy freely in the country, with no constant monitoring and hassles from the officials, China seems to be doing the opposite! As I said at my interrogation, His Holiness the Dalai Lama supports the Beijing Olympics - His Holiness has so recently said openly in a talk to many thousands of Australians that He supports the Beijing Olympics. As I said at the same interrogation, when the earthquake struck Sichuan, Tibetans abroad in Australia, Canada, the United states, and in many parts of world donated money and said prayers. Upon saying this, the interrogators said to me "We thank-you all for that."
As your department is a part of China, I hope China truly feels appreciative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s peaceful and honest approach, and understands the genuine sympathy and support Tibetans everywhere have shown to the Chinese people post-earthquake.
When coming down from Kangding to Chengdu, the police at the main Toll-gate into Chengdu stops every vehicle with Tibetan driver and/or Tibetan passengers, while letting through all other vehicles. The car I was in was also stopped and we were asked to get out and stand in the open, to be stared at by all the passing motorists. Is this the way your government makes the minorities feel happy? Is this the way you treat the Tibetans?
When I was leaving China, even after my passport had been stamped cleared at the Immigration counter (Chengdu airport), a senior Immigration (PSB) personnel shouted at me to come aside and took my passport and went from one cubicle side-office to another, trying to bring the matter of a Tibetan traveller to the notice of a farther higher levels of officials! I protested the discrimination and told them I was a legal traveller with valid visa. I said I didn't feel welcome and that this was going to leave on me a very bitter impression of China.
As you can see from all these details, I was mistreated throughout my time in China- at the entry, during the stay, and at the departure.
I write this to make it a formal Letter of Complaint to your Government, and with the understanding that your Government treats Tibetans fairly, leave all travellers hassle-free, and that through such approach a genuine happiness prevails throughout Tibet and China.