Update 5/22: A Chinese court has sentenced Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk to five years in prison. Because he has already spent two years in custody, he is set to be released in January 2021. Wangchuk intends to seek an appeal, his lawyers told the New York Times. “Tashi Wangchuk’s sentence is a complete outrage and his trial a travesty of justice,” Tenzin Jigdal of the International Tibet Network said in a statement. “He has been criminalized for shedding light on China’s failure to protect the basic human right to education and for taking entirely lawful steps to press for Tibetan language education. We urge governments to make strong, urgent representations to China, calling for Tashi Wangchuk’s immediate and unconditional release.”
Concerned members of the Tibetan diaspora and human rights organizations are calling for the release of Tashi Wangchuk, a 33-year-old Tibetan language education advocate who was arrested after calling for the Chinese government to honor its own laws allowing bilingual education for minorities. Wangchuk, who is accused of “inciting separatism,” went on trial in January and could face up to 15 years in prison.
Previous to his arrest, Wangchuk, a Tibetan herder turned shopkeeper, lived a quiet life in Yushu city in Qinghai Province (formerly Amdo, northeast of what is now the Tibetan Autonomous Region) with his elderly parents, and ran a blog that chronicled the difficulties of teaching Tibetan. That all changed when he was featured in a 2015 New York Times story about what was happening in Qinghai.
“When he was prominently featured in the New York Times—that was a bridge too far,” Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch, told Tricycle. Now the Chinese government appears to be committed to punishing Wangchuk for becoming a global symbol of Tibetan cultural rights.
Wangchuk was detained in 2016 and was tried in January 2018. No verdict has yet been announced.
“Wangchuk faces 15 years in jail for asking for the laws to be upheld,” Richardson said. “Chinese laws allow for the type of language education he was wanting to protect. If that counts as inciting separatism, I don’t know what doesn’t. It shows just how neurotic Chinese authorities are about Tibetans advocating for anything.”
China has restricted the teaching of languages spoken by ethnic minorities in its vast western regions in recent years and has instead been promoting instruction in Chinese to encourage the assimilation of Tibetans and other minorities into the Han culture of the Chinese majority.
The issue came to Wangchuk’s attention when he began looking for a school for his two nieces and couldn’t find one that taught Tibetan, even though nearly everyone living in his town is Tibetan. Officials had ordered schools in the area not to teach the language to laypeople, and public schools had dropped bilingual education and reduced or eliminated specialized classes in Tibetan.
“This directly harms the culture of Tibetans,” Wangchuk told the Times in 2015. “Our people’s culture is fading and being wiped out.”
A group of two or three dozen demonstrators, mostly Tibetan, gathered on April 13 in New York City to protest Wangchuk’s arrest the day before his 100th day of detention. The rally took place across the street from the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations and was organized by Students for a Free Tibet, the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of New York and New Jersey, and the United States Tibet Committee. That night activists also projected messages about freeing Tashi Wangchuk onto the side of the Chinese Consulate in Manhattan.
“We are here to tell China it is not right to hold a person without trial as Tashi Wangchuk was held for two years,” said Dechen Dorjee of the Tibetan Youth Congress of New York and New Jersey. “He must be released immediately. He has been labeled a ‘separatist,’ but that is an inaccurate political label that should be removed. Tashi Wangchuk has explicitly stated that he is not in favor of Tibet separating from China; he simply advocated for human rights, for the right to learn Tibetan in Tibet.”
What effect Wangchuk’s arrest will have on activities promoting Tibetan culture in China is unknown. “That’s a huge unanswered question,” says Richardson of Human Rights Watch.
Tricycle’s attempts to talk to monks working inside China, or with connections to monks and teachers working in China, were met with silence. “The monks are interested in spreading buddhadharma,” said a source close to high ranking Tibetan monastics working in China. “They are not interested in politics. They are interested in harmony.”
Richardson says the authorities have their eyes on the city of Yushu. “There has been mass involuntary re-housing and relocating of Tibetans in the area, and there’s been some protest. Yushu is definitely on the authorities’ radar.”
Richardson thinks that China is disregarding the negative international press because they are more concerned with sending a message to locals by punishing Wangchuk, with authorities aiming both to strike fear into Tibetans and to cater to members of the dominant Han culture who may applaud disempowering minorities. “There is not a tremendous amount of sympathy for ethnic minorities,” says Richardson, “because the perception is that in some ways they have received advantages, like greater freedom regarding family size.
“Han shopkeepers were killed when a building was set on fire during the 2008 protests, and this triggered a wave of public commentary about ‘ungrateful minorities,’ which revealed resentments simmering below the surface,” Richardson said. The 2008 Lhasa protests were an uprising in which Tibetans rioted and flew the Tibetan flag, prompting a harsh crackdown from the government in which many Tibetans—possibly dozens—were killed. Although in recent years things have generally been quieter, 140 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest their situation under Chinese rule since 2009, with the youngest being just 15 years old.
The likelihood of China making an example out of Wangchuk seems high, and the 99% conviction rate in Chinese courts does not bode well for his future.
“China is showing a blatant disregard for human rights,” Urgyen Badheytsang, Campaign Director of Students for a Free Tibet, told Tricycle at the protest on April 13. “Tashi Wangchuk is innocent and should not be detained. We have heard reports that he has suffered from torture while detained—Tibetan jails are amongst the worst in the world. The trial took place in secrecy. We need all the support we can get from world leaders and the public.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.