Human rights activists had hoped that international attention on China during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing would lead to greater political and religious freedom. It didn’t, but it’s not too late to pressure China to adhere to its past commitments.
WASHINGTON, DC – In 2001, when Beijing was selected to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, expectations were high that China’s human-rights performance would improve in the international spotlight. Even Chinese officials predicted change; as Beijing’s mayor said at the time, hosting the games would “benefit the further development of our human-rights cause.”
But ten years later, China remains one of the world’s most illiberal countries. Ethnic minorities are targeted, the regime’s critics are imprisoned, and promises of reform have been virtually meaningless. As a Tibetan political dissident, I am living proof of this reality.
In December 2017, I arrived in the United States after being held in Chinese prisons for more than six years. I endured beatings and torture for the “crime” of asking Tibetans what they thought about China’s leadership.
As a boy, I was only dimly aware of China’s repression in Tibet. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when I first visited the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, that I understood what it meant to be a target of China’s occupation. In 1992, when I was 18, I watched as monks from Lhasa’s Ganden Monastery were dragged off to prison for demanding religious and political freedom. Many spent years in jail for daring to speak out against China, and as I grew older, I vowed to speak out, too.
My first stint in a Chinese prison was tied to work I began in the early 2000s printing and distributing Tibetan-language books. I considered these texts to be important readings on Tibetan politics, culture, and religion. Chinese authorities, however, viewed them as a challenge to their rule, and they punished me accordingly.
As the 2008 Olympics approached, I began looking for new ways to record my people’s history. This was when friends and I began planning a documentary film – eventually called Leaving Fear Behind – about Tibetans’ aspirations.
In the winter of 2007, we left our fear behind and traveled throughout Tibet, cameras in hand. To gain our subjects’ trust, we shared DVDs of the Dalai Lama being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in October 2007. In interview after interview, Tibetans expressed their desire to see the Dalai Lama return to Tibet, and shared their frustrations that the lead-up to the Olympics had not brought more freedom.
On March 26, 2008, my work caught up with me when I was arrested by China’s secret police. Once in custody, the torture began immediately. For days, I was forced to sit in the “tiger chair,” a restraining device used to immobilize prisoners during long hours of questioning. During these sessions, I was told that I would be released if I admitted that my film project was illegal. But I refused, firm in my belief that I had done nothing wrong.
Eventually, I received a six-year prison sentence for “subversion of state power.” During the course of my incarceration, I was moved often and forced to carry out manual labor for hours with no breaks. At one prison in Xining, my health deteriorated after I became infected with hepatitis B. But it wasn’t until I was released, in June 2014, that I was able to receive treatment.
Even without bars around me, I remained caged. I was kept under house arrest, and my communications were closely monitored. All I wanted to do was study, improve my Tibetan language skills, and find a job. But in much of Tibet, even simple dreams have become impossible for Tibetans; for many, the only option is to flee.
My long, risky, and costly journey to freedom ended on Christmas Day last year, when I arrived in San Francisco and was reunited with my family (they left China years ago for their own safety). For various reasons, I must keep the details of my escape private, but it is no secret that many around the world aided me. Leaders in the US, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands frequently called on China to release me, and I am convinced that this pressure is why I received fewer beatings and slightly better treatment than my cellmates.
Unfortunately, many other Tibetans remain locked up for their beliefs. They need support, too. As I told US lawmakers during congressional testimony in February, Western governments have long supported the people of Tibet. But, as China has grown more economically and politically powerful, that support has waned.
Tibetans are not bargaining chips to appease an ascendant China; although the Chinese authorities bristle when democratic governments support us, our aspirations must not be traded away for political expedience. One way President Donald Trump’s administration could recommit to US support would be by appointing a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, a State Department post mandated by the Tibet Policy Act of 2002 that has been vacant since Trump took office. Congress should also pass the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act – a legislative solution to promoting positive change in Tibet – and demand the release of all Tibetan political prisoners.
Nearly a decade has passed since the curtain fell on the 2008 Olympics. But while the Chinese government doesn’t talk much about human rights anymore, the international community must never stop. I can assure you that Tibetans inside Tibet have not given up their struggle – even if fewer people are listening.
Dhondup Wangchen is a Tibetan documentary filmmaker and political activist.
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