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30september20095In this second installment, Wen, a Taiwanese-American traveller, reaches Karze County, eastern Tibet, having completed her research in Lithang County. She faces arrest and questioning for photographing a military base, and the Chinese authorities scrutinise her belongings, including her camera, for incriminating evidence.

As my minibus arrived in Karze county (the Chinese call it Ganzi), my eyes widened in alarm. Foreigners weren’t permitted to travel to this region of Kham (present-day Western Sichuan) for good reason - since the major protests in the spring, it had become the epitome of an occupied area.

About every half-block, a squad of ten to fifteen People’s Armed Police held rifles and shields. Dressed in fatigues, they sat in rows in front of convenience stores and stood at street corners, inside metal lookout posts with cut-out windows. They camped under blue tarps in the middle of the sidewalk, and marched through the city, looking for signs of trouble. It was like a war zone.

The minibus driver had taken back roads to avoid the checkpoints, and I had just read an article about a Tibetan girl who was shot dead in the vegetable market here during one of the protests.

Fear permeated the air. I could feel prying eyes everywhere I walked. Was it really 2008? I kept thinking. Bright red government-issued banners bearing patriotic slogans hung in place of billboards everywhere. It reminded me of the Cultural Revolution. Only one ideology was acceptable: the governments.

Soon after my arrival, I checked my Gmail and found a strange message, in broken English, warning me my account had been suspended due to ‘unusual activities’. Knowing that Karze was the focus of a recent government crackdown against ‘splittists’, I was becoming genuinely afraid. What did the Chinese Government know about me? Did they know I had helped start a group in Dharamsala that raised over 6,000 ‘illegal’ flags of the Snow Lion? Did they know I was collecting information for the Tibetan Government in exile? Was I being followed, as the US Embassy had suggested?

The possibility of being arrested for inciting subversion grew in my mind. I wished I had travelled on my American passport - in which case the worst they could do was deport me. I wished I had known travelling on my Taiwanese documents deprived me of amnesty as an American.

When I returned to my hotel, a Tibetan was watching a government-staged protest on TV. The narrator praised the People’s Armed Police for showing restraint against a group of Tibetan protesters, who were shouting Independence for Tibet! in Chinese. The protesters hurled themselves on to police shields and eventually gave up. The propaganda machine never ceases to amaze me. The Tibetan told me the government had filmed the report the day before, a few kilometers away, and was airing it on the local network. The ‘protesters’ were actually police.

I went to my room and started filming the TV show on my camcorder. Soon after, two policemen pounded on my door. I said I was changing and tried not to shake as I put away my tripod. They looked around and asked what I was doing in Karze. One officer studied my documents and threatened me to be careful what I did in town - that if I did anything suspicious there would be ‘consequences’.

After the officers left, my heart was pounding and I couldn’t calm down, even after two cigarettes. I rarely let fear stop curtail my actions, but I began to seriously consider aborting my mission and returning to India. After much deliberation, I bought a bus ticket for the 600km journey back to Chengdu, due to leave early the next morning.

I had witnessed the suffocation of occupation and the torture of cultural genocide. It left me in rough mental shape. I felt more ashamed than ever to be Chinese. I wanted to leave, but I felt defeated because I had let fear win.

24september20093The next day, I decided to calm my nerves by going up the hill to Karze Monastery. It was a steep climb to the roof, with its incredible view of the town surrounded by snow-capped mountains. I took many photos of the landscape, and a few zoomed-in shots of the military base. I was playing with fire.

I noticed someone holding his cell phone up in the air, pointing it in my direction, but didn’t realise he was a plain-clothes policeman, who had been following me. In the serene atmosphere and, muddled from having barely eaten, I didn’t comprehend what I was getting myself into.

After a long rest, I began walking back down to the town. Suddenly, the policeman who had cautioned me the night before told me to come with him. He was dressed in civilian clothes. My fears became reality – I was being arrested.

I was told to sit and wait in the policeman’s office. More plain-clothes police arrived and two of them started filming me. I asked what was going on but no one would answer. They just told me to ‘wait and see’. Before long, I was escorted by four plain-clothes police to my hotel room where, again, they told me to sit and wait until more police came. I said I was an American citizen and had the right to call the US Embassy, but my demands fell on deaf ears.

After about half an hour, there were more than ten police in my room. They closed the door, started filming and began searching through my things. I thought how stupid I had been to take photos of the military base, and remembered the photos I had secretly taken of the People’s Armed Police in Lithang. And I was so close to leaving! They soon found the photos and I knew I was beyond screwed.

My demand to call the US Embassy became a plea and it began to annoy them. They told me what I already knew - that I was a Chinese citizen travelling on Chinese documents in China and therefore I would be prosecuted according to Chinese law. Shit, shit, shit! I thought. I’m done for! Three Taiwanese Americans have been imprisoned in China in the last two years. And I’m going be the fourth!

They began questioning me and compiled an official document for my case. I was charged with illegally possessing state secrets, because of the photographs. I signed their papers and gave my fingerprints. Then they told me to pack my things and said I’d be escorted to Kangding (the Chinese name for Dhartsedho county, Eastern Tibet) for ‘further investigation’. Kanding was their provincial headquarters, 300km away.

I kept asking questions but they didn’t respond. So I tried to engage them in eye contact, hoping they’d respond to me out of sympathy. I wanted to elicit at least some human response. But they just said they didn’t have the power to assess my case - that I had to go to Kangding where they could determine whether I was guilty.

The questioning was sprinkled with patriotic party slogans, such as now is the time when our glorious government needs our unyielding support. This disgusted me. The officers sounded like over-passionate, brainwashed children. I asked if I’d be imprisoned and they said if my background checked out clean, and they could see I had no ulterior motives, I’d be released. I remembered a documentary I’d recently seen, in which one of China’s top lawyers said he’d lost 99% of his cases defending ‘political crimes’. Fuck! I thought. It won’t take long to find out about my involvement in Dharamsala.

My laptop was in storage in Chengdu and I hadn’t brought anything illegal with me, but I had made the grand mistake of bringing my 80GB external hard drive. I kept thinking about what was on it - photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and me waving Tibetan flags, speaking on a microphone in front of a giant Tibetan flag, distributing Tibetan flags. And there was my name on press releases and flyers for the Raise Tibetan Flags Campaign (RTFC), naming me as co-founder. Plus the entire RTFC website, and an application to the International Tibet Support Network, with me as the main contact. I began to feel desperately hopeless.

Before we departed for the 12-hour drive to Kangding, we stopped for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Another car-full of plain-clothes police joined us for a big meal around the lazy Susan. Their stern demeanor lifted into a jolly mood. As they ate, they told me to try this eggplant dish and that pork soup. What the fuck? I thought. Seriously, what the fuck is going on? Haven’t I been arrested? Didn’t the police woman sitting next to me just follow me to the toilet and watch me pee? Didn’t they just confiscate my cell phone and refuse to let me call anyone?

Even stranger was hearing them speak Tibetan. I had never met a pro-Chinese Tibetan, and now I was at a table-full. My long face was making some of them uncomfortable, and one of the officers reassured me everything would be okay, as if appeasing a pouting child. They told me about the great things they were doing for this ‘backward’ region - the new hospitals, schools and roads. They praised themselves for their achievements, these Tibetans who could also speak perfect Chinese.

I sat in silence. My fate will be determined tomorrow, I kept thinking - on August 1st 2008. Was that a coincidence? The previous year, in hospital on the same day, I had experienced the worst physical pain of my life. The doctor had had to insert a catheter because I couldn’t even move my head. Tomorrow, would it be mental pain I’d experience, in jail? I’m not a superstitious person, but I couldn’t help but wonder about this bizarre twist of fate.


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