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(Source: New York Times)

Controlling Tibet with Lockdowns

There is a Tibetan proverb for when you make something worse in the process of making another thing better: “Cut from the head to patch the buttocks.”

It captures the terrible situation Chinese authorities has created in the name of combating COVID-19 in Tibet — particularly in its capital, Lhasa. Although Chinese media continue to present an image of triumph, the human picture from Tibet belies the reality of the state-crafted image.

Late last month, within three days, five Tibetans committed suicide in Lhasa as the psychological, emotional and financial impact of a long and repressive lockdown took a harsh toll on people. If information was freely available, the number could be more.

When COVID-19 spread in various parts of Tibet, the South China Morning Post shared a video of Chinese medical workers visiting a remote Tibetan village on horseback to control the pandemic. The clip shows a rosy, if not romantic, image of a responsible state with far-reaching services, suggesting that if herders in far-flung valleys, and high mountains with no roads connecting them, are cared for, then there should be nothing to be worried about in urban areas with modern facilities like Lhasa.

However, after a few weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, information leaking through the “Great Firewall” of China far from corroborated such a promising picture. It revealed a system that is at best incompetent and at worst, has exacerbated the problem.

The manner in which the Chinese authorities have responded to the pandemic in Tibet is callous — devoid of scientific and humane sensibility. Quarantining people who are infected and restricting public movement and gatherings to control a pandemic make scientific sense. However, it does not make sense to put the infected and uninfected together in crowded quarantine facilities or ferry them together in cramped vehicles. It is highly likely that more people got infected due to the shambolic testing and unscientific quarantine process.

It is not so much due to the severity and spread of the virus per se, but the manner in which the authorities continue to make the lockdowns extremely repressive. Despite an official apology from the Chinese authorities for mismanaging the pandemic in Lhasa, the reality on the ground remains dire.

In a rare display of public outcry, largely spurred by desperation, Tibetans complained about horrible conditions in quarantine centers, such as the lack of food and sanitation, and no medical attention for sick and old people.

However, the response from the party-state is to repress rather than redress: It uses aggressive censorship on social media and clamps down on Tibetans who talk about the hardships. The authorities punished more than 700 people for “creating and spreading rumors.”

The suppression of the public’s voice is a denial of their hardships, and a refusal to address them. Unlike cities in China, Beijing can ignore the suffering of local Tibetans due to their action or inaction.

The lockdowns are arbitrary and inhumane, and treat Tibetans as lab rats to be experimented on with the virus. After dealing with the pandemic for more than two years, it is expected that the way the authorities respond should fare better than at the beginning. Moreover, China, being the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and having acquired enough experience fighting it in many of its megacities, could have done far better than how it has botched up in Lhasa — a city with a fraction of Shanghai’s population.

It stems from how the system of governance in Tibet is oriented toward the goals of security and stability of Beijing’s rule. This is evident in how the controlling mechanisms of repressive lockdowns, suppression of people’s calls for help and other punitive measures against Tibetans are ready and swift, whereas services are far from ready or completely missing.

This indicates the indifference of Chinese authorities toward the well-being of Tibetans, as well as the inherent weakness of a system that is obsessed with its security. The pandemic exposed the huge distance between the ruler and the ruled — reflecting the fundamental nature of the political system in Tibet, and the reality of its colonization.

The way China has treated Tibet during the pandemic has made it clear that it sees Tibetans as second-class citizens, not only deserving less than Chinese, but also less than human beings. In Beijing’s eyes, the minority status is not merely about quantitative insignificance, but also a qualitative sub-standard — a belief and practice born out of the relationship between the dominated and dominator. This power dynamic harbors different attitudes and treatments for different people.

As a Tibetan, it pained me to see that Tibetans had to make a disclaimer — stating that they were not against the Chinese government when they tried to complain to authorities about the harsh conditions of quarantine facilities — which Chinese do not need to do. Decades of repression make them extremely apprehensive about whether their appeals or expressions of hardship would be misconstrued as a political crime in Beijing’s eyes. Although it is hardly surprising, their fears proved to be true, and those who raised their voices were punished.

Nevertheless, many Tibetans took extraordinary risks by voicing their concerns to get the Chinese authorities to show more empathy, and make life a little bit more bearable — yet this was only after 90 days of a harsh and persistent lockdown.

It is impossible not to wonder whether the unscientific and inhumane lockdown, and the arbitrary and indifferent manner in which the Chinese authorities treat Tibetans, are to control the pandemic or contain and break the spirit of a people under occupation.

However, one thing is clear: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) “zero COVID” policy is making a mockery of itself at the cost of human life and sanity.

– Sonam Palden


Palden Sonam is a Fellow at the Asia Freedom Institute. This opinion piece was published in Taipei Times on October 29, 2022. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and not of the Asia Freedom Institute.