Tashi Wangchuk, a 31-year-old activist who sought to expose the systematic suppression and subversion of Tibetan culture and language by the Chinese Communist Party, was finally sent to trial yesterday after two years of detention. The charge was “inciting separatism.” The outcry against this unjust trial has been vigorous and resounding—human rights organizations, democracy activists, governments, and media outlets around the world are all saying the same thing: “Free Tashi!”
Despite a four-hour long trial, Tashi’s lawyer Liang Xiaojun reported that the court’s promised its verdict “would be handed down at a later date.” This could mean weeks, months, or years more indefinite detention for Tashi—on top of the two years he has already spent locked up after his initial arrest in January 2016. If the court does hand down a conviction, he could face more than a decade in prison.
Tashi, a shopkeeper by trade, gained international attention when he starred in a 2015 New York Times mini-documentary entitled “A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice.” The film follows Tashi as he travels to Beijing to plead his case for the preservation of Tibetan culture through the prescribed legal framework of China.
“In our Tibetan region, from primary and middle schools to high school, there’s only one Tibetan language course among many courses,” says Tashi in the video.
Every outlet to which Tashi appeals as a Chinese citizen—from state-run media, to regime-sanctioned lawyers, and finally to the law courts themselves—turns a deaf ear.
“So many people have self-immolated. I can understand them now, because we have very few ways to solve problems. No one wants to live in an environment that’s full of pressure and fear. In effect, there’s a systematic slaughter of our culture,” he mourns.
Despite grounding his case in the constitution of the People’s Republic of China, which in Article 33 clearly states that “all citizens of the People’s Republic of China are equal before the law” and “the State respects and preserves human rights,” Tashi’s efforts were fruitless, demonstrating that there is no real equality for ethnic minorities or cultural activists under the totalitarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
One month after the video was released online, Tashi was detained by Chinese state security and he has been a prisoner of conscience ever since.
“Tashi’s case illustrates how hollow communist regimes’ promises of ‘equality’ really are,” said VOC Executive Director Marion Smith. “Despite working peacefully within the prescribed legal framework of China’s system to redress his grievances about the Chinese attack on Tibetan culture, he will soon be tried for a crime he did not commit.”
Despite taking pains to follow the official and legal procedures to prevent the state-sponsored subversion and marginalization of Tibetan culture, he was still charged under Article 103 of China’s Criminal Code: “Whoever organizes, plots, or acts to split the country or undermine national unification, the ringleader, or the one whose crime is grave, is to be sentenced to life imprisonment or not less than ten years of fixed-term imprisonment; other active participants are to be sentenced to not less than three but not more than 10 years of fixed-term imprisonment.”
Tashi Wangchuk is not the first peaceful activist to be unfairly charged or imprisoned under this law. Historically, it has been used as a cudgel with which to bash ethnic minorities in China who advocate for greater regional autonomy.
Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist and researcher, was charged with inciting separatism in 2014. He is now serving life in prison.
Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan filmmaker who recently arrived in the United States and reunited with his family, was charged with inciting separatism in 2008. He served six years in prison.
Druklo, a Tibetan author and intellectual who wrote under the pen name Shokjang, was charged with inciting separatism in 2016. He is currently serving three years in prison.
Jigme Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who was serving a fifteen-year prison sentence for being a “counterrevolutionary ringleader,” had an extra three years added to his sentence after he “incited separatism” while in prison—supposedly, he yelled “Long live the Dalai Lama!” through his cell window. He was finally released in 2013.
Nurmemet Yasin, a Uyghur novelist, was charged with inciting separatism in 2005 after publishing an animal fable called “The Blue Pigeon.” He was sentenced to ten years in prison. He reportedly died while incarcerated in 2011; news of his demise only filtered out two years later, and the Chinese government still has not commented publicly on Yasin’s fate.
“The blatant persecution of Tibetan civil society activists, ‘barefoot lawyers,’ and religious figures is nothing new under the communist Chinese occupation,” added Smith. “The CCP has long been carrying out a deliberate policy of cultural genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang. This brave young man should not become that policy’s latest victim.”
“If this comes to an end and I’m locked up and cannot proceed with what I’m doing,” Tashi says gravely as the Times video closes, “and they force me to say or do things I don’t want to say, I will choose suicide.”