World News

China to Try Tibetan Education Advocate Detained for 2 Years

Posted December 30, 2017 2:30 p.m. EST

Chinese officials are planning to put Tashi Wangchuk, who advocates broader Tibetan language education, on trial next week for “inciting separatism,” a charge that could result in a sentence of up to 15 years in prison, according to his lawyers.

Tashi, 32, has been detained for nearly two years in and around the town of Yushu, on the Tibetan plateau in the far west of China. He is among the most prominent political prisoners in China. Police took him from his home in January 2016, two months after he appeared in a New York Times video and article about Tibetan language education. Tashi had also written blog posts on the subject.

International human rights supporters and Tibet advocacy groups denounced the upcoming trial after Liang Xiaojun, one of Tashi’s lawyers, wrote online this week that officials at the Yushu Intermediate Court in Qinghai province had scheduled Tashi to appear in court Thursday. One rights advocate, Michael Caster, said on Twitter that the case was “a travesty.”

Communist Party officials generally decide the outcome of political trials in China; the accused is almost always convicted and sentenced to prison.

Because of the prominence of Tashi’s case, any sentencing would lead to further international condemnation of China’s record of rights abuses. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, PEN America and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing have all publicly criticized the Chinese government over the case.

In December 2016, the U.S. ambassador to China at the time, Max Baucus, released a long statement on political prisoners that noted Tashi was “in jail for his peaceful advocacy of Tibetan language education.” Human Rights Watch called on China to drop the charge against Tashi.

Ethnic minority issues are among the most sensitive in China. Police in Yushu were especially angry at Tashi over his interviews for the Times video on the Tibetan language, Liang said in an earlier interview. Yet Tashi told Times journalists that he did not support Tibetan independence or separatism and was instead merely pushing for the Tibetan language to be properly taught in local schools, which prioritize Chinese language education, and for Tibetan to be used in government offices.

Tashi had insisted on doing on-the-record interviews, saying that only those would be meaningful for viewers and readers. The Times video, produced by Jonah M. Kessel, showed Tashi traveling to Beijing to try to bring a lawsuit against Yushu officials to compel them to expand Tibetan language education. The video also showed Tashi trying to get Chinese state news organizations to report on his mission.

Tashi’s plight has become a rallying point for Tibetans abroad. In July, Tibet advocates outside Tibet and China gave Tashi the Tenzin Delek Rinpoche Medal of Courage, an award whose judging panel also included representatives of Human Rights Watch and the British branch of Amnesty International. The award was “in recognition of his courage and dedication to promoting Tibetan human rights and justice for the Tibetan people,” the judges said in a statement.

Tashi’s case has taken unexpected turns. In March 2016, police officials said in a document that they were investigating Tashi for inciting separatism. After getting material from police, prosecutors then handed the case to the court to seek a formal indictment and trial against Tashi. But then they asked the court to give the case back to them for further investigation. Lin Qilei, one of Tashi’s lawyers, said at the time that this was “very rare.”

One year later, the court appears ready to hold the trial. Lin said that he planned to fly to Yushu on Tuesday.

Tashi ran a shop in central Yushu, called Gyegu in Tibetan, and sold goods from the region to buyers across China on Taobao, an online platform run by Alibaba, the e-commerce giant. In 2014, Alibaba chose Tashi to be featured in a video for the company’s investor roadshow before an initial public offering.

Many Tibetans resent rule by the Communist Party. In 2008, Chinese security forces suppressed a widespread Tibetan uprising. Since 2009, at least 160 Tibetans have self-immolated in what appear to be acts of protest against the party.