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Tibetan Businessman Battles Separatism Charges in Chinese Court

Posted January 4, 2018 9:49 a.m. EST

YUSHU, China — A Tibetan businessman who tried to protect his native language, and spoke to The New York Times about his efforts, defended himself in a Chinese court Thursday against criminal charge that his one-man campaign had fanned resistance to Chinese rule.

The one-day trial of the businessman, Tashi Wangchuk, 32, was held in his hometown Yushu, a heavily Tibetan area in the northwestern Chinese province of Qinghai, two years after he was detained by police.

Tashi was charged with inciting separatism, which can bring up to 15 years in prison, after appearing in a news report and a video documentary by The Times in 2015. His defense lawyers said the prosecution’s case rested largely on the video, which was shown during the trial.

The trial lasted just a few hours, and the presiding judge told the courtroom that a verdict would be announced at a later, unspecified, date. China’s Communist Party-run courts rarely find defendants not guilty, especially in politically contentious cases.

His lawyers said that Tashi, speaking in Chinese, used the hearing to reject the idea that his efforts to revive Tibetan language and culture were a crime. Tashi has insisted that he does not advocate independence for Tibet, but wants the autonomy and rights for ethnic minorities that are promised by Chinese law.

“Tashi argued that his idea was to use litigation to force local governments to stop ignoring Tibetan language education, and he was exercising his right as a citizen to criticize,” Liang Xiaojun, one of Tashi’s two defense attorneys, said outside the courthouse after the trial.

“He said that he wasn’t trying to split the country,” Liang added, “but exercising his rights as a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, which includes Tibetan citizens.”

Court officials refused to allow a Times reporter into the trial, despite several requests. The trial received international attention, with diplomats from the United States, Germany, Britain, Canada and the European Union also showing up in unsuccessful efforts to attend the hearing.

“This action by the Chinese government sends a chilling message meant to silence its critics,” Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The New York Times, said by email.

Before the trial, a dozen or so of Tashi’s relatives gathered outside the courthouse. They had been told that 15 of them could attend his trial, but in the end only three were let in.

“The main thing they said against him was the video,” his brother-in-law, Sonam Tsering, said after the trial, referring to The Times’ documentary about Tashi. “They said that issuing those comments abroad was the biggest problem, that it insulted China.”

Tashi’s long captivity has been condemned by human rights organizations, exiled Tibetan groups and foreign governments, including the previous U.S. ambassador to Beijing. His case has also renewed focus on his warnings that the Tibetan language and culture are threatened by Chinese government policies to restrict education in the language and its use, even in Yushu, a remote town 12,000 feet above sea level on the highlands of western China.

The western part of Qinghai and other heavily Tibetan areas in nearby provinces form a rim around the Tibet Autonomous Region, the heartland of historic Tibet. Critics warn that the Chinese government is stifling local culture across these areas by making Mandarin Chinese the dominant, or sole, language used in education, official business and the media.

Since protests and riots against the Chinese government across Tibetan areas in 2008, Beijing has imposed smothering security, placing a heavy hand on Tibetan religious and cultural life.

The pressures have magnified under President Xi Jinping, whose policies toward ethnic minorities reflect a belief that they can be pulled out of poverty and made loyal to Beijing by encouraging their assimilation into Chinese society, including education in Mandarin Chinese. But Tashi, a merchant who studied for three years in a Buddhist monastery, taught himself to write Tibetan with the help of a brother, and joined a ferment of Tibetan teachers, monks, singers, artists and businesspeople who have fought to defend the language and culture.

“There’s quite a lot of activity to protect and promote the Tibetan language,” said Gerald Roche, an anthropologist at the University of Melbourne in Australia who studies cultural and linguistic diversity in Tibetan regions of China. “It’s hard to get a real grasp of exactly what’s going on because a lot of it is below the radar.”

Tashi made a living selling Tibetan products online, including caterpillar fungus, an herbal remedy from the highlands that many Chinese believe has medicinal powers. But he also began his one-man campaign to advocate the protection of his own culture.

“In politics, it’s said that if one nation wants to eliminate another nation, first they need to eliminate their spoken and written language,” he said in the nine-minute video documentary for The Times. “In effect, there is a systematic slaughter of our culture.”

The documentary showed Tashi visiting Beijing, where he tried in vain to win support from courts, lawyers and China’s main television network, CCTV.

Two months after the documentary and accompanying article appeared, Tashi disappeared. His family learned after nearly two more months that he had been detained.

On Thursday, few supporters appeared outside the court apart from Tashi’s relatives. When asked, some residents nearby, especially Buddhist monks, said they had heard about his case. But most said they had not. Still, tensions over the future of Tibetan culture were visible in Yushu, which in Tibetan is called Gyegu.

The day before Tashi’s trial, the town bustled with ethnic Tibetans, most of them speaking in their own language: Buddhist monks played on smartphones; wizened herders haggled in a crowded market; young people strolled around in tracksuits despite the biting cold.

Some residents said they worried about the declining ability of young people to read and write Tibetan; others said their children needed to grow up knowing both Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese.

“We have to study Chinese and Tibetan, both are important,” said Tsering Dorje, a garment trader, who added that his three children were learning both languages. “The problem now is that the main exams are all in Chinese, and Tibetan isn’t so important, so of course families focus on Chinese.”