Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Steve Shaw reports on the killing of a teenager in Tibet, which has sparked fresh calls for Western governments to review their relationship with China

“Beyond treatment” was how doctors summarised their examination of severe injuries inflicted on the comatose 19-year-old, Tenzin Nyima.

The young monk’s family had been desperately scrambling to raise money for the medical expenses which they hoped would keep him alive. But, three months after he was released from prison, he was dead; the latest victim of China’s brutal occupation of Tibet.

The death of the monk on 19 January betrays the reality of the so-called positive changes that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) says it has made since its occupation of the Himalayan nation began in 1950. In particular, the party claims that its poverty alleviation programme has improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans.

At the end of 2020, as Tenzin was being tortured in prison, Beijing was declaring a “major victory” after lifting 628,000 people out of poverty and removing 74 county-level areas from its poverty list. But this was achieved by forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of Tibetan nomads and, in many cases, pushing them into labour jobs in mainland China such as mining, road construction and driving. 

John Jones, of the British-based organisation Free Tibet, told Byline Times that the policy carries “deeply unpleasant assumptions about Tibetans’ way of life”, such as that it is “poor, regressive and incompatible with the CCP’s vision of development”.

However, Pu Zhengxue, an official from Tibet’s office of poverty alleviation and development, has said that the most important aspect of the programme is that it spreads “the warmth of the central Government to all ethnic groups in this region and pulls close the public with the party and officials”. 

It was in November 2019 when Tenzin, along with four other monks, staged a peaceful protest aimed at coinciding with a visit from Chinese officials. CCP members were touring Tibet’s eastern region of Kham as locals were facing increased pressure to publicly praise the poverty alleviation policy. Their ‘positive’ reactions were filmed so that they could be shared with state news outlets as propaganda.

After catching the attention of security forces, the four monks were placed under arrest and, while Tenzin was released in May 2020, he was arrested a second time in August for speaking about it.

Details later uncovered by Free Tibet show that the next time Tenzin’s family heard news of his detention was in October when Chinese police officials told them that he was now in a coma. His injuries were believed to be the result of torture.

“It certainly won’t have been the first time that a Tibetan prisoner was subjected to life-threatening treatment in police detention,” Jones said. “There has been similarly brutal treatment of other political detainees, whether it is torture, beatings or denying Tibetans medical treatment even when it is known to prison staff that they have a condition. This has led to a handful of other cases of Tibetans dying shortly following their release.

“There remains no recorded instance of a Chinese official being held to account for the torture or ill-treatment of a Tibetan prisoner. There will certainly be no appetite on the side of the Chinese state for accountability, rather the hope that the anger will die down and life will go on. Whether or not Tenzin Nyima’s community allow this to happen is another matter.”

In November and December 2020, the other protestors were tried behind closed doors, including one aged just 16, who was 15 at the time of the protest. He has been sentenced to one year in prison for inciting separatism. Campaigners fear that the lives of those monks could also be in danger.

The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), which has played a key role in helping shape US-Tibet policy, said that the death was “part of a pattern of torture and mistreatment in Tibet”, which in 2020 saw the death of two others, including a 36-year-old mother of three.

In 2015, the group also documented the cases of 29 Tibetans who suffered torture and mistreatment while in custody, many of whom died as a result. As in the case of Tenzin, the authorities released the severely tortured detainees who then passed away days or weeks later.

“In the name of alleviating poverty, the Chinese Government has forced the settled Tibetan nomads to act as props for its propaganda,” the ICT’s interim president, Bhuchung K. Tsering, told Byline Times. “These nomads have been forced to display images of CCP leaders and Chinese flags. If they don’t, they can lose their Government benefits, which are already insufficient for their living costs. Even worse, Tibetans have been forced to remove images of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, with police raiding homes to make sure they have no photos of the Tibetan Buddhist leader.

“Under these unbearable conditions, it’s no surprise that Tibetans have turned to peaceful protest to resist China’s oppression and to try to maintain their traditional way of life.”


The Darkness Deepens

Conservative MP Tim Loughton, who chairs the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet, told Byline Times that Tenzin Nyima’s death is another example of why Western governments must take a harder look at their relationships with Beijing.

“This is an appalling and brutal attack on a young Tibetan monk whose only ‘crime’ was to protest peacefully, for which he has tragically paid with his life,” he said. “Alas it is just the latest in a systematic abuse on basic human rights by the Chinese authorities for whom life is cheap if you do not kowtow to their totalitarian and murderous regime. It is incredible that he suffered such horrific injuries whilst in the custody of the Chinese police and he was effectively released only when they had all but beaten the life out of him.

“Freedom and peace-loving governments in the West must not let such flagrant torture of innocent people go unchecked. If they are not prepared to allow independent human rights monitors into Tibet then there needs to be consequences and that starts with boycotting Chinese goods and preventing Chinese officials being able to access our borders.”

Just days before Tenzin died, the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission published a report, ‘The Darkness Deepens’, which concluded that the UK Government’s existing approach to China has not worked. The “time has come for the United Kingdom to stand up for our values, defend our interests and re-think our relationship with the CCP,” it said.

The report is a catalogue of abuses that demonstrate a major plunge in human rights standards under CCP rule. In Tibet specifically, the report found that “repression has continued and intensified over the past four years” and that this has resulted in “further arrests of Tibetan activists, monks and nuns”, as well as severe restrictions on “freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief and other human rights”.

The Tibet Post, based in India, told the Commission that “between May 2016 and May 2020 roughly over 1,133 Tibetans have been either arrested, arbitrarily detained, imprisoned or tortured to death in custody”. Those who have attempted to protest have been “beaten, arrested and detained”, Free Tibet added.

The Commission said that the increased attention on atrocities against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong has meant that Tibet could be “forgotten”. It is calling for “a co-ordinated, comprehensive review of UK-China policy, across all relevant Government departments”, along with “targeted sanctions against officials and entities in the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments responsible for serious violations of human rights”. 

Byline Times recently reported that the UK’s Magnitsky-style sanctions programme failed to include Chen Quanguo, the former CCP secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region and a senior official in Xinjiang. Chen is widely regarded as the architect of some of China’s most repressive policies.


Global Britain

It remains unclear whether the Government will take any notice of the recommendations made by Commission, given that the UK is now pushing ahead with post-Brexit trade deals around the world.

On 19 January, the Government narrowly defeated an amendment that would have required it to reconsider any trade deal with a country found by the High Court to be committing genocide.

China was highlighted as a specific concern in the debate, but Conservative MPs said that they had not voted for Brexit just to hand more power to British courts. Trade minister Greg Hands voted against the amendment, but stressed that the Government had no plans to sign a free trade deal with China.

On the same day, outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo branded China’s actions against the Uyghurs as “genocide” and urged the international community to join the US in holding those responsible to account.

The ICT told Byline Times that without “external pressure” it is unlikely that China will ever be held to account. The group is currently urging the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to support recommendations made by UN experts who have called for a collective effort by the international community to pressure China to respect human rights.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently warned that attempts to start a “new Cold War” would create further division in the world. He insisted that all nations should be coming together to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and that confrontation “will always end up harming every nation’s interests and sacrificing people’s welfare”.

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