More than 100 Tibetans were arrested in China for contacting Tibetans abroad or saving images of Dalai Lama

Overseas Tibetan groups revealed that more than 100 Tibetans have been arrested by police in China’s Sichuan province in recent days after they were suspected of saving images of Dalai Lama and having contact with overseas Tibetans.

According to information shared by Tibet Watch, an organization focusing on the development in Tibet, more than 100 Tibetans have been arrested by authorities in China’s Sichuan province in recent days. The arrests happened in the town of Dza Wonpo, which is an autonomous region for Tibetans within the Sichuan province.

According to sources, those who were arrested were suspected of keeping images of the Dalai Lama and keeping in touch with Tibetans in exile. The information shows that between August 21 to August 25, more than 50 Tibetans were detained in the town and between August 25 to August 30, an additional 53 Tibetans were arrested.

Apart from the mass arrests, there were also crackdowns initiated by military and police authorities. So far, only three people have been released while at least 50 detainees will be kept in custody for a month. The arrests came after the Chinese Communist Party’s local branch organized a “People’s Meeting” on August 25.

Sources say everyone over 18 was summoned and asked to comply with a list of regulations. The town, Dza Wonpo, has been under military lockdown and security agents have searched each household while they are put under strict surveillance.

Recruiting “spies” to monitor local Tibetans

Apart from the widespread surveillance and search, sources say authorities are still conducting a search of any Tibetans who have contact with exiled Tibetans or have saved the image of Dalai Lama.

Since August 31, monks are summoned in a group of 20 each time to be interrogated and they were forced to promise that they won’t contact Tibetans abroad and that they will not spread sensitive information on social media.

Local authorities have appointed two monks at the Monastic Management Committee at Dza Wonpo Monastery to surveil the monks’ movement and monitor anyone who refuses to join or cooperate with official programs and search operations.

Sources say authorities have installed surveillance cameras at “every corner of the monastery and villages” while deploying armed forces around the monastery and across the town. Additionally, authorities have also reportedly recruited “civilian spies” from the monastery and the village to track and report movements and activities of Tibetan villagers or and monks.

There is a growing sense of fear among Tibetans due to the installation of “civilian spies” among them and people are suspecting each other of working as internal informants for the government.

In fact, this is not the first time that Tibetans in Sichuan province. In January, Human Rights Watch published a report, which documented the death of a 19-year-old Tibetan monk after he was allegedly tortured during detention and eventually died from serious injury after multiple hospitalizations.

The monk was first arrested after he and three other monks handed out leaflets and allegedly chanted slogans related to Tibet independence outside the office of local authorities. After being released in May 2020, he was arrested again a few months later after he shared information about his arrest online and contacted Tibetans in India.

Challenges facing Tibetans and the diaspora community for remaining connected

Sophie Richardson, the China Director at Human Rights Watch says the particular community in Sichuan is trying to express its religious loyalty but that move is considered unacceptable by local authorities in Sichuan. “We can reasonably assume that local authorities have less tolerance than they normally do when it comes to any expression that’s not in adherence to something or someone other than Xi,” she said.

After six Tibetan youths called for Tibetan independence in November 2019, lives for Tibetans in the region haven’t been easy. The Tibet Watch says the crackdowns that began last month are the continuation of the previous crackdown that took place after the Tibetan monk’s death during detention in January.

“During the search operations in March, local Tibetans were warned that anyone in possession of photos of the Dalai Lama would face similar criminal charges to keeping illegal weapons like guns,” wrote the Tibet Watch. “Sources reported that the villagers were forced to sign a letter stating that they would not keep photos of the Dalai Lama and the violation of the order would be punished with the withdrawal of their ‘poverty alleviation state-aid.’”

Additionally, authorities also mandated a compulsory installation of software in local residents’ mobile phones under the disguise of personal security, but locals later learned that the software was installed to surveilled them and track their online activities.

Richardson points out that the Chinese government’s ongoing crackdown has weakened the connection between Tibetans in China and Tibetans in the diaspora community. “Part of the reason we did the report about the monastery is to show how closely communication between Tibetans inside and outside China are being monitored and effectively criminalized,” she said.

When looking at the community in China, she says real damage has already been done to the community. “That’s by design and not an accident. The goal is to weaken those links and minimize people’s ability to transmit centuries-old practices from one generation to the next,” said Richardson.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.