L. is a U.S. citizen in her early 30s. In January 2015 she moved to China to work as an English teacher in a public high school in Shenzhen. Her life in China was good. She had already lived in foreign countries such as Russia and South Korea, so she had learned to adjust herself to new cultures and customs. She liked her new job and her flat. She loved her students. But it all came to an abrupt end after she decided to travel to Tibet.
Tibet Autonomous Region is unlike any other part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Foreign nationals cannot go there with a simple Chinese visa. They must organise their trip via an authorised tour operator and travel with a tourist group. The agency applies for a Tibet TravelPermit issued by the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) and the application must include a list of places in Tibet one wishes to visit. However, foreign travellers enjoy freedom of movement only within Lhasa, the region’s capital.
If you want to leave Lhasa you need another document: the Aliens’ Travel Permit, issued by the Public Security Bureau (PSB). This permit allows you to visit ‘unopened areas’ of Tibet, like Mount Everest or Samye Monastery. Another kind of permit, the Military Area Permit, is required for sensitive areas such as Mount Kailash or Rowok Lake.
Such restrictions testify to the political instability of Tibet, which the central authorities struggle to bring under control. As the website tibettravel.org explains, “Tibet occasionally sees political tension and social unrest. When there are important political events or any indication of such political or social unrest, the government may not issue Tibet Travel Permits.” Despite all this, the website reassures that such events happen rarely. Any “unofficial information you find on the Internet or hear from other people, even from travel agencies, can be considered as rumor,” the website states. “Please do not believe it unless you get an announcement from the government.”
In February of this year L. decided to take advantage of the long Chinese Spring Festival holidays to visit Tibet. After securing a Tibet Travel Permit, her travel agency assigned her to a tourist group consisting of a Korean man and his daughter. On February 6 she took a train on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a prestige project of the Communist government. Former premier Zhu Rongji praised the railroad as an “unprecedented” engineering feat in the “history of mankind”.
For centuries Tibet was a secluded mountainous region; low temperatures, lack of oxygen, high altitudes and frequent earthquakes made journeys difficult and hindered the construction of infrastructure. Tibet was therefore the last Chinese province to be connected with the rest of China through a railroad. Its inauguration in July 2006 was hailed by the PRC leadership as an historic moment. The authorities claimed that the Qinghai-Tibet Railway would promote the “modernisation” of Tibet. However, critics argued that the railroad is a means to facilitate the “Sinofication” of Tibet and the exploitation of natural resources such as copper, iron and zinc.
Loudspeaker announcements on trains bound for Tibet echo Beijing’s official line, praising the railway and listing impressive statistics about the engineering marvel. For L. this was just government propaganda, an attempt to hush up the fact that the Han Chinese are oppressing the Tibetans and destroying their culture. She sent a few text messages via SMS to a friend of hers who also lived in China. The two of them criticised the central authorities’ Tibet policy. Despite Beijing’s official version of history, L. felt that there was something wrong with how Tibet was run by the Communist government. It was like a police state in which one didn’t have the same basic freedoms enjoyed by the people in other parts of China, let alone in the West.
When her train arrived in Lhasa, her tour guide picked her up at the station. He was Tibetan and spoke English. He was nice and friendly to her, but she soon noticed that the political situation of the region was a sensitive topic the guide was reluctant to discuss. He took L. to the local police station, where foreigners need to register upon their arrival in Tibet. Afterwards they went to the hotel in which L. would stay during the next three days. There she met for the first time the other two members of her small travel group.
The group visited Lhasa’s most famous landmarks such as the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street. L. was dismayed by how China’s government seemed to have changed the face of Tibet. Lhasa looked very much like an occupied city. The presence of soldiers and checkpoints was conspicuous. Even inside Lhasa one had to go through security checks similar to those in place at airports. Apart from a few traditional landmarks and areas, Lhasa had been transformed into a dull, boring city that looked just like any other city in China, an unremarkable urban landscape full of monotonous modern buildings.
The number of Han Chinese in the city was overwhelming. Beijing claims that ethnic Tibetans make up over 90 percent of the region’s population. However, the authorities do not release figures on Han Chinese immigration. According to information published by the PRC, in 2008 Tibet’s population stood at 2.84 million of whom more than 2.5 million, or 95.3 percent, were Tibetans.
But the government has been actively encouraging Han Chinese people to move to Tibet. Recently it began promoting intermarriages between Tibetans and Han as a way of cementing the ‘unity’ of the nation. The authorities have invested large sums in the economic development of Tibet, opening it up to business, which is often dominated by Han Chinese. The construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway was meant to facilitate this process of ‘integration’ which – many people fear – might ultimately lead to the annihilation of Tibetan civilization.
While L. was visiting Lhasa’s centre, her friend D. sent her an SMS asking her how she liked Tibet. “Lhasa is really great except for all the f*** Chinese!” she replied. “Don’t forget after you leave you can donate money to organisations,” wrote D. half-jokingly.
In the evening of February 8, L. was in her hotel room. She had been sick the previous day and was still recovering. At 23:30 someone knocked on the door. When she opened, she saw two men standing in front of her. They identified themselves as police officers. They were wearing civilian clothes and claimed it was just a routine inspection. One of the policemen was Han Chinese; he was thin, had short hair and wore glasses. The other man was an ethnic Tibetan; he was around 6 ft tall (1.82 m), had thick black hair, glasses, and was quite muscular.
At first the officers were rather polite. They made small talk and it seemed as if it was indeed just a routine job. But one question revealed the nature of their surprise visit: “How do you feel about Tibet?” they asked. That’s when L. realised she had got herself into serious trouble.
“It’s very beautiful, I really like it,” L. responded vaguely, trying to keep her calm. The police officers became more aggressive. “How do you feel about Tibet?” they repeated. “You need to be serious with us right now. Or it would be bad for you.” Their tone was intimidating. L. hedged. She was afraid that if she said too much, things might take a turn for the worse. “Listen, we know about your text messages on the train,” said the Han Chinese menacingly.
L. panicked. “What messages?” she said, pretending to know nothing about it. “You sent text messages to D., the Australian,” said one of the policemen. The fact that they knew her friend’s name sent a shiver down her spine. “Oh yeah, I texted D.,” she finally admitted.
L. was now frightened to death. Her whole body was shaking and she involuntarily kept clutching her stomach. The attitude of the two officers was subtle. Sometimes they were really nice, sometimes they were aggressive. The Han Chinese was bluntly confrontational and hostile, while the Tibetan was more manipulative. Their words were often ambiguous, which made them sound all the more terrifying.
“Are you nervous right now?” asked one of the men.
“I have been sick,” L. said.
“We know you have been sick,” they responded. It became clearer and clearer to L. that the police had not just read her SMS, but had also been following her since she’d arrived in Tibet.
The interrogation lasted for 3 hours, during which the police officers kept asking her the same questions over and over again to see if her answers were the same. Sometimes they repeated her answers in the wrong way to see if she said the same thing. It was a psychological game. They tried to make her betray herself. As she spoke, they wrote down her statements. They kept flipping through files which L. thought contained information about her.
“Why don’t you lie down?” they asked several times. It was hard for L. to tell if they were concerned about her health or if they had other purposes in mind. It would have been awkward for her to lie down with two male police officers in her room who were interrogating her.
The Tibetan wanted to see her phone. It contained all of her messages, including those she had denied having written. Yet she had no choice but to hand the phone over to the man. Luckily for her, she had bought her phone in Russia and the Tibetan officer couldn’t read the Cyrillic keyboard. He gave it back to her and asked her to show him the SMS she had sent. Whether the Tibetan really couldn’t use the phone, or whether he wanted to help her, she did not know. She was just happy that she could seize the opportunity to delete the most compromising messages. Yet she was taking too long, and the Tibetan impatiently asked her to hand it back to him. He left the room with the phone, and she heard him taking pictures in the corridor.
She was now alone with the Chinese policeman. He asked her about her family background, wanted to know the names of her parents, what they did for a living. L. said that her father was a US army officer, which made the Chinese man even more suspicious. A few minutes later the Tibetan man came back. “You’re a female, and we are going to bring in a female police officer,” he announced. “She’s on her way.” L. thought they would search her.
The Tibetan had printed out her text messages. They questioned her about each of them. “What do you mean by ‘bullshit’?”, they asked. One of the messages read: “One day the world will know the tr***h lol” This SMS had been sent by D. It was just a joke; he knew L. was in a bad mood and he tried to make her laugh. He had ‘censored’ the word ‘truth’, as if he had been afraid someone would read the message. At that time, neither he nor L. could have imagined that the Chinese authorities were indeed reading their messages.
“Why is D. saying this?” the men asked, “Did you and D. talk about Tibet?”
She admitted that they did.
“Have you heard anything bad about Tibet?”
“Well, in America and other countries we have heard some bad things.”
“Some bad things? From where?”
“We heard about some troubles back a few years ago, that there were some tensions. We heard about it in the news, there are movies about it, there are books,” she said. She immediately realised she had been too incautious. “But I know that the media likes to sensationalise things to make more money, to make news more exciting,” she hastily added, hoping that this was what the two men wanted to hear. As a matter of fact, they emphatically agreed with her last words.
“Why did you say this to D.? Why did you say these things?” they asked.
“I was in a bad mood on the train, the trip was long, and the children were very loud. D. is a good friend and he’s very patient, and he was just kidding.”
“Did your parents suggest you do things in China?”
L. understood that telling them about her father’s profession had not been wise. Initially, she had hoped it would scare them and make them more prudent lest they offend the daughter of a US army officer. She now realised that her dad’s job had only weakened her position. “They said I should be safe, I shouldn’t go out too late …,” she answered.
Meanwhile the female officer had arrived. She had brought with her L.’s Tibetan guide. The woman was young, probably in her 20s, and pretty. Her job was to write down L.’s formal statement, which summarised the content of the interrogation.
When L. saw P., her Tibetan guide, who had been so kind and helpful to her, she felt guilty. She knew that he would be held responsible for her ‘mistakes’. She had heard that while foreigners could be deported out of Tibet if they caused trouble, the local guides would face the long-term consequences of such incidents. L. wanted to do something to protect him. While he was standing behind the officers, she said: “Since I have come to Tibet, I saw that the media was wrong, that they sensationalised the situation. I can see that things are just fine, that the people are happy.” The two officers nodded approvingly.
L. had to repeat her story all over again, telling them all the places she had been to during her stay in Lhasa. The female cop wrote down her ‘final’ statement, which was 10 pages long. L. had to sign it and put her thumbprint on each page and on almost every paragraph of each page. On the very last page she had to write “I guarantee that everything I have said is true. I promise not to spread rumours any more.”
The officers gathered up all their papers and prepared to leave. “I want to give you a second chance,” the Tibetan guide told her. “I have to go and talk to my leader about it. I will come back in the morning. Tonight don’t text anyone, don’t e-mail anyone. If you do, we will know, and it would be bad. Get some sleep.”
This last piece of advice seemed ludicrous, as L. could obviously not fall asleep after what had happened. No sooner had she remained alone in her room than she burst into tears, unable to restrain herself any longer. Despite what the tour guide had told her, she felt so lonely and desperate that she sent an e-mail to her mother telling her what had occurred.
The tour guide returned to the hotel the following morning. He said that the police were coming back at 11 a.m. He added that the remaining members of the tour group would get another guide.
“Are you going to be in trouble?” L. asked.
“No, because the texts you sent were before you met me,” he replied, “and because of what you said about the tour.”
They went to the hotel lobby. There she met the two Koreans she had been travelling with. They were completely unaware of what had happened the previous night. The girl saw that L. was shaking and that she had cried and asked what was wrong with her. L. took her aside and told her everything. The girl was shocked. A little while later the Korean family left the hotel to continue their tour. L. suddenly panicked. She told P. that she wanted to call the US embassy. “Don’t do it. If you call the embassy it will be worse,” he said emphatically.
The owner of the tour operator went to the lobby to meet her. He said she couldn’t stay in the lobby and had to go back to her room, because they were trying to keep things quiet. L. refused, saying that she would not go back to the room where she had been subject to the previous night’s terrifying experience. She broke down and began to cry. He booked her a new room, one of the best, most luxurious rooms of the hotel. The tour guide said that she wasn’t allowed to leave the hotel. If she was hungry she could go with him to a nearby restaurant. But she was too nervous to have lunch.
The police didn’t show up until 4 PM.
They informed her that she had two choices. They would either drive her to the Tibet border where she could catch a train; or they could take her to the airport, where she could fly to Kathmandu. The Tibetan officer said that she should fly because she had been sick and the journey by road would be too tiring. But she said she had no money for a flight ticket, as she had already spent 920 dollars for the tour. “I will call my boss and maybe we can pay for half of your plane ticket,” said the Tibetan in a rare show of compassion. Or perhaps he just wanted her to leave Tibet as soon as possible.
L., the guide and the two policemen went to the Air China office in Lhasa, and they bought a ticket to Kathmandu. It cost US$400, half of which was paid by the Chinese government. Then they returned to the hotel. Before the officers left, they warned her: “You must never tell anybody that this happened, that you spoke to the police, that you must leave Tibet.”
She had to spend her last night in Tibet in the hotel. The next morning her tour guide drove her to the airport and she flew to Nepal. Her family members had already contacted the US embassy. When she arrived in Kathmandu she found out that the embassy had sent her several e-mails. She explained to them what had happened. The embassy first told her not go back to mainland China, but to fly to Hong Kong and have someone take her belongings, which were still in her Shenzhen flat, to the Hong Kong border.
After gathering more information, however, they changed their mind. They told L. that the Chinese authorities wanted to keep things as quiet as possible and nothing would happen to her if she re-entered mainland China. On February 28 she flew to Hong Kong, and then she went to Shenzhen by train. She had no problem crossing the border from the former British colony to mainland China. She returned to her school and continued her normal life.
But on the 21st of March she returned to Hong Kong to have lunch with a friend. Afterwards she took the train back to Shenzhen. No sooner had the immigration officer scanned her passport than she was surrounded by three policemen who told her she had to follow them. They took her to a cubicle area. She asked what was going on, but the officers refused to answer. “We don’t know,” they said.
After about half an hour they finally told her that her visa had been cancelled and that she was ‘no longer welcome in China’. She asked them why, and they said they didn’t know. She asked if she could give her friend the keys to her flat so that he could send her belongings to Hong Kong. First they said they didn’t know if that was possible. She insisted and in the end they agreed. They walked her back to the Hong Kong side of the border and then allowed her to give her friend, who was on the mainland side, the keys over the counter.
She walked back to the Hong Kong side, but the Hong Kong police stopped her. The design of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border is similar to that of an airport, with one-way paths for people travelling to or from Hong Kong. Once she had entered the mainland’s immigration area she was not supposed to go back to the other side.
When L. saw that even the Hong Kong authorities might let her down, that she was standing alone on a steel and glass bridge suspended over the Shenzhen river, she had a nervous breakdown and tears rolled down her cheeks. “They sent me back, my visa has been cancelled,” she explained to the officers. The Hong Kong police soon understood what had happened. They took her to their superior, who comforted her and reassured her that she could re-enter Hong Kong.
L. was forced to give up her job in mainland China. Her former school in Shenzhen withheld her previous months’ wages. Despite her pleads, they refused to pay, showing no compassion whatsoever for her situation. She stayed for a few days in the safe haven of Hong Kong, where she could say and write what she pleased. Yet the paranoia that the mainland regime so carefully nurtures in the Chinese people had already sunk into her soul. Only after leaving Chinese soil for good would she feel completely safe, she said. As she talked, her eyes were filled with the fear of being watched, with the internal struggle between her desire to speak out and the memory of how only a few days earlier words had turned her into a state criminal – defenceless, lonely and weak, entirely at the mercy of the Chinese government.