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China: Tibet anti-crime campaign silences dissent (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 14 May 2020.

Chinese authorities in Tibet are using a national anti-crime campaign to crack down on peaceful expression by Tibetans suspected of dissenting views, Human Rights Watch said today. Those criminally prosecuted include activists defending Tibetan culture and environment, critics of official corruption, and suspected supporters of the Dalai Lama. The campaign is also targeting for possible prosecution or other punishment practitioners of unapproved religious activities and Tibetan government employees involved in any religious practices.

The government adopted a nationwide “anti-gang crime” campaign in January 2018 to suppress drug dealing, gambling, and other gang crimes. Since then, courts in Tibetan areas have used “gang crime” charges to sentence at least 51 Tibetans to up to 9 years in prison for peacefully petitioning or protesting issues related to religion, environmental protection, land rights, and official corruption. The authorities have also linked the campaign to disciplinary drives against Tibetan officials and Chinese Communist Party members and appear to be accusing them of criminal liability based on their personal views.

“Chinese authorities have long imprisoned people engaged in peaceful dissent in Tibet,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The anti-gang crime campaign has intensified the persecution of those deemed to be disloyal to Communist Party rule.”

The anti-gang campaign is known in Chinese as saohei chu’e, an abbreviation for “The Sweep Away Gangs, Root Out Evil Special Struggle.” Its political objectives were evident in the official document starting the campaign in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 2018. As Human Rights Watch detailed in “‘Illegal Organizations’: China’s Crackdown on Social Groups in Tibet,” the TAR Public Security Bureau issued a directive that any individual or group “holding themselves out as so-called ‘spokespersons’ for the masses” on issues such as environmental protection or the promotion of Tibetan language, folk traditions, and culture were to be classed as a form of “gang crime.”

It also banned non-officials from taking part in local dispute mediation, an important civil function in Tibet that lamas or other locally respected figures often conduct. The authorities had not previously considered such activity illegal.

The directive also stated that actions that “undermine local-level general elections,” or that involve a group of individuals “stirring up trouble in land acquisition, leases, demolitions, engineering projects, and the like” were to be considered a form of “gang crime.”

Chinese state media have recently reported that central government officials ordered regional authorities to target Tibetan dissidents under the campaign. Senior Beijing officials sent to inspect Tibet’s anti-gang drive told TAR authorities in July and August 2019 and again in November that they had to do more to “combine” the campaign with “deepening the anti-splittist struggle,” a reference to crushing any support for Tibetan autonomy and political dissent, however indirect or minor. This instruction meant that critics of government policy in Tibet should be treated as gang criminals, especially if they can be seen as a group, as spokespeople, or as supporting the exiled Dalai Lama.

In November, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie confirmed the inspection team’s demands by stating that regional authorities should “conduct smashing the crimes of gang crime forces along with … the anti-splittist struggle.” Wu sought to justify treating “splittism” or support for Tibetan autonomy as a common crime by saying that it provides “the grounds for gang crime forces to spread.”

Local officials, at public meetings to promote the campaign in rural areas, have told villagers “to voluntarily sever all connection with underworld forces and illegal organizations, and enthusiastically join the struggle against them,” said an official report on the campaign in some local villages in southern Tibet. The term “underworld forces” supposedly refers to organized crime, but in the Tibetan context, the term “illegal organizations” includes the civic activities listed in the 2018 directive at the start of the region’s anti-gang crime campaign, notably those promoting Tibetan language, environmental protection, and assisting local dispute mediation.

Officials in other Tibetan areas have made similar demands. The United States-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in February 2018 that when Sichuan province launched a “Provincial Leading Group” to manage the anti-gang crime drive, “threatening political security and penetrating into the political field” were among the 10 major types of crime it was targeting.

It also listed “grabbing or illegally occupying land in construction engineering, mineral resources, and other fields,” probably a reference to environmental protesters’ efforts to stop damage from infrastructure projects and mining. In the same report, RFA cited an unnamed source as saying that homes in Kandze (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture, Sichuan, had been searched for Dalai Lama pictures under the anti-gang crime drive.

In the rural areas of Tibet where most Tibetans live, the campaign appears to be intimidatory, with the authorities threatening to use force. Publicity materials promoting the campaign show troops or police with military-pattern weapons. Photographs in official media of a meeting to publicize the campaign in Achug (Axu) township, Derge (Dege) county, Sichuan, for example, show local residents seated in rows on the ground with armed police standing over them and a vehicle used to transport criminal suspects. Videos that local authorities issue to promote the campaign show the apparent use of unnecessary or excessive force against Tibetans, including monks.

The Chinese constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, as does international human rights law. The arrests and prosecutions of Tibetans under the anti-gang crime campaign for expressing peaceful opinions and engaging in political or faith-based activities violates their fundamental rights.

“The anti-gang crime campaign has singled out Tibetans for their opinions and normal social activities and treats them as criminals,” Richardson said. “Chinese authorities should end these abusive prosecutions and free all those wrongfully detained.”

For additional details about the campaign in Tibet and the arrests, please see HRW’s statement.

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