I. Introduction

The area of central Asia formally recognized as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (Tibet) is directly governed by the People’s Republic of China (China). The United States of America “officially recognize(s) Tibet as part of China” (“The Question of Tibet” 2008) as do many other western nations despite numerous points of contention as to its political status. International organizations measuring freedoms of the press continuously rank this region among the lowest not only in Asia, but the entire world. China falls fourth from last in Reporters Without Borders’ list of press freedom across 160 nations (“World Press Freedom Index” 2016). Among the reasons for this are the oppressive policies of the Chinese government towards Tibet and the Tibetan people. Tibet is termed “not free” by the American NGO Freedom House, receiving nearly the lowest possible scores from the organization in the areas of political rights, civil liberties and overall freedom. Nearly all aspects of expression, assembly, and personal life are restricted by the Chinese Communist Party. Any protesting against these restrictions is punished swiftly and severely. All media in the area is similarly restricted, including Tibetan websites, newspapers and other forms of press. No official dialogue has taken place between the Chinese government and Tibetan government-in-exile since 2010. Many international human rights groups hoped that talks such as these around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics would lead to greater transparency and loosening restrictions, but so far this does not appear to be the case (“Freedom in the World: Tibet” 2016).

II. Historical Background

Located in the mountainous Tibetan Peninsula, Tibet is bordered to the north by China, and in the south by India, Nepal and Bhutan. Tibetans are a distinct ethnic group that make up the largest proportion of those living in the region at 92.8 percent (Rong, 2011). The Tibetan people have their own language and system of writing. Since Neolithic times, the Tibetan economy has consisted largely of pastoralism and only recently begun to see an influx of tourism from the west. Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion in the area, and is regularly suppressed by Chinese authorities (Freedom in the world: Tibet 2016). Tibetan Buddhism is a distinct branch of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in the area. Since the fifteenth century, Tibet has been de jure governed religiously and politically by a Dalai Lama. The current Dalai Lama has ruled in exile since 1959, making no real political or legislative decisions. Most displays of allegiance to the Dalai Lama and any government other than the de facto Chinese-run capitol in Lhasa result in harsh discipline and re-education.

After centuries of rule under the Qing (Chinese) empire, claims of Tibetan autonomy were attempted to be negotiated by the British government in India in the 1910s and 1920s. This ultimately led to a period from the 1930s to the end of the Second World War in which Tibet saw a nominal degree of independence under Chinese rule. The rise of communism in China firmly ended this trend, culminating in the 1950 invasion and subsequent annexation of Tibet, wherein China “denied the validity of Tibet’s right to national self-determination” (Smith 2008). Tibetan officials were ultimately coerced into signing the Seventeen-Point Plan (which continues to be in effect today). The Chinese-sponsored agreement promised continuation of 1930s-style autonomy for the Tibetan state but in practice bears little to no resemblance.

III. Free Speech

Chinese occupiers have been known to deal swiftly and harshly with those who seek independence for Tibet. With little to no legal protections, outspoken Tibetans often find themselves at the mercy of unchecked government practices. Numerous examples exist of Tibetans facing long imprisonment and even execution. Activist Geshe Lobsang Wangchung died in 1987 while serving a seven-year prison sentence for “writing and putting up posters about Tibetan independence.” In 1990, two small-time accomplices in a prison-based independence movement were executed without trial for what was at first described as trying to escape from the prison but was eventually revealed to be for simply taking part in such sentiments (Barnett 2008). Speaking out for independence is among the most widely present free speech issues in Tibet. Serving as a testament to its importance, it also among the most heavily restricted claims by the Chinese government.

With no support coming domestically, Tibetan free speech advocates often must seek help abroad from non-profit organizations thriving on public awareness. In 2011, with increased efforts on the part of the Jinping administration to block online teachings of the Dalai Lama seen as pro-independence, a campaign known as “Banned Expression” was launched in India. To varying degrees of success, this generated awareness for speech issues in Tibet’s neighbor to the south (State News Service-India 2013).

Citizens in Tibetan schools are subject to periodic exams testing patriotism administered by Chinese officials. These tests are based on a rigid curriculum of Chinese allegiance, communist values and anti-separatism (Kolås 2005). Despite all of these factors, life for Tibetan citizens in recent years is considered to be relatively stable. The majority of Tibetans are content to live a life of their work outside of radical political actions and as such try to avoid trouble from ruling Chinese officials. The Dalai Lama gained international attention in 1989 for winning the Nobel Peace Prize which was followed by large international exposure from western individuals ranging from musicians to new age believers. “Tibet, however, has yet to be set free” according to Kenneth Conboy (FBI’s Secret War in Tibet, 2002.)

IV. Free Press

Isolated politically as well as geographically, Tibet is a nation from which little communication with the outside world arises. Discouraging for supporters of Tibetan independence, this fact leaves the heavily scrutinized Tibetan press at an editorial disadvantage. In direct contrast with American legal tradition, there are no written protections for the press in Tibetan law. Under usual circumstances, the publishing of any material deemed critical of an official or government practice results in imprisonment for the publishing individual as well as censorship and possible closure of the publication. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a period of civil unrest across China. Demonstrations in Tibet exemplified this trend in the area. As a result, Tibetan news organizations for the first time began to speak out against human rights violations by the Chinese government, albeit in a “thinly veiled” manner (Garrat 1995). Through tools such as newspaper editorials, media outlets were able to capitalize on the era of relative leniency.

Much like any continued violation of speech and individual rights, oppression of Tibetans in their native land can continue unabated when no outsiders are paying attention. Too often, however foreign media that could expose wrongdoing report “very little about countries that are far removed from the recipients” (Becker 2008). More than twenty years after the relatively lenient 1990s, the eyes of the world were again on China and their treatment of Tibet during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The worldwide event coincided with a period of social unrest in the Tibetan Capitol stemming from a series of self-immolations committed in the name of greater Tibetan representation in Chinese Government and ultimately independence. Many western media outlets including CNN, Fox, and the BBC portrayed the attack as one of an oppressive police force going after an unarmed populace (Becker). In a place such as Tibet where speech is not usually allowed to be heard, much less protected, the burden of exposure may fall to outside actors. While not ideal, this situation may be the only way for stories of their hardships to reach sympathetic ears. In another Beijing 2008 incident reaching international headlines, the Olympic Torch was extinguished in Paris by a group of pro-independence protestors. This event led to a great amount of scrutiny of France by the state-controlled Chinese press, spreading into public opinion with boycotts of French goods and anti-France rallies (Young 2013). While many Tibetan-based media organizations exist, propaganda from Beijing has played a major role in making sure that the press climate in Tibet remains static. Obedience measures to the Chinese communist party has increased in recent years, despite economic relaxation.

V. Critical Comparison

The creation and display of posters calling for independence (an illegal notion under Chinese rule) in Tibet is dealt with immediate imprisonment, as seen in the case of Geshe Lobsang Wangchung. Applied in the context of U.S. law, such postings are essentially seen as extreme imminent lawless action. This standard, currently in place, was established in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) and deemed that speech is not protected if it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” Being that calling for Tibetan independence is strictly prohibited, it could be said that such posters in context do call for this sort of action. How likely that such postings would lead to violent overthrow in such a repressive environment is uncertain. Had this situation occurred in the United States, it would almost certainly be met with no jail-time or legal scrutiny unless it specifically advocated violent action.

Tibetans living in their native land are mandated to partake in regular tests of allegiance to the Chinese government and its values. Inundated with severity and propagandist content, these exams restrict the flourishing of Tibetan cultural tradition and home-rule. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the Supreme Court of the United States found that compulsory pledging of allegiance was contrary to the ideals of the First Amendment. In the case the majority opinion found that “words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but oneself…love of country must spring from willing hears and free minds…”.  This ruling was in respect to the fact that individually held beliefs of citizens may be contrary to signifying allegiance to mere symbol or ideology contrary to their own. In a state where free speech is protected, the rights and differing values of individuals must be kept in mind while enforcing laws and carrying out government business.

During the 1980s and 1990s, unrest in the Tibetan Capitol and subsequent government actions to quell this unrest led to a series of editorials in the Tibetan press. While containing critical language, these editorials did not mention specifically any practice of or official in the Chinese government by name. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, editorial content and advertisements were produced that contained critical language towards the policies of police in Montgomery, Alabama. In New York Times Co v. Sullivan (1964), the public safety commissioner of the city brought a suit against the publishing paper. The court ruled against the commissioner, finding on the “free public discussion of the stewardship of public officials…” (in quoting James Madison) that the press has “exerted a freedom in canvassing the merits and measures of public men”. There are no protections analogous to the First Amendment enjoyed by press in Tibet. While the two incidents both involved criticisms of unnamed governing entities, in the United States, criticism of public officials is seen as an inevitable and important component of a free and open press.

VI. Conclusion

The Tibetan political climate is in nearly direct contrast with that of the United States. Even the most conservative American free speech rulings would be quite progressive in a Tibetan setting. Free speech concerns in Tibet chiefly deal with the simple desire for independence and the ability to practice customs unique to the area and culture in a fashion unmolested by the Chinese government. This ever-present desire for mere international recognition as a sovereign state sets apart free speech in Tibet from that in America. American free speech concerns have a long history and in the last century have gone in a direction towards stronger free speech protections. Modern concerns lie into holding onto these freedoms in the face of possible threats by a new executive administration that is still in the process of throwing its political weight around. Free speech has no established tradition in Tibet. The path towards greater freedom lies in exposure of injustice and international pressure on the occupying Chinese. Tibet is a small nation, but it is a unique one with the right to exist. Tibetans still carry the human right to have their voices heard.

VII. References

Bajora, J. (2008). The Question of Tibet. The Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from http://www.cfr.org/china/question-tibet/p15965

“BANNED EXPRESSION: CAMPAIGN TO PROTECT FREE SPEECH IN TIBET.” State News Service, 21 Nov. 2013. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A349872162/BIC1?u=txshracd2550&xid=01723e41. Accessed 29 Mar. 2017.

Barnett, R (2008). Part Two: Human Rights. In A. Blondeau & K. Buffetrille (Eds.),  Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions (pp. 90-94, 326-328). Berkely, CA: University of California Press.

Becker, J. (2011). Coverage of the Tibet Crisis (March 2008) and the Olympic Games in China (August 2008) in the German-language mass media. International Communication Gazette, 73(6), 495-506. doi:10.1177/1748048511412284

Conboy, K., Morrison, J. Epilogue, The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet (p. 258). Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press.

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 448, 89 S. Ct. 1827, 1830, 23 L. Ed. 2d 430 (1969)

Freedom House. (2016). Freedom in the World: Tibet. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/tibet

Garratt, K. (1995). The Periodicals Krung go’i Bod Ijongs and Shes bya in 1993: How the PRC and Dharamsala’s Tibetan Press Depict Human Rights in Tibet. The Tibet Journal, 20(2), 64-86. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.txstate.edu/stable/43300531

Kolås, Å, Thowsen, M. (2005). The Dilemmas of Education in Tibetan Areas. On the Margins: Cultural Survival on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier (pp.104-105). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 275, 84 S. Ct. 710, 723, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964)

Reporters Sans Frontieres. (2016). 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Retrieved from https://rsf.org/en/ranking#

Rong, M. (2011). Analysis of the population structure in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Population and Society in Contemporary Tibet (p.72). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press

Smith, W. (2008). Tibet Under Communist Rule. China’s Tibet? Autonomy or Assimilation (pp. 14, 20). London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642, 63 S. Ct. 1178, 1187, 87 L. Ed. 1628 (1943)

Young, D. (2012). Spreading the Word: The Machinery. The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China (pp. 42-43). Somerset, SC: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.


This essay was last updated April 30, 2017.

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