I never imagined that my departure from China would involve a huge security operation straight out of a TV crime thriller. The 30 strong team whose job it was to get rid of me didn’t have much of a job frankly, I found around 8 of them lurking around outside my flat in Beijing the morning of 8th July 2008 and I couldn’t exactly put up a fight. Besides, when they only tell you that they are deporting you once they have already confiscated your mobile phones and passport, what options are there really?
I was told that I had broken the laws of the country and according to those laws had to leave immediately. When I asked exactly why I was being made to leave, I was told that I ought to know what I had done wrong. Was there a law about not being allowed to be a UK-born Tibetan living in Beijing that I didn’t know about? I don’t know what was most disconcerting: that two cameramen filmed everything, that they confiscated some of my personal belongings or took all details of my bank account, including the PIN? Not to mention that I wasn’t allowed to contact the British Embassy. They came to deport me at 9am from my flat, at 1:30pm I was on an Air China flight bound for London. As a Tibetan in China’s capital with the Olympic Games exactly a month away, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Beijing life had never been quite ordinary or normal. The city had always been Olympics crazy ever since I had moved there in 2006. Anyone who has ever lived in Beijing I am sure would say the same things about the city, the fast-paced change, the amazing food, the endless stream of people, the pollution, the crazy weather. It’s the kind of city that really grows on you though and you can almost pretend that you can breathe and don’t miss blue sky. Of course I was aware of the greater political picture in which I was living but actually if you live in Beijing and choose to stay away from certain things, then you can have a nice life.
Ever since last September I had rented a small place, signed up for Chinese language classes in a private school, found part time teaching work and had quite happily cycled around everywhere and hung out with lots of friends, Chinese, Tibetan, French, Norwegian, German, Turkish, American, Argentinean…just all kinds of people. That was something I loved about living there. I had made many Tibetan friends in my one year of full-time Chinese language study at the Central University for Nationalities, the university with the highest concentration of Tibetans in Beijing. I got to know many of them on a casual everyday basis and found them to be bright, smart and remarkably well-informed on current affairs and Tibet issues. We wouldn’t have radical discussions about how to fight for Tibetan independence but we would just chat and talk about the challenges they faced as Tibetans in China, how they would find a job, how the Tibetan language was of no real value for them to compete in Chinese society for example. I learned so much about Tibet and China through these conversations.
That was the fun and interesting aspect of Beijing life. The turning point was definitely March this year where my whole relationship with the place changed and sinister reality revealed itself to me. Protests that started in Lhasa on 10th March quickly spread to all Tibetan areas and the fear and uncertainty felt by all Tibetans was all too tangible in Beijing. All my Tibetan friends suddenly started to feel uneasy about being Tibetan and being surrounded by Han Chinese in their capital. Many of my friends received phone calls from their friends and family with vague hints of unrest, tensions, detentions. Suddenly there was Tibet propaganda everywhere you looked, news on TV showing all Tibetans as rioters, murderers and looters, documentaries shown on the bus about how much Tibet had benefited from China’s investments and there was even a massive exhibition about how Tibet was better off today under Chinese rule. The tour guides at the exhibition were Chinese dressed in traditional Tibetan costume, it was really quite bizarre. Everyone I knew told each other to be careful all the time, the pressure was almost too much to take, as oppressive as the heat. That Tibetans would be followed, questioned, visited and searched at home all became quite run of the mill – it’s amazing what you can get used to after a while.
I can’t forget how one of my best friends, a Tibetan guy, suddenly vanished one day in June without a trace. At the time of my deportation I still had no clue as to what had happened to him and the thought occurred to me many times in those few hours about how fortunate I was to have the protection of a British passport. My friend had been ‘disappeared’ for two weeks whereas I would be at home with my parents in London before the day was out.
From what I understand the tensions in the city have not eased up. Some of my Tibetan friends who work in Beijing have been made to leave for the summer, some have left voluntarily, unable to stand the constant hassle and pressures. Being Tibetan in Beijing at the moment is enough to put you under tight scrutiny from security – the question is though, if something happens to an innocent Tibetan, what are the chances that we will ever find out about it? It was such a shame to have to leave China in that way and they told me I can’t go back for five years. It’s incredibly difficult for me to associate the Olympic Games with Tibet and come up with anything positive. As a force for change and a force for good, it has failed Tibetans in all imaginable ways.