This interview was first posted online on the Human Rights in China website:
The interview is also published in Simplified Chinese:
Conversation with Dechen Pemba
Tibetan Voices in China
Human Rights in China (HRIC): How would you describe where you are at this moment of your work—and how you got here?
Dechen Pemba: I guess to begin I’d have to explain that I moved to Beijing with the intention of learning the Chinese language and getting to know the place. And having worked on Tibet for quite a few years beforehand, I realized I had no particular experience of living there and of feeling restricted or not. I think now it’s gotten to a point where to really get to know Tibet today, you have to know what China is like. So that was my main goal and I think I would have liked to stay there longer had I not been deported—asked to leave—one month before the Olympics.
I didn’t really see myself there as an activist or anything like that. But one thing that really came out of that experience is that I was really interested in Tibetan voices. It’s also interesting and crucial to look at what they’re saying and not saying. Are the voices that we hear circumscribed, or do they have prescribed notions, or are they saying new things? So I went looking into the Internet and to blogging.
HRIC: So when you were asked to leave China, you went back “in” through the blogosphere!
Dechen Pemba: Yes, exactly—because I was under an informal five year ban from China that was verbally conveyed to me.
HRIC: Did they actually say that to you?
Dechen Pemba: They said, according to the laws of our country, you’re not allowed to come back for five years. I really told them I wanted the ban in writing, but I never received it. I was promised a written copy. I actually said I wanted it immediately, because they had this piece of paper with my name on it in Chinese.
They never really identified themselves. They just put me on a plane.
I would like to go back. I am ready to. So we’ll see. When I am back in London, how can I really keep in touch with what Tibetans on the ground are really discussing and feeling?
HRIC: When you talk about bloggers, are you talking about Tibetan blogs that are maintained in exile, or are you also able to look at some bloggers who are writing from inside Tibet?
Dechen Pemba: When I set up High Peaks Pure Earth, I wanted it to be a translation project that only translated blogs from Tibetans who are either in Tibet or in China. Now it’s been up and running just over a year, and over the last year I’ve been doing a master’s degree in Chinese Studies so I’ve been quite busy, but now I’m going to have a lot more time to focus on it now that I’ve finished my degree and handed in my dissertation.
HRIC: What was your dissertation on?
Dechen Pemba: My thesis was looking at Tibetan voices as imagined by the Chinese. I’m interested in voices of minorities in the cultural production of the People’s Republic of China.
HRIC: How does one retrieve the Tibetan voices “as imagined by the Chinese”?
Dechen Pemba: The imagined voices are very interesting. I don’t know if I can sum up my thesis but I was looking at cultural productions since the 1980s and since that time you did have a lot of Chinese writers looking to minority cultures. This was, you know, the Root-Seeking Movement.
I looked at film, music, and literature. Recently, I looked at two novels, Wolf Totem (狼图腾) and The Tibet Code(藏地密码).The Tibet Code only came out last year and since then there have been seven volumes and they’ve been huge best sellers in China. It’s all about Tibet but written by a Han Chinese author. This was sort of a flip side to my blogging project because these are officially recognized voices of minorities as imagined by Chinese. None of these are banned literature. In fact, the opposite, they’re very popular, mainstream. So I was fascinated by how Wolf Totem and The Tibet Code can be such bestsellers and they’re all about Inner Mongolia and Tibet and minorities.
HRIC:What was your conclusion?
Dechen Pemba: Very simply stated, my conclusion was that Chinese authors, in imagining minorities and minority voices, are in fact reflecting on Han Chinese identity and Han Chinese themes, and what emerges has very little to do with minorities themselves.
HRIC: Most appropriated re-imaginings are about the author/artists engaged in re-imagining others.
Dechen Pemba: Exactly. In the 1980s, the root-seeking voices, they were appropriating. I think now, even the most recent examples, are very similar. These works of art are all part of popular culture. The Tibetan blogs we are translating on High Peaks Pure Earth are all freely accessible in China and Tibet. The only writer we regularly publish whose writings are banned in China and Tibet is Woeser—she’s the most well known Tibetan blogger. Nothing is considered banned or subversive until its shut down.
The Axe of Censorship
HRIC: On the Chinese language blogs, a piece could be available but then suddenly it will be removed. The situation is not static—the red line moves and you don’t usually know it has moved until you’ve crossed it. So how do you deal with that? Are you finding this with some of the Tibetan blogs that you’re translating?
Dechen Pemba: We’ve actually had that experience several times where we’ll find an article and we’ll save the link and we’ll want to have it translated so we’ll send the link to the translator and it’s gone or it’s been blocked. Also, quite often, an entire website will be suddenly inaccessible. Several of the main Tibetan blog hosting sites are closed down during any sensitive period.
HRIC: But is your site accessible inside?
Dechen Pemba: No it’s not. It’s accessible only if you have a proxy. But I am trying to move the platform somewhere else so it will be more accessible.
HRIC: Can you share some generalizations from your observations of Tibetan blogs? What are permissible topics? What contents trigger the axe of censorship?
Dechen Pemba: The axe comes down based on the political climate, and any time there are sensitive anniversaries. For instance, in the run up to the 10th of March, nothing could be uploaded. Also, all the main Tibetan blog sites were blocked for the entire month of August. When the blogs came back up we discovered that a lot of content that was deemed political had been removed.
HRIC: What is deemed political besides the obvious?
Dechen Pemba: Anything that sort of openly discusses Tibetan identity being threatened or comments on any political events. Also experiences of oppression or experiences of torture or anything like that. We found some interesting things as well. For example, some areas of culture are deemed less sensitive than other areas of culture, so a lot of Tibetan writers are blogging about the Tibetan language.
It’s Okay until It’s Not Okay
HRIC: On your August 3rd blog, entitled “Looking at Criminal Cases to Examine the Non-Special Policies towards Ethnic Minorities,” you posted a Chinese propaganda poster which reads, “Long live the great unity of all the peoples of the whole nation (全国各民族大团结万岁).” Do you think that particular slogan—“The great unity of the people”—has been effective domestically and why did you choose that picture for the posting?
Dechen Pemba: At High Peaks Pure Earth we always try to be true to the original posting and never insert our own opinion. So with that posting, we tried to recreate Woeser’s original Chinese blog post in English, using the same image that she used. That particular photo was a 1950s Chinese propaganda poster so we had to translate that into English.
We tend to provide some background, for instance links to mainstream media articles on special policies towards minorities. People who are interested can then do their own research but I really don’t think it’s the job of High Peaks Pure Earth to say to people, this is how you should feel about this issue or these policies. We really shouldn’t dilute Tibetan voices, because we really want the voices to be translated and to speak directly to the reader.
HRIC: It’s a bit of a challenge though because editing is a political act and translating is a political act. There’s no way to get around choices being made. But you’re aware of that.
Dechen Pemba: Yeah, completely. The choices we make in what to translate and what to upload onto the blog are quite informed by the general political climate. There are always certain themes discussed in the Tibetan blogosphere at a certain time more than at other times and we want to reflect those trends.
HRIC: Do you have contact with the bloggers you translate and do they know what you’re doing? What is their reaction to knowing their voices are reaching beyond China?
Dechen Pemba: At High Peaks Pure Earth, we don’t have any direct contact with the bloggers. The blogs we are looking at are all blogs that anybody who can read Chinese or Tibetan can read themselves because they are accessible. The only sort of direct exchange or interaction would be with Woeser because she has a link to High Peaks Pure Earth on her blog. And in the past she has taken blog posts we’ve translated that she hasn’t seen before and had them translated into Chinese. So in that way you see some kind of exchange and flow happening between the three languages. One thing I’d really like to do with High Peaks in the future is either make it bilingual or trilingual in order to create some kind of forum where people who read in English, Tibetan, and Chinese can all meet in one place, and every single article can be read in the original language and in the two other languages as well.
The background to High Peaks Pure Earth is that since the protests started in March 2008, there was actually a wealth of information on Tibetan blogs and this wasn’t really being used as much of a resource for information. Instead everyone was focusing on information blockades and the lockdown and how nobody could actually go to the Tibetan Autonomous Region. But you could find hints of things that were going on from blog posts.
HRIC: You mean from what was cut?
Dechen Pemba: Either from subtle mentions on the blogs or from things coming through in poetry. Blogs were one resource that I think was really being underused for information. Also, Woeser was doing an amazing job of documenting every single protest, every little incident. Her blogs were being translated into English and published on China Digital Times. That was really valuable information that was originally only available in Chinese. For me that was a sign.
HRIC: How is Woeser able to keep doing that? Because the authorities knew she was doing it and she has even been published in our publications. I’m just amazed she can keep doing this work. What’s your read on that?
Dechen Pemba: Woeser’s a very unique person amongst Tibetans inside. The fact is for many years now she’s been blogging and writing and her books are published in Taiwan—so I think she has quite a high profile. There have been many profiles of her in Western media, and even in Beijing. Tibet groups have also realized the value of her work because of the Tibet updates she has been writing this past year. So, I think she’s really reached a kind of profile we haven’t seen before at all for a Tibetan.
HRIC: Sometimes the high profile does protect a little bit of space.
Dechen Pemba: I think it does. People are often surprised that she can say as much as she can. She’s very daring; she’s really pushing the boundaries of what Tibetans even dare to do in China. I think she applied for a passport two or three times and was rejected, so she hired a lawyer and started to sue to test the legal system. It’s really brave. At the same time I think it’s important to be aware of the very fine line surrounding the space she has.
HRIC: I think it’s like Ai Weiwei. He appears to be given space as an example of the fact that people can in fact be critical. But then if at some point they decide you’ve crossed the line you can even get beaten up for trying to be a witness.
Dechen Pemba: I think it’s pretty much patent in China that it’s okay until it’s not okay.
HRIC: That’s right.
Dechen Pemba: And then you just really don’t know.
HRIC: That should be one of the taglines for this discussion! I think we hear this a lot from foreign observers, “Well I know someone and they can do this and they can do that” as an example of “progress” and greater openness. But it’s the nature of an authoritarian state that it’s okay until it’s not okay. The other part of it is—you don’t know when it’s not okay in advance.
Dechen Pemba: And you don’t get to decide.
HRIC: You have this whole generation of young Han Chinese in their twenties who have a dangerous historical amnesia about what happened in 1989. It’s the exact opposite for Tibetan young people. They are the most active, they carry their history, they remember their history, and are pushing the older people to do something. Young people in Tibet are subjected to the same brainwashing and propaganda that Han Chinese are and also face the very difficult pressure of having to learn Chinese while fighting to keep their identity. How is it that they are blogging in this robust way?
Dechen Pemba: I think the difference between the Han Chinese young people and the Tibetans is that the sense of identity for the Tibetans is constantly being reinforced all throughout their lives because of the backfiring of these ethnic policies. The policies are meant to sort of promote minorities but when you promote difference, you end up strengthening the sense of being different. I’m thinking of young people who are uprooted from their Tibetan families and backgrounds and sent on these special programs to inland schools. An obvious implication is that the children will be assimilated into mainstream Han Chinese society. But what usually happens instead is that the child realizes that they’re really not from this culture and they start missing their home and their family. Their sense of identity as Tibetan is reinforced—I think this is how these policies backfire. I also think that Tibetans really have a sort of historical continuity, that it’s really important and that maybe it’s under threat. That’s why last year, with all the protests happening, young Tibetans were taking part because their parents went out to protest and wanted their children to go with them.
HRIC: Whereas for the Tiananmen generation inside China there is a kind of complicity in maintaining silence because some people are benefiting.
Dechen Pemba: I think families and parents are talking about what happened when the Chinese came, and the young people feel it’s really important not to forget that past. There’s also a feeling of responsibility for the generation. Students I had contact with in Beijing had a strong Tibetan identity. Even those who were fully bicultural would still say they are Tibetan and blog in Tibetan and speak in Tibetan. That was one of the best things about living in Beijing—interacting with all the Tibetan students.
HRIC: How were the relationships between the Beijing students and Tibetan students?
Dechen Pemba: I felt like generally they were quite good. They had friends and the Tibetan students had to share dorm rooms with Chinese students, but I always got the sense that the Tibetans were one group and the Chinese were one group.
Leaving Fear Behind
Dechen Pemba: This is really the one project that came out during the Olympics last year that really brought Tibetan voices directly to the public. When talking about the film, what I find so fascinating is the fact that Tibetans were looking for a way to express themselves nonviolently and with a new tool. Instead of a protest or some banners, these Tibetans were more creative and traveled around Tibet for months with small, cheap video cameras documenting every Tibetan they met answering three simple questions. First, what do you think about China and Tibet? Second, what do you think about the Olympics? And third, what do you think about his Holiness, the Dalai Lama? This was their attempt inside Tibet to bring Tibet to the Olympic Games. I think it was important to support new forms of resistance like videos and documentaries.
HRIC: I really like how you framed the project as using a new tool for activism. I think people don’t change by being talked at, but we change experientially. And the challenge for these new tools is to promote a fundamental change in values necessary for China to become more open, more tolerant, more democratic, and more respectful of rights and human dignity. People have to somehow experience something different to imagine and build something different. That’s why I’m so excited about technology because it has the potential for enabling people to access different experiences. You can hear a lot of propaganda about Tibetans, but if you can see and hear different realities, you might view Tibetan people differently than this propaganda.
Dechen Pemba: That was a big part of the documentary project. Everybody who agreed to be on camera agreed not to have their face covered up or distorted, so when you watch it you feel like you are talking to them face to face. It was really very brave.
HRIC: Did you read the criticism focusing on whether people were fully aware of the risks? How did the documentary makers respond to this?
Dechen Pemba: I completely understand those kinds of feelings. They are dealing with an oppressive regime who could find the participants if they wanted to. However, I had 100 percent trust in the people doing the project, and they were the ones taking the risks. One was a monk and one was a farmer, they were not filmmakers, but they wanted to figure out a way to take on China and get Tibetan voices out. So they traveled all over Tibet and took over 40 hours of footage. When they went to some of the villages, people were waiting for them and just lining up to be on camera to give their testimony. Villagers were saying, there are these people who are filming, it’s going to be shown for the Olympics, it’s going to be shown all over the world, we can really do something. When I heard stories like that, I felt, how could I not support this project? One of my favorite quotes from the footage didn’t make it into the 25 minute version. It’s from a nomad who says that he feels like Tibetans in China are like stars on a sunny day—they can’t be seen. I really feel like the whole idea behind the film was to make Tibetans seen and make Tibetans heard at a time during the Olympics when they were going to be invisible. People are expressing their grievances so politely and so eloquently in the film that it’s not really such a surprise that the uprising happened. The last day of filming was the 10th of March 2008. And after that, everything changed.
Space for Cultural Expression
HRIC: After one year, do you feel this blogging has changed the space for cultural expression inside China?
Dechen Pemba: Yeah, definitely. You can read anything from nuanced, subtle political commentary to the standard boring stuff someone did that day.
For me the best, most defiant blog posts are the ones which are clever and creative. For instance, during the Dragon Boat Festival which everyone has to celebrate all over China, a Tibetan student wrote that we should celebrate, but if you read further he said, let us celebrate a festival our forefathers had never heard of and let’s celebrate by eating something our forefathers had never tasted before. So through humor, through irony, you can really say a lot.
HRIC: I think using humor is so effective.
Dechen Pemba: Really. It was such a great blog post. I just read it over and over again and it was such a comment on history, and on the Chinese government hijacking the holidays. This year was even more extreme because the Tibetans decided not to celebrate Tibetan New Year and the government forced people to celebrate.
HRIC: So now that you’re finished with your master’s degree, what are you going to do full time?
Dechen Pemba: I’ve got a little bit of funding for the website, so maybe I can do High Peaks Pure Earth for a little bit, but I can do that from anywhere. I have to think of a way to keep up with Chinese. There are a lot of Tibetans doing Tibetan work but not so many learning Chinese so that’s something I think that makes me quite unique. For my thesis I read The Tibet Code, which hadn’t been translated into English.
HRIC: So you read the whole thing in Chinese?
Dechen Pemba: Yeah, I had to! I saw it everywhere, I saw Chinese people on the subway reading it. The Frankfurt Book Fair did a study of the bestselling novels of 2008 and 2009 in China, and number one was TheTibet Code and number three was Wolf Totem.
HRIC: What’s your assessment of this strategy of soft power and the impact of that strategy in the international community abroad?
Dechen Pemba: I find it so interesting that you have all these China scholars who would never comment on Tibet, on minorities, or on anything too sensitive because it might affect their field work or their ability to go to China. I do admire the China scholars who really speak out.
HRIC: Part of enabling soft power is that academics, governments, and even media are engaged in an implicit exchange—avoiding sensitive issues or groups in exchange for access.
China’s control of information is not just information control, it’s control over what can be said, how it can be said, when it can be said, and to whom. And a lot of that is through technology itself. Also the government uses the police state apparatus, thuggism, and regulation and law to promote nationalism—a domestic form of soft power. What are the implications of this domestic flexing of soft power?
Dechen Pemba: On three or four main Tibetan sites you have to fill out your identification number and real name in order to register and write. After two or three blog sites that had been shut down in August came back, they said they were having some problems. They didn’t specify what, but the site did say, please be careful what you post.
HRIC: This is advising you to self-censor.
Dechen Pemba: Yes, the Tibetan blogosphere, as with the situation on the ground in Tibet itself, is a space where the goalposts are constantly changing. However, more often than not, it’s when you hear the least from the ground that you should be the most worried.
2. Woeser, “Looking at Criminal Cases to Examine the Non-Special Policies towards Ethnic Minorities,” High Peaks Pure Earth,http://www.highpeakspureearth.com/2009/08/looking-at-criminal-cases-to-examine.html, posted August 3, 2009. ^
3. Ai Weiwei (艾未未), a prominent Chinese artist and social commentator, was beaten by Chengdu police and detained in his hotel room for 11 hours when he tried to attend the trial of Sichuan earthquake critic, Tan Zuoren, as a witness. Human Rights in China, “Police Beat and Detain Supporters of Sichuan Earthquake Critic Morning before Trial,” August 12, 2009, http://hrichina.org/public/contents/171835. ^