Tragic case of Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk highlights how Beijing ‘games the system’ on political disputes
This picture taken on March 1, shows children in traditional Tibetan clothes and police watching passing Tibetan Buddhist monks during a ceremony for Monlam, otherwise known as the Great Prayer Festival of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, at the Rongwo Monastery, in Tongren County, Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. A young Tibetan man has been sentenced to five years jail for expressing concern over the Chinese state’s reduction of Tibetan culture and language classes. (Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP)
Liang Xiaojun, a defense lawyer for Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk, posted a message on his Twitter account on Aug. 22 relaying the verdict in Tashi’s appeal after he was charged with inciting separatism for seeking broader inclusion of the language in the local curriculum.
Earlier on May 22, the Yushu Intermediate Court in China’s western Qinghai province had sentenced him to five years in jail, and the Qinghai Higher People’s Court found no reason to overrule this.
“According to the verdict we received, Tashi Wangchuk’s personal argument and his lawyer’s defense statement were not adopted at the appeal, and the original judgment has been upheld,” Liang tweeted.
The case dates back to Jan. 27, 2016, when The New York Times released a documentary about a lawsuit filed by Tashi, who had accused the Tibetan local government of failing to protect and promote Tibetan culture. After the video was broadcast, Tashi was arbitrarily detained. His case was finally opened for trial on Jan. 4.
The higher court’s verdict angered several human rights organizations and groups supporting Tibet, who said it highlighted how the rule of law was being ignored in the region when dealing with Tibetan issues.
On Aug. 23, the Tibetan Advocacy Coalition released a statement criticizing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for trampling on the constitution.
“China’s dismissal of Tashi Wangchuk’s appeal is a mockery of justice and shows a disdain for [how the rest of the world views this],” it said.
The International Tibet Network also issued a statement denouncing the verdict.
“The rejection of [his] appeal is clear proof that people should be trembling with fear. China’s new policy aims to criminalize Tibetan culture, such as by attacking people or groups that are only trying to promote their own language and culture. China should immediately release Tashi Wangchuk unconditionally,” it read.
But the higher court’s ruling was not unexpected given that higher courts routinely support the original verdicts in China on matters of national security, attempts to “split the country” or other political issues especially in Tibet.
Since the rule of the CCP almost always trumps the rule of law in China, under the guiding principle of national stability, the law often seems like little more than a kind of wallpaper or decoration that can be stripped away or changed whenever the government feels like it.
This is especially true for Tibetans.
In Tashi’s case, there were no legal grounds for his arrest, prosecution and sentencing as the charge leveled against him could not be supported in a real, functioning court of law.
The so-called evidence presented against him at both courts was nothing if not ridiculous. The centerpiece was a documentary released by the Times detailing Tashi’s original lawsuit accusing the local government of failing to protect and promote Tibetan culture.
It was broadcast online, meaning it was viewable by anyone around the world with an internet connection. Everyone, that is, except those who live in a few countries including mainland China as Beijing promptly blocked it.
That being said, more savvy Chinese, especially in big cities, can still get around the censors in most cases by using a virtual private network.
To anyone not concerned with protecting the party’s power in China, the documentary showed nothing to justify the charge Tashi was facing. But this is China and if the government wishes to find fault with someone, especially in Tibet, it doesn’t need to worry about finding a suitable pretext.
However, all Tashi was doing in launching his appeal was exercising his right to freedom of speech and fighting to preserve his region’s traditional language.
During his appeal, his lawyers noted how his conviction was “a violation of the people’s right to enjoy freedom of speech and the media’s right to supervise and report on [matters of law].”
“Tashi Wangchuk is just a young Tibetan who expressed his simple concern for the reduction [in the scale] of Tibetan culture and language classes,” they continued.
“We implore the higher court to reduce the heavy sentence … to safeguard the basic rights of citizens and the dignity of the law.”
Those pleas fell on deaf ears, however, with the Qinghai Higher People’s Court delivering a stinging reply.
“The court believes that when the appellant, Tashi Wangchuk, became actively involved in the filming [of the documentary] and accepted interviews from the media to deliver comments that undermined the solidarity of ethnic groups and the unity of the state, he committed acts commensurate with the offense of inciting separatism.”
As such, the court said it had no choice but to dismiss the appeal and uphold the original judgment. It stressed this ruling was final and could not be challenged at any other court in the future.
Some researchers of human rights issues in Tibet and Chinese law in general have pointed out that, in many cases involving political issues in Tibet, the lower court seeks advice from the appellate court before delivering its verdict. This is a clear violation of the rule of law and ridicules the whole concept of appealing an unfair decision.
Even more egregious is how such a system reconfigures the role of Chinese lawyers. They are not the guardians of the law but rather “witnesses to the legal process.”
As Ling Qilei, the second of Tashi’s defense lawyers, noted, one of the great humiliations for those who are part of China’s legal machinery is that they are cogs in a machine with almost no power to fight against such morally wrong decision.
“There’s no other way. We are just witnesses to the legal process,” he said.
Sang Jieja is a Tibetan writer, commentator and a former Chinese spokesman for the exiled Tibetan government. He is now studying in Spain.