Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the leadership of Xi Jinping has been progressively tightening its control over the mass media. The media is perceived to be the mouth piece of Communist Party and is supposed to be used for propaganda. It is an essential tool to spreading the government agenda and controlling public discourse. Tibetans are fed up with the propaganda made by Chinese and in recent years, millions of Tibetan and Chinese internet users have expressed their indignation toward the stringent surveillance, screening and blocking of information by the Chinese government. More and more Tibetans are realizing the value of freedom of expression and having access to uncensored information. Their power to transmit information instantaneously is profoundly changing the world of the Tibetan diaspora and beyond.
However, despite China’s sophisticated internet censorship tools and policies, Tibetan activists and bloggers have until now figured out ways to express themselves to the Chinese people and to the world. Tech savvy individuals have played a prominent role in bringing freedom of speech to China with introduction of new and updated software to penetrate the great firewall of China. Virtual Private Networks (VPN) has been their mainstay in evading through the wall, anonymously giving unrestricted access to activists and journalist and securely spreading information that would otherwise have been censored
Regarding the recent case of fire at Jokhang Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the capital Lhasa, netizens immediately posted pictures and videos as wells as concerns on their social media platforms including Wechat, Weibo, and Meipai. Some of those video clips showed flames burning above the golden roof of the holy place, people in the background shouted or cried with prayers. These post were hurriedly wiped out from the Chinese social media by Censors.
Unsurprisingly, the information vacuum made many Tibetans even more anxious, since the Jokhang Temple “Is seen as the most sacred shrine in Tibetan Buddhism, and for centuries it’s been the focal point of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists,” as Robert Barnett, a New York-based expert on contemporary Tibet, told The New York Times.
Barnett also told The Guardian that Beijing’s “almost total suppression of information” had made many Tibetans feared the holy temple had suffered significant damage.
In most astonishing fact after fire engulfs ancient ‘heart’ of Tibetan Buddhism, the most sacred statue in Tibet. A day after visitors are allowed and yellow draperies had been newly hung behind the temple’s central image, the famous Jowo statue of the Buddha brought to Tibet in the seventh century by the Chinese bride of the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo and no one was allowed to go up to the second floor of the temple. Even warned those who will wide spread the information will face severe punishment and interrogations but images are widely circulated.
Tsering Woeser, a well-known Tibetan writer and activist, posted on her Facebook account a notification released by China’s public security ministry on February 18. She bravely revealed more information on the Jokhang temple fire, with comparative images of old Jowo Statue. Few of the information seemed to contradict Xinhua’s reports, particularly regarding the start time and location of the blaze. She explicitly raised many questions online.
Tsering Kyi, news anchor of Cyber Tibet (VOA) posted on her Facebook “China is deleting posts about the alleged fire in the Jokhang temple. It’s clear the topic has been one of the hottest topics and most searched topic today on Chinese social media. Yet there is no single personal post as any post related to the fire in Jokhang and was removed in the cyberspace immediately”
Tibet despite China’s strict control and surveillance of any information shared by censoring online posts and forbidding locals to broadcast images of the fire or gather near the temple. Individuals continue to take great risks of imminent threat to themselves and their loved ones by sending out images, videos and other information on crisis relating to the issue of Jokhang. It is one of the holiest and most politically sensitive sites in Tibet, the Jokhang temple, stirring an outpouring of grief and concern among Tibetans.
These platforms have emerged as a key factor in gaining a competitive edge in ensuring rapid dissemination of news and broadcasting views. Within the last decade social media has replaced print media signaling a paradigm shift in how we consume and convey information. This rise in unconventional and often unverified sources of information has been aided with the rapid development and spread of information technology along with increasing use of citizen journalism.
*Tenzin Dalha is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.