In this social media obsessed age, we can create our identities and live vicariously through the lives we generate on social media platforms. There has been a tremendous rise in the growth of online social networks all over the world in recent times, and the development of the largest online networks like Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook, and the popular Chinese microblogging sites Weibo and WeChat, have been well documented. Facebook, for instance, celebrated its tenth anniversary with over one billion active users worldwide in 2014. The simple fact that almost one-seventh of humanity is connected through this single portal gives us reason enough to be objective and truthful, rather than manipulative, with the information we create and share. In today’s highly digitised world the role of social media in our modern lives has become almost unavoidable.he contemporary period has come to be invariably labelled as the age of ‘information’, ‘cyber’ age or ‘networking’ age. Human history is marked by events ranging from simple understanding to profound revelations, all of which have led to fundamental discoveries and path-breaking inventions. At the root of all these changes lies information, which is of course an indispensable facet of ‘New Media’ as well.
Keeping in view the subject matter of this paper, “Chinese Censorship versus Tibetan Activism on Social Media,” we shall look into the changing roles media as well as social media has played during particular episodes of Tibetan activism. During the series of protests from 1987-89 in Lhasa, the ancient capital city of Tibet, the protesters were relatively isolated, and the demonstrations too were restricted the city. In those days, though media as an instrument of information was not unknown to Tibetans, the government-monitored media barely reported on issues related to people’s dissatisfaction with the regime. Moreover, digital media in the form of internet and mobile phones were yet to enter the lives of the common people. Today, in the age of social media with a global network of online supporters at disposal, protests are no longer ‘local’. This fast and unpredictable reach of activists certainly has Beijing worried. Consequently, China has been cracking down hard on internet users who demonstrate sympathy and support for the Tibetan cause, blocking avenues for the spread of all relevant information.
Without an unrestricted and sound system of communication, a collaborative struggle with great efficacy and wider social interaction is a distant dream. Without the literate masses having access to different views and ideologies, a movement is handicapped. Therefore, the Tibetan society, motivated by the objective of nation-building, must adopt the vision of providing its people with the basic right to free and fair information while being equipped with a lively and transparent form of new media in order to unite its people in the common cause. That the future of revolutionary movements will involve social media is assured.
For the last several years, there has been a significant increase in the number of Tibetans, both in Tibet and in exile, embracing the social media world, not only for social interaction but also to voice their feelings on various developments be it over environmental destruction, militarisation, cultural genocide or for communicating information on social or political campaigns including the Tibetan general elections in 2011 and 2015. The sharing of crucial information through these communication channels allowed people to get a clearer view of the reality.
Global Impacts of Social Media
With the explosion of digital communication technology in the late 20th century, the mode of conveying information has turned far more convenient, less time consuming and decentralised. Today, an individual with a few clicks on the mouse can address the global audience through the net. This rapid growth of instantaneous and decentralised communication has its bearing on the social structure of a community.
In October 2013, the Chinese State Council issued a notice requesting government institution at all levels to make use of new media like Weibo and WeChat in particular to disseminate information related to regulations, laws and issues of public interest. The notice also encouraged government institutions to make full use of the interactive features of new media.
Social media is also being increasingly used to police politicians and public figures who forget their responsibilities and start behaving with omnipotence, by openly calling them out for committing unethical or unlawful acts. Those who have committed mistakes are now held accountable in the conscience of people through social media.
In July 2011, following the train crash in Wenzhou, a southern Chinese city, authorities literally wanted to cover up the incident and bury the story which angered the Chinese netizens and prompted a huge backlash. In the first five days after the train crash there were millions of criticisms of the event posted on various social media sites – a first of its kind uncensored online discussion which had never happened in Chinese history. Later, China’s railway minister was sacked and sentenced to 10 years in jail.
One important question that arises out of the events following the tragic train crash is why the Chinese central government allowed the five days of freedom of speech online. One plausible explanation that has emerged is that the top Chinese leadership was fed up with the minster anyways and thus used public opinion as an excuse to punish him.
The ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia and its impact on the rest of the Arab countries is the best and most recent example of how social media plays the role of propagating information and in turn, how its impact can potentially change the course of human history. It is interesting to retrace the event stage by stage and see how this small personal tragedy sparked a worldwide movement against autocratic rule. Hussein Amin, Professor of Mass Communications at the American University in Cario noted that, “It is important to understand that new platforms of social media didn’t cause the Arab Spring but played a role in communication that aids revolutions in the long run”.
In Beijing, Chinese citizens took cue from the revolution and started coming openly to Tiananmen Square with jasmine flowers in their hands. However, their actions were curbed at an early stage and the campaign failed to explode into a mass movement as it did in the Arab countries.
During the more recent Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, a region officially ruled by China, much to Beijing’s displeasure the protests exploded on social media. Hong Kong’s fight for greater democratic freedom in the form of tweets and images unfolded in front of the world. From September 26 to 30, 2014 there were more than 1.3 million tweets about the protests, according to data provided by Twitter. China did (and continues to do) everything it can to keep a lid on the demonstrations. Beijing instructs the Chinese media not to report on the demonstrations while blocking all social network sites (including Instagram for the first time) and censored Weibo, a Chinese social network which is closely monitored by the state. All subversive contents perceived as a threat to the government’s mandate is blocked from the site. However, the reach of information and images of the Jasmine and Umbrella revolutions inside China, which has one of the most sophisticated cyber control systems in the world, illustrates the power of social media in political protests.
Having gone through a brief history of the evolution of social media and its impact on world affairs, I will now give an outline of its contribution in the Tibetan freedom movement. In fact, it is suffice to say that the very cause of the current situation of Tibet is due to the lack of accessible media to present their case and plight during the early periods.
The recent explosion of social media in a exile has played a crucial role in enabling the Tibetan people to explore various social and political issues critically. This new media, with the help of the internet, has not only served the purpose of keeping people informed, but has also been a regular and vigorous forum of interaction among the general exile populous.
In fact, internet and social media has shrunk time and space and turned the scattered Tibetan communities separated by oceans and mountains into a global village. This has meant that the Tibetans in Tibet and outside, although physically separated from each other, remain marginally informed of each other’s activities and affairs. The link between Tibetans inside and outside Tibet allows them to enjoy an atmosphere of a limited transparency that leads them to work collaboratively towards a common goal.
Social Media: What are the advantages and disadvantages of social networking sites for the Tibetan freedom movement?
Social networking platforms may improve the communications channels in the Tibetan freedom struggle by disseminating information among different groups of activists in a more efficient manner, resulting in increased public participation. While it is not meant to be a complete list, here, I have outlined some of the possible advantages and disadvantages of social networking.
- Facilitates open communication, leading to enhanced information discovery and delivery.
- Allows Tibetan activists to discuss ideas, post news, ask questions and share links.
- Provides an opportunity to widen outreach for activities.
- Targets a wider audience, making it a useful and effective tool to mobilise and organise events
- Improves political reputation and public support base with minimal use of petitions and announcements
- Expands the reach of the Tibetan freedom struggle, implements new strategies, delivers communications quickly and directs interested people to where they need to go.
- Social media encourages citizens’ participation in civic and political life.
- Opens up the possibility for Chinese hackers to commit fraud and launch spam and virus attacks on (for example) official websites of the CTA and active nongovernmental organisations like Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), Tibet Action Institute (TAI), Students for Free Tibet (SFT) etc.
- Creates misunderstandings and suspicion leading to divisions in our movement by spreading lies and rumours through fake accounts
- Potentially results in lost productivity, especially if activists and politicians indulge primarily in updating their online profiles, etc.
- Biased and prejudiced social media contents and updates may create distortions and create divisions among our people
As a result of the many technological advancements and innovations that have revolutionised how individuals communicate, an abundance of information has become available to everyone. Not depending on where the information is found, its reliability can and must be questioned. With the growing number of NGOs such as SFT, TYC, Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA), among others, much of the information provided by them is often political. Ultimately, public information supplied by these organisations through social networking websites are playing a significant role in modern-day activism. These groups use Facebook to update netizens about the Tibetan movement, Twitter to relay information, and YouTube to tell Tibetan stories to the world.
According to Dorjee Tseten, SFT’s Asia Director, social media has “played a critical role in mobilising, empowering, shaping opinions and influencing changes.”
Lhamo Tsering, Media Coordinator of TWA believes that the “mobilisation of ideas and people is a consistent requirement and clandestine communication can be enhanced with social media.”
The role that technology plays in enhancing the distribution of information, as mentioned by the two activists, is an essential component of any movement for democracy and freedom.
Ban on Social Network sites in China
In China many of the popular global social networking sites are blocked while their indigenous social media platforms are heavily censored. The world’s most populous country is a part of the infamous SICK group of countries (Syria, Iran, China and North Korea) that has banned Facebook.
According to Steven Millward, Tech blogger and China editor at TechInAsia.com, China’s extensive internet surveillance system, the “Great Firewall of China,” restricts access to popular foreign websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. China, which boasts of the world’s largest online population as well, says its online censorship policies are aimed at maintaining social stability, and that it will help stop the spread of false rumours and inappropriate materials.
However, Millward notes that there could be up to 700,000 Facebook users in China, despite the official ban. Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009, when Uighur activists made a series of online posts on the site encouraging protests in the northwest region of Xinjiang.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made several visits to China expressing interest in doing business there remarking “How can you connect the whole world if you leave out 1.6 billion people?” He even delivered a speech in Mandarin to woo the officials and the netzens but a compromise from the communist party at preset seems far fetched.
China’s crackdown on social media activism
In addition to the notorious firewall, the government can censor specific words to try and control the narrative of any given incident by pushing their own agenda and restricting citizens’ freedom of expression. However, many Tibetan and Chinese netizen use images, and memes in particular, which can portray a serious topic in a light-hearted manner, further increasing the spread of information.
Social media in China, which has nearly 600 million users, has long been recognised as a political game-changer. In a country where the one-party regime maintains tight censorship over traditional media, the relative freedom of expression available via Chinese social media, particularly Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), has made it a powerful platform for rallying public opinion. About half of the country’s netizens use Weibo.
In the past few years, Weibo has been credited for exposing corrupt officials, mobilising the public against social injustice, and forcing local governments to abandon plans for building hazardous plants in densely populated areas.
However, judging by the recent violent crackdown launched by the Chinese government on social media, the writing on the wall is clear that the new leadership has implemented a comprehensive plan to eliminate the threat represented by China’s social media.
What makes these arrests notable and disturbing is that they were preceded by emphatic official announcements by China’s top leadership that the party would tighten its ideological control which was followed by a strong endorsement from China’s legal authorities on the validity of prosecuting individuals for online rumormongering and defamation.
On August 19, 2012, China’s President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the party’s conference on propaganda pledging that the party would never cede control over ideology. This was followed by China’s Supreme Court and prosecutor’s office issuing an unusual joint legal opinion that essentially affirmed that online rumormongering is a serious crime that local authorities can take up for prosecution.
The party’s war on social media reveals many insights, most notably the political orientation of the new leadership. Before they assumed office in March 2013 there were hopes that the Communist Party’s new leaders would be more tolerant and open. However, their actions suggest they are more conservative, insecure, and obsessed with preventing instability than their predecessors.
Internet censorship in China
China has made great strides in its social and economic development and modernisation process, but it nevertheless continues to be an authoritarian one-party state determined to enforce sharp curbs on freedom of expressions, association and religion. It openly rejects judicial independence and press freedom, and arbitrarily restricts and suppresses human rights defenders and organisations, often through extra judicial measures. The government also censors the internet and maintains highly repressive policies in areas where ethnic minorities live, like Tibet, Xinjang, and Inner Mongolia. Despite intensified government crackdowns and internet censorship, many Chinese netizens active on the internet in the absence of a free media are increasingly voicing solidarity with Tibetans. China has for long had one of the most pervasive online censorship systems in the world, the country’s infamous “Great Firewall” which blocks access and censors numerous websites.
In February 2011, unnerved by the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements and a scheduled Chinese leadership transition in October 2012, the government launched the largest crackdown on human rights lawyers, activists, and critics in a decade. The authorities also strengthened internet and press censorship, put the activities of many dissidents and critics under surveillance and restricted their activities, followed by the unprecedented move of rounding up of the most outspoken critics and ‘disappearing’ them. Despite domestic and international legal guarantees of freedom of the press and expression, bloggers, journalists and an estimated more than 600 million Internet users have been affected in the ongoing repression.
Although the government continues to block websites run by human rights groups, foreign news outlets, the Google search engine and social media sites such as Facebook, the rise of Chinese online social media, in particular Sina Weibo, and WeChat, has created a new platform for citizens to express opinions and to challenge official limitations of freedom of speech despite intense scrutiny by China’s censors.
According to am anonymous Chinese technology blogger, the government web censorship filtering system blocks access to particular articles on the internet that could be related to the Tibetan issue using a highly sophisticated keyword filtering mechanism.
Web users in China are not able to access news reports if they contain keywords such as “Tibet”, “riot”, “violence” and “Lhasa”. According to a study, out of more than 1.3 million (or more than 16 percent) of messages screened by the authorities on Wiebo, 212,583 were deleted. Messages containing certain phrases, like “Tibet,” “freedom” and Dalai Lama” were more likely to be flagged by the Chinese government.
More importantly, the research suggests that China’s censors are dynamic, often deleting messages as they appear in real time. Messages originating from restive Tibetan area, for example, face much higher levels of censorship than those from the rest of China, with up to 53 percent of all messages being deleted. In 2012, Weibo started requiring users to register with their real names, under orders from the government, which has led to a lot more self-censorship.
Despite the censorship, Tibetan netizens continue to employ new and clever methods to penetrate the Great Firewall. They often use slang or homophones instead of directly spelling or addressing a word or an issue. Also, they use Romanized letters (like English), which are not flagged by the search engines. Most cleverly of all, they sometimes use images of text instead of the text itself.
However, Chinese authorities argue that they are simply ‘regulating’ and not censoring online content. Lu Wei, Chinese politician and the senior executive official in charge of cyber security and Internet policy in China said that the country doesn’t censor online content, but like most countries, regulates it. He argues, “If we really censor the Internet, how come our Internet user population and their reliance on the Internet keep growing?”
“Let me tell you, China has four million websites, nearly 700 million Internet users, 1.2 billion mobile phone users as well as 600 million WeChat and Weibo users. Every day they post 30 billion messages. It’s simply impossible for any country or organisation to censor 30 billion messages,” Wei notes.
Rundown of the top four domestic social media platforms in China
Over the past five years, one of the most dramatic changes in China has been the rise of social media. The two major Chinese social media players are Sina Weibo, and WeChat a mobile messaging application. Weibo is a public platform where people can follow anyone freely, while WeChat is a private virtual space for friends or families. In less than five years, both Weibo and WeChat have grown exponentially. By the middle of 2015, WeChat had over one billion registered users and 600 million monthly active users (MAU).
These figures indicate that although Internet in China is heavily censored, the Chinese Internet community is really blooming.
With China’s national media lacking plurality and regularly failing to report on incidents that they fear may damage the government’s image, combined with internet censoring and heavy-handed tactics being employed against state opposition, freedom of expression has always been limited. But there is hope for change. Weibo and Wechat are allowing a democratic spread of information that has never previously been a phenomena in China.
With the world’s largest population, a whopping 1.401 billion individuals, China represents the largest market on the face of the earth when it comes to the social media industry. As its usage continues to grow across the world, China is no exception. Although censorship laws prohibit Chinese consumers from participating in popular international e-commerce and social networking sites, China has successfully created its own platforms. Boasting around 700 million Internet users, in 2014, the volume of social sharing in China went up by 65%.
Tencent QQ is an instant messaging software service offering online social games, music, shopping, microblogging and group and voice chat.
QQ was first released in China in 1999 by Tencent and currently has 830 million users. As a messaging platform similar to Skype, it offers comprehensive Web communication functions such as text messaging, video chat, voice chat and features that allows users to send files on and offline.
By June 2014, QQ’s MAU hit 829 million. Despite its reach and new features, QQ is rarely used for marketing, as its users are predominantly young students in rural areas who don’t have a lot of spending power.
There is also a large number of QQ account holders in Tibet. Prior to the emergence of WeChat, QQ was the only medium which digitally connected Tibetans within and outside Tibet.
Qzone, a social networking website launched by Tencent in 2005 offers similar services to QQ such as blogging, photo sending, music, and videos. Tencent’s 2014 first-quarter figures put Qzone’s monthly active users at 644 million. Although Qzone is primarily a blogging platform, it also has similarities to Facebook, as brands can promote their products via fan pages. For example, according to the Nanjing Marketing Group, Chinese smartphone company Xiaomi sold its Redmi device on Qzone in March of 2014 and scooped up 15.18 million pre-orders in just one week.
Wechat called Weixin in China is China’s version of WhatsApp and has one of the largest user bases among the ever growing number of apps. In just three years since Tencent debuted it, WeChat has become one of the largest social networking platforms in China and Tibet.
WeChat has 1.1 billion registered accounts and 650 million monthly active users (August 2015). The average number of daily active users is 570 million and the daily growth in numbers of WeChat public accounts is 8000. Availabile in 20 different languages and equipped with seemingly endless features including voice and group chat, video call, and walkie-talkie, WeChat has emerged as a formidable force in the Chinese social networking space.
Although WeChat offers many benefits for connecting, bonding and bridging the communication gap between Tibetans it also creates significant obstacles. The growing popularity of sites like WeChat among Tibetans reflects upon the continued wish of the people to remain connected and interact socially on various private and public issues, helping in dismantling the boundaries between Tibetans inside and outside Tibet. In this regard, pragmatic questions about the future of social media networking sites (for instance WeChat and Facebook) are inevitably tied to the ways in which they impact all levels of our social existence, and thus becomes a concern for everyone.
According to Lobsang Gyatso Sither, Digital Security Program Manager at Tibet Action Institute, with the development of technology in Tibet and in exile, WeChat has became an easy mode of communication. However he quickly added that the technology comes with its own risks inlcuding arrests of many Tibetans for sharing information.
Tibet continues to witness a severe clampdown on social media networks and microblogs. Internet users face threats of imprisonment if they are found responsible for “online rumours” that are either forwarded 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.
Historically, Chinese internet firms have found it difficult to expand beyond the country. But WeChat is being tipped as the first Chinese social media application with the potential to go global. However, as WeChat grows, activists have expressed legitimate fear that the app is susceptible to the real time monitoring of its users’ movements by security officials. In Tibet, some fear this could potentially make targeted users vulnerable to surveillance via an amalgamation of social media tools similar to Twitter, Facebook and Skype.
In June 2014, officials shut down 20 million WeChat accounts citing links to prostitution while another 30,000 were closed in the same month because of fake ID’s.
Adam Segal, a cyber-security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations notes that WeChat is not alone in offering potential security loopholes. “Information technology services and software are all fundamentally insecure,” he said. “WeChat shouldn’t be singled out in this instance. Many technologies have some type of vulnerability, and a directed adversary can figure out vulnerabilities to exploit and gather intelligence.” He further adds that users worldwide should remember that though an app may have been created in the US, it is not immune to cyber-attack. “Vulnerability runs deeper than the app, it’s in the device itself,” he says, noting that HTC handsets and iPhones are likely to have been made in China.
Sina Weibo is a Chinese microblogging website built as a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook. It has an active presence in the Chinese online market especially among the younger population. Weibo’s sway has a lot to do with its influential users such as business tycoons, global celebrities, and media figures. Sina Weibo has 600 million active daily users and more than 600 million registered users as of September 2015.
Despite being called China’s “Twitter clone,” Weibo has the power to shape public opinion and its potential for social organising has attracted the most attention. Like Twitter, Weibo has a 140 character limit while hashtags are popular and posts are public. It is known to allow more criticism of the government than other sites.
Case studies of Tibetan and Chinese netizens achieving various success using social media
Intense social media criticism in Tibet regarding the use of Tibetan Buddhist temples as settings for graphic violence in a video game is a prime example of constructive use of social media in Tibet. Following strong complaints by Tibetan and Chinese netizens, NetEase, the Chinese video game developer of Crisis 2015 was coerced into apologising for using Tibetan Buddhist monasteries as a setting for the violent video game. The issue went viral in Chinese domestic social media and attracted attention from a Tibetan Olympic medallist Choeyang Kyi and well-known film-maker Pema Tsetan. Tibetans expressed deep hurt and shock about Tibetan monasteries being used as a setting for “a game of killing people”. Later the company removed a number of scenes featuring Tibetan religious imagery and religion.
A statement issued on December 19, 2014 by NetEase expressed its “deepest regret to our honourable Tibetan compatriots”. They promised to be more prudent and rigorous when selecting aspects of game design and content, giving as much consideration to the impact on culture and religion in order to avoid the occurrence of similar incidents.
In other postings on Chinese social media, before the apology was made, some netizens urged a boycott, while someone published the phone numbers of the game company and encouraged people to call them. Amongst the game’s locations is the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, considered by Tibetans to be the most sacred religious building in Tibet. Social media comments by Tibetans included comments such as this: “Tibetan temple culture has been vilified, Tibetan religious beliefs have been demonised, hoping that all my friends will move their fingers and take action” This direct online campaign is a reminder of the sensitivity and the willingness of Tibetans to defend their culture wherever they see it under attack.
The power and role of social media and its effect on the Tibetan struggle can be gauged from a Facebook post written by Brandon Stanton of the Humans of New York fame. His Facebook page alone has 16,079,638 followers. When Brandon visited Dharamshala, he posted this: “India is where the exiled government of Tibet resides. The long arduous journey [was made] from Tibet to India to cross through [the] Himalayan mountains. Many of the Tibetan refugees make this trek as children, sent by their parents in hopes of studying their language and religion in freedom.” The post became widely popular, reaching a far wider audience and drawing a greater number of ‘likes‘ and ‘shares‘ than a news report probably could have garnered. His coverage of Tibetans of the exile diaspora has been read by millions and shared by thousands.
Tibetan National Congress’ (TNC) online campaign to relocate the World Summit of Nobel Laureates from Cape Town to Rome
“The Nobel peace summit scheduled to be held in South Africa to honour the legacy of our fellow laureate, the late Nelson Mandela, has been cancelled as the South African government wouldn’t allow me to attend it…This is sort of bullying a simple person.”
The Dalai Lama, October 2014
In 2014, the South African government refused to give the Dalai Lama visa to attend the World Summit of Nobel Laureates fearing that the trip would jeopardise trade ties with China. Following the snub by South Africa, TNC, a political party in exile ran an intense “Boycott and Relocate” campaign for over two months demanding cancellation of the summit in Cape Town and its relocation.
In a petition addressed to Nobel peace laureates, the TNC underlined the Dalai Lama’s role as an advocate for peace and his constant effort at bringing “humanity to a new age of cooperation and coexistence based on mutual respect and love.”
The online petition, which was signed by 10,000 people pleaded the leaders to be guided by courage and stand in solidarity with a fellow Laureate and boycott the summit. Following the campaign and the South African government’s failure to issue the Dalai Lama a visa, the organisers “suspended” the event in September and relocated it to Rome.
TNC president Jigme Ugen later acknowledged that Tibetans using various online tools including social media have been successful in defeating the Chinese government’s attempt to bar the Dalai Lama from attending the summit.
Petition delivered to Facebook to let Tibetan voices be heard
Facebook was accused of curbing the freedom of speech of one of Tibet’s most well-known bloggers and award-winning writer Woeser when her post on the self-immolation protest by Kalsang Yeshi, a 38-year old Tibetan monk against Chinese rule in Tibet, was deleted. The post by the Beijing-based writer included a link to a video of Yeshi’s death.
The controversy came shortly after the creator of the social media giant, Mark Zuckerberg, made a heavily publicised visit to China and met with the Chinese internet czar Luwei. A Facebook message initially claimed the post had been deleted because it failed to meet community standards.
Matteo Mecacci, President and Joe Baker, Vice President of the Washington DC based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) visited the headquarters of Facebook in Menlo Park, CA, on January 27, 2015 and delivered a petition signed by 20,449 people demanding for the rights of Tibetan voices to be heard on the social network forum without any censorship. The petition noted that Woeser’s freedom of expression has been violated and the basic human rights of millions of Tibetans to expose China’s brutal rule in Tibet had been compromised. “Censoring the truth about China’s oppression of Tibetans being so severe and persuasive that some see setting themselves on fire as their only way to be heard is wrong and shameful,” the petition read.
“The petition was endorsed by more than 20,000 people from over 130 countries and we were able to share with Facebook their feeling that such actions to silence Tibetan voice cannot be tolerated,” said Matteo. Later when Woeser reposted the previous story and link, it was not deleted.
Growing voices of solidarity with Tibetans among Chinese netizens
In a refreshing change of attitude, Chinese netizens are beginning to question their government’s singular narration of Tibet being an inalienable part of China, which prior to the Party’s rule was “a barbaric feudal hell on earth.” Some Chinese netizens are even accusing Beijing of intentionally avoiding the problem in Tibet. Therefore, the role of social media becomes even more important in creating awareness and making both Tibetans and Chinese equal shareholders in the change they seek.
“I have been amazed to see the reaction from Chinese (mainly inside China) on social media whenever I update about Tibet (in Chinese language), says Dawa Tsering President of the Dharamshala based Contact Association.”
The association is a networking group that interacts with netizens from mainland China using popular Chinese social media network sites and aims at creating awareness on a number of issues including Tibetan Buddhism and the official Middle-Way Policy. Since inception in 2006 the group has reached out to more than 144,434 Chinese netizens. Contact further adds that they have shared around 3,800 short video clips and 12,000 books.
“Our staff always get response from the Chinese within minutes. It’s essential for Tibetans to be in touch with ordinary Chinese people and such connections can be done through all available channels and platforms, not necessarily organised by the CTA,” Tsering adds.
Websites such as High Peaks Pure Earth which provides insightful commentary on Tibet-related news and issues and translations of writings including blogs and poems by Tibetans inside Tibet have been an important interface for understanding the real situation inside Tibet.
Dechen Pemba, editor of High Peaks Pure Earth, blogger Tsering Woeser and Tsering Kyi, a US based Tibetan journalist have become new-age social media champions giving voice for the voiceless inside Tibet by writing about, translating and sharing stories and expressions of Tibetans inside Tibet. With their popularity and online following they are capable of commenting on and sharing numerous aspects of the Tibetan issues with global audiences including Chinese through Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
Increasingly, Chinese citizens who defy official policing are voicing solidarity with the Tibetans who are setting themselves on fire protesting China’s rule and demanding the return of the Dalai Lama.
Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay, the elected head of the Tibetan people, blamed China’s “continued occupation of Tibet, its failed policies, including economic marginalisation, environmental destruction, cultural assimilation, and denial of religious freedom” as causes of the self-immolation protests.
Chinese netizens have helped spread reports of self-immolations by Tibetans online and expressed their concern by posting comments on social media websites. Chinese human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong tweeted after a self-immolation protest: “Why is the world numb toward self-immolations?”
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has 12,453,661 million fans and supporters following him in cyberspace as of Oct 16, 2015. The Dalai Lama has a powerful and far reaching presence on social media sites Twitter and Facebook. His private office, based in the northern Indian town of Dharamshala, believes that His Holiness’ phenomenal fan following is all the more significant as it helps in reaching out to netizens worldwide. The official handlers frequently tweet inspirational quotes and messages from his teachings, discourses and writings. The office notes that scholars from Taiwan and mainland China regularly interact with the spiritual leader via Facebook thus providing a platform for the better understanding of his Middle-Way Policy for Tibet.
The importance of working together in order to maximise the impact on social media cannot be over emphasised. For example, Dechen Pemba translates her blogs into Chinese language which are read by prominent Chinese activists and open-minded mainland netizens. Although Facebook and Twitter are blocked by the Great Fire Wall but there are more and more Chinese users who bypass the system. Social media provides seamless opportunities for Tibetans who can speak and write Chinese language (Tsering Woeser is a great example) to tell the Chinese people the truth about Tibet.
The 21st century has become the era of social networking with people from all walks of life using the internet regularly to check their mails, share information and broadcast their views. If the Tibetans, scattered into active pockets of communities all over the world, could connect with each other and plan and organise activities in an effective and co-ordinated manner this could greatly increase awareness about Tibet and further raise the number of participants and supporters for the cause in general and certain campaigns in particular. Right from the beginning of human civilisation, every world-changing movement or social upheaval has been connected to information.
This research paper explains the significance of social media and its impact on the Tibetan issue, specifically through the last decade when social media has played a predominant role in creating awareness about the Tibetan cause and shaped people’s perceptions toward the issue across the globe. Social networking sites such as Facebook, blogs, YouTube and WeChat are increasingly replacing media outlets such as newspaper, radio and television as the go to place for news, information and interaction.
In exile, the usage of social media by Tibetans has dramatically increased as has their energetic involvement in various political and social issues. This vibrant community of individuals as well as activists has to a large extent helped draw international public attention in their favour thus rendering useless the Chinese propaganda juggernaut. Whenever there have been issues, be it political activism, social and philanthropic movements or environmental concerns, Tibetan people have used social media to raise their voice, circulating information among netizens to gain support, sympathy and increase awareness. The important role of social media in influencing public opinion and international support, in the rapid dissemination of news and widespread messaging, and in the ability of the individual to spread information globally are relatively new phenomena during large-scale political and social revolutions.
Various interactions on social media can easily symbolise a collective voice, creating a temporary virtual community of people sharing their anger or expressing their support for a particular cause or event.
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 realising the value of freedom of expression and having access to uncensored information.
The connectivity that internet and social media has throughout the globalised world has assisted Tibetans in Tibet to break the psychological barrier of fear by helping many to connect and share information. It has given people in Tibet the knowledge and understanding that they are not alone in their struggle against occupation and injustice.
Social networks have for the first time provided individuals and activists alike an opportunity to quickly disseminate information in the form of pictures and videos while understanding the imminent threats attached to their actions. Today, social media has become a powerful unifying factor for the diverse Tibetan diaspora.
 Kevel J. Kumar Mass Communication in India Jaico Publishing House PP 1-3
 www.ted.com/talks/michael_anti_behind_the_great_firewall_of_china/transcript?language=de accessed on 10/10/2015
 Hamid Dabashi The Arab Spring: The end of Colonialism pp.18-20
 (Edit) by Dagmar Bernstorff and Hubertus von Welck (2003) Exile as Challenge. The Tibetan Diaspora
 accessed on www.ted.com/talks/michael_anti_behind_the_great_firewall_of_china/transcript?language=en
 Guan, S. Intercultural Communication (in Chinese). Beijing: Beijing University Press.
 “obfsproxy”. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
 2015 Chinese Social Media Statistic and Trends info graphic
 World Report 2015 ( Human Right Watch )accessed on Watch www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/wr2015_web.pdf
 Censorship and Deletion Practices in Chinese Social Media
 Karthrin Hille: Real Name rule to add Sina Weibo’s Woe.
 In China, microblogging sites become free speech platforms by Keith B.Richburg, Washington Post
 Cyber Tibet
 Accessed on 10/10/2015 Tibetan Political Review
 accessed on 09/10/2015 https://www.savetibet.org/petition-delivered-to-facebook-to-let-tibetan-voices-be-heard
*Tenzin Dalha is a Visiting Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.