On April 27, 2020, Global Times published an article titled “Exiled Tibetans eye return to China for fear of virus” which claimed that Tibetans living in India and Nepal “recognized the measures taken in the past months in Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region and even expressed the wish to return to China”. The Global Times is a subsidiary of the Communist Party of China’s primary mouthpiece, the People’s Daily and along with the Xinhua, CGTN (the international wing of CCTV) has been on the forefront of the CCP’s belligerent defense of its policies during this COVID – 19 pandemic. Therefore, it is not surprising to see such an article surface on its website and should be seen as nothing more than another jingoistic propaganda based on unfounded assumptions and nonexistent sources.
The article in question asserts that Dharamsala, which is demographically and politically the center of the Tibetan exile community, is plagued with the pandemic and unable to cope up with it due to the lack of proper medical facilities, quoting a single foreign tourist and Ling Yinghua, an associate research fellow at the Beijing Tibetan Hospital of China Tibetology Research Center, as evidence of its claims. Notwithstanding the legitimacy of these sources, it is a far-fetched assumption to make based on two individual accounts with no specific data to support it. As the article itself claims, there has been 41 COVID – 19 related cases in Himachal Pradesh, yet the only affected Tibetan entered India from the United States. At the time of writing this article, no new positive cases of COVID – 19 in the state has been reported in the past five days, while 25 have recovered leaving only 10 under treatment in hospitals. Furthermore the primary hospital in Kangra district ( Dharamsala falls under it) designated for the treatment of COVID – 19 patients is the Dr. Rajendra Prasad Medical College which houses more than 800 beds, significantly larger than the 20 – 30 bed hospital that Ling Yinghua claims as the “western hospital” of Dharamsala. The authority of Ling Yinghua’s statements is further thrown into doubt since the article states that Ling studied Tibetan medicine in India but according to the Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute, the principal center for the study of Tibetan medicine in exile, he was never associated with the Institute.
The Central Tibetan Administration has taken numerous preemptive steps towards the prevention of the spread of the pandemic among the Tibetan communities in exile. Like everywhere else in the world, Tibetans are vulnerable to the virus but in a diasporic population of more than 94000 people, the absence of even a single domestic case speaks to the positive efforts of the Indian central and states governments as well as the Central Tibetan Administration which moved swiftly in March to close down the Tibetan schools, offices and settlements to prevent the spread of the disease as well as keep the public informed about safety measures and data related to the pandemic. In contrast, the first COVID – 19 cases emerged in China in early December but the CCP suppressed public knowledge about the infection until the end of December when images and posts about it were leaked online. It was only in late January that the Government informed the people that the virus could spread by human contact and placed the Wuhan region under lockdown on January 23, 2020 but by then about 5 million had already left the city for Chinese New Year Holidays, the global effects of which is still being ascertained. Wuhan has reopened and at the present moment the CCP claims credit for the apparent successful flattening of the pandemic curve in the country. Such claims needs to be analyzed within the background of China’s continued suppression of free press in the country, as seen in March with the expulsion of journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal as well as clamping down on its own domestic media and medical professionals who stray away from the official State narrative. The spread of the pandemic on a global scale should be attributed to the CCP’s handling of the issue, from silencing the matter when it arose in December to its denial and then shirking responsibility for it.
According to official Chinese authorities, there has been one confirmed COVID – 19 patient in the so called ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’. Based on this statistic, the Global Times article alludes that Tibetans have a desire to return to Tibet, describing them as “Overseas Tibetans”. Yet such ambiguous description conceal the reality that Tibetans living outside their home country are victims of tragic circumstances, the perpetrator of which is the CCP. Ten Tibetans were arrested on 12 March on the pretext of spreading “rumors” related to the pandemic while the Government continues to intensify its surveillance grid in Tibet as well as throughout China. Numerous analysts have argued that the surveillance network intensification for tackling the pandemic in China will become a permanent part of the larger State apparatus, used to further clamp down on civil liberties. Outside of the ‘TAR’, other regions of Tibet incorporated into the larger provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu reported more than 70 cases on February 15 , highlighting the severity of the situation inside Tibet. Furthermore the deterioration of the Tibetan language in Tibet due to China’s bilingual education policy, the continued suppression of the Tibetan Buddhist faith and culture as well as the political crackdown on Tibetans during this pandemic speaks volumes for the disassociation of the Global Times article’s claims from the reality that continues to plague the Tibetan population in Tibet.
The article in question concludes by drawing an idyllic image of a Tibetan women in Nepal imagining herself back in Tibet surrounded by her family, safe and secure. The stark reality of the situation is that most Tibetans in exile would like to go back to their homeland and reconnect with loved ones and family yet they are unable to do so due to the six decades of CCP’s rule over the region. The CCP’s propaganda machine is a formidable one, both in reach and power, yet Tibetans continue to resist the Chinese State as it is unable to cloud the objective truth, despite there being a pandemic that it can and has employed to great effect for its own designs.
*Tenzing Wangdak is a visiting fellow of Tibet Policy Institute. He is a TSP Alumna and graduated from New York University. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute.