Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 7

On January 26, 2003, in Sichuan province, China executed Lobsang Dondrup, a Tibetan political prisoner, on allegations of having been involved in bombings aimed at supporting Tibetan independence. The execution, together with the suspended death sentence received by alleged coconspirator Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, is an alarming development and the latest chapter in Beijing’s continued subjugation of Tibet.

Lobsang Dondrup, 28, was arrested in April of 2002 following an explosion in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. Within days of Dondrup’s arrest, Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, a highly respected lama, was also taken into custody. This was not the first time that local authorities had tried to arrest him. They had made an attempt several years before the bombings, but local authorities were frustrated at that time by popular support for Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche. Members of his community, including Chinese followers, bravely wrote petitions praising the lama for his valuable leadership role in promoting community welfare.

After several attempts, the police finally arrested Tenzin Deleg Rinponche on April 7, 2002. On December 2, both Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche and Lobsang Dondrup were sentenced to death for their alleged involvement in a series of unrelated bombings that reportedly had taken place between January 2001 and April 2002. On January 26, 2003, in a closed hearing, the court placed Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche’s sentence on a two-year reprieve and upheld the death sentence of Lobsang Dondrup. The execution was reportedly carried out within hours of the proceedings at the Higher People’s Court of Sichuan Province.

The two cases highlight the disturbing methods that Chinese authorities have been willing to use in order to maintain control over Tibet. The accusations of bombing and sabotage leveled against Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche and Lobsang Dondrup reek of crude politicking. The authorities in the Kardze region first tried to repress Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche in the late 1990s, when they accused him of violating Chinese law both by “hoisting the flag of Lamaism and religion” and by building monasteries without governmental permission. Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche’s lawful travels to India and his support for the Dalai Lama made him a target. The presence of a charismatic Tibetan lama, whose popularity and influence extended even into the Chinese population, was viewed as a threat. Moreover, Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche was not only a spiritual leader, but had also been active in resolving conflicts between Chinese and Tibetans.

Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche was, in other words, a respected community leader who was held in high esteem by both the Tibetan and Chinese populations. As such, he had reportedly been engaged in the reconstruction and preservation of Tibetan cultural and of such social institutions as schools and housing for the elderly. The attempt by the authorities to brand as a “terrorist” such a popular religious and socially active Tibetan can only serve to exacerbate frustrations among the Tibetan people.

In order to extinguish any potential revival of spirituality in Tibet, the authorities have continually implemented policies aimed at marginalizing Tibetan monks and monasteries. The authorities recently destroyed one important center of Buddhist studies, located in Sichuan province, where thousands of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist followers had studied. Moreover, over the past several years Beijing had made a concerted effort to implement a set of “Comprehensive Propaganda Education” policies. These are meant to pressure individual monks and nuns into renouncing their devotion to the Dalai Lama. They are also intended to fight what authorities have called the “Dalai splittist clique.”

Against this background, it appears that local authorities have tried to use the sporadic bombings in Chengdu region as a pretext to arrest Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche. The link between Lobsang Dondrup and Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, for example, is a tenuous one. Lobsang Dondrup was once a monk at one of the monasteries headed by Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, and some reports have suggested that the two men might have been related. Authorities have claimed that Lobsang Dondrup “confessed” to the bombings and then implicated Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche. But given Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche’s dedication to the Dalai Lama, and the latter’s emphasis on non-violence, the charge seems incredible. Now that Lobsang Dondrup has been executed, there is no way to know what he actually told his interrogators. But it is hard to fathom how a well-respected Tibetan lama would come to have either the spiritual inclination or the technological wherewithal to collect explosives, and then to construct a bomb, to transport it and, ultimately, to detonate it.

Over the years the People’s Republic of China has imposed strict rules on the conduct of the Tibetan people. The most recent example of this effort is the “reeducation campaign” that has been directed at monasteries and nunneries throughout Tibet. The campaign is aimed primarily at eliminating the faith that Tibetans hold for the Dalai Lama. Monks and nuns who do not adhere to state doctrines on loyalty and faith are arrested, imprisoned or expelled from their monasteries and nunneries. But while the authorities may be able to control outward displays of loyalty to the Dalai Lama by banning photographs of him, they cannot extinguish the Tibetans’ devotion to the Dalai Lama–particularly in the face of an oppressive state machinery. Denying Tibetans’ faith in their religion and their self-determination is a sure way for China to foster resentment and anger among them.

Meanwhile, the secretive nature of the judicial proceedings and the swift execution of Lobsang Dondrup reveal just how arbitrary the Chinese legal system can be. Tibetans rarely expect to get a fair trial in courts filled with imperial-minded persecutors. In these courts, the rights of the accused are often neglected. Judicial officials proceed instead on the basis of predetermined intentions to prosecute suspected Tibetans of crimes against the state. The evidence gathered against an accused Tibetan in such cases is largely irrelevant when the real political objective of the courts is to project Chinese state power. And Chinese state media make clear that Tibetans are likely to pay a high personal cost for their political and social activism.

In bilateral talks on human rights, Chinese authorities promised both the United States and the European Union that Lobsang Dondrup’s death sentence would pass through a “lengthy” process of appeals. But despite these pledges the execution of Lobsang Dondrup took place without any further discussion, while Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche finds himself on death row.

China’s repeated broken promises to the international community on the subject of improving its human rights performance strongly suggest that these promises are little more than a gimmick aimed at gaining cooperation from Western governments and businesses. In fact, Beijing’s flagrant dismissal of the rights of the innocent is evidenced by its continuing disregard for human rights norms and for established legal processes in capital crimes. The absence of an equitable judicial process–one that includes observers from the international community–in the sentencing and the swift execution of Lobsang Dondrup serves only to fuel controversy and to sow the seeds of continued mistrust and resentment.

China’s vitriolic campaign against the Dalai Lama and his followers is nothing new. For decades, Chinese leaders have been frustrated by the faith that most of the six million Tibetans have in the Dalai Lama. In dealing with this restive population, Chinese authorities have targeted the Tibetans’ hopes of self-determination and their allegiance to the Dalai Lama. China’s opportunistic use of the “terrorist threat” and the preoccupation of the United States with the “war on terrorism” have provided convenient cover for officials in Beijing. They are perfectly happy to connect their half-century struggle against Tibetan self-determination with Washington’s fight against terrorism.

The Dalai Lama is one of the staunchest advocates of nonviolence of our time, and the Chinese effort to fault Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche for his affiliation with this man of peace is truly confounding. It is only natural for Tibetans to interact with the Dalai Lama. But the People’s Republic of China apparently does not intend to allow ethnic and religious minorities to be active in their communities. By embracing such policies, China’s leaders are in fact shattering their own myth of a “unified China.” They are apparently also determined to continue to deny Tibetans their fundamental human right to pursue their faith without fear of persecution.

Wangchuk Meston, a researcher with International Campaign for Tibet, is a human rights advocate and has been involved in field research relating to refugees, migration and population transfer in Tibet, including the World Bank project in Qinghai Province.