China Sentences Wealthiest Tibetan to Life

The Times UK (subscription link) is reporting that Dorje Tashi, believed to be the wealthiest Tibetan in Tibet, has been sentenced to life in prison by the Chinese government. No charges have been disclosed, though it is suspected that Dorje Tashi is being targeted for political activities. His trial lasted only three days and his brother was also sentenced to six years in jail, again on unknown charges.

Dorje Tashi was arrested and held without charges after the spring 2008 national uprising; his brother was arrested shortly after and held as well.

What’s particularly notable with the Times’ report is this passage:

Dorje Tashi had many other business interests and was believed to have close links with the Chinese authorities in Tibet that had enabled him to build up his enterprises and which prompted many Tibetans to regard him as something of a turncoat.

Shortly after his arrest, reports surfaced that he had been held on charges of corruption. However, Tibetan sources said there were also rumours that, like many other well-off Tibetans, he had donated some of his wealth to monasteries or even to the Dalai Lama.

Such donations would have enraged the authorities after most of the main monasteries in and around Lhasa staged peaceful demonstrations in the days leading up to the March 14, 2008 riot.

Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University, said the harsh sentence underlined talk in Tibet of a pattern or retribution against prosperous Tibetans suspected of giving money to monasteries.

He said: “It looks like a long-term drive among Tibet officials to oppose and criticise lay donations to monasteries. It is baffling because leading businessmen have always avoided politics as far as anyone has ever known and have benefited from the current Chinese economic system.”

This isn’t terribly different from other prominent cases we’ve seen over the last two years. Dorje Tashi had close ties to the occupying Chinese government and officialdom. He was a respected businessman who ran one of the most successful hotels in Lhasa. He had no history of public political action. And yet, he was detained and disappeared for over two years and even now, there is no clarity about what charges he faced and why he was convicted.

This is a fairly similar set of facts to the jailing and subsequent disappearance of Karma Samdrup, a prominent Tibetan environmentalist and philanthropist who was long considered to be a widely respected Tibetan with close ties to the Chinese government.

While there is similarity between Dorje Tashi and Karma Samdrup’s cases – prominent, wealthy, non-political Tibetans with close ties to the Chinese government – there is not the same degree of similarity to the cases of Tibetan artists and cultural figures who have recently been arrested. Some of the most prominent are the writer Shogdung, the musician Tashi Dhondup, the blogger Kunchok Tsephel, and the film maker Dhondup Wangchen. While these are very famous and prominent individuals, they were somewhat more openly political than what we know about Dorje Tashi and Karma Samdrup. These cultural figures have been first and foremost advocates for Tibetan culture. But the culture has become political, as Tibet is undergoing an intellectual and artistic Renaissance.

The common denominator in all of these cases is that the Chinese government is cracking down on any Tibetan individual who achieves prominence, even within the colonial system, and maintains a Tibetan identity. Cultural leadership and preservation of the Tibetan identity is a threat to the continued Chinese occupation of Tibet. As cultural outlets become more consistent avenues for expressions of political views, the Chinese government’s stranglehold on power will only be more threatened.

The problem with this is that culture should be an outlet that every nation has free and open recourse to, regardless of the content of the ideas expressed in song, poem, film, and art.  Cracking down on cultural figures, environmentalists and businessmen is the sign of a powerful dynamic in Tibet: ever-increasing sickness of Chinese rule and ever-increasing strength of the Tibetan identity. In the long run, it is exactly this dynamic that is most likely to bring change to Tibet.

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