How China uses zero-Covid policy to crack down on Tibetans
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There has been a widespread outcry from the residents of Lhasa, the capital of the Chinese autonomous region of Tibet, about how local authorities are managing a Covid-19 lockdown, instated on August 9. Many people have gone online to post videos showing crowded quarantine centres, which they have nicknamed pigsties. When the videos were quickly censored, locals said it was another example of the Chinese government silencing Tibetan voices.
More and more videos have been appearing online showing Tibet’s overcrowded quarantine centres where people are forced to sleep on the floor, wait in long queues in the cold, and are given rotten food.
Authorities put in place a lockdown on August 9 in Lhasa as well as two other Tibetan districts after 22 cases of Covid-19 were detected. As part of their “zero-Covid” policy, Chinese authorities immediately began a strict protocol – subjecting every citizen to a PCR test and placing anyone positive in a quarantine centre.
Across China, many videos have emerged showing abuses taking place during the enforcement of this policy. However, in Tibet, lockdown and quarantine conditions seem particularly harsh.
>> Read more on The Observers: Daily PCR tests in China’s Shenzhen as zero-Covid policy continues
People living in Tibet have been going online en masse to post videos documenting the disastrous management of the lockdown. However, many of these testimonies and videos are censored by the authorities and quickly disappear, before appearing again on other social media networks like Twitter. In this region, where the central government keeps a tight rein on freedom of expression, it is rare to see such widespread outcry emerge. It offers proof of just how angry people are.
To get more views on the cries for help from Lhasa under lockdown, some people have started “squatting” on a hashtag about mega-celebrity Angelababy 杨颖 smoking… pic.twitter.com/qPvA47wq3v— Alexander Boyd (@alexludoboyd) September 15, 2022
TW: SFT has received reports and videos from sources inside Tibet about the current situation Tibetans are facing. These are egregious violations of the basic human rights of Tibetan people and no one can turn a blind eye to this. Please share widely. #Lhasa #ZeroCovidPolicy pic.twitter.com/SYpGxT7JqP— Students for a Free Tibet (@SFTHQ) September 15, 2022
'You don't have any choice when the authorities decide to take you to a centre'
Ngawang Lungtok is part of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), an association that documents human rights violations in Tibet. The centre is located in Dharamsala, a town in northern India that is home to the Dalai Lama and a large number of Tibetans in exile. He says that many of the videos and testimonies that they’ve received prove that the situation is “extremely dire” in Lhasa:
People with or without Covid are being put inside quarantine centres, which is why a lot of people who did not initially have Covid were infected.
The centres are basically old buildings that are unpainted and under construction. People are served stale and spoilt food which only adds to the problem.
You don't have any choice when the authorities decide to take you to a centre.
Videos filmed in quarantine sites in Lhasa show filthy rooms that are, in some cases, still under construction or immense dormitories where people are sleeping close together without any privacy. Tibetans call these places "phaktsang”, which means “pigsty” in Tibetan. It’s also a play on words for "fangcang" (the Mandarin word that means quarantine centres).
Testimonies online say that the people in these quarantine centres don’t have enough food or medical care. Those in lockdown at home face similar conditions.
These images show the rotten food sometimes given to people in quarantine. They also show people waiting in long lines in the pouring rain to get a PCR test or to get into a quarantine site.
'The Covid crisis is a gift that allows China to silence dissent'
Faced with the growing outcry, one of Lhasa’s deputy mayors publicly apologized on September 17, admitting that the Covid spike had been badly managed. Our Observer says his concern is just a facade.
The vice mayor apologised not because he cares about Tibet and Tibetans, but because a lot of Chinese of other ethnicities live in Lhasa and were seeing the situation inside central, which forced him to perform this theatrical act of apologising. But the censorship crackdown has worsened recently. It's becoming very difficult for us [in India] to know what's going on now.
Since the start of the pandemic, Tibetans who have gone online to voice their opinion regarding the mismanagement have been immediately censored and had their posts deleted or accounts closed.
Under the auspices of a vague ban on “spreading false rumours”, Chinese authorities have been limiting freedom of expression, especially online.
In a way, the Covid crisis is a gift that allows China to silence dissent.
Tibetans have been treated differently for so many years. I think it is linked to ethnic discrimiation. Members of the Han [Editor’s note: the ethnic group that includes 91% of Chinese] believe that Tibetans are inferior.
Since the start of the spike in August, local authorities have threatened to go after those who “spread false rumours” for crimes including “inciting separatism”, “destruction of ethnic unity”, “destruction of national unity”, and “inciting subversion of the state”.
On September 18, three people were sentenced for having posted “rumours linked to Covid, inciting confrontation and calling people to assemble”, according to Lhasa police.
The Chinese central government has a strong desire to clamp down on those who call for an independent Tibet or one with more autonomy and this has resulted in increasing restrictions on Tibetans’ individual liberties.
Our Observer says that the Chinese government’s zero-Covid policy has enabled authorities to go even further in order to suppress any possible contestation in Tibet ahead of the 20th summit of the Chinese Communist party in mid-October.