Paranoia, Censorship and Freedom of Expression

They had guns but I wasn’t afraid.

I didn’t believe that I’d be shot.

I was perplexed, annoyed, and shocked by the absurdity of the situation.

We were trying to cross the Chinese border from Tibet into Nepal. We were asked to declare any reading material – and consequently did so. I had a Nepal Lonely Planet book which I had pre-bought for our trip to Kathmandu. How could that be problematic?

Our passports were taken and rucksacks dutifully searched by the Chinese border officials. They found the book.

Two Chinese soldiers with big guns stood guard on either side of the customs official who called my Tibetan guide over to translate. The official flicked through the pages of the guide book – he knew what he was looking for – a tiny photo of the Dalai Lama. My guide explained that the book would be confiscated unless I personally ripped out the whole “History” section from the Nepal guide book.

This made no sense to me.

First of all, I love books, they’re kind of sacred. The idea of destroying them has always been anathema to me. Damaging a book for no good reason wasn’t right.

Secondly, okay, so I know that China has issues with the Dalai Lama, but it didn’t make sense to rip out the whole history section about Nepal. It wasn’t even about China, the book was about another country, and we were on our way out. Couldn’t I just rip out the photo or the few short paragraphs that mentioned the Dalai Lama?

Thirdly, I guess I was annoyed, I hadn’t read anything about the history of Nepal yet and wanted to use the guidebook while I was there. I’d carried the book for three months through several African countries to make sure we had it at this point. I didn’t want to give it up.

(For whatever reason, the Chinese authorities didn’t want to look at our Kindles…probably a good thing considering the preponderance of books about, and written by the Dalai Lama on my kindle at the time…. Although at least I could have downloaded the books again had I had to delete them…).

I remonstrated. Everyone got a bit nervous. I wasn’t happy. I was tired. I had a cold. I hadn’t had a proper shower, or a good night’s sleep for a few days.

Why was this a problem?

Tourist movements to and within Tibet are strictly controlled by permits. Tourists are unable to travel freely outside of Lhasa without a guide, and there are still parts of Tibet, which are routinely denied access to tourists.

My guide had already had a close encounter with the Chinese authorities at a check point earlier that morning. One of the travellers in our group was scheduled to fly out of Lhasa, but the office hadn’t provided our guide with the papers he needed to return. The officials weren’t happy. Our guide was ordered into a military building. I don’t know what happened. I only remember seeing him seriously shook up by the incident. He returned to our vehicle shaking and visibly upset, trying to hide it as best he could.

He could do without a recalcitrant tourist in his group at the border right now. He looked sad and embarrassed, probably for the both of us, as well as the nonsensical situation we were in.  My reaction didn’t help matters, even the border guard looked embarrassed. People tend not to get publicly angry in Asia because of the risk of losing face. Getting visibly annoyed is not the done thing in Asia.

Travelling in Tibet

China is a fascinating country. I’ve had the fortune of travelling there twice and still have lots to see. Despite the language barrier, we’ve always managed to get around pretty easily, and I’ve found the people to be warm and accommodating. I’ve always enjoyed my time there and the food is delicious!

Planning our trip to Tibet took a lot of work.  It wasn’t uncommon for permits to be denied or cancelled at the last moment. Friends had had their trips cancelled twice as a result of last minute changes in regulations. For example, nationals of a country could be swiftly denied entry if the leader of that nation chose to meet with the Dalai Lama, or did something else that upset China. Until we arrived in Lhasa, I couldn’t quite believe that we were actually going to see Tibet for ourselves.

Tibet was enchanting – the culture, the religion, the architecture, the local people, the spoken and written language, their customs, the food. It was all so different to anything we had experienced in China. To this day, Tibet is one of the most unique and breathtakingly beautiful places I have ever had the fortune to visit.

I’m not sure what I was expecting on my visit to Tibet. It had been an emotional trip, a whirlwind two weeks from Lhasa to the Nepalese border. I’d read extensively about Tibet before our arrival and had always dreamt about visiting. I was conscious of Tibet’s history and had read about the Chinese oppression. I hadn’t expected to see it so prominently, or for it to upset me.

The Chinese flags were ubiquitous. On almost every building, every house, the Chinese flag flew. Trust me, it’s not like that in the rest of China. It was a sickening statement of domination and oppression.

CCTV cameras were everywhere, including on our tour bus. I assumed that our speech was also being recorded.

Security was widespread. It was 2013, a few months after the number of self-immolations in Tibet had peaked, with more than 80 taking place in 2012.  These were ordinary Tibetans, (not just monks or nuns but teachers, students, mothers, fathers), who had set themselves alight to protest against Chinese oppression.

People were frequently stopped and searched, and security check points were peppered throughout the city. Armed and plain clothed officers patrolled the roofs and streets lined with local pilgrims. It was like a scene from a James Bond movie.

You could see the burgeoning Chinese influences, especially outside the old town in Lhasa. The Chinafication of restaurants and business as more and more Chinese people moved to Tibet.

The few locals we found who were willing to discuss the Chinese, relayed tales of destruction and told us with tears in their eyes, how they wish they could tell us so much but couldn’t. They were afraid for their lives and families. We were told of people being shot in further parts of Tibet for refusing to fly the Chinese flags.

Censorship and the Lack of Freedom of Expression

While in Sichuan, I was trying to Google the Dalai Lama’s schedule and couldn’t understand why the website didn’t seem to be working until Andrew reminded me were I was! Of course, I’m in China. (It still cracks me up that Chinese national television is called CCTV…!).

I understand the argument for censorship and limiting freedom of expression in China.  I’ve been to events where it was argued that western liberal democracy would be wrong for China.  One of the arguments being that the Chinese government rely to some extent on censorship and prohibiting criticism in order to unify its numerous disparate ethnic groups, required for economic stability. Freedom of expression is seen as something that China can’t afford. Its authoritarianism, a price most Chinese citizens are willing to pay in exchange for a prosperous country.

I’ve grown up in a society which does not censor the information available to its citizens in the same way, (as far as I know …), and where I’m entitled to go online and criticise the government in any way I want. Providing that I’m not inciting hatred or violence, I can express my beliefs freely, even if they were to offend huge swathes of people.

I’m grateful that I live in Europe where freedom of expression is protected by article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. I love how most Western societies try to balance the right to freedom of expression against respect for others, and the right to live without intimidation and harassment.

I live in one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, where people of all walks of life, opinions and religions live and work along side each other. I believe in a tolerant society, where people can freely voice their opinions and respect those with opposing points of view.

That’s valuable for lots of reasons. Society can only benefit from the freely held expression of ideas and opinions. Sure, we may oppose many of them, but intense discussion and free debate can only strengthen, or weaken the arguments behind those opinions. That’s how we refine ideas, and create better ones.

What did I do?

So, did I rip out the offending chapter from the Nepal guide book to comply with the Chinese authorities?

I’m ashamed to say I did.

I didn’t want to cause trouble for our tour guide and thought we might need the book in Nepal. (Another group member was ordered to rip out the map from his China Lonely Planet book – it didn’t include Taiwan as part of China…. Lonely Planet guide books can’t be popular in China!)

Walking across the Friendship Bridge into Nepal. We waved to our guide and driver, (our guide was probably glad that we were on our way at this point!).

How a powerful country like China could be so paranoid about a tiny section in a guide book, even one about another country, held by citizens from another country, on their way out of China, is beyond me!

Surely there are more important things that customs officials could be focusing on?

Or maybe not. Maybe it highlights the power and the importance of freedom of expression, one of the most important principles in the world today.

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