The story of Dhondup Wangchen, filmmaker jailed in China

A very moving article by Dechen Pemba, one of the last people to see Dhondup Wangchen (Tibetan filmmaker and citizen journalist) before he was detained on March 26, 2008 for making the film Leaving Fear Behind. Her article was profiled by the Committee to Protect journalists for International Human Rights Day.

Also, check out Dechen’s blog where she translates writings by Tibetans living in Tibet and China.

India China TibetThe story of Dhondup Wangchen, filmmaker jailed in China

By Dechen Pemba In Dharmsala, India, exiled Tibetans hold a vigil for the jailed filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen. (AP/Ashwini Bhatia)On the same day that historic protests started by monks in Lhasa began and were to sweep all over Tibet in the subsequent months, Dhondup Wangchen was nearly 3,000 kilometers away in Xian, in China’s Shaanxi province. It was the last day of filming for his documentary film project that sought to give voice to Tibetans in the run-up to the Olympic Games. As was the case throughout China, Xian was caught up in an Olympic fervor. Big red banners were hung all over the city, the Olympic mascots peered from shop windows in unspeakably bright colors. None of this however, seemed to have the slightest connection to Tibet or the discontent of the Tibetan people.

For many around the world, the protests that began March 10, 2008, were a surprise. International media were suddenly giving unprecedented coverage to a struggle that had been going on for more than 50 years. Journalists, NGOs, governments and even exiled Tibetans were given a stark reminder that a conflict was unresolved and that, in the run-up to the Olympics, Tibetans were still risking everything to be heard. It hadn’t take months of protests and a military crackdown in Tibet, however, for Dhondup Wangchen to be aware of the suffering of his people. It was something he had lived, and it was this that he was seeking to convey through film and simple testimony.

I had travelled 1,200 kilometers from Beijing to Xian to meet Dhondup Wangchen and learn about his film project. It was to be the first and only time that I would meet him. On arrival at the train station, I bought a local Chinese paper; I wanted to remember this day. Later on in the day, we even filmed Dhondup Wangchen with this newspaper as a record. Within minutes of our meeting, I was struck by his determination and drive to accomplish something that he felt was important—to depict the injustice of life as a Tibetan under Chinese rule. As one of his interviewees so eloquently said, “We Tibetans living in the PRC are like stars on a sunny day, we can’t be seen.” Just hearing the sheer scale of Dhondup Wangchen’s project was impressive, traveling through remote areas of eastern Tibet in the Tibetan winter of 2007-08 and recording under the harshest imaginable conditions the views of more than 100 ordinary Tibetan men and women, amassing more than 40 hours of video footage. All this with just a cheap video camera, no professional training in journalism or film-making, and constantly in fear of being detained for his citizen journalism activities.

Despite painful toothache that day in Xian, Dhondup Wangchen told me that he, together with his friend Jigme Gyatso, a monk, had come up with the idea to make a documentary as early as 2006. The year and a half before beginning filming, Dhondup Wangchen planned how he would make the film, even taking his parents, wife, and four children to India to safety so they would not be at risk when he returned to Tibet to make the film. Having a cousin in Switzerland meant that once the footage was safely out of the country, the documentary could be edited and prepared for an international release in time for the Olympic Games.

On August 6 2008, his documentary film, now edited into 25 minutes and titled “Leaving Fear Behind”, was screened to a select group of foreign journalists in Beijing. But Dhondup Wangchen, along with Jigme Gyatso, had already been in secret detention since the end of March. On completion of filming, they had gone back to their respective hometowns only to find the places in turmoil with almost daily Tibetan protests occurring and a huge military deployment under way. On Jigme Gyatso’s release in October 2008, it was learned that they had both undergone severe interrogations and torture in detention that included electrocution. It wasn’t until a well-known Beijing human rights lawyer took up his case early this year that Dhondup Wangchen’s sister in Xining even learned of her brother’s incarceration, another outright violation of China’s own detention laws.

Dhondup Wangchen’s trial reportedly started behind closed doors in September this year. According to Amnesty International he is being charged for “subversion and incitement to separatism” and has contracted Hepatitis B in prison for which he has received no treatment. After his Beijing lawyer was forced by the Chinese government to stop representing Dhondup Wangchen, local lawyers were appointed, leaving little hope of a fair trial.

I spent less than a day meeting Dhondup Wangchen. When we parted back at the train station, he told me to take care of myself and gave me a little bag containing some drinks and snacks for my journey. A few months ago on YouTube, I saw a video clip of pictures of Dhondup Wangchen in his teens, a casual-looking young man eager to leave behind the constrictions of his village on a quest for adventure greater than he could have known. The Dhondup Wangchen that I had met was older and thoughtful. The many months of constant traveling had clearly been physically exhausting. I had always thought of him as a kind of Tibetan hero, a citizen journalist and human rights activist but last month I was walking down the street in Dharamsala, northern India, with a friend who stopped to talk to the woman who sells bread there early every morning. The bread-seller was Dhondup Wangchen’s wife, Lhamo Tso. After spending time talking with her I suddenly thought about their separated family and of Dhondup Wangchen as a husband, a father, and also a son—and their own personal sacrifices.

Since August 2008, “Leaving Fear Behind” has been screened in more than 30 countries worldwide and translated into five languages, including Chinese. The worldwide campaign for his release continues. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Dhondup Wangchen, with just a small camera, a motorbike, his blue backpack and the help of trusted friends, found a way of expressing himself truthfully.

The simple truth is that just spending 25 minutes watching “Leaving Fear Behind” gives all the background necessary to see that some kind of uprising was surely inevitable in Tibet. But truthfulness in a state like China is always an act of defiance and can‘t survive without a struggle.

Dechen Pemba has been the spokesperson for “Leaving Fear Behind” since she left Beijing in July 2008. She is based in London.

Banned in Tibet: SFT’s 2008 Olympics Newsletter

We’re excited to announce that the newest edition of Students for a Free Tibet’s newsletter, Banned in Tibet, is now available online! You can preview it below and then download the high-res PDF file or the high-res JPEG photos of each page for viewing or printing!

From the global protests during China’s international torch relay to the Uprising in Tibet to the Beijing Olympic Games, it was a groundbreaking year for SFT and this jam-packed edition of the newsletter covers it all and more…

Features include:

* SFT Declares Olympics Victory: 8 High-Profile Actions in Beijing
* March 2008 Uprising in Tibet
* Historic Return March to Tibet
* How We Did It: Testimonials from the Activists
* SFT Spotlight Film: Leaving Fear Behind
* 50 Years of Resistance: 1959-2009

Spread the word to your friends, family, co-workers, and anyone else interested in reading more about SFT’s creative work for Tibetan freedom over the past year. In addition to the digital edition of Banned in Tibet, we also have print copies available. To order copies of the newsletter, please contact

Banned in Tibet is more than just an overview of Students for a Free Tibet’s activities — it’s a voice for the Tibetan people and a call for freedom from China’s brutal occupation of Tibet.

We hope that looking back on the Olympics campaign will inspire you to continue taking action for Tibet in the lead-up to the 50th Commemoration of the 1959 Tibetan National Uprising. At this critical time, help us ensure that 2009 is another historic year for Tibet.

Bad News For Everyone?

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been on the war path about New York Times columnist Nick Kristof’s writings on Tibet and China for quite a long time. In my view, Kristof has taken a remarkable arrogant stance on Sino-Tibetan relations that reveal a startling lack of moral fortitude. He consistently tends towards anti-independence positions while apologizing for the worst Chinese abuses of human rights with off-handed speculation of intangible improvements. I think Kristof’s writings on Tibet and China are some of the most offensive on any foreign relations issue by quasi-liberal American pundits since Tom Friedman’s cheerleading in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Indeed, I believe Nick Kristof is complicit in the abuses by the Chinese government of local petitioners and Tibetans alike in the lead-up and duration of the Olympic Games.

Unfortunately while Kristof is outraging Tibetans and their supporters, he apparently is also pissing off Chinese nationalists, too. A few days ago the China Daily, the English language state-organ, printed a seering attack on Kristof’s columns, which they viewed as overly pro-Tibet.

This is bad news because Kristof will likely view pissing off both sides as a great achievement indicative of his excellent standing as a Serious Person. It also means we’re almost certainly guaranteed to get more awful, arrogant columns on Tibet and China by Nick Kristof.


They Write Letters

Adam Zenko, who was detained near Tiananmen Square on August 10th following an SFT action that included the unfurling of a Tibetan flag by a Tibetan woman, writes to the editors of the New York Times in response to one of Nick Kristof’s ridiculous columns.

To the Editor:

Re “Malcontents Need Not Apply,” by Nicholas D. Kristof (column, Aug. 17):

Imagine my surprise to learn from Mr. Kristof that China is “no longer a totalitarian state.”

If he could somehow share this with the many thousands of Tibetan political prisoners, they would be gladdened to hear it.

Also, please pass the word to the undercover policemen who punched and kicked me on Aug. 10 while I stood near Tiananmen Square holding a banner reading “Tibetans Are Dying for Freedom.” Adam Zenko

San Francisco, Aug. 20, 2008

The writer is a member of Students for a Free Tibet.

Great work Adam. Podcast on Brian Conley & Beijing6

Bicycle Mark posts:

The following podcast features an interview with Brian’s wife, Eowyn, who explains what she knows about Brian’s situation, the group, and people who have risked their freedom and well-being in protest of the Chinese government and their disregard for basic human rights. More information can be found here. Please listen to the program and do pass on the link, otherwise all we have is the image of the mainstream press… the picture perfect images of the olympic games and China on television.

download and listen to the mp3 podcast here

view the original blog post here

Beijing6: Statement from Eowyn Rieke, Wife of Brian Conley

Dan Patterson is a personal friend of detained blogger Brian Conley, and has posted an amazing statement from Brian’s wife, Eowyn on his blog:

My husband, Brian Conley, has dedicated his life to helping oppressed people communicate their struggles to the world. Since 2004 he has worked on the video blog Alive in Baghdad (, which produces and distributes weekly video segments about daily life in Iraq and the impact of the war.

Brian went to China to document pro-Tibet protests taking place concurrent with the Olympics. He was not particpating in political actions, only documenting them as any journalist would. On August 19, 2008, he was arrested by Chinese authorities for this work, along with 5 others working with Students for a Free Tibet. Under China’s repressive government it is illegal to record expressions of free speech  and work as a journalist without state supervision.

She continues pointing out the amazing truth about Brian – he would absolutely hate all of this attention on him. In fact, he is more of the type to teach others how to blog and make video, then to actually promote his own work

Brian would be uncomfortable with the attention being paid to his situation. He would want us to focus on the people around the world who are truly struggling – as a result of war, global economics, racism, imperialism and other injustices.

Read the full post here:


It was only a matter time before the friends of an artist start making art for his sake…

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Forced Labor for 2 Elderly Chinese Protest Petitioners

No one could have predicted that Chinese petitioners asking to protest in “protest zones” during the Olympics would be punished for their views of dissent…right?

The New York Times reports on what we all feared would happen as a result of Beijing’s Olympic-related P.R. stunt:

Two elderly Chinese women have been sentenced to a year of “re-education through labor” after they repeatedly sought a permit to demonstrate in one of the official Olympic protest areas, according to family members and human rights advocates.

The women, Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, had made five visits to the police this month in an effort to get permission to protest what they contended was inadequate compensation for the demolition of their homes in Beijing.

During their final visit on Monday, public security officials informed them that they had been given administrative sentences for “disturbing the public order,” according to Li Xuehui, Ms. Wu’s son.

Mr. Li said his mother and Ms. Wang, who used to be neighbors before their homes were demolished to make way for a redevelopment project, were allowed to return home but were told they could be sent to a detention center at any moment. “Can you imagine two old ladies in their 70s being re-educated through labor?” he asked. He said Ms. Wang was nearly blind.

I’m sure Professional Asshat & China Apologist Nick Kristof thinks this is a sign of tremendous progress and liberalism by the Chinese government.

I’m sure that Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, and Giselle Davies, the IOC’s media stonewaller and question-dodger spokeswoman, think that this is not an event that merits comment from the sporting overlords who keep the impenetrably noble Olympic flame safe as a symbol of peace and global unity.

I’m sure that everyone who has ever looked at the creation of “protest zones” and praised the new direction the Chinese government is heading in because of the Olympics will not look back at what they’ve said or written and amend their statements in light of this Olympic crime. They will not admit their errors and they will not let reality revise their views on China.

In the name of all that any people around the world think is just and right, this is a crime. These two elderly women are being sent to a forced labor camp for asking for permission to protest. Not for calling for the overthrow of the Chinese government. Not for even protesting without permit. For taking the Beijing authorities at their word and saying, “We would like a permit to publicly ask for adequate compensation for the government destroying our homes to make way for the Olympic Games.”

This is sickening. This is what tyranny looks like. And it’s happening with the entire world watching, with tens of thousands of journalists, foreign dignitaries, and celebrities blocks away. Yet no one is standing up to stop it.

In my view, Jacques Rogge and the directors of the International Olympic Committee are just as culpable as the insecure tyrants who run the Chinese government for what has happened to Wu Dianyuan and Wang Xiuying. I hope Dianyuan and Xiuying are strong women and come out of one year of forced labor ready to continue fighting for their rights. But if tragedy occurs, and these two elderly women do not, then their blood is on the hands of Rogge and the IOC.