China tightens noose around former Tibetan political prisoners deemed disruptive to social stability

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) has received information that Tibetan political prisoners released since 2014 in Qinghai Province, which includes Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo, have been made to wear 24-hour GPS monitoring ankle bracelets that can monitor movements and record conversations.

This information, although unverified, comes close on the heels of a recent news report of Tibetan political prisoners given a mobile phone each upon their release, with the strict instruction of not using any other devices for communication.

The monitoring and surveillance of Tibetan political prisoners are not new but it has intensified under President Xi Jinping resulting in the standard practice of monitoring individuals, referred to as “key persons”, deemed disruptive to the political and social stability of the Chinese state.

The “key persons” identified in Tibet include former political prisoners, those who returned from exile, monks and nuns not registered with monastic institutions, participants in the 2008 Tibetan uprising, those who have received Kalachakra initiation from the Dalai Lama, etc. They are kept under strict watch and are frequently subjected to forced political education and thought control.

Irrespective of their detention status, all Tibetan political prisoners are closely monitored and subject to random government inspections and mandatory interrogations especially during sensitive political anniversaries.

Upon their release, all political prisoners are required to serve a supplementary sentence of “deprivation of political rights”, usually ranging from a year to a lifetime. Many fundamental human rights such as the right to freedom of movement and travel and freedom of expression are denied when serving this supplementary sentence. Released prisoners are also required to report to the local security offices several times a month.

The use of GPS monitors and state-sanctioned mobile phones is yet another addition to the long list of tools used by the Chinese state to control Tibetan dissidents. Going further, it ensures that former political prisoners are unable to cross the border and flee into exile to tell their stories to the world. A considerable number of former political prisoners have and continue to advocate articulately for Tibet internationally, helping to expose the disinformation and propaganda emanating from Beijing.

According to an advert by a Chinese GPS ankle bracelet manufacturer, the bracelet has a sim card installed that sends alerts when the wearer crosses a set physical boundary or removes the GPS. The device is weather-resistant and can be customized to record conversations.

More recently, China launched a crackdown on “illegal” online activities involving seizure and search of mobile phones and close monitoring of online chat groups in Wonpo (Ch: Wenbo) and Sershul  (Ch: Shiqu) County in Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, in the Tibetan province of Kham.

Tibetan language rights activist Tashi Wangchuk who was released in January 2021 after completing five years’ imprisonment for “inciting separatism” continue to live under restrictions, banned from contacting “outsiders” including his lawyers, and unable to exercise his freedom of movement. It took him eight months to get the necessary permission to go on a pilgrimage in September this year.

Despite government censorship, he has been posting his thoughts on a newly opened Weibo account many of which have been removed. A screenshot of a deleted post read, “Freedom of Expression is the mother of all rights”. On 26 September, he shared photos from his pilgrimage captioning them: “Obstacle-filled Pilgrimage”.

Chinese authorities tightly control any information about the status of Tibetan political prisoners by threatening family and relatives of grave consequences if they disclosed such information. Tibetan political prisoner Gendun Drakpa was released in frail health in August but this information only became available last month. Despite his poor health, Drakpa is required to report to the local police every month.

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