China clamps down on social media ahead of Dalai Lama’s birthday

Beijing sees the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader as a ‘splittist.’
By Pelbar for RFA Tibetan
2024.07.02
China clamps down on social media ahead of Dalai Lama’s birthday A group of children help the Dalai Lama blow out a candle on his birthday cake at the University of California, Irvine, July 6, 2015.
Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

The Chinese government is intensifying already stringent social media restrictions on Tibetans to keep them from celebrating the July 6 birthday of the Dalai Lama, two Tibetan sources said. 

Authorities already ban the possession of photos of the Tibetan Buddhist leader, who turns 89, and posting images of him or religious symbols on social media. 

But during the past three weeks, authorities have more frequently and rigorously checked the cell phones of Tibetan travelers to ensure they have not downloaded any photos, said the sources who live inside the western region of China and who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

Police also have summoned individuals deemed suspicious to local offices to warn them not to contact family members living outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, they said.

Exile Tibetans in traditional attire carry cakes to mark the 87th birthday of the Dalai Lama at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India,  July 6, 2022. (Ashwini Bhatia/AP)
Exile Tibetans in traditional attire carry cakes to mark the 87th birthday of the Dalai Lama at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, July 6, 2022. (Ashwini Bhatia/AP)

Every year, authorities intensify their monitoring of Tibetans in the run-up to the birthday of the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in northern India since 1959 and is viewed by China as a “splittist” seeking independence for Tibet. 

The Dalai Lama has maintained that he does not advocate independence but rather genuine autonomy to allow Tibetans to maintain their culture, religion and language under China’s rule, which has sought to Sinicize Tibetan-populated areas.

Knee surgery in US

This year, authorities are extra vigilant because Tibetans concerned about the Dalai Lama’s health following his recent knee replacement surgery in the United States may have downloaded his photo to their phones to pray for a speedy recovery, the sources said.

Chinese authorities turned down visa requests by some Tibetans who planned to travel to the U.S., after asking them if they were going to see the Dalai Lama there, sources in Tibet said.

Authorities have prohibited Tibetans inside the Tibet Autonomous Region and in Tibetan-populated areas of China’s western provinces from communicating with the outside world about the Dalai Lama’s birthday, the first source said.

Tibetan children gather around a cake during an event marking the 82nd birthday celebration of Dalai Lama in Lalitpur, Nepal, July 6, 2017. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)
Tibetan children gather around a cake during an event marking the 82nd birthday celebration of Dalai Lama in Lalitpur, Nepal, July 6, 2017. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

The second Tibetan said whenever he travels from Lhasa to Shigatse, the region’s second-largest city, authorities now closely monitor his mobile phone.

“I am questioned about whether I possess a photo of the Dalai Lama or if I have been in contact with anyone,” he said.

In Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Qinghai province, Chinese officials and monastery heads have ramped up propaganda efforts, urging Tibetans to exercise caution and self-control on social media.

Despite the government’s strict measures, Tibetans in Tibet continue to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday each year by posting poems and childhood photos of their spiritual leader.

Many also make traditional smoke offerings in the mountains and observe moments of silence.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster. 

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