'Nets in the Sky, Traps on the Ground'

By Richard Finney
Young military recruits gather for a ceremony in Beijing prior to their departure for Tibet, Nov. 20, 2011.

A bid by Beijing to expand a new surveillance and security system across Tibet significantly increases the monitoring particularly of ex-prisoners and exile returnees and raises tensions in a region already gripped by resentment against Chinese rule, a human rights organization said Thursday.

Official documents described the new system, created as a “grid” of community-based information-gathering units, as designed to improve public access to basic services.

But New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the system is part of an effort to expand even further a longstanding practice of carrying out security policies more restrictively in Tibet than in most of the rest of China.

Expansion of the grid system “means that surveillance is now a pervasive part of life across the region,” HRW said.

The move comes amid growing challenges to Chinese rule across Tibetan regions, including 109 self-immolation protests to date by Tibetans calling for freedom for Tibet and for the return of spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India.

The system, introduced to Tibet last year, focuses particularly on "‘special groups’ in the region—former prisoners and those who have returned from the exile community in India, among others,” HRW said.

Pointing officially to the system’s true purpose, Yu Zhengsheng—a  member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the ruling Chinese Communist Party—described the program in a Feb. 17 statement as a structure of “nets in the sky and traps on the ground,” HRW said.

“Chinese authorities should dismantle this Orwellian ‘grid’ system, which has been imposed while the government continues to avoid addressing popular grievances,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW.

“Its purpose appears to be surveillance and control, and it encroaches on Tibetans’ rights to freedom of expression, belief, and association,” Richardson said.

Intrusive searches

Civilian “Red Armband Patrols” linked to the grid offices have meanwhile been carrying out intrusive searches of Tibetan homes in an effort to find photographs of the Dalai Lama or other politically incriminating material, HRW said.

In one case last September, a 65-year-old Tibetan woman in the regional capital Lhasa was briefly detained after arguing with patrol members who attempted to force their way into the shrine room of her family home.

“Her son, Lobsang Dorje, 26, the owner of a shop selling mobile phones and other electronic items, was detained, severely beaten, fined, and made to sign a confession after he protested his mother’s detention,” HRW said.

Over 600 street-side police posts equipped with computers and video technology have also been set up in towns across Tibet to monitor people passing through, HRW said, adding that these checks are conducted on a “case-by-case” basis by officers who are required to be on duty around the clock.

Such monitoring, both by police and through the “grid,” is not likely to make Tibet safer, though, Sophie Richardson said.

“But the increased surveillance will surely increase pressure in an already tense region, even while the Tibetan people are still waiting for Chinese attention to rampant violations of their rights.”


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