Former Tibetan political prisoners tracked by government-issued cell phones

Use of the phones is required, with former prisoners forbidden to use phones of their own.
By Sangyal Kunchok
2021.11.11
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Former Tibetan political prisoners tracked by government-issued cell phones
Photo: RFA

Chinese authorities in Tibet are giving cell phones to former Tibetan prisoners in a move aimed at monitoring their movements and conversations following their release, RFA has learned.

Launched around 2014, the policy has seen state-provided phones issued especially to former political prisoners, who are required to use them and are forbidden to possess or use cell phones of their own, Tibetan sources say.

“Cell phones issued by the government have tracking devices installed in them that note your location and who you are meeting,” said one former political prisoner in Tibet.

“The SIM card used in these phones is directly linked to a government control office, but one does not have to pay for the phone service.," RFA's source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"If we keep our conversations a certain distance away from our phones, they are quite safe, though."

Also speaking to RFA, a Tibetan living in exile said he had seen these phones in use during a visit four years ago to Tibet.

“On my trip to Tibet in 2017, I was able to meet some former political prisoners, and they were all carrying these government-issued cell phones,” he said.

“I also met a former political prisoner from Qinghai who had spent a number of years in prison, and he told me that leaving the phone in another room helped to block the tracking device.”

Tibetan political prisoners are usually required to report each week or month to police on their movements and activities for at least one to two years following their release from prison, the source added.

“To keep track of released political prisoners, the Chinese government also monitors their family and friends through their use of their own cell phones and SIM cards, with the government especially registering the SIM cards of Tibetans considered by authorities to be a threat to national security,” another source living in Tibet said.

“My own cell phone was also taken by the Chinese government for registration, and it has now become very difficult for me to receive or share any kind of information,” the source said.

Pema Gyal, a researcher at London-based Tibet Watch, told RFA that the government program of issuing cell phones to former political prisoners was launched around 2014.

“And what we have learned from many former political prisoners is that it’s the Apple iPhone Model 4 that is being used.”

“So it has become even more difficult now to share information with each other,” Gyal said.

“It is almost comical, the lengths the authorities are going to track people,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “It is also very chilling that people would be obliged to carry government-issued phones with them, because we all know that these are essentially tracking devices.”

“This means that you will literally have the government listening to you all the time, and that will clearly have consequences for the freedom of expression,” Richardson said.

Formerly an independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force over 70 years ago.

Chinese authorities exercise strict controls over phone and online communications in Tibetan areas, sources say, and news of Tibetan protests and arrests is often delayed, sometimes for years, from reaching outside contacts.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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