The BoZhu Interviews: “The Tibetan Blogosphere is Expanding, but the Risks Remain the Same” –

an Interview with Dechen Pemba


Dechen Pemba is a UK citizen and an ethnic Tibetan. She is an editor of High Peaks, Pure Earth, a blog which translates Tibetan blog posts (in Chinese and Tibetan) into English, and she also runs a personal blog of her own. A short bio of her can be found here.

In July 2008, she was deported from Beijing, only weeks ahead of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. She had come to Beijing because things had gotten to a point where to really get to know Tibet today, you have to know what China is like.

The interview:

Q: You are Tibetan, a British citizen, and you once lived in Germany. When someone asks you to introduce yourself, what do you usually say?

A: I usually say that I am a Tibetan born in the UK – that’s something that people have usually already figured out from my accent! If the conversation goes further then I’ll also say that I have lived in Berlin and Beijing and spend a lot of time in New York.

Q: You have been to China. You worked in Beijing as an English teacher, and in July 2008, you were told to leave the country. You were banned to re-enter China for five years. How long did you stay in China? And have you ever been to Tibet?

A: I moved to Beijing in September 2006 to learn Chinese at the Central University for Nationalities. I lived there until I was deported in July 2008. I had been to Tibet twice before but in this period when I lived in Beijing I travelled to Lhasa once in 2007 and to Amdo several times.

Q: How was this experience? Were you seen as just another foreign-language teacher, or did it matter that you are Tibetan?

A: I was mostly seen as another foreign language teacher, the school I was teaching in only employed US, Canadian and British nationals and they could all tell that I was British, my ethnic background didn’t really come up in my day to day work there.

Q: You run a personal blog – Dechen Pemba’s Blog, and you also run or co-run High Peaks, Pure Earth, a blog which does translations of Woeser’s blogpost, Invisible Tibet. Woeser is Tibetan and lives in Beijing, and her topics are current affairs in and around Tibet. When did you start blogging on High Peaks, Pure Earth? Was blogging there a possible reason for the Chinese authorities to ban you from China?

A: I first started blogging on my return to the UK from China in July 2008, it was more out of necessity at first as I needed a personal online space to post statements for the media, it was the easiest way to get my side of the story out.
High Peaks Pure Earth started in September 2008 as a translations blog, a place where Tibetan blogs would be translated into English. Occasionally there will be original pieces featured on High Peaks Pure Earth but the content is overwhelmingly made up of translations. The work of prominent Tibetan poet, writer and blogger, Woeser, is translated the most.

Q: Why do you run a personal blog, besides High Peaks? Was there a key moment where you felt that you should share your experiences in and your feelings about Tibet which got your blog started? Or is Dechen’s Blog more about your life after having left China? Who are the main readers of Dechen’s Blog?

A: As mentioned before, I consider High Peaks Pure Earth to be more of a translations project whereas Dechen’s Blog is really a place where I can post my own thoughts, publish my articles and write updates about what I’m personally doing. If I feel like writing about Tibetan mastiffs, Tibetan rap videos or Chinese rock magazines, then I can just use my personal blog as a forum for these!

Q: Do you have a policy on trolls? Can you think of a reason to ban a commenter from your threads?

A: There is no official policy. Until now, nobody has been banned and the comments tend to be reasonable.

Q: Which are the three worst online articles or posts you have ever read about Tibet (that you remember)? Please name at least one Chinese, and one Western source. Feel free to name a third source from anywhere, but maybe there is one from this category from a Tibetan source, too?

A: There are too many worst articles to choose from. If I got worked up about all of them, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do so I’m just going to post one link from a Chinese source that I would classify as the most bizarre piece written against the Tibetan Youth Congress, JR, your readers can draw their own conclusions (!):
http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-04/12/content_7964785.htm
Sometimes you need some light relief I guess.

Q: But there are differences between the Youth Congress and the Dalai Lama, for example, aren’t there? Concering the middle-way approach advocated by the Dalai Lama, for example? Where do you see your own position, there?

A: Yes that’s right, the Tibetan Youth Congress stands for Tibet’s complete independence whereas the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile administration advocate the middle-way approach. Actually, a few days after I was deported from China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman announced to foreign media at a press conference in Beijing that I was a “core member” of the Tibetan Youth Congress. I don’t know where they were getting their information from as TYC is mainly based in India and I’ve never even been a member, so that was quite funny. I don’t feel that my own position is important for my work as I’m committed to putting the focus on Tibetans in Tibet, supporting and amplifying their voices.

Q: What’s the worst online article or post you have ever read about China (that you remember)?

A: Again, it’s hard to single out a piece right this second. I’m going to skip this question.

Q: Have you seen big changes in  the “China” or “Tibetan blogosphere” in general, since you started blogging yourself?

A: My feeling is that the Tibetan blogosphere is expanding and growing, particularly as more Tibetan join Weibo and mobile devices become more widely used. I think it would be fair to say that this is in keeping with the general trend in the Chinese blogosphere in the three or four years that I’ve been blogging. There are more and more Tibetan sites to monitor and Tibetans to follow on blogs and microblogs.
On a technological level, more and more apps are being developed in Tibetan and more and more netizens are enjoying the easier process these days to render Tibetan fonts and type in Tibetan. These are the biggest and most dramatic changes taking place. However, it must also be noted that the risks remain the same and Tibetan netizens have to remain cautious in what they blog and discuss online.

Q: When it comes to Tibetan online articles, I’m completely lost, because there seems to be no Tibetan translation function on “Google Translate”. Is there an alternative, if someone who doesn’t speak the language wants to get the gist, however roughly, of a Tibetan text online?

A: A Google Translate for Tibetan is a tool that I’d also like to see! For a general gist then this tool from the Tibetan and Himalayan Library is quite good but might be confusing for somebody who doesn’t have any knowledge of Tibetan:http://www.thlib.org/reference/dictionaries/tibetan-dictionary/translate.php

Q: Do you speak Tibetan yourself?

A: Yes, I grew up with Tibetan in my family.

Q: Which is your favorite blog, besides Woeser’s Invisible Tibet?  What’s the most informative online source about China?

One of my favourite Tibetan blogs that I always enjoy reading is called “Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet”. It seems to be written by a Tibetan woman who is based in the USA and every post is thoughtful and well-written, also thought-provoking: http://mountainphoenixovertibet.blogspot.com
I also check in every Wednesday to read The Lhakar Diaries, a blogging project started by a group of young Tibetans outside of Tibet: http://lhakardiaries.com/ What I like about it is that the project takes an initiative that started inside Tibet (Lhakar, meaning White Wednesday, a movement that started inside Tibet to assert Tibetan identity every Wednesday in small ways) and just runs away with the idea and makes it interesting and fun.
For China information I think China Digital Times does a great job aggregating news, if I’m too busy to read anything else, at least I feel like I know what’s going on if I glance over CDT: http://chinadigitaltimes.net/
To feel scholarly I will read the fantastic blog China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/ and for Chinese literature news I like to keep up with Paper Republic http://paper-republic.org/ and Bruce Humes http://www.bruce-humes.com/

Q: In your view, has Tibet changed since you started blogging? Has the Tibetan exile community? Has China? Or has the world changed? How so?

A: Gosh, big questions. I think Tibet, the exile community, China and the world have all changed over the last few years! It’s too much really to get into.
I will say though that the self-immolations in Tibet that started in February 2009, continued last year and have intensified over recent months, have been the most disturbing new development in the Tibetan resistance movement since I started blogging. The self-immolations are a desperate plea for the world’s attention and unlike before, it’s possible to receive information about these occurrences relatively quickly, thanks to new technologies. There is even visual documentation of some of the occurrences and whilst this is sad to say, the series of self-immolations have allowed Tibetans outside and inside to process and connect with each other, generating real action worldwide in real time.

Q: When you wrote a translation of Woeser’s post remembering Phuntsog, who died from self-immolation in March last year, a commenter wrote that he had zero respect for the self-immolation. I disagreed with his suggestion that Woeser “ought to be banned from writing even to her own people”, and asked the commenter to respect Phuntsog, no matter if he agreed or disagreed with what he had done. But self-immolation is wrong, isn’t it? Isn’t there a danger that an action which is wrong becomes something celebrated, just to shame those responsible for the plight of Tibet?

A: Yes, I remember that post and also that discussion. Due to their extreme nature, the self-immolations in Tibet have provoked strong reactions from people all over the world, amongst non-Tibetans as well as Tibetans. Read these two reactions from female Tibetan bloggers in USA:
http://mountainphoenixovertibet.blogspot.com/2011/10/please-stop-killing-yourselves.html
http://lhakardiaries.com/2011/10/19/how-about-some-r-e-s-p-e-c-t/
By responding to your previous question in the way that I did, it wasn’t my intention to get into a discussion on whether self-immolation is right or wrong. Rather, when thinking about how things have changed over the last few years for Tibet and Tibetans, I felt I couldn’t possibly not refer to these 17 cases since 2009. These cases constitute a disturbing new development that we all have to try to come to terms with in our own minds, something I felt that Woeser, the other commenter, Mountain Phoenix and NYCyak were all doing out loud.

Q: Have your political views, or your view of the world, changed? If yes, how so?

A: No, I don’t think my views have changed.

Q: Does your interest in China go beyond the role it plays in Tibet, and in Tibetan affairs?

A: Yes I think so, although of course that would be my main interest in China. I studied various aspects of China during my Masters in Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, focusing on anthropology and literature as well as language. Living in Beijing and travelling in China also gave me a feel for the people and the place that I would never have developed otherwise.

Q: Is blogging your preferred way of discussing matters of public interest, or do other ways of expressing yourself – social networking, youtube, Twitter, etc. – matter just as much to you, or more? Which role does Global Voices play in your online activities?

A: Blogging is my preferred method of discussing Tibet and China, I mostly use social networking sites to share what’s on my blogs. I also publish articles on other blogs and sites such as The Comment Factory or as a guest writer, for example, most recently for WITNESS.
Global Voices has been a good platform through which to reach a wider audience interested in citizen journalism and underreported stories. It helps to put Tibet into a wider perspective in the context of everything else that is happening in the world. I really should write more for them, thanks for the reminder JR!

Q: Is there an unasked question to which you would like to reply anyway?

A: Nope! Thanks for this interview!

Q: And thank you for your answers!

The interview was conducted by an exchange of e-mails.

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All BoZhu Interviews

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3 Responses to “The BoZhu Interviews: “The Tibetan Blogosphere is Expanding, but the Risks Remain the Same” –”

  1. Interesting read. The immolations are terrible, and wrong, but they continue – the latest also reportedly resulted in soldiers opening fire on protesters t.co/WBJKC9aN.

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