By Susanne Ramirez de Arellano
Since she was a small child, Tsering Woeser dreamt of being a journalist. As she grew up, she became a writer and documented what she saw around her. What she saw was a nation whose recent history had been one of aggression and loss of sovereignty. A nation occupied. A nation silenced. She became its messenger.
Woeser was born in Lhasa in 1966, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Her father was a high-ranking military officer of the People’s Liberation Army and a Communist Party member. She vaguely remembers Tibetan spoken at home. At the age of four, her father was transferred to the east, to a part of Sichuan. Woeser was raised in Chinese circles and was educated in Chinese. She never learned to read or write in her own language, Tibetan. In truth, she could have easily forgotten there was a Tibet.
That would not be the case. Upon entering university, Woeser began to question her identity. After two years as a journalist, she moved back to Lhasa. She became the editor of Tibetan Literature - the leading Tibetan literary magazine. As she built a reputation, Woeser began re-discovering her country and writing about it in lyrical prose.
Woeser’s second book, Notes on Tibet
, a set of frank essays about modern life in Tibet published in 2003, ran afoul with the Chinese authorities. The book became a best seller in China and was promptly banned. Officials in Beijing felt that it highlighted opinions “harmful to the unification and solidarity of our nation.”
Her persona non grata status began in earnest months later. She was dismissed from her position at her work unit, the Tibet Autonomous Region Literature Association, and deemed to have stepped “into the wrong political terrain.” She in turn decided to leave Lhasa and go into self-exile in Beijing. She said that exile was preferable to confessing that she should not have used “my own eyes to observe Tibet’s reality” and thus “violate the calling and conscience of a writer.”
Unemployed, Woeser began using social media to keep telling the story of Tibet. Through her blogs, tweets, Facebook and Skype, she gave expression to the Tibetan reality. In a style that blends keen journalistic observation and familiarity with the reader – she bears witness. “I am a Tibetan writer,” she says. “The plight of Tibetans has for a long time been silent. Our voices have been replaced by others, who speak out and talk in our place. I believe there’s a need for us to strive for the right to speak for ourselves. Thus, I report the real situation in my writings.”
She does not consider herself a journalist in the traditional sense, but rather a “personal news outlet.” Her voice has become one of the most influential of Tibet and a powerful challenge to the Chinese government. Because she was educated in Chinese, she is able to communicate to a Chinese audience. That makes her one of the first Tibetans to play the role of a “public intellectual” in the debate about Tibet. She is one of a small group of prominent members of Tibet’s ‘Chinese Writers Group’ – a group of Tibetan writers and poets who have a command of Chinese, sometimes superior to that of Chinese writers.
Woeser has become one of the main sources of news about Tibet in China. Her books are banned in China and her blogs hijacked and destroyed. Her Skype identities have been hacked into and stolen, and her contacts all over Tibet and China reported receiving false messages claiming to be from her. The most recent incident was on May 28, 2010. She is under constant surveillance by Chinese officials and her movements are sometimes restricted. She was detained on August 21st, 2008 by police in Lhasa. She had gone to visit her family during the Olympics. She was held and interrogated for eight hours, accused of taking photographs of the army and police presence there. She was released and forced to return to Beijing.
On March 10th, 2008, when demonstrations swept through Tibet, Woeser was placed under house arrest in the Chinese capital. She could not travel to the United States to receive her Courage in Journalism Award in person because Chinese authorities will not issue her a passport.
Still, Woeser – even from afar – soldiers on to tell the world the truth. In her words, “Walking the roads alone, I’m a lot like a messenger.”