Tibet: China Imprisons Local Land Defenders

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Tibet: China Imprisons Local Land Defenders
By: Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD)
28 April 2019

Nine Tibetans sentenced up to 7 years in prison under China’s “organised crime” crackdown

A notice issued in February 2018 by the Tibet Autonomous Region Public Security Department had criminalised various human rights activities such as local activists espousing causes like economic freedom, right to livelihood, environmental protection, cultural freedom (Article 5); community fundraising or providing donations to the “Dalai Clique” (Article 6); the role and influence of native leadership systems in mediating community conflicts (Articles 9 and 10); and resisting land grabs, demolitions, infrastructure projects and other related development projects (Article 11).

Earlier this week, a Chinese court sentenced nine Tibetans from three to seven years in prison in Rebkong (Tongren, in Chinese) County, Malho (Huangnan, in Chinese), Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, in the Tibetan province of Amdo. The nine Tibetans from Horgyal village namely Gendun Soepa, Choesang, Bhende Dorje, Tashi Tsering, Sonam Gyal, Dhargye, Shawo Tsering, Khajam Gyal, and Dukbum Tsering were convicted for founding an “evil organisation” to engage in “forced business transaction,” “extortion and deceit” and “disturb social order by mobilising support from the public.”

This is the first criminal case handled by the Tongren County People’s Court that is related to the three-year nationwide crackdown on organised crime and evil forces announced in January last year. The court ruled that the Tibetans had created an “‘illegal organization” of 24 khagovas (literally “heads” or “leaders”) to control the “two committees” of the village and usurp “grassroots political power” by “taking over the duties of the two committees.” The court added that the nine “ringleaders” of the organization “maliciously obstructed the government’s land acquisition work and normal construction operations, committed serious crimes that constitute a crime of gathering people to disturb social order.”

Chinese state media first reported the arrest of the khagovas in November 2018. The arrests were made in connection with the campaign against “organised crime” and “evil forces,” and the Tibetans were accused of engaging in unlawful activities of “controlling grassroots governance and interfering with political and other affairs of the village” through an “evil organisation” founded on 21 February 2017. At the time, the arrested Tibetans were awaiting further investigation from the county and prefecture-level police and the “organised crime” unit. They were detained in July and arrested formally in August.

Information obtained by TCHRD indicates that the arrests were made to suppress a long-running campaign by villagers to reclaim community land expropriated by local government for a failed business enterprise and to neutralise the influence and authority of traditional village leadership system. A copy of the petition obtained by TCHRD shows that the petition was submitted as a supporting and guarantee letter by the Village Committee of Hor Gyal Village on 21 February 2017. Bearing the signatures of the 24 khagovas and with the support of 500 villagers, the letter complained that the village land had been used to open three brick factories that were then closed in 2011 when the policy for environmental conservation was announced. While the government paid substantial monetary compensation to the factory owners, the villagers had not received their share of compensation for seven years. The petition had the stamp of approval from the Village Committee, thereby debunking claims made by Chinese authorities that the khagovas’ actions challenged the authority of the Village Committee.

The term khagova, in local parlance, refers to a senior and knowledgeable member of the community who is usually consulted on important affairs of the village. The khagovas, or leaders, are part of the traditional Tibetan leadership system, and their advice and suggestions carry weight in the community. One of the primary targets of the war on “organised crime and evil forces” are grassroots organisations in farming and nomadic communities where the Communist Party is busy expanding its influence and networks at lower-level jurisdictions and primarily in rural areas.

The Villagers’ Committee (cunmin weiyuanhui, in Chinese) is the most-proximate administrative unit in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Under the PRC’s Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committee, villagers theoretically can elect members to the Villagers’ Committee, which is authorised to manage the public affairs of the village, taking into account the interests of the villagers.[8] Although heavily controlled, grassroots village elections have helped to restructure relations between villagers’ committees and village Party branches. Some scholars have viewed village self-government “as an effort to exchange limited democratic rights for popular compliance with state policies.” Although the text of the Organic Law does not make it clear, early proponents of the law viewed village elections as a crucial means for the promotion of the villagers’ autonomy. In Tibet, village Party committees are more powerful and influential than the villagers’ committee due to the Party’s control over local government cadres.

On 1 January 2019, the PRC adopted the Regulations on the Supervision and Discipline of the Communist Party of China’s Discipline Inspection Organs, mandating the expansion of Party rural grassroots organizations in all spheres of government. It replaced the 2017 Regulations on the Supervision and Discipline of the Communist Party of China’s Discipline Inspection Organs (Trial)” issued by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. As part of the new regulatory requirements to strengthen the political capacity building of grassroots party organizations, Chinese authorities in Shigatse City opened a “political education training camp” on 1 October 2018 that focuses on training “grass roots Party cadres in rural and pastoral areas” in the “basic party building and anti-separatist struggle.”

On 4 May this year, the Tibet Youth Palace will open its doors to Tibetan children and youth in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) for “off-campus activities, inheriting excellent historical culture, strengthening patriotism and national unity education.” The facility, with its total construction area of more than 26,000 square meters and more than 9,000 square meters of the underground garage, is one of the many so-called training institutes used to hide the political re-education campaign.

The PRC’s return to totalitarian ideology has led to increased Party control over grassroots institutions and greater surveillance over the lives of ordinary people. New regulations require all grassroots organisations such as companies, villages, schools, research institutes, communities, social organisations and military units to open a Party cell with three or more members. By the end of 2016, 70 percent of foreign-funded firms and 68 percent of all private businesses in PRC had set up Party branches, according to official figures. The increased efforts to “strengthen political power at the grassroots level” have led to an unprecedented tightening of control and political repression in Tibetan areas turning Tibet into a human rights black hole.

Reasons and Guarantee Letter for Returning Brick Factories to Village Government:

In general, the land on which the three brick factories are built belongs to the government of Hor Gyal village. In 2002, the factory owners made repeated appeals to the village government office to let them build the brick factories claiming that it would benefit both the people and the government. The village government office relented and settled on an annual land lease amount of 16,000 yuan to be given to the village committee. Thereupon, for 7 to 12 years, the factories paid their taxes to the village government. In 2011, the local government closed the brick factories to implement the policy of environmental protection. For the next seven years, the factories no longer paid their taxes to the village government.

Nevertheless, the factories received compensation worth 60,000, 70,000 and 80,000 yuan, respectively, after the closure of the factories. Since then, the villagers have appealed for the return of community land to the village government but there has been no action taken to address this issue. For the past many years, all in the village, including the big and small, the old and young, have called for the return of community land. The village government, after much discussion with the local people, appointed 24 people to head the khagova group, to exchange views and continue the system of seeking truth.

According to the petition, “the village government has appointed the following persons to the khagova group:

1. Takchey Gyal

2. Kubum Gyatso

3. Thukje Kyab

4. Gendun Soepa

5. Choesang

6. Palsang Gyal

7. Tashi

8. Dorjee Wangyal

9. Lubum Tashi

10. Rinchen Dorje

11. Orgyen

12. Shawo Tsering

13. Tsering Samdup

14. Sonam Gyal

15. Choephel

16. Namlha Gyal

17. Chakjam

18. Tseten

19. Dolma

20. Dhargye

21. Paljor Gyal

22. Tagyen

23. [Not clear]

24. [Not clear]

While dispensing their duties, the above-mentioned khagovas will have support from 500 villagers. And whatever issues arise, big or small, the village government will take full responsibility.

Hor Gyal Village Committee

21 February 2017”


“Our prefecture publicises the public hearing on organised crime case” [in Tibetan], Malho Tibetan Newspaper (April 2019), at: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MzAwNzk2ODM0NA==&mid=2247490648&idx=1&sn=f095eebe8f40b4446548d4b197b5ecb4&chksm=9b775f6fac00d679ffe234b9c725fc60ce5e4b73f5e0d0945c7a943b5ebc072428f319fd86fd&mpshare=1&scene=1&srcid=&pass_ticket=m1IuGibp%2FBKOjY%2FLFsmo9gCgGAJDrPiFOC7c4SbsPDLBcCu0P5ja%2ByjF2V2RPeSE#rd.

“Notice of the Tibet Autonomous Region Public Security Department on Reporting Leads on Crimes and Violations by Underworld Forces,” translated in “Illegal Organizations”: China’s Crackdown on Tibetan Social Groups (New York: Human Rights Watch, 30 July 2018, at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/07/30/illegal-organizations/chinas-crackdown-tibetan-social-groups#

“Malho police crush illegal organisation” [in Tibetan], Malho Tibetan Newspaper (29 November 2018), at: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s?__biz=MzAwNzk2ODM0NA==&mid=2247488996&idx=1&sn=5004ce5ecb53fc51395d66fc1731b3fa&chksm=9b7756d3ac00dfc5259e08d9fe07c59366beb4dae2b7fe30cd712c356530d73864676e20aa5c&mpshare=1&scene=1&srcid=0110Gl94BlifPxIWFR9PkBin&pass_ticket=G6XQuMWdnYVFcHoXKQcXj4MdkqwaeIm7NApsxnbSNvwv2GfQ%2FcdZFAGsB9pAwARU#rd.

“Tongren County People`s Court held a public hearing: ‘Looking at Guo Wa’ evil force criminal group case,” [in Chinese] Qingren Tongren County People`s Court (16 April 2019), at: http://hntrfy.chinacourt.gov.cn/article/detail/2019/04/id/3827757.shtml.

“CPC meeting reviews work rules of rural organizations, disciplinary inspection agencies,” Xinhua (26 November 2018), at: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-11/26/c_137632863.htm http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/Law/2007-12/11/content_1383542.htm.

PRC, Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committee of the People’s Republic of China, adopted at the 5th Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Ninth National People`s Congress on 4 November 1998 and promulgated by Order No. 9 of the President of the People’s Republic of China on 4 November 1998), at: http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/Law/2007-12/11/content_1383542.htm.

Lianjiang Li and Kevin J. O’Brien, “The Struggle Over Village Elections 2018-04-11,” in Merle Goldman and Roderick MacFarquhar, eds., The Paradox of China’s Post-Mao Reforms (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 129–44 (text) and pp. 382–89 (notes), abstract at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1977427.

Kevin J. O’Brien, “Implementing Political Reform in China’s Villages,” Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 32 (July 1994), pp. 33–60, at:


The General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, “Working Rules for the Supervision and Discipline of the Communist Party of China’s Discipline Inspection Organs,” Xinuanet (6 January 2019), at: http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2019-01/06/c_1123953624.htm.

Nectar Gan,”Xi Jinping targets grass roots in push to extend Communist Party control,” South China Morning Post (29 November 2018), at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/2175442/xi-jinping-targets-grass-roots-push-extend-communist-party.

“New China ‘crime’ crackdown targets threats to party rule,” Associated Press/Indian Express (16 March 2018), at: https://indianexpress.com/article/world/new-china-crime-crackdown-targets-threats-to-party-rule-5099764/.

TCHRD, 2017 Annual Report on Human Rights Situation in Tibet (May 2018), at: http://tchrd.org/2017-annual-report-on-human-rights-situation-in-tibet/.

Original article

Photo: Sentencing at Rebkong County People`s Court. 10 April 2019. Source: Tibet Watch.

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