Wang Lixiong and Woeser: A Way Out of China’s Ethnic Unrest?

Wang Lixiong and Woeser portraits.jpg

Sim Chi Yin

Wang Lixiong and Woeser

Woeser and Wang Lixiong are two of China’s best-known thinkers on the government’s policy toward ethnic minorities. With violence in Tibet and Xinjiang now almost a monthly occurrence, I met them at their apartment in Beijing to talk about the issue. In part one of our conversation, they discussed the difficult situation in both regions and the limitations of the Dalai Lama’s strategy for Tibet. In this part, they discuss the reasons for China’s repressive policies against ethnic minorities and offer some possible solutions.

Why has the Chinese government relied so much on suppression in Tibet and Xinjiang?

Wang Lixiong: Simply put, it’s due to their politics, but they can’t say that. They say it’s due to hostile foreign forces. After troubles started in Tibet they said it was the “Dalai Clique” creating trouble. When unrest started in Xinjiang, they said it was Rebiya Kadeer [a former Uighur businesswoman who now heads the World Uyghur Congress]. You can see the situation getting worse year by year, so it’s only possible to say that it’s their policy. It’s clear to people with just a bit of objectivity [that the repression is making it far worse], but the government insists it’s foreign forces and their conclusion is that the repression isn’t enough so they increase it.

Has the new Chinese government under Xi Jinping made any changes in its Tibet policy?

Wang Lixiong: People thought when Xi took office it would help because he didn’t have the baggage of Hu Jintao. Hu had been party secretary in Tibet. The line on Tibet had been set by Hu Jintao. So even me, a pessimistic person, I felt that Xi would take a new course and make some progress. But no, no change at all. In fact, it’s even harder.

So you think they can’t recognize that their policy has problems?

Wang Lixiong: In their hearts they know their policy is the problem. But they aren’t willing to explore other paths, such as autonomy, because it would be too unpredictable—it could lead to them losing control. All they can think of is to develop the economy and offer locals a bit of money. And if there’s any unrest then we’ll repress it fiercely. That can bring you a bit of temporary stability but it’s just muddling through.

What kind of changes could Xi make that would help the situation?

Wang Lixiong: True autonomy. Really letting people decide things in those regions. Stopping immigration. Those measures would win over a lot of people.

Woeser, you were born in Lhasa but lived in Sichuan from your early childhood. What was your knowledge of the Tibetan situation as a child?

Woeser: I started school in 1973 so the education I received was very Communist. When I went to school, the first thing we said was Long Live the Communist Party! and things like that. So I had no knowledge of Tibetan history. I knew nothing. The school wouldn’t mention anything—that we had a history or people. When I got to Chengdu for high school, again it was all Chinese. At home, my father had books on Tibetan myths and stories, but they were translated into Chinese. They were important to me because until university I had no idea about Tibet. When I filled out forms, I was a Tibetan but otherwise we used Chinese and learned about Chinese culture.

What was the turning point?

After graduating from university in 1988, I went back to Kangding to work. When I got there, I read a book of Tibetan history called In Exile from the Land of Snows by John F. Avedon. It had been translated into Chinese in order to be criticized. The minute it was published, they realized that was a mistake and withdrew it. But some volumes were already in circulation.

Avedon wrote a lot of the history, including how the People’s Liberation Army conquered Tibet in the 1950s. That book laid everything bare. I realized that everything I’d seen had been from the Communist viewpoint: that they’d liberated Tibet and so on. When I read this book I realized, oh, it was like that.

Did you believe it?

No. I couldn’t at first. So I gave it to my father to read. My father was a professional soldier—a member of the People’s Liberation Army. He was very laconic. He didn’t like to say much. But he said that 90 percent of it was accurate. So then I realized that it basically was correct and I thought, gosh, they killed so many Tibetans! I read that book several times.

At the time you hadn’t been back to Tibet since you left as a four-year-old. When did you finally have a chance to go?


When I was twenty-four, in 1990. I had sent my short stories to an arts publication in Lhasa, called Tibetan Literature, and they liked it. They invited me to be an editor. I went in the spring of 1990 and Tibet was still under martial law from the March 1989 protests. I got off the airplane and there were soldiers everywhere.

Where did you live?

I lived with my mother’s brother, my uncle. He had to carry a pass to go out on the streets. It was like Jews having to carry documents with them in Nazi Germany. My uncle was a Party member, and had joined at a very early age. This touched him deeply. Here he was a middle-aged man being harassed by teenage soldiers. I was okay because I don’t look too Tibetan so they didn’t bother me.

I was still reading and writing poetry. I didn’t have too much to do with Tibetans. I was still pretty red! But then my father was able to move back to Lhasa and a year later he died. I went to monasteries to seek solace. There I met monks. After they trusted me, they began to tell me what had really happened. They told me about the violence against Tibetans in 1989. I began to think I had to write that down. That’s when I started writing essays. I wrote their stories.

This went on until 2004?

Yes, in 2003, I published a book that the authorities believed had “political errors” because I wrote about the Dalai Lama and things that they didn’t agree with. So the magazine fired me in 2004 and I came to Beijing.

You’re Tibetan, but write in Chinese. Who are your readers?

Most are certainly Han Chinese. Some Tibetans do read my books, but most probably are like me and have had a Chinese education. Now there are more and more like me who only really know Chinese. Some of my essays are translated into Tibetan and published in India. In 2008 during the protests I wrote an electronic book of reportage that was translated. It’s fairly well known in Tibetan circles.

How many Tibetans just speak Tibetan?

Wang Lixiong: There are 6 million Tibetans in all, but probably just 3 to 4 million use Tibetan. So the traditional intellectuals in Tibetan—I mean the monks in the temples—they just use Tibetan. They’re the most cut off. Those who have an education, they speak Chinese. Those abroad speak English and other foreign languages. So it’s important to bring some of the new knowledge in the world into the Tibetan-speaking world.

If you translated [into Tibetan] some of the important and useful texts abroad on democracy and ethnic problems, that would be useful—nonviolent protests, etc. If they could learn about new methods of resisting or expressing themselves, that would help. No one does this, or at least it’s very inadequate.

Wang Lixiong, in your movie The Dialogue, you said that a country might have a fate—implying something that we can’t escape, or that is very difficult to escape. What did you mean?

In the future what I’m most worried about is that there will be more senseless killing like the Uighur attacks in Kunming, or that Chinese soldiers will continue to kill Uighurs indiscriminately in Xinjiang. We want to avoid this kind of bloodshed. But can we start a real dialogue to avoid the bloodshed? We need a dialogue but the moment we start one, it’s cut. We started a dialogue between Chinese netizens and the Dalai Lama but they closed it down. We had a discussion with Ilham [Tohti, the Uighur academic] and he was arrested. So even though we’re working hard, we’re not succeeding because we’re too weak compared to the government.

So what do we do? We have to keep trying. But will it result in anything? Will there be an effect? We can’t control it. So in a way every society, every country has its fate. This fate is perhaps something we can’t control. We can only do what we must do. At least we can tell our heart, I did what I could.

This is the second part of Ian Johnson’s interview with Wang Lixiong and Woeser. Part one is available here.

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in