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  HOME | Arts & Entertainment

Dhondup Wangchen, the Tibetan Filmmaker Who Fled China on a Motorcycle

GENEVA – Two years after leaving China clandestinely, Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, who spent six years in prison after the protests of 2008 in Tibet, told EFE about his experiences in prison, his escape from the country and his life in exile in the United States.

The 44-year-old director, who has come to Geneva to participate in a global summit of human rights organizations, is one of the few dissidents who has managed to escape from China in recent years.

He is now trying to adapt to western life without losing touch with the reality of Tibet.

“I have been travelling and sharing my experiences (...) I am in a new environment, learning a new language is challenging for me,” said the filmmaker, whose arrest 11 years ago sparked a campaign of support from human rights groups from around the world.

Wangchen was one of hundreds of people detained after the protests in March 2008 – shortly before the Beijing Olympics – in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, in which at least 20 people died.

“My arrest had no link with the uprising in 2008. Many Tibetans who were not involved in the protests were also arrested,” said Wangchen, who, in 2012, was given the CPJ International Press Freedom Award, which is presented by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The apparent cause of his arrest was the documentary called “Leaving Fear Behind” he made in 2007, in which Tibetans spoke about sensitive topics such as the role of the Dalai Lama or the political situation in China.

“The purpose of making this film was to tell the real situation inside Tibet. There is a huge gap between what China says and the real situation inside Tibet,” he added.

About his years in prison, the filmmaker recalls that the prisoners had to do manual labor all year round: “all prisoners are slaves and a source for the Chinese to make revenues.”

Wangchen spent those years stitching military uniforms for the armies of countries such as Iran and Afghanistan. He said that if the prisoners failed to finish the work within the stated amount of time, they would be deprived of monthly visits by their families.

Even after his release in 2014, Wangchen was subjected to constant surveillance and was unable contact his friends and family, as is often the case with political prisoners in China.

After getting permission from the authorities on multiple occasions to travel to the Chinese city of Chengdu for medical treatment, Wangchen hired a taxi during one of those visits to travel to the border province of Yunnan, a journey that takes several hours.

“There is a person (there) who can help people to come out of China. (...) He took me on his motorbike and crossed the border to Vietnam,” he added.

Wangchen is from the central province of Qinghai (where the Dalai Lama was also born), which is sandwiched between China and Tibet. Since the 2008 revolts, he said, the province had changed dramatically.

The filmmaker explained that prior to 2008, there was harmony between the neighboring communities. But after the revolts, he said that China created misleading propaganda that painted the Tibetans as separatists, which put the Chinese against them.

The director does not envisage a bright near future for Tibet, with the potential for a return to hostilies when the 83-year-old Dalai Lama decides on his succession and re-incarnation.

According to Wangchen, there could end up being two Dalai Lamas, one chosen by the Chinese government but not accepted by the Tibetans, a scenario which worries him greatly, he said.

In his opinion, it is not easy to achieve a political solution with an increasingly powerful China, which a growing number of countries want to befriend.

However, he urges support from the international community, especially Europe, which he says will not only help Tibet’s cause but also support justice and freedom.


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