Asia Pacific

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: “Legitimate” Exercise of Free Speech

Tibet, Tibetan, China news, Chinese news, Tibet news, Asian news, Asia news, Asia Pacific news, human rights, human rights abuse

© Yury Birukov

February 22, 2018 17:37 EDT

An activist faces prison for criticizing the Chinese government’s suppression of Tibetan identity.

Various media outlets are reporting the story of a Tibetan activist, Tashi Wangchuk, threatened by the Chinese government with 15 years in prison for the crime of “inciting separatism.” Diverse human rights groups have come to his defense. A spokeswoman for Amnesty International, Roseann Rife, summed it up: “Exposing and criticising the suppression by government of Tibetan language and culture was a legitimate exercise of free speech. Labelling it as a form of ‘inciting separatism’ demonstrates how the Chinese authorities blatantly misuse this criminal charge to silence dissent.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


In conformity with a person’s culturally determined interpretation of the law, even when that person knows that the authorities apply the law with a different interpretation

Contextual note

To understand the meaning of this story — or any story in the news — the reader should pay attention to clues about motivation. For example, “Tashi Wangchuk said that if the courts refused to hear his case, it would prove that the Chinese legal system would not solve issues surrounding Tibetan rights. ‘If this comes to an end and I’m locked up and cannot proceed with what I’m doing and they force me to say or do things I don’t want to say, I will choose suicide,’ he added.”

This appears to be classic civil disobedience, in the Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. tradition, although neither of those role models would have threatened suicide. Martyrdom can be an effective public relations strategy.

Curiously none of the current articles covering this story mention Tashi Wangchuk’s background, readily available on Wikipedia and Tashi’s own Facebook page: “Tashi Wangchuk is a Tibetan filmmaker who works for Voice of America, Tibetan Service as a TV Producer and host.”

Calling Tashi an “activist” without mentioning that he is a filmmaker who works for Voice of America, “the United States federal government’s official institution for non-military, external broadcasting,” appears to be deliberately misleading.” Tashi’s Facebook page confirms his link with Voice of America, whereas none of the articles mention it and some describe him as a “shopkeeper.”

One is left wondering what the different parties — including human rights groups — are up to in their management of this news item.

Historical note

The status of Tibet, its language and culture within China has been a thorny issue for a long time. The Chinese government has a reputation of being heavy-handed and thick-headed in its dealing with diversity within its borders. But so have many nations, often with persistently violent results, such as Spain with the Basques and even more recently with the Catalans, of France with Alsace and Brittany, as well as the Basques and in fact all regional languages and dialects. The UK represents a rare case where minority languages are tolerated, but apart from Welsh, which does function as a functional “national” — but in reality regional — language

As one serious academic study confirmed, “It can …  therefore be seen through Tibetan students protests and the phenomenon of Tashi Wangchuk that bilingual education for Chinese minorities is still a sensitive and controversial theme in today’s China.”

Unfortunately for the defenders of regional languages, especially when the issue is which language will be used in their public education systems, history tells us that strong centralized nations are likely to have their way. They are the ones that can decide what “legitimate” means, however contradictory they may be with overriding political ideals, including tolerance of diversity.


The Daily Devil’s Dictionary seeks to clarify the often oblique intentions detectable in the vocabulary used by public personalities and the media. The background facts in this case are far from clear, but all media outlets appear to have aligned on a reading focused on the “letter of the law,” in this case the Chinese constitution. They assume a vaguely understood ideal of human rights to be the default position for stating the issue. They have also left aside what may be significant facts and have refrained from the analysis of motives, including those of the Chinese government, which include the consolidation of power, the homogenization of culture (rendering populations more docile), but also the achievement of “harmony,” a core value of Chinese culture.

Western media are more likely to reflect the value of competition, conflict and the act of challenging to improve rather than harmonizing to stabilize. Tashi fulfills the role of a Western media hero rather than an Asian social leader.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Yury Birukov /

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