The Chinese government released prominent Tibetan blogger Drukar Gyal, better known by his pen name Shokjang, late Tuesday after three years in prison, and likely torture, for his political writing.

Gyal’s arrest and sentence reflect a tightening of restrictions that has been felt especially hard in the disputed ethnic-minority regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where Chinese officials have long feared separatism.

While Chinese President Xi Jinping has presided over this crackdown and moved to consolidate his own power, President Donald Trump has praised him as a great leader.

“I don’t see any hope of change right now. But what I saw clearly was how bravely the writers and intellectuals reacted after [Gyal’s] detainment,” Golog Jigme, a former Tibetan political prisoner and a friend of Gyal who now lives in Switzerland, told ThinkProgress.

‘Heroic return’

Jigme fears Gyal is still under close surveillance by Chinese authorities and has not been able to contact him since his release. But Jigme was relieved to get a photo of Gyal on Thursday that appears to show him healthy and well after his prison term.

“After his release, I was hoping and waiting every minute for three days, hoping for a photo of him,” Jigme said. “Today I’m incredibly relieved and happy to see a photo of him.”

Migmar Dhakyel, campaign coordinator at the advocacy group Tibet Initiative Germany, translated from Tibetan during ThinkProgress’ interview with Jigme.

Prominent Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser, who’s based in Beijing, also greeted the photo of Gyal with relief on Thursday. “I can’t help but think of Homer’s epic,” she wrote on Twitter, according to a translation by Dhakyel. “To praise your heroic return, to rejoice at the fact that you are seeing the sun that lights the earth again, and to offer you a khatak [ceremonial scarf] and flowers.”


— འོད་ཟེར།唯色Woeser (@degewa) March 22, 2018

Chinese authorities disappeared Gyal on March 19, 2015, after he wrote a blog post about the deployment of security forces in the city of Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren), located in a disputed part of Qinghai Province. Gyal had written about other sensitive issues in the past — including the conditions facing Tibetan nomads, whom China has attempted to forcibly settle in government housing.

Authorities didn’t announce Gyal’s arrest until May 5, 2015, and a court did not convene until July 21. It convicted him for “inciting the splitting of the nation” on Feb. 17, 2016, and sentenced him to three years in prison and a two-year suspension of political rights.

“[W]ith my old mother and siblings looking at me with constant tears in their eyes, and my wife and children waiting for me every second, I await a proper decision as swiftly as possible from the Higher Court,” Gyal wrote in a stirring defense released online in April 2016.

Torture techniques like stress positions, beatings, and a starvation diet are common in Chinese prisons in Tibet, according to human rights groups — especially during the long period between arrest and formal charges.

“The beatings are quite common as a treatment for political prisoners in Tibet,” Jigme, himself a former prisoner, said. “But I would say the worst of it for him would have been the mental torture — the endless interrogations.”

‘The party is above the law’

The restrictions on intellectuals are just one element of a village-by-village system of control China has been perfecting in Tibetan areas before deploying it to other tense spots across the country, according to Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University.

Not everyone in Tibet feels that repression on a day-to-day basis, Barnett said — especially since the levers of control are more subtle there than in Xinjiang, another disputed area in northwest China that’s home to the Uighur ethnic group.

But the Communist Party limits social and intellectual life to narrow lanes. Stay within them, and it may be possible to flourish. Swerve and the hammer falls.

“China is designed to make sure you have a very good life, if you stay on the right side of the line,” Barnett told ThinkProgress.

In the written self-defense released after his conviction, Gyal appealed to the Chinese constitution’s protections for freedom of expression. But restrictions on religion and speech in China are enforced through unofficial Communist Party mechanisms rather than formal laws, Barnett explained. Recent policy changes under Xi have moved many government functions over to the Communist Party.

“It’s actually illegal to stop these people from practicing their religion under Chinese law,” Barnett said. “But the party is above the law.”

The program has turned China’s disputed Tibetan areas into a laboratory for surveillance and control. Now, Chinese officials have rolled techniques developed in Tibet out to other ethnic minority regions, according to Barnett.

That’s especially true in Xinjiang, where, the government has detained upwards of 100,000 people in “political education” camps.

“In Xinjiang, the state is targeting people’s bodies,” Barnett said. “In Tibet, generally speaking, except for these exemplary cases, they targeting people’s thinking.”

‘He will never stop writing’

Trump has been tough on trade with China. But when the Communist Party did away with term limits last month, allowing Xi to stay in power indefinitely, Trump quipped that the U.S. will “have to give that a shot.” Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed draconian cuts to foreign aid for Tibetan refugee communities abroad.

Trump’s incoming national security advisor, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, has taken a tougher stance on China than his new boss, decrying its “cultural genocide” in Tibet during an interview with Breitbart News last September. But it remains to be seen whether that tough talk on human rights will translate into action.

“This administration hasn’t made human rights an issue,” Francisco Bencosme, Asia Pacific advocacy manager for Amnesty International USA, told ThinkProgress. “If anything, it’s gone in the opposite direction.”

It’s not clear whether Gyal still faces restrictions on his movements or activities, but Jigme said nothing will keep his old friend from writing. After Gyal’s disappearance in 2015, Jigme told PRI’s The World that Gyal was always “prepared to be arrested” because of his writing on sensitive political topics. Three years in prison haven’t changed that, Jigme said.

“He will never stop writing,” Jigme told ThinkProgress. “[Gyal] is holding a pen in his hands. But with this pen, he is challenging the weapons and the violence of the Chinese state.”

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