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Tibetan singer arrested for song lamenting Dalai Lama’s absence

President of China Xi Jinping. (Kremlin/Released)
May 16, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

“In this land where the Victorious One is absent, 

Leaders exist, but false ones.

The Tibetans are bereft of direction, 

Like a deer lost in the midst of a fog…”

A Tibetan performer who sang these lyrics, publicly yearning for the Dalai Lama and blasting Chinese leaders as “false,” was arrested in early February in China’s Sichuan province, two sources with knowledge of the situation said.

Gyegjom Dorjee, in his early 30s, sang “Tearful Deluge of a Sorrowful Song” alongside other artists at concert on Jan. 15, as part of pre-Losar, or Tibetan New Year, celebrations, said the sources on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. 

The song alludes to life under Chinese government rule, likening Tibetans to “birds confined in a cage.” The use of “Victorious One” refers to the Dalai Lama, seen by Beijing as a separatist. Even carrying a picture of the leader of Tibetan Buddhism is considered a crime.

In a video of Dorjee’s performance, an audience of more than 100 Tibetans can be seen clapping and cheering uproariously at the end of his two-minute song.

But nearly a month later, Dorjee was summoned to a police station in Khyungchu county, or Hongyuan in Chinese, in Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, and subsequently arrested, the sources said.

Since then, his whereabouts remain unknown, they said.

“The Chinese government said his song had political connotations and raised concerns about its lyrics,” the first source told Radio Free Asia. 

Security threat

Tibetan artists like Dorjee, who peacefully express disagreement or discontent with China’s policies in the Tibetan Autonomous Region or Tibetan-populated areas of Chinese provinces, are branded by Chinese authorities as dangers to “national security” or “social stability.”

In particular, Tibetan writers, artists and singers who advocate for Tibetan national identity and culture or voice criticism of China’s governance often face detention. 

A nomad with a passion for singing and engaging in traditional Tibetan cultural performances, Dorjee often has been called upon to perform at local events and festivals, the first source said. 

Following his arrest, Dorjee’s family tried to get information about the charge and his whereabouts from the Khyungchu police station, but police turned them away without providing it, said the second source. 

“They were told Dorjee was being interrogated because of the provocative nature of his lyrics and thoughts, and that there were ‘political problems’ with his song lyrics and ideology,” he said. 

‘Red-faced ones’

Dorjee’s lyrics also made references to “this place of inequities/injustice” and the discrimination suffered by the “red-faced” ones, using an old epithet used to describe Tibetans. 

“The song expresses the common grievances held by the Tibetans against Chinese rule and criticizes the repressive policies of the Chinese party-state,” the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy said in a statement.

“In the current climate of heightened repression, local Tibetans have little to no avenues to exercise basic human rights including the right to freedom of expression or peaceful dissent,” it said.

Some Tibetan artists have taken their protests against the Chinese government to an extreme.

 In 2022, Tsewang Norbu, a well-known contemporary Tibetan singer, set himself on fire in front of the iconic Potala Palace in Lhasa to demonstrate his opposition to Chinese policies in Tibet. 

Radio Free Asia later learned that Norbu’s act was an attempt to draw attention to his grievances, and that he succumbed to his injuries.