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China, Tibet: The End of TibetCul.com?

Categories: East Asia, China, Arts & Culture, Freedom of Speech

After a long period of uncertainty, it looks as though the most popular Chinese-language Tibetan website TibetCul.com [zh] has been taken offline for good. TibetCul suddenly became inaccessible on March 16, 2011 and remains inaccessible at time of writing. Founded in 2003 by two brothers from Amdo, eastern Tibet, Wangchuk Tseten and Tsewang Norbu, TibetCul quickly came to be an online success story.

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Screenshot of TibetCul.Com

Primarily a news and blog-hosting site, there were many sections on the site related to Tibetan music, literature, films and travel. There was a BBS forum (bulletin board), a section dedicated to “overseas Tibetans” and the site also offered online shopping. An affiliated site MyBudala.com [2] and its social networking arm called Love.MyBudala.com [3] were recently closed down a few days before the “sensitive” date of March 10 [4].

For all Tibet related news, blogs and cultural activities, TibetCul was an invaluable resource and source of information. Their database of profiles of prominent Tibetans [5] were a thorough and well-organised “who’s who” of Tibet today and included useful information, for example when high profile Tibetan businessman Dorje Tashi was sentenced to life in prison and there was little biographical information online otherwise, the translations site High Peaks Pure Earth translated Dorje Tashi’s profile into English [6].

TibetCul also hosted a great number of blogs by well-known as well as unknown Tibetans, most of the users were young student types in the urban areas in Tibet and all over the PRC. Famous Tibetan personalities who kept TibetCul blogs were the girl group Ajia [7], film director Pema Tseden [8], rock band Namchag [9], music group from Amdo, Yudrug [10], poet Adong Paldothar [11] and of course the founder Wangchuk Tseten himself [12], amongst numerous others.

Occupying a unique space and platform for Tibetans online in the PRC, TibetCul has always had to find a balance between encouraging Tibetan expression whilst toeing the official line. Although materials published by individuals on their TibetCul blogs could sometimes be highly political, TibetCul seldom tolerated all out political discussions and would often delete posts quickly or suspend bloggers accounts.

In 2009, when the sensitive first anniversary of March 10 2008 was approaching, TibetCul went offline on March 5 2009 with a notice on the page saying that blogs and online forums were being closed for ‘maintenance’, [13] lasting around a week:

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Although it is not possible to ascertain exactly whether the “maintenance” was absolutely necessary at the time or whether the TibetCul administrators were voluntarily taking the site offline, an incident the following year shows just how acutely aware TibetCul were about controlling their content.

After the devastating earthquake that took place in Yushu, eastern Tibet, on May 14, 2010, TibetCul pleaded to Tibetan netizens to keep calm on the blog pages. Given that emotions were riding high about the severe loss of life and questionable relief efforts, it is reasonable to assume that TibetCul administrators were worried about the potentially political nature of postings. The notice started with a paragraph explaining how TibetCul was a cultural bridge:

Particularly the blog pages of TibetCul, which has been appraised as the “spiritual grassland of Tibetan culture”, has tried through the use of Chinese language to build a cultural bridge between Tibetans and Han Chinese and other ethnicities. From the perspective of the people, it has promoted cultural communication and exchange between different nationalities, giving Tibetan culture the opportunity in the new historical era to become healthy, booming and prosperous. The website tried hard to build for our friends from all nationalities a great and wide-open door to a platform on which they can communicate and become friends. I hope that through this platform, everyone has become more understanding, considerate, tolerant, harmonious, diplomatic, and peaceful.

Appearing to want to curb in-fighting and online arguments, in the notice TibetCul acknowledges blocking posts and deleting comments and messages. Additionally, 6 requests were posted by the administrators:

1. Please refrain from posting any entries, comments or messages about politics, political parties or sovereignty.

2. Please refrain from posting any entries, comments or messages that do not abide with the law of the People’s Republic of China.

3. Please refrain from posting any entries, comments or messages obstructing the country’s security, cooperation between ethnic nationalities or harmonious society.

4. Please refrain from posting any entries, comments or messages attacking outstanding traditional Tibetan culture or other ethnic taboos.

5. Please refrain from posting any entries, comments or messages spreading rumours that do not come from a reliable source or news channel.

6. Please refrain from posting any entries, comments or messages containing pornographic, obscene or violent contents or which attack or humiliate individuals and go against the moral standards of our citizens.

Their closing paragraph warns netizens:

Your statements reflect your attitude towards TibetCul. If you want our website to stir up dust, if you want it to attract the attention of the authorities and be closed down, then we shall block and close down your IP address and blog immediately.

Major events in Tibet in 2009 and 2010 go some way to provide an insight into TibetCul’s behaviour as described above. However, despite March traditionally being a sensitive time, apart from the closure of the affiliate sites, there haven’t been any big catalyst events or political online activity that would lead to TibetCul’s closure several days ago.

Unable to post on their own website, TibetCul posted the following on their Sina MicroBlog on March 16, 2011 [post removed]:

On March 16 at 6pm, it was suddenly not possible to visit TibetCul’s page, the website staff and  server operators just found out that higher authorities ordered to close the site down, when  asking for the specific reason to the authorities, the staff on duty said he had no idea why! Established seven years ago, TibetCul is a civic-mided website dedicated to Tibet and at the same time is actively engaged in friendly exchanges between the Tibetan and Chinese people.

Wangchuk Tseten, writing on his Sina MicroBlog [15] on March 18, 2011 posted the following:

@TibetCul After contacting the server operators, they gave me the following replies: 1. The specific reasons for the higher authorities ordering the closure are confidential 2. After pulling the plug, the server costs will still be incurred unless we withdraw from the server; 3. The same server is also hosting www.cometibet.com [16] (Tibet Travel site) and Tibet Encyclopedia website, to reactivate these two sites it is necessary to re-apply. Please everyone tell us whether this is a reasonable legal request?!

Although Tibetan websites that are taken offline in the month of March are known to sometimes come back to life [17], the prospects so far for TibetCul do not look good. If TibetCul does not return, it would be an immeasurable loss to Tibetan netizens and significantly decrease the size of the ever diminishing Tibetan cyberspace.