NEW DELHI – Karma Tenzin knows that he can never visit his mother in Tibet. He just wants to know if she's okay.
When he was 10 years old in 1994, Tenzin's parents paid a professional smuggler 700 yuan (about US $ 85 and about one year of rural household income) to get him out of Tibet while the rest of the family stayed behind. He walked with a group of 20 refugees in the punishing Himalayan weather for 14 days, escaped the Chinese police and border guards, and went to Nepal to finally reach his current home, India.
He has not seen his mother since then. A few years ago, they started communicating through WeChat, a Chinese messaging app from Tencent that allowed them to make video calls, exchange pictures and messages, and transfer money. "While I couldn't physically touch (my family members), at least I could see them," Tenzin said.
On June 29, India banned WeChat, along with 58 other Chinese apps, after a deadly border conflict with China in the Galwan River Valley resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers. It was the toughest duel between the two sides in around 50 years.
As tensions continued at the border, calls for a ban on Chinese products in India picked up pace. In the next two months, the Indian government banned over 200 Chinese mobile apps, including the Alibaba Group's UC browser and ByteDance's widely used TikTok app. The government cited national security, but for critics the move was tricky nationalism amid a surge of anti-Chinese sentiment.
Since then, Tenzin has tried to contact his mother. "I haven't heard a word from my family in the past two months," he said. “I am most concerned about my mother. She's very old. And not so good. I'm used to being away from my family. But I really need to know how she is doing. "
Tenzin is hardly the only one in this situation. Thousands of Tibetans fled their homeland after 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to India and sought asylum there for fear of persecution by the Chinese authorities. The Dalai Lama eventually established the Tibetan government-in-exile in the northern city of Dharamshala, which is still the center of Tibetan life in India. There are around 90,000 Tibetans in India today, including Tibetans who have never seen their homeland. The population was once larger, but many emigrated to Europe or North America.
Tenzin Dalha, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamshala, said that 71 percent of Tibetans in India communicated with their families at home despite the security risks associated with WeChat. "There has been a big communication gap between people inside and outside Tibet because China is blocking all other global social media apps and phone calls are regularly intercepted by Chinese authorities," said Dalha. “When WeChat was first launched in 2011, there was virtually no other medium that connected people on both sides. So it filled that vacuum and became their primary means of communication. "
Indian intelligence agencies, as well as cybersecurity researchers around the world, have consistently warned about WeChat's censorship and surveillance mechanisms. The Trump administration has also tried to ban the app in the US. A May report from Citizen Lab, a research center in Canada, said WeChat is monitoring images and files by users outside of China and using the data to train censorship algorithms. In 2017, China passed a law requiring all Chinese companies to share the data they have collected.
Still, WeChat had become indispensable to the Tibetan community in India. "You basically compromised privacy for convenience," said Dalha. The app encouraged conversations not only about politics, but also about culture and everyday life in Tibet. "Similarly, journalists and stringers in Tibet used it to share information from the area with the diaspora," added Dalha.
"It was the first time people in exile could know so much about people in Tibet," said Lobsang Gyatso Sither, director of the digital security program at the Tibet Action Institute.
WeChat's total dominance in Chinese online spaces meant that it served many other functions within the diaspora. "Many Tibetan students, especially those undergoing monastic training, have received funds from their families through WeChat," said Dalha. “Many people have donated money for the monasteries in India. Even Indian businessmen with trade ties with China used it to conduct monetary transactions. You are all left in the lurch now. "
Wangchen Topgyal, a law student in Bengaluru, said the ban not only cut communication channels with his family, it also left him struggling for money. “I talked to my mother every week. My family also sent me money through the app to support my education, ”he said. “But none of this happens now. I recently had to start a small business to support myself. "
Topgyal is currently using DingTalk, an Alibaba Group app, to talk to his family, although he said they don't yet know how to use it properly.
However, Dalha warns against using DingTalk. “I advised people not to use it as Alibaba Group has close ties with the Chinese government and all data is shared with them. It's unsafe, ”he said.
Many have had to use virtual private networks that can mask a user's location in order to continue using WeChat. However, according to Dalha, there are frequent interruptions and not everyone can afford the paid channels.
At the same time, however, Tibetans adopted habits of self-censorship in order to stay on the app – and it was used to spy on the diaspora that Chinese intelligence agencies often target. Many activists who work for the Tibetan freedom struggle support the WeChat ban. Sither from the Tibet Action Institute is one of them.
"I think it's an opportunity to … move away from WeChat and think about safer and better alternatives," he said. “Everyone knows that WeChat censors and monitors content. More and more people are being arrested or imprisoned for sharing pictures of the Dalai Lama, soldiers, or anything the Chinese government deems politically sensitive. The risk to ordinary Tibetans is enormous. "
In March this year, Chinese authorities arrested 10 people in Lhasa, Tibet for spreading "rumors" about the coronavirus on WeChat. In March 2019, they arrested a 45-year-old man for exchanging books on the Dalai Lama's teachings through the platform.
“Because people know WeChat is being monitored, they tend to censor themselves out of fear. And when people start censoring themselves, it gives the Chinese government a lot of power, ”Sither added. He suggests using alternative applications like Signal, Elyments or Wire that allow users to chat anonymously.
But Tenzin said his mother doesn't use any of these apps, much like Topgyal's family. Instead, he tries to connect with a friend in his hometown in Tibet who is using a virtual private network. “I left him a message and asked him to go to my mother and give me her phone number. I haven't heard from him so far, ”he said.
Sither admitted that getting people in Tibet to use alternative apps is a big challenge: “I understand that it is more difficult in Tibet than in India. There is a need for awareness-raising campaigns and public education that reach everyone in Tibet. "
But until that happens, a large part of the community is practically cut off from their families and their homes.
"I think I was always prepared for it," said Tenzin. “I would often imagine that one day the Chinese authorities would arrest my mother and block all my communications with her, and I would never be able to speak to her again. I accepted this as my life, my karma. But I've always expected the problems to come from the Chinese side, not the Indian government. "